Cast Iron, the Trendy New Nonstick

I have a confession to make. I have five cast iron skillets in my kitchen. At least one of them belonged to my grandmother, and one or two more to my mother. I use at least one of them almost every time I cook.

I cook a lot. I cook a broad spectrum of dishes rooted in diverse cultures and cuisines. Nothing sees more consistent use in the kitchen, with the possible exception of my collection of wooden stirring utensils.

Why these workhorses of the kitchen are not a focus of discussion in every cookbook, magazine and website where food is the topic is something I cannot imagine.

Cast iron has no negatives, and tons of positives:

  • Cast Iron adds trace amounts of iron to your diet which is necessary for heath.
  • The slow, even heating cast iron provides is impossible to replicate with anything else.
  • Proper care is a snap once you know what to do and what not to do.
  • There are no toxic coatings that break down and get consumed with your food
  • The more you use it, the better it works. If only this was so for everything we buy.
  • You can buy a whole set of cast iron for the cost of one decent non-stick coated pan.
  • You can pass your good cast iron on to future generations in the ultimate act of recycling and practical family heirlooms.

So what keeps everyone from having several of these miracles of culinary design on hand? It seems to me that it comes down to two perceived issues. First is fear of the seasoning process. Second is not knowing how to properly clean your cast iron.

Seasoning is the buildup of oil and carbon which bonds to the iron and creates a slick surface that resists sticking. Buy preseasoned cast iron and you will be ahead on this part of the process. With unseasoned pans or pans that have lost their seasoning due to improper care the seasoning process is the same.

  • Place the pan on the stove and heat on medium heat. If a drop of water evaporates almost instantly you are at the correct temperature.
  • Use a wad of towels dipped in oil* to wipe down the interior. Holding the oiled towels with tongs will make this safer.
  • Wipe out excess oil with clean towels.
  • Repeat until the bottom has a slick surface.
  • Using the pan is the best way to complete and reinforce the seasoning.
  • Cooking acidic foods like tomatoes or a wine reduction, or using soap for cleaning is best way to destroy the seasoning.

Cleaning your cast iron is easy if you do it right. Describing the cleaning process takes longer than doing. It will only take a couple of minutes once you have done it a few times.

  • Start while the pan is still warm from cooking, use a pot holder to grip the handle.
  • Pour off any excess grease or oil first.
  • Run hot water directly into the pan and swirl, tipping to drain and repeating until the pan is not throwing off steam.
  • Use a wooden or plastic scraper or cleaning brush to loosen any debris.
  • I like the Twist Loofa Sponge for any needed scrubbing. We keep a sponge just for cleaning cast iron so it is not contaminated with soap.
  • Rinse well and place the pan back on the stove on high heat for a minute. When all the water has evaporated, remove from heat and use a few drops of oil to coat the surface, wipe excess oil away with a paper towel.
  • The clean pan should not be oily or gummy.

Do NOT:

  • Do not use soap.
  • Do not allow water to stand in the pan.
  • Do not use metal utensils when cooking in your cast iron.
  • Do not use metal scrubbers or metal brushes when cleaning**.
  • Do not cook acidic foods like tomato sauce in your cast iron.

Tell us your favorite Cast Iron stories. What is the oldest object in use in your kitchen? Β What do you use most in your kitchen? We would love to hear from you in the comments.

*Update: this used to specify vegetable oil, what we used at the time was canola which I am not comfortable with anymore. We now use just three oils in the kitchen: Coconut oil, pork fat, and ghee. I now recommend either Coconut oil or pork fat for this process. More on this soon.

**Update: this used to say no metal scrapers, but I have found that a small stainless steel tool can be used to knock off any high spots that build up and resists other methods. It did not damage the pan used this way and the surface is even smoother and cleaner after this was done just once on a problem pan.

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  • that’s interesting, I cook spaghetti sauce in my cast iron on a pretty regular basis. Actually, let me be perfectly honest: I abuse my pans shamefully. They don’t seem to mind too much. πŸ™‚ Have you ever cooked rice in your cast-iron and noticed a slight bluish/grey tinge to the grains? Maybe that’s a result of the abuse…

  • We used to really abuse the hell out of our cast iron pans, too. I mean, awful. But at some point we were talking about how so many people swear by them, and my mother would pamper them like you wouldn’t believe. I grew up having to hand wash every dish at every meal, despite the very obvious presence of a functioning dishwasher just to my left. But she would never let me touch her cast iron frying pans. Kevin found an article in Cooks Illustrated about the proper care for cast iron, and we thought, why not? Maybe it would make them easier to clean and stuff wouldn’t stick so much to the bottom. It didn’t seem like a big deal for my mom when she cooked.

    The difference with the acidic stuff like tomato sauce is it strips that seasoning, and so you’ll have more sticking, etc. You can do it, but it’s just not going to be so great for your elbow down the road. For a while, we were cooking some tomato sauces before we realized what we were doing, and have since switched to enamel covered cast iron. They work much better for this and are a breeze to clean. And the reason your rice is colouring is actually that the rice is leaching the iron from the pan. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s introducing iron into your diet, and it’s actually happening with everything you cook in the pans. It’s just more noticeable with the rice.

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  • One note: We do need to update that we season with 100% pure bacon grease or ghee these days. Imagine that, Grandma was right after all.

  • AimN

    I LOVE all my cast iron cookware as well, but I do have to admit there IS one negative…. the weight. πŸ™ So when my father-in-law or my mother visits and wants to cook, they don’t like using my cast iron because it is too heavy to move around, and especially to wash. It may also be because we have the 14 inch cast iron wok, as well as the 17 inch skillet! But even the 10 inch skillet is too cumbersome for my mom, who has wrist issues. πŸ™ No perfect thing, I guess!

  • If you are buying new cast iron, you can get pans that have a short little stub opposite the handle. This allows you to use two hands (and two potholders) to pick up the pan when you change burners or to clean the pan after use. If you have legacy pans that lack this feature you can still:
    1) turn off the burner

    2) shove the pan over so the side opposite the handle is hanging off
    3) use a nice thick potholder to pick up the pan from underneath on the handleless side
    I got in the habit of doing this because of a wrist injury I had long ago which has long since healed but will sometimes twinge if I use just that hand to pick up a larger pot by the handle.

  • Hi Becca!
    That is going to happen if you cook rice in cast iron. When we cook rice we use the bottom of the stainless steel pressure cooker instead. They can take a lot of abuse if you don’t mind things sticking. I like for things not to stick so we cook tomato based things in the same pressure cooker, sometimes using it as a pressure cooker, sometimes just using it as a nice deep pot.

    Speaking of which we need to post about the joys of the pressure cooker!

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