How to Season, Clean and Care for a Cast Iron Pan

| March 11, 2010 | 17 Comments
  • 17 Comments

cast iron pans

I was raised on food that was cooked in cast iron pans. My mother’s Sunday Gravy was always started in the 10-inch version and my morning eggs were cooked in the 6 1/2-inch. From chicken to steaks, zucchini to eggplant, and biscuits to corn bread, my mom’s cast iron pans were in continual use. Yet when I grew up, moved out, and started my own kitchen, I somehow forgot about my cast-iron roots. After purchasing and then cooking with some thinly constructed aluminum pans, I felt the need to register for fancy pans when I got married. My sister generously gave us an enormous set of Calphalon, but after a year or two of fretting about cleaning them properly and making sure they never went in the dishwasher or got scratched, I finally remembered there was a much simpler alternative.

And now, almost 10 years and thousands of meals later, I’m just as happy with my decision to switch to cast iron as I was the day I purchased my pans from Ace Hardware. As far as I’m concerned, swanky brands that are expensive can’t hold a candle to modest cast iron (well, except for an amazing large copper pan, which I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford).

So Why is Cast Iron so Great?

In case you’re unfamiliar with cast iron pans, they have a lot going for them. Here’s a list of some reasons I love them so.

• They radiate heat beautifully, so your food doesn’t cook unevenly.
• You can go from stovetop to the oven, so there’ s never a need to transfer food to a baking dish after sautéing.
• Once your pans are seasoned, they have a natural non-stick surface so you don’t have to breath in that awful chemical-smelling aroma that is emitted when you overheat a Teflon pan.
• They retain heat well, making them perfect for both frying and simmering.
• They may be the least expensive pans available, costing around $20 for a 10-inch version and around $30 for the extra large size.
• They last forever (my friend Pam uses her grandmother’s pan, which was purchased at least 90 years ago).
• Your food picks up a little bit of iron when using a cast iron pan, so they’re a great way to supplement your diet.

If you randomly look through my posts on Bay Area Bites, you’ll see my cast iron pans used over and over. This is because I use them for almost everything. Certain dishes that I only make in my handy dandy cast iron pans are:

first pancake

Seared meat – This includes meat for stews, steaks, and some fish. Cast iron’s ability to evenly radiate and distribute heat makes it the perfect tool for searing.
Casseroles — Cast iron pans are great for mixing up casserole ingredients on the stove and then transferring the entire dish to the oven to bake further.
Pancakes – To make decent pancakes, you really need to start with a hot and evenly heated pan. Plus cast iron also gives you a perfectly flat surface for making those flapjacks.
Eggs – I bought a smaller cast iron pan specifically for breakfast. As anyone who has made eggs using an aluminum pan knows, they have a tendency to stick to the surface of the pan, which is messy and frustrating to clean. But the natural non-stick surface of a seasoned cast iron pan lets you avoid all that. From scrambled to sunny side up, cast iron cooks my eggs perfectly every time and requires very little clean up.
Fried chicken or beer-battered fish – Once again, even heat distribution combined with the ability to maintain a consistent temperature makes cast iron perfect for these dishes.
Cornbread and biscuits — My 10-inch cast iron pan has always cooked these items so they are slightly crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside — just the way I like them.
Vegetables – I cook most of my vegetables in a cast iron pan. From sautéing zucchini and broccoli on the stove top to roasting cauliflower, Brussells sprouts and root vegetables in the oven, my pans cook vegetables beautifully.
Tart Tatin — A cast iron pan is the perfect vehicle for caramelizing those apples in butter and sugar, adding the dish to the oven when it’s ready to be baked, and then flipping onto a dish (using its ergonomic handle) when you’re ready to serve.

old cast iron pans at sutter's fort

Why do you need to season your cast iron pan?

One issue that seems to keep some people away from using cast iron pans is the fact that you have to season or cure them if they’re new. Cast iron is naturally porous so if it isn’t treated, moisture will settle into the metal and the pan will rust. Seasoning the pan seals the iron, creating a blackish patina that is perfect for heating and is also non-stick. The older the pan, the more seasoned it becomes.

But don’t let the idea of curing a pan intimidate you. As you’ll see, the only thing stopping you from using a new pan is a little vegetable oil and about 1 hour of baking time. Here are some very easy directions for seasoning your pan. Also, Lodge (the biggest, and, I think “only” U.S. maker of cast iron pans) also sells pre-seasoned pans if you want to avoid the seasoning process completely. Yet if you go this route, I still suggest making a dish that uses a lot of oil in it for the pan’s maiden voyage (as detailed below) to make sure the oil really saturates into the pores.

3 pans

How to season (or cure) a cast iron pan

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2. Clean your pan with mild soap and water and then dry thoroughly. Some cast iron pans come with a light coating that will need to be washed off.
3. Place a thin even coating of vegetable oil in the pan. Use something like corn or safflower oil. Traditionally, people used lard. But how many of us have lard sitting around the house these days?
4. Set the pan in your preheated oven and heat for one hour. Lodge recommends placing the pan upside down on a cookie sheet or foil, although I’ve never done this myself.
5. Turn off the oven and then either let the pan cool down inside or, with an oven mitt, remove the pan and set on the stovetop to cool.
6. Once the pan is cool, wipe it down with a paper towel. Set aside for later use.

fish fry

Once a pan is initially seasoned, I like to cook something that requires a lot of oil to make sure it really gets thoroughly lubricated and heated. Fish and chips or fried chicken is a great choice as you need to heat your pan thoroughly with oil for an extended period of time. I also like to cook up a batch of bacon a day or two after curing.

cleaning your pan

Cleaning and caring for your cast iron pan

Lodge recommends avoiding soap when cleaning your pan and to use a “stiff nylon brush and hot water” instead. I have NEVER taken this advice. For ten years I have cleaned my cast iron pans with mild dishwashing detergent and then scrubbed lightly with a kitchen sponge. In all this time, I’ve never scoured off the seasoning; then again, I don’t use a Brill-o pad, which should be avoided.

My tried and true method for cleaning my pans is to simply add some water to them after cooking my meals and then let them sit while we eat. By the time I’m ready to clean up, everything has loosened up and the pans are easy to clean. Just remember not to let the pans sit with water in them for more than a half hour or they may start to rust. If something really gets stuck in there, I set the pan on the stove, add a bit of water, and heat until the water starts to boil. I then gently scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula until the remnants release. That’s it. And, if for some reason you do need to thoroughly scour your pan, you can always just re-season it again. Never, ever, put it in the dishwasher.

Once your pan is clean, towel it dry thoroughly. If you want to make sure it’s completely dry, you can also heat it on the stove for a bit to help evaporate any leftover moisture. Do not let it air dry as it may rust. Store your pans in a cool dry place. I like to keep mine in the oven or even on top of the stove, but any place that avoids moisture is fine.

Where to buy a cast iron pan

So where can you get a cast iron pan? Almost anywhere. From Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table to Target, Amazon, and your local hardware store, these pans are available pretty much any place selling kitchen equipment.

A few tips to using a cast iron pan

Remember these pans are quite heavy, so if you’re unable to handle the heft, this may not be the pan for you. And, because the entire pan is made of cast iron, everything (including the handle) becomes quite hot when the pan is heated, so be careful not to burn yourself.

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Category: cooking techniques and tips, cookware and accessories

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • http://wendy@wendygoodfriend.com weegee

    I collect cast iron cookware and since these pans last forever you can get some great older brands that are no longer made like Griswold and Wagner at The Alameda Collectibe Faire http://www.antiquesbythebay.net/ the first Sunday of every month. You can also find older brands on Ebay by searching for Cast Iron Cookware (shipping can increase your cost due to the weight of these items) Check out The Pan Man http://www.panman.com/ for advise on how to clean and season vintage cast iron.

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Wendy — These pans last forever, so purchasing vintage cast iron is a great suggestion. When I was at Sutter’s Fort last week for a school field trip with my daughters I was eyeing the old cast iron in the historic kitchen and wishing I could take one of the pots or dutch ovens home with me as they looked perfectly seasoned. Thanks for the tips.

  • kristina

    I love my cast iron pans! I don’t use detergent on them; instead I throw in a couple of tablespoons of coarse kosher salt and scour it out with a nylon brush. Works like a charm!

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Kristina — do you use only salt after making something with a lot of oil or grease (like fish and chips or bacon)?

  • Rebecca Duncan

    Question: I recently came across my mom’s cast iron skillet among her things in storage. Unfortunately, it has rusted. Will seasoning per your instruction revive it or is it now trash?

    Regards, Rebecca

  • MB

    I do mostly eggs and vegetables. How much butter/oil do you need for two fried eggs? And for sauteing a medium onion? I’ve been using teflon forever and have been considering making the switch for about a year but I literally don’t know anybody that cooks with cast iron.

  • Greg McNeal

    If you think about it ‘seasoning’ on cast iron is nothing more than a film of oils that have undergone a chemical reaction of varnishing. It’s a semi-durable coating that comes between the air that would rust the iron and food that would otherwise stick to and possibly react with the iron. If you prepare strongly acidic foods like tomato sauces or sauces with vinegar, wine, lemon and other citrus juices, chances are fairly high that the seasoning will get stripped off right down to bare iron again. Acidic liquids can take on a distinctly metallic taste and might be better cooked in something other than cast iron. Iron is also highly reactive to the sulfur compounds in garlic, onions and in various detergents. These items will react differently in cast iron than with less reactive materials unless there is a very solid seasoning coating. I’ve experienced that rinsing cast iron with hot water before food residue can dry and crust over is all that is needed. For accidents, a good soak with hot water inside the pan and plastic scrappers will get them clean.

    One consideration before investing in a collection of cast iron ware is regarding stove-top-to-oven practicality. If you have a smallish oven, a convection oven, or one that has a moving turn table, the long handles like those on fry pans can interfere with the fit in the oven. Many cast iron wares can be found with round shapes, short and modified handles better fitted to a small oven.

    There are some documented concerns with cast iron wares than originate in developing countries because of possible high lead and other heavy metal content. These are often less expensive and tempting at the market. Buying cast iron wares that have some warranty of food safety might be a reasonable consideration.

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Rebecca — I doubt the skillet needs to be thrown out, but it sounds like you need to perform a little work on it. If the rust is minimal (i.e., a thin coating) you should be able to just scrub it with steel wool (or even something like an SOS pad or Brill-o), wash and season. If the rust is deeper, you should take a look at the site weegee recommends above (http://www.panman.com/cleaning.html) as it has great tips for cleaning a rusted cast iron pan. As I’m a bit sentimental, I think taking the steps to remove the rust and re-season is worth your time. How wonderful to get to cook on the pan your mom used when you were a kid.

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Greg — all of these are great points. Thanks for mentioning the long handles on other stove-to-oven pans as this has always been an issue for me with my large Calphalon pan (and my oven is not necessarily small). Concerning cooking acidic foods, however, I have to say that I regularly make tomato-based sauces (such as marinara) in my cast iron and the seasoning has never worn off. That said, I don’t simmer tomatoes in them for hours and I don’t use the pans exclusively for tomato dishes. As for the lead concern, I think this has mostly been an issue with cast iron made in other countries. From what I can tell, Lodge (the only US manufacturer of cast iron pans) makes cookware that is very safe to use so I would recommend sticking with that brand.

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi MB — for eggs, I usually use between 1/2 and 1 tsp butter. For an onion, I just drizzle the pan with olive oil (probably close to 2 tsp). If using a seasoned pan, you shouldn’t have any problems, but let me know if you do. Good luck.

  • http://marcsala.blogspot.com/ Marc

    I have two cast iron items that I love, a double-burner griddle and a 10″ skillet (both Lodge branded, purchased from a woman at the Ashby flea market who seems to specialize in cast iron). They are well seasoned, but now and then will have a sticky residue in places (especially the griddle). What’s going on to make these sticky residues? What is the best way to get rid of the residue without damaging the seasoning?

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Marc — I’ve had that same problem a couple of times. I *think* it occurs when the oil doesn’t get hot enough during cooking (but am not sure about this). In the past, I have just scrubbed it off using kosher salt and the scouring side of my regular kitchen sponge (which isn’t very harsh) and then oiled the area afterward. As your pans are well seasoned already, this should work. Good luck.

  • Lenore McGriff

    Question: I recently went to a flea market and purchased a extremely rusted cast iron pan cake skillet. I read somewhere, that if the rust is more than 1/8 deep, that the pan is ruined. This pan is rusted on both sides, and the handle. I need to know, should I try to clean it or trash it??

    Please help,
    Lenore McGriff

  • http://deniseskitchen.wordpress.com/ Denise Santoro Lincoln

    Hi Lenore — Do you think the rust goes more than an 1/8-inch deep into the pan? If so, then I’ve never had a pan that rusty before; I think, however, that you should email the Pan Man who seems to be an expert in all things cast iron. Here’s the page: http://www.panman.com/cleaning.html. Good luck!

  • Lenore

    Thank you Denise~I don’t know how to tell if the rust has gone more than an 1/8-inch deep. However, I did email the Panman for some suggestions. I also had a skillet that was my mothers, she use to cook steaks in the broiler when I was a kid. I have used over the years to cook pancakes; however, food does stick to the middle of the pan. I’ve stopped using it. It’s time to bring it out of retirement, re-season it and put it to use. I love reading all the comments on this site.
    Thanks you
    Lenore

  • http://www.only-kitchenknives.com Catherine

    I never knew that cast iron pan should be seasoned first before using not until i read your article. Thank you Denise for letting me know.

  • http://profiles.google.com/brownlifton joseph capra

    Lodge pans suck, They hava a rough, sand-cast cooking surface. Vintage pans ( available at any antique store) are smoooth! Buy those!