Cast Iron Maintenance: Caring For Cast Iron the Smart Way

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Griswold-Dutch-Oven1-300x225Cast iron has been used to make cookware for more than two thousand years, dating back to as far as the Han dynasty in China. Cast iron is prized for its heat retention, durability, and the natural non-stick surface created by its seasoning.

In America, cast iron cookware had its heyday from the 1850s until the 1960s when Teflon-coated aluminum became the new material of choice. But if you’re reading this, then you’re like me and LOVE cast iron. I still use cast iron everyday and don’t even own any teflon!

Read about Vintage Brands such as Wagner Ware and Griswold Cast Iron.

Despite the fact that cast iron is no longer the most popular choice in cookware, there are many reasons why many of us still love it.


  1. First off, it’s tough as nails. There’s a reason why you see 80 year old cast iron skillets at flea markets and yard sales. The same can’t be said for today’s aluminum pans.
  2. Secondly, it can withstand very high temperatures without issue. You can cook over an open fire with one if you like.
  3. And thirdly, it’s just plain cool. Cast iron hearkens back to a day when things were built to last. It has a rustic charm about it and connects us with history, like shaving with a straight razor or wearing vintage clothing.

If anyone needs more convincing, check out why you should be cooking in cast iron.

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One reason that more people don’t cook with cast iron is they are unaware of how to care for it and fear that it might take a lot of work. But maintaining cat iron isn’t difficult at all.

Today, we’ll take a look at just how easy it is to take care of your cast iron cookware.

Purchasing

Before we get started, you’re going to need some cast iron cookware. You’ll need to decide whether you want to purchase a new or used piece.

Buying a new skillet is convenient since you can buy one at any time without having to search for a used one in the perfect size. You can even buy one that has been pre-seasoned if you like. The newer stuff by Lodge is study and thick walled…but it’s as rough as the sidewalk! I had to sand mine down to get something usable.

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You can skip the sanding….if you go vintage…

The newer stuff by Lodge is study and thick walled…but it’s as rough as the sidewalk! I had to sand mine down to get something usable.

If you buy a vintage skillet, you’ll have to search a bit more to find the right one, but you can get some amazing deals. You may also enjoy knowing that your pan has a history behind it.

If you do go the route of buying a used skillet, make sure to inspect it for rust, pitting, or cracks before purchasing it. While some amount of rust can be removed and some pitting is normal, big cracks render a cast iron skillet useless. If it’s just a hairline crack it might be okay.

Like this one I got for about $13 had a crack. But I couldn’t see it until I restored it… Turns out it really didn’t make a differencethe crack didn’t hurt the skillet.

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Seasoning Cast Iron

(Check out the definitive guide on How To Season Cast Iron.)

Now that you’ve got a skillet, it’s time to season it. If you’ve purchased a new skillet that has been pre-seasoned, I still recommend adding another layer of seasoning, though you can skip this step if you like.

If you have a vintage one that has seasoning on it, then you probably don’t need to strip down the old seasoning. You can just season on top of the old. If you need to strip it, then read the guide on restoring cast iron.

Vegetable oil, canola oil, and flax oil work well for seasoning cast iron. Next, place your skillet into the oven for an hour. This will allow the oil to polymerize, bonding to the cast iron. This not only prevents food from sticking to your pan while cooking, but it also prevents rust.

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Cooking with cast iron

Cooking with cast iron is easy. Because it’s so durable, you can use metal spatulas and other utensils that could damage a Teflon-coated pan.

Also, because cast iron radiates more heat than stainless steel and aluminum, never use plastic utensils on a hot cast iron pot as they can melt and get into your food.

This also means you should always use a towel or an oven mitt to touch the handle to avoid getting burned.

The easiest way to keep your pan maintained is to use it often.

By frying and searing food in it, you build the layer of seasoning up by a thin layer each time.

Use a liberal amount of healthy fats when oiling your pan for cooking.

 

Cleaning

As you’ve probably heard, you should never use soap on a seasoned piece of cast iron. This is especially true when you’re first building up the seasoning on your cast iron. Once you have a good seasoning on there you can actually use a little soap.

Carefully wipe your cast iron while it’s hot, as this will make it much easier to clean. Use little plastic scrapers from Lodge.


Get yourself a couple of these. You'll thank me later!

Get yourself a couple of these. You’ll thank me later!

If any food debris is left, clean it with soap and a sponge.

Dry your pan thoroughly on the stovetop after it gets wet to prevent rust.

It’s okay to leave a little oil in your pan after cooking, since this will help with rust prevention.

Storage

The main thing is to ensure they are completely dry before putting them away. Rust is your main enemy when it comes to cast iron.

Storing cast iron is easy. The seasoning is polymerized oil that has bonded to your pan, which makes for a much more durable surface than Teflon.

You can stack them on top of each other or lean them against each other side by side.

The main thing is to ensure they are completely dry before putting them away. Rust is your main enemy when it comes to cast iron.

It’s also important to note that cast iron is heavier than aluminum or stainless steel. If you’re storing multiple pieces of cast iron, make sure your shelf can handle the weight.

Conclusion

Cast iron makes great cookware.

It’s durable, easy to clean, and makes a great conversation piece. Cast iron is a versatile material that can cook a variety of dishes on the stovetop or in the oven.

You can buy high quality cast iron either new or used.

If you decide to buy vintage cast iron, you’ll get the added joy of knowing you’re cooking with a piece of history.

Enameled Cast Iron vs Cast Iron

Enameled Cast Iron vs Cast Iron

References and further reading
3 comments… add one
  • D. Clayton Jul 12, 2016, 9:52 pm

    Hello, at the top of the CLEANING section it says, “you should never use soap on a seasoned piece of cast iron”, which is a FACT! However you go on to say, “If any food debris is left, clean it with soap and a sponge”, which is TOTALLY WRONG!!! You should only clean any seasoned cast iron with water and a stiff scrubber. I personally use a kitchen sponge with the scrub pad on one side with warm, not even hot, water. You can also use a copper scrub pad if absolutely necessary as long as you do so very very gently so as to NOT scrub through the seasoning. I did say VERY VERY gently. NEVER USE SOAP – EVER!!! If you have tough stuck on food in the bottom of a pan add some water and put the pan back on the heat to soften it up until it comes off but be sure, as always, to thoroughly dry the pan afterwards. I place mine over the heat on a burner, if I’m home, to dry the pans, or over the fire if camping, to make sure they are dry of all water as rust is an enemy of cast iron. After all the cleaning and drying is done I apply a little cooking oil, wipe off as much as I possibly can with paper towels, and put the pans back over moderate (medium) heat for about 5 minutes then let them cool before storing until I use them next. PLEASE NEVER, EVER, USE SOAP!!

    Additionally, if you store pans with their lids place a toothpick or small folded piece of paper between the lid and pan to allow air to flow. I have seen pans stored in dry locations develop rust inside with lids left on tightly – possibly because they were not 100% dry, but keeping a very small space between the lid and the pan will help avoid this problem. Enjoy your cast iron, I know I do.

    • Doug @ The Kitchen Professor Aug 16, 2016, 6:55 pm

      Hi, thanks for the comment! Well, I rarely, rarely use soap and most people should not. BUT it turns out that if you have great seasoning, then a little soap won’t destroy your seasoning.

      I typically do exactly what you do – add a little water and heat up the pan. And the food loosens up.

      And I don’t put the lids on the pans to keep any rust from forming.

      Great comments, D! thank you

  • D. Clayton Jul 12, 2016, 9:58 pm

    You might want to tell people not to use plastic scrapers, like the Lodge scrapers you recommend, in hot pans. Slightly warm, like a pan you can handle with a bare hand, is alright, but you don’t want people melting plastic onto their cast iron pans.

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