Cast Iron: How to Use and Care for the Kitchen Workhorse

My mother had a huge cast iron pot that she used for everything from soup to chili to leftover roast beef hash. It was ancient, and I’ve never seen another one like it. It was too deep to be called a frying pan, but not quite deep enough to be called a Dutch oven. The domed lid had soft dimples all over it that I loved to touch when I was little. The finish was smooth and dark from years of loving use and care.

Cast iron pans are truly the workhorses of the kitchen. They are the original non-stick cookware. They’re inexpensive (well, most of them are). They’re easy to clean. And, you can use them for almost any cooking task--from searing steaks to baking cornbread. Last but certainly not least, they last forever!

If you’ve been thinking about purchasing a cast iron skillet or are unsure how to use the one you already own, no worries. Read on to discover everything you need to know about cast iron skillets, but didn’t know who to ask.

What Are the Best Uses for My Cast Iron Pan?

If you're like me, you probably have a cast iron pan or two tucked away somewhere. You may not be sure how to use them, or doubt they work as well as newer, fancier cookware. I was like that too. For a long time, I thought cast iron was antiquated, cumbersome, and a pain to cook with. But everyone cook I respected had one in her kitchen, so I did, too.

cast iron steak

Cast iron sears a steak beautifully.

Steaks!

For years, I rarely used my cast iron skillet. Then a few years ago, I pulled it out kind of by necessity. I was making sous vide steaks, and I needed a way to sear them. Normally, we'd put them out on the grill and take a torch to them (I know that probably sounds crazy to those of you not familiar with sous vide, but believe me, it makes a steak as good as any steakhouse you'd care to name). Well, it was really cold out, so I decided to try a method I'd heard worked well: I got my oven as hot as it would go, then popped my cast iron skillet in there. All a sous vide steak needs is a sear because they're already cooked to an exact medium-rare. Well, that hot cast iron did the job beautifully. It seared those steaks to crisp, juicy, mouth-watering perfection.

I’ve been using the cast iron searing method for steaks ever since. Cast iron is excellent for this purpose because it gets very hot and can retain that heat very well. I could never get these results with my All-Clad skillet.

Fried Chicken!

Because it holds heat so well, cast iron is great for deep frying. Southern cooks wouldn’t be caught dead frying chicken in any other type of pan. It's also great for pan frying and stir frying.

cast iron fried chicken

Cast iron is the ultimate cookware for fried chicken.

And So Much More...

If you have a cast iron Dutch oven, you can use it for soups, stews, stocks, braises, and pot roasts. You can also use it for baking bread, cornbreads, and cobblers. It's great for reheating leftovers. Cast iron skillets also make an excellent pizza pan (again, because of the excellent heat retention).

Also, if you're thinking about changing over to induction or have recently made the switch, cast iron works with that, as well. With cast iron, you don't need to worry whether or not your pan is induction compatible. However, you should use cast iron with caution on any glass cooktop--it's heavy, and it can scratch or crack the cooktop if not handled carefully.

Basically, you can use your cast iron skillet or Dutch oven for anything you can use any other pan for--with just a few exceptions.

What Can’t You Use Cast Iron For?

Because cast iron reacts easily (this is why it rusts so quickly if not dried immediately after washing), you shouldn't use it for any acidic dishes such as tomato- or vinegar-based sauces. Anything acidic will react with the iron, and it can impart a metallic taste to your food. It won't hurt you, but it can ruin a dish you may have worked on for hours.

You also should avoid using it for delicate, quick-cooking foods such as fish and eggs. Because cast iron holds so much heat, fish and eggs can easily overcook.

Also, you may not want to use the same cast iron pan for frying and baking. Cast iron can retain flavors, so you may want one for savory foods and another for baking sweets. The good news is they’re inexpensive, so it’s easy to add to your collection.

Of course, if you buy an enameled pan, you don’t have to worry about it rusting or reacting with acidic foods. Enameling cast iron was the idea of some genius, and it was a good one, albeit an expensive hurdle for many home cooks.

What’s the Best Cast Iron Pan to Buy?

There is no one answer to this question. Cast iron exists in multitudes of shapes, sizes, and prices. And everyone has different needs and a different style in the kitchen. Answer the questions "How much do I want to spend?" and "What is the best size for my needs?" Then you'll have a good idea of what cast iron will work best for you.

How Much Should I Spend on a Cast Iron Pan?

enameled cast iron Dutch oven

An enameled cast iron Dutch oven--spendy, but beautiful.

You can spend less than $30 for a basic Lodge skillet. Or, you can spend upwards of $300 for a Le Creuset enameled Dutch oven. My recommendation? Buy on the low end. My Le Creuset pot is beautiful and I love it, but it shows its stains and is hard to keep looking new. On the other hand, my good old Lodge skillet just gets better with age. It seems to actually absorb those cooking stains, or they somehow create a mellow patina that adds to its character.

Plain cast iron may not be as pretty as the enameled stuff, but for most uses, it’s a better all-around choice. It’s easier to maintain and it’s cheaper. If you want enameled because it’s pretty, then by all means go for it. But you will never regret having a good old-fashioned cast iron skillet. It can do all the cooking chores that you don’t want to use your “better” pans for.

What Is the Best Size to Buy?

A 10-inch pan works well for most cooking needs. (This means the pan has a 10-inch diameter cooking surface.) It is also the biggest size you can use on most portable induction burners for the best (most even) heating. A 12-inch pan is a better choice if you routinely cook for a lot of people, or like to fry chicken, which is easiest to do in a roomy pan.

One drawback of cast iron is that it's heavy, which is another reason to go with a 10-inch skillet. I bought a 12-inch Lodge skillet, and its weight was one of the reasons I hesitated to use it for so long. I wish I had started with a smaller one, which would have been easier to use and good for almost everything I cook.

Ditto the Dutch ovens. The enameled Dutch ovens are great for many things, but they can be difficult to lift in and out of the oven. You may be tempted to get the bigger one (around 7 quarts), but unless you have a very big family or do a lot of entertaining, the smaller one (around 5 quarts) will work just fine.

How Do I Season a Cast Iron Pan?

Seasoning seals the pan, inhibits rust, decreases its reactivity, and prolongs its life. It will not harm the pan and in fact is necessary for optimum use and results.

You must season a cast iron pan before use, and periodically throughout its lifetime. You'll know when it needs seasoning because it will have lost its shiny, non-stick patina. 

Some people do this on a burner (like my mother, but she didn’t have the Internet to show her the better way), but it’s probably best done in an oven. An oven provides more even heat so the pan gets a nice seal all over, and not just in the cooking area.

Here are the steps:

  1. Preheat your oven to 300F or 325F (it isn’t necessary to go any hotter than this.)
  2. Wash your skillet. If it’s new, just rinse it out and give it a light scrub to make sure it’s clean. If it’s old, make sure to remove any cooked-on food particles with a stiff brush or some steel wool. Since you’re seasoning the pan, it’s okay to use some dish soap if you want to. Just be sure to rinse it very, very well--if you don’t, you may get some soapy flavor in your food.
  3. Dry the skillet thoroughly.
  4. Using a paper towel, apply a thin coat of oil to the pan. Coat the entire pan inside and out. You may use any food-grade oil you wish for this.
  5. Place the cast iron pan upside down on the center oven rack. If you wish, you can place a piece of aluminum foil large enough to catch drips underneath the rack (but there shouldn’t be too many).
  6. Leave the pan in the hot oven for an hour. Turn the oven off and remove the pan when it’s cool enough to handle.

That’s it! Your cast iron skillet is now seasoned.

How Do I Clean and Care For a Cast Iron Pan?

After you’ve seasoned your pan, you can use it; this goes for new and old pans alike. (That is, don’t use a brand new pan or a gummy, dried out, or rusty cast iron pan without re-sealing it first.)

Cleaning cast iron is one of the easiest kitchen tasks there is: just wipe, rinse, and dry! But if you want more specific details, here are the official steps:

  1. Wipe the pan out after each use with a dish rag, damp sponge, or paper towel, taking care to clean off as much of the surface as possible. Rinse with hot water, then use a brush,scrubby pad, or steel wool to remove stuck-on food particles if necessary. Rinse again. Do not use soap!
  2. Dry the pan thoroughly. Un-enameled cast iron must by completely dry or it will rust. One easy way to dry cast iron is to put it on a warm burner for a few minutes. Or, you can just wipe it--inside and out--with a dry dish towel or paper towel. Just be sure not to dry it thoroughly, because any wet spots have the potential to rust.
  3. Rub the inside of the pan with a thin coating of oil, if desired--although if you do this too often, the surface may become tacky.
  4. Re-season as needed--when the pan loses its smooth finish, has rust spots, or food is sticking to it.

    Summary

    I don’t know whatever happened to my mother’s old pan. She’s gone now, and my father has no recollection of it. I sure wish I had it, though, because I would get so much use out of it, and I know that would make her happy.

    Cast iron isn’t good for everything. All kitchens need a good clad steel frying pan and a non-stick omelet pan, too. But cast iron skillet is an investment that will last your entire lifetime, and once you know how to use it for what it’s best at, you will never want to be without one.

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