Cast Iron 101: How to use, clean, and season a cast iron skillet

Cast Iron 101: How to use, clean, and season a cast iron skillet

Over the course of the past four or so years I’ve been slowly taking steps to cleaning my life up: Better food, better exercise, and better living. A huge part of this has been ditching all my toxic “stuff” found in my makeup, personal/cleaning products, and cookware. Of course, despite knowing how toxic teflon pans are, it took me a while to make the commitment to safer alternatives… mostly because I didn’t know where to start. And that’s why I’m here today: To help you know how to use, clean, and season your cast iron skillet and cookware.

Why cast iron?

In a nutshell:

  • Cast iron is an awesome non-stick cooking surface when seasoned properly.
  • Cast iron will last a lifetime (or more) if cared for properly. (In other words: Save $$$$)
  • Cast iron can be used both on the stove and in the oven, and can withstand temperatures well above what is considered safe for non-stick pans.
  • Heat is evenly distributed and held, making it great for deep frying, searing, and baking.
  • It’s not coated in toxic chemicals. (’nuff said.)
  • Once you get the hang of it, care and clean up are SO EASY.

How to season your cast iron skillet and cookware

“Seasoning” is a term used to describe the process of creating a slick and glassy coating. The process is done by baking on multiple thin coats of oil which protects the pan from rust formation. Cast iron has teeny-tiny little peaks and valleys throughout its surface. The oil during the seasoning process fills those cavities and provides a smooth finish. It also provides an awesome non-stick cooking surface.

Many pans today come “pre-seasoned,” although I don’t really trust the rancid vegetable oils they use to do the process. So even when I purchased a pre-seasoned pan I scrub the item with a stainless steel scouring pads (steel wool), using soap and the hottest tap water I can stand, and then proceed to season it again using my favorite oil of choice: coconut oil. (Lard is also a great option!)

Steps for seasoning a cast iron skillet (or any cast iron cookware):

  1. Start by rubbing a thin coat of coconut oil or lard all over the entire surface of the pan. Rub off any excess with a cotton cloth or paper towel. You don’t want it to look particularly “oily,” but you do want to cover the entire surface.
  2. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place a baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil on bottom rack to catch any drips. Place the pan upside down in the oven and heat for 30 minutes. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool to room temperature.
  3. Repeat step 1 and 2 three or four times, as this will help season the pan faster. Although, the best way to get a really good “season” is to simply USE the pan. Each time you use it you are seasoning it.

Don’t give up on your pan if it doesn’t seem non-stick at first. Give it time and it will not disappoint!

Note: Seasoning pans will usually produce some “smoke-like” atmosphere (kind of like when you are cooking a dirty oven) so you will probably want to open some windows while you do this, and don’t do it when you have important company coming over.

You’ll notice that as your pan becomes more seasoned that it will begin to change colors slightly. Eventually your pan will have a lovey black finish as it becomes beautifully seasoned.

How to use your cast iron cookware

For the most part you can use your cast iron skillet just as you would any other non-stick pan (assuming it’s seasoned well). But here are a few tips and guidelines to keep in mind as you cook:

Preheat

It’s important that you preheat your cast iron skillet before frying in them. I highly recommend getting a good infrared thermometer as an easy way to check the temperature of the pan (300 degrees is a common temperature for frying eggs, making sprouted tortilla chips, etc.)

You can also drop a few water droplets on the pan. The droplets should sizzle and hop around. If they don’t dance, keep heating it up. If they disappear immediately the pan is too hot.

Be safe!

Why I love my cast iron cookware, and how to season and care for it.

Remember that cast iron handles are not safe to touch. They will burn you! I found that purchasing enough of these handle protectors and leaving them on the pan at all times keeps me from accidentally grabbing a painfully hot handle.

You can find them here. 

Use the right tools

Why I love my cast iron and how to properly use and season cast iron cookware.If you intend to you use a cast iron skillet then you really need to have the right “equipment” to go along with it. That means tossing out your plastic or rounded pancake turners/spatulas.

A nice stainless steel spatula with a FLAT edge is what you want. And you can find them for $5 or $6 bucks, so there’s really no reason NOT to get a couple. I own three of them and wish I had 1 or 2 more.

You can find it here.

The flat metal surface is important as if will scrape down your pan as you use it. Remember that a properly seasoned pan is one that had a smooth surface. The metal flat edge will help remove peaks and edges. This keeps your pan non-stick… it also helps remove excess foods and oils that could lead to rust or just plain rancid-grossness.

How to clean your cast iron cookware

Once you are done cooking on your pan clean up is pretty easy. There is only one major rule to remember: NEVER PUT IT IN THE DISHWASHER!

So how do you clean it? There are two schools of thought to the best method for cleaning your pans. I’ll provide both and let you decide which ones feels best for you:

Method One: Wash and Dry

1. Cool the pan completely after use.

2. Wash wish soap (a few drops of castile liquid soap) and water. Never soak the pan or let the water sit. Just wash, rinse, and then dry thoroughly.

3. Because water and cast iron are NOT friends, you’ll want to ensure it’s really dry. To do so, place the cleaned skillet on a heated burner of your stove for a minute or two to make sure that it is bone dry. Don’t leave the pan unattended.

4. While the pan is still warm, lightly oil the inside of the pan with your oil of choice. Again, a super thin coat is all you need. Use a cloth or paper towel to rub off any excess.

5. Once the pan is cool, store for another day. (Keep any lids off of your pan when you store them to keep any moisture build-up away.)

Method Two: Scrape and go

Many people think that using any soap and water on cast iron can is less than ideal. And knowing that the heat from cooking will kill any “bad guys germs” that may be lurking on your pan, their philosophy for cleaning is super simple.

1. Using a flat edge spatula scrape off any foot bits or oil deposits left from cooking.

2. Wipe clean using a dry cloth or paper towel.

3. If necessary, add a THIN layer of oil, wiping off any excess. (If the cooking process left enough oil you can just wipe off any excess and call it good.)

4. Store your cookware with the lids off.

I personally love the second method, although some people may be freaked out by the idea that we don’t “wash” our pans unless there’s something unusually sticky on them. But after using our pans almost daily I can tell you that the heating process really does clean them well. And clean up is SO EASY.

Note: If you don’t use your pans daily you might want to consider doing the wash and dry method to ensure there is no excess surface oil. If you do not do this, any surplus oil will have a chance to become rancid.

Cast Iron Cookware 101: How to use, clean, and season a cast iron skillet.

Other cast iron tips

  • Never store food in your cast iron cookware, especially acidic foods. Once the cooking process is done, transfer food to serving dish or storage container.
  • Acidic items like tomato sauces will be darker from the iron. (Many people with iron deficiencies are told to use cast iron as a way to get more iron in their diet.)
  • It is not recommended that you use your cast iron as a pot for boiling water.
  • If your food gets a metallic taste, or turns “black”, it means one of two things are wrong. Either your pot has not been sufficiently seasoned, or you are leaving the food in the pot after it has been cooked. (I’ve never had this problem.)
  • If your old or new cast iron pans gets rust spots, simply scour the rusty areas with steel wool, until all traces of rust are gone. Wash, dry, and repeat seasoning process.
  • If too much oil or fat is applied to a cast iron pan during the seasoning process, it can pool up. If this happens, scrape off any “goopy” parts, re-grease the spot, and re-seasoned.
  • Never put cold liquids into a very hot cast iron pan or oven. They will crack on the spot!
  • Be careful when cooking with your cast iron pans on an electric range. The burners create hot spots that can warp cast iron or even cause it to crack. Be sure to preheat the iron very slowly when using an electric range and keep the settings to medium or even medium-low.

Some of my favorite cast iron cookware and accessories

These are the cast iron items that we have and love:

 

Why I love my cast iron cookware, and how to season and care for it.

 

10″ Cast iron skillet (we have two of these, and so glad we do!)

Learn more about it here.

 

 

Why I love my cast iron cookware, and how to season and care for it.

Reversible Grill/Griddle (Great for hamburgers or pancakes!)

Learn more about it here.

Why I love my cast iron cookware, and how to season and care for it.

Cast Iron Waffle Maker (Takes a little getting used to, but so good!)

Learn more about it here.

Why I love my cast iron cookware, and how to season and care for it.

 Dutch Oven (this is what I use to make our roast chicken.)

Learn more about it here.

 

 

 

Do you use cast iron? Do you love it, too?

NOTE: Due to an never-ending cesspool of spam, I have made the tough decision to close comments 14 days after the original posting of all posts. Sorry to anyone left out of the conversation. I just needed to spend less time monitoring spam and more time with my kids. Best wishes, Robin!

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About the author

Hi! I'm and I’m passionate about healthy living: feeling nourished, having energy, getting good sleep, and feeling strong. I believe healthy living does not have to be complicated or stressful. I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist (RSMT) and a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CLMA). I’m also an avid researcher and love to read about nutrition, the body, and toxic-free living. Learn more.

View all articles by Robin Konie

39 comments

  1. Scott

    Cleaning Method 3:
    Pour some course pan into the salt, and scrub it with a paper towel, and then just wipe the salt out.

    Pour a little liquid oil into the pan and rub it in with a paper towel, removing any excess oil.

  2. Maureen

    Question: my husband eats fish and I do not. If he cooks fish on this, will the next food(s) taste fishy? Should we have a “fish only” one?


    1. Post author
      robin

      That’s a great question… but I’ve never cooked my fish in it (I’m not a huge fish person and usually bake mine). You may want an only “fishy” one. We have two and I’m so glad anyway. :)

    2. Meghan @ Whole Natural Life

      We don’t cook fish in our cast iron. My mom did it once and that pan smelled/tasted fishy for the next few times we used it. It went away eventually, but was not pleasant while the fishy aftereffects were hanging around!

      Having a dedicated cast iron pan for fish would probably work. We don’t have enough pans for that so usually just use stainless steel for fish.

  3. k

    i love my cast iron!!! i have the stuff you recommend + a small chef’s skillet~great for eggs in the morning!
    question: is it true that you will gain some iron in your food from cooking w/cast iron???


    1. Post author
      robin

      I’ve heard of some people recommending cast iron for those with iron deficiencies. I’ve also heard that it’s not metabolized the same way. I don’t know which is right. But we’ve been using it for a long time now, almost daily, and haven’t loved it.

  4. Terry Jeanette

    I love my cast iron skillet. Through the years, I have gone back and forth with using it. I ditched my Teflon eons ago and have only used my good stainless set and my one big cast iron skillet. Seems like I always go back to the cast iron skillet.

  5. Ludmilla

    I’ve inherited my mother’s cast-iron skillets. They are crusty on the outside. Does anyone know how to “decrust” them? My grandfather used to bury them in a pile of leaves before he burned leaves in the autumn, but it’s against the law to burn leaves now. Any ideas? (I use them anyway, but they look dirty and messy and I’m afraid the outside will catch on fire someday.)

    1. Julie Miklaszewicz

      You can completely remove the “old” seasoning by placing the pan in a self-cleaning oven on the clean cycle. When the oven is clean the pan will be back to it’s original state and all the old seasoning will be completely gone. You can then re-start the process of seasoning by following the directions above.

  6. Jane

    I love this!! Unenamelled cast iron hasn’t taken off here in Australia and it’s hard to find good quality. I bit the bullet a few years ago & had a few pieces of Lodge shipped from the US & haven’t looked back.

    I clean scrub in very hot water (no soap) with a stiff brush, then put in warm oven to dry out, then thin coat of oil.

    I found a better way to season – doing six coats with flaxseed oil – yes that’s right flaxseed oil. The result is a really hard finish.

    Here’s a link:
    http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/

  7. Jane

    To expand on the seasoning thing. When I got my Lodge skillet i was cooking fatty stuff in it but the seasoning didnt really improve. Then I read about the flaxseed oil method, and though the oil is kinda expensive, I decided to try it. Flaxseed being the food grade equivalent of linseed oil, it’s high in omega 3 oils and this is why it shouldn’t be cooked with. But that causes polymerisation, which is what gives a really good hard coat.

    Well I’m no chemist and don’t really get the science of all that. However I tried it, doing about 6 coats. Yes it took all day and yes I had to open the windows. But I now have a pan which is like black satin. It’s just wonderful, and I do highly recommend this method. So i’m slowly working through my other pans.

    The only downside is trying to stop well meaning friends and rellies helping with the dishes and ruining my beautiful seasoning….

  8. Judy

    I just don’t get it.

    I used one of these for awhile and I got tired of eating black scrambled eggs. So I started scrubbing it every time, instead of wiping it out like the pioneers. Then I had to ask myself, what’s the point? I have stainless steel pans. (Hot pan, cold oil, food won’t stick.) Then I found a ceramic coated pan at the drugstore. Best pan in the world! No scrubbing ever, seasoning once a year.

    I was married to a scientist for awhile. He said he read a paper that using cast iron pans causes iron deposits in the liver. I don’t know if this is true, but it is a consideration.

    I know, they could find something wrong with ceramic too!


    1. Post author
      robin

      Sounds like your pan wasn’t seasoned completely yet… that’s usually when you get black stuff on your food. But stainless steel is another great choice (and what my others pans are). And like you said, there’s probably something bad about everything. :)

  9. Meredith

    Thank you so much for this straightforward how-to! I honestly feel a bit more confident after reading this and will vow to start using my cast iron skillets more often!


    1. Post author
      robin

      I’m so glad! They really are great to use… just be patient as they get really well seasoned. I promise it’s worth it. :)

  10. Kate

    Okay, this might be a really dumb question but you said rub oil over entire surface. Does that mean both front and back or just the cooking surface. I know dumb question but wasn’t sure if oiling the back had something to do with how it cooks. I assume just the cooking surface?


    1. Post author
      robin

      I rub it over all surface areas when first seasoning it, and then just the cooking surface after each use. Hope that helps! :)

  11. Mandy

    Here is what I do to save on paper towels…(I have a paperless kitchen)
    Keep a small bit of cotton rag (old undershirts are great) in a small glass jar in the freezer. Take out to thaw when cooking, after washing pan, use thawed rag to rub your oil of choice on pan. Return jar with the oiled rag to freezer.
    Reuse for a long time till you toss rag and start a new one.

  12. Lori

    I have several cast iron pans, but I’m afraid to use them b/c I have a ceramic top stove. (I hate it.) Any recommendations on whether to use it on the stove top or not?

  13. Alicia B.

    Someone washed mine and left it to dry (becasue that is how their mom cleans them) and now it is rusty. I can save it, right?!

  14. Cheryl

    Such a helpful post. I just bought some cast iron stuff and love it, but don’t know so much about caring for it. I am in Australia too, and its not very common here. No such thing as cheap second hand cast iron either! Although there are some online Australian stores, like Peters of Kensington and Everten who have Lodge cookware at awesome prices and cheap shipping.


    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      Once you get the hang of it, they really are the easiest pans to care for. :)

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  16. Larry Gibson

    I like cast iron for most of my cooking. I have four dutch ovens of varying sizes and four skillets, one a 15+” monster in which I can brown 3 or four pounds of hamburger at once. I found a dutch oven as big as this skillet so I use the same lid for both.
    I cook at hunting camps in the fall and having the big skillet is really nice when cooking for big groups.
    I can use one of the dutch ovens for deep frying if I am cooking something that needs a deep pan or one of the skillets if I’m just cooking for myself.
    I live in my pickup camper in West Yellowstone, MT during the summer and the only thing in my camper that doesn’t work is the oven so I use dutch ovens for my baking. Lots of good books out there explaining dutch oven cooking.
    I only use water on my cast iron if I have something stuck (because of my mistake, usually) which needs scrubbed and I use the first method of cleaning mentioned above. I make sure I heat the pan afterward, as mentioned. I also sometimes use coconut oil as a solvent instead of water. The scrubbing with salt method is good too. I have combined the oil and salt for cleaning.

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  18. Mimi

    Question for you…just found my grandma’s Dutch oven out in the yard, full of dirt and water, very grimy and rusty. I been scrubbing with steel wool and some of the gunk has come off but not all. Should I just keep scrubbing or is there ever a point where it is a lost cause?


    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      I can’t say from personal experience, but from what I’ve researched unless it’s cracked you can still bring it back. I guess it’s just a matter of how hard you want to work. ;)

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