I just love my cast iron pans. I have a set of three: my little one was a grand find from a discount store’s closeout section; my average-sized pan is a hand-me-down from a family member; and my big kahuna was bought new from Wal-Mart. They sit nested together on my kitchen counter, and are usually put in use daily, if not more.
Though these kitchen treasures have many benefits, some people are intimidated by cast iron pans. If not properly cared for and used, food can stick to them, they can develop rust, and they can hold flavors, making this morning’s pancakes have a lingering flavor of the onions from last night’s dinner. However, I’ve found that using a few simple techniques keeps my pans in great condition, and makes them really enjoyable to use.
Seasoning just means allowing the pans to absorb food-safe oil or grease. This keeps the pans from rusting, and also prevents food from sticking to them. There are various ways to accomplish this, and most cast iron users have their own specific method. Many pans come preseasoned now, but you can’t be sure what kind of oil they have been seasoned with. I like my pans seasoned with a traditional fat, like lard, and so I like to remove the original seasoning and reseason it with my fat of choice. That means that I washed them in hot soapy water, and began the seasoning process over.
To season a pan, simply take a clean, dry pan, and pick a heat-stable fat. Lard, bacon grease, ghee, and coconut oil are great choices. I use lard because I like the neutral flavor. Heat the pan on the stovetop so that it is warm, and rub the inside and outside of the pan with a paper towel or a rag. Coating the inside more heavily can be helpful. Then bake the pan for about 45 minutes at around 300. The fat shouldn’t smoke, so if it does, turn down the heat.
Take the pan out of the oven, rewipe the inside to remove any excess oil, and let it cool. It should be ready to use now.
Cleaning and maintenance
I never use soap on my cast iron pans. Some people do, especially after using them to cook something very flavorful. I think that is a matter of preference. Soap will remove the seasoning that has built up in the pan, and can leave a lingering soapy taste. If you want to use it, just be sure to get the soap all out and reseason your pan enough.
When I clean my pan, I run it under hot water, and use a scratchy sponge or a food scraper to remove any bits of clinging food. Once it is thoroughly cleaned, I return it to the stovetop and turn on the burner to evaporate any water left on the pan. I used to let my pans air dry, and kept finding them with rust spots. Then I read this article on simple cast iron care from Keeper of the Home and learned to cook the leftover water out.
Once the pan is dry, and still warm, I take a rag and again wipe just a bit of lard around the inside and outside of the pan. I will skip this step if I just cooked bacon or something extra greasy in it, since the pan won’t need a boost of seasoning. Then I let the pan cool on the stovetop, and return it to its happy place on the counter with its friends.
With this simple routine, my cast iron pans work as well as any nonstick pans, minus the nasty nonstick chemicals. Because they are so heavy, they heat evenly, and can be used under the broiler or in the oven, too. They don’t wear out, and I never have to worry about using metal utensils with them. Yes, they are heavy, and there are certain foods that should be cooked in something different, like stainless steel. Storing food in them generally causes a bit of rust, so that should be avoided, too. But all in all, they are the pans that get the biggest workout in my house, and the first ones I reach for when cooking.