Why You Need a Cast Iron Skillet

If you cook anything at all in a pan, you should have a cast iron skillet. They are excellent for everything from omelets and pancakes to pizzas and steaks. They can be moved from stove to oven in a hot second and they will not be damaged in the process. Pies baked in cast iron have a wonderfully delicious crust, even if they have a fruit filling. Think of all the perfect apple pies you can make! Even brownies are better in cast iron, as they have the crispest exteriors while they maintain their gooey insides. 

If you need a single reason to convince yourself why you should buy a cast iron skillet, do it for the cornbread. The most perfect, delicious cornbread ever can be made in a cast iron skillet. You can serve it warm, which is essential to the cornbread eating experience. You won’t find cornbread more evenly cooked with such a perfect texture anywhere other than in a cast iron skillet. 

Of course, cast iron isn’t an absolute necessity in the kitchen, but it is aesthetically pleasing and has a reputation for being difficult to work with, so you’ll impress any dinner guests if you use it. Despite their reputation, these pans are simple to work with. Cast iron is also extremely handy for one pan cooking, a food trend that has been on the rise over the last few years. 

It can last longer than a lifetime if cared for correctly. There are some horror stories of pans that have cracked or warped, but those horror stories exist in all types of cookware, not just this kind. Cast iron is a loyal companion that will give you a lot of wonderful return for the effort you put into it. This type of pan is well worth the work. 

Using a Cast Iron Skillet For the First Time

Cast iron skillets are essentially just metal cast into a mold the shape of a cooking pan. Upon close examination, you will find that cast iron has a surface flooded with bumps and irregularities, which can be sealed in a process called seasoning. These irregularities exist in both vintage and modern versions of cast iron skillets, even though you will find vintage pans are much smoother than the modern pans. 

Alright, so you’ve purchased your cast iron skillet. You have hopefully spent less than $40 on it, because if you have spent any more, you could have just taken your money out of your pocket and given it to a toddler because cost does not equal quality in this case. Your cast iron skillet is either grey or nearly black. If it is grey, it hasn’t been seasoned at all. If it is a darker color, you have purchased a pre-seasoned skillet. Both types of pans require seasoning before you can use them. 

At least three sets of hands have touched your skillet- the person who put it on the shelf, yourself, and your cashier. Maybe someone in your family touched it with their grubby hands when you were unpacking the rest of your purchases. Maybe someone hand packed the boxes that transported the skillet. No matter what, you are going to want to wash your pan before you begin seasoning it. 

Warm water and soap are all you need to give your pan, handle included, a good scrub. Be sure to dry it thoroughly when you’ve finished washing it. If towel drying isn’t enough to get rid of all that moisture, heat up the skillet on the stove top for a few minutes to allow for the water to evaporate. Any residual liquid can encourage rust spots to form on the pan. After it has fully dried, you can begin seasoning your cast iron. 

Seasoning Cast Iron 

Even though seasoning is usually associated with spices, seasoning a cast iron pan has nothing to do with spices and instead has to do with oils and fat. When you select an oil to use for seasoning your pan, you might find vegetable oil or canola oil are much easier to use than something like lard or shortening. This is because unsaturated fats polymerize better than saturated fats due to their higher reactivity. In short, polymerization is the chemical bonding of the oil to the pan. Shortening and lard are saturated fats, and were common seasoning choices in cast iron’s heyday because they were cheap and easily accessible, but they are not the best choice for this process. Flax seed oil floats around the internet as the recommended oil for seasoning, but this oil is sometimes a source for controversy in the cast iron world. If you are using flax seed oil, the key is to repeat the seasoning process six times. This is necessary for flax seed oil because it creates very thin layers, and any less than six will cause your seasoning to flake off more easily. Vegetable oil or canola oil are other suitable choices, which need fewer layers and seasoning sessions. 

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit before you start. Begin with your choice oil and rub it all over the pan, inside and out. Just as in washing, don’t neglect oiling the handle. Buff the pan well, almost to the point where it looks like there is no oil on it, and then put it in the oven for 30 minutes. Put something on the rack below the pan to catch any oil that may drip off. The pan will probably smoke, so keep your kitchen well ventilated for this process. Remember that the pan will be very hot when you remove it from the oven, so you should use extreme caution. Allow the pan to cool, and then begin with oiling the pan again. Repeat this entire process three or four more times to establish a good seasoning base. You could do your initial seasoning over a stovetop, but the oven will give you a more even layering because there is a more equal distribution of heat. With flax seed oil, you should have your oven at 200 degrees for the seasoning process and you should put the oil in while the pan is still hot. This will help the thin flax seed oil stick better and it is less likely to flake.   

To maintain your seasoning, use the pan often and keep it clean. The best way to do this is to fry all kinds of food, sear meat, and bake in it as often as possible. Fats and oils will continue to layer the pan the more you cook with it. Understand that your skillet will need some time and lots of exposure to oils and fats before food will stop sticking to it. You will know your cast iron is perfectly seasoned when you can cook eggs in it without the eggs sticking, and this will give you a great feeling of satisfaction. If you use the skillet daily, you will achieve this form of elation after just a few short weeks, but with less frequent use it will take you a few months. Be patient with yourself and with your pan. 

Cleaning a Cast Iron Skillet

If you are going to clean a cast iron skillet, do not put it in a dishwasher. Dishwashers will give the pan too much exposure to water and won’t dry them well enough, leaving them vulnerable to rust. Clean the skillet in the same way that you cleaned it when you first purchased it. You’ll want to dry it the same way as you did when you purchased it too; thoroughly and quickly. Wash the pan immediately after use, do not allow your pan to soak in dishwater. Take care so you do not accidentally remove any layers of seasoning, though it does take quite a bit of work to accidentally scrub off too much. You don’t want to have to reseason the pan. If you do need to give it a good scrub, like if something is terribly stuck, you can scour it with kosher salt. This is abrasive without being terrible for the seasoning of the pan. Typically, the scrubby side of a sponge should do the job. 

If you are staring at your screen in disbelief, cast iron skillet in hand, ready to find me and knock me over the head with it for suggesting that you wash your beloved pan with soap, please refrain. I am simply a humble girl, teaching you about how the thin layers of oil that have built up on your pan over time are physically bonded to your pan and will not come off because of some dish detergent. You can even use the abrasive side of your sponge on the pan after it has been well seasoned without any negative effect. I know cast iron works as a perfectly good weapon, but you can put it down for now. Deep breaths. 

Some Fact and Fiction About Cast Iron 

Cast iron does not heat evenly, despite what countless websites online will have you believe. Iron is a terrible conductor of heat, which means that the heat it does have doesn’t travel far from where it is sourced. A skillet over a heat source will have noticeable heat spots on the portions of the pan that are over the heat directly, but will be much cooler just a few inches away. If you want an evenly heated skillet, your best bet is to put it in the oven. Once hot, cast iron will remain hot for a very long time. Be extremely careful when using a cast iron skillet, as you could easily burn yourself. If you want to cook something evenly in cast iron, you need a burner that is roughly the same size as the pan and you need to give it time to heat up. Cooking something from cold pan to hot pan will lead to burning in some spots of your food and undercooking in other spots. 

Cast iron pans can never truly be nonstick, though they can be pretty darn close. You do have to preheat cast iron before you cook in it to help maintain its nonstick properties. If you add food to the pan before it is warm, you may end up with food stuck on the pan. 

Vintage cast iron isn’t superior to modern cast iron, but it did have a different type of production. Pre-1950s, pans were cast in sand based molds, which gave the surface of the pans a bumpy texture, but they were polished down until smooth. As production became quicker, the final polishing step was removed from the equation, leaving us with our modern, bumpy cast iron. Vintage cast iron does get a little bit more non-stick, but if seasoned correctly, a modern pan can have very similar non-stick properties. 

A perfectly seasoned pan does not exist outside of a perfect world, so you should be careful with your pans. Avoid cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce in your pans because they may interact with the metal, though something that only needs a quick simmer should be okay. Avoid any long-simmer recipes that have acidic ingredients in them. You can use tiny bits of wine to deglaze the pan, which is regular practice, but just be sure to clean it off well right after. 

That vintage cast iron pans are covered in dust, rust, and cannot be salvaged is an incorrect statement. Unless a skillet has cracks, is warped, has pitting, or is covered in another metal that prevents seasoning, you can probably save it. You’ll have to do a little more work than you would with a new cast iron skillet, but it will be worth it. 

You can even use metal utensils on your cast iron pan. Unless you are extremely aggressive with your scraping, you probably won’t hurt your seasoning. If you see any little flakes, you’re more than likely just seeing charred food from the last time your cooked. The seasoning is chemically bonded to the pan, so it is much more resilient than you would think. 

Caring for Cast Iron

There are two terrible things that can happen to your cast iron pan. Scaling happens when you heat your pan too frequently without giving it some extra oil. Scaling is when seasoning comes off in large flakes, instead of in tiny bits over time, as it normally would. This is easy to avoid if the pan is oiled after every use and it isn’t overheated. 

Rust happens on pans that are not seasoned well enough and are exposed to air. When a pan is stripped of its seasoning, it can begin rusting almost immediately. If you discover a rust spot, you can season right over it. After a few uses, the spot should be seasoned again, and the spreading of the rust should stop. 

Avoid using extremely abrasive materials on cast iron. Things like steel wool are too much and is actually one of the only things that will strip your seasoning, forcing you to re-season the pan all over again. The scrubby side of your average dish sponge should be able to handle most cleaning jobs on your pans. Cleaning the pan immediately after use will also help you out, since the heat will keep things moving and you can scrub out any food chunks quite easily. 

To oil your pan properly after you have cleaned it, you should heat it up on the stove top and then just as it starts to smoke, rub a paper towel covered in oil all over the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and then let it cool down to room temperature. The oil will form a protective barrier that will help keep moisture at bay until you use the pan again. Storage is simple too. These pans are beautiful, and some chefs prefer to store them in plain sight on the counter or hanging decoratively beside the stove, but you can easily store them with your other pans. Don’t be afraid to store cast iron with other cast iron cookware as it takes quite a bit of disturbance to remove a well-established seasoning.

Cast iron skillets are a perfectly versatile addition to any kitchen. They are fun to work with, wonderful for recipes that require a certain aesthetic appeal, and can work with almost every recipe you can imagine. If you haven’t already, start looking up what kind you want to buy! There are plenty of sizes and brands to choose from.

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