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There are several schools of thought to caring for cast iron cookware. Some see it as easy — a traditional skill they’ve long mastered and possibly learned from their parents or grandparents. Then there are those who see it as some sort of arcane ritual, fraught with confusion and the possibility of error. And then there are people like me who actually have started fires in the kitchen trying to season cast iron cookware. More about that little episode later. The reality is that taking care of your cast iron is incredibly easy and requires minimal effort — and just a little bit of oil or grease.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron
Many new cast iron pieces come pre-seasoned — that is to say they already have oil more or less literally baked into the pores of the iron, which forms a durable, non-stick coating in the pan. If you’ve got cookware like that, great. Skip on ahead to the next section, or keep reading anyway, because knowledge is power. Let us presume you have rusty, dirty or poorly cared-for cast iron. Start by cleaning off the rust. This can be as simple as scrubbing it with some salt mixed with oil, or using bare steel wool, or even gently sandblasting in the most extreme cases. Once you are down to bare iron, now the fun begins.
Some say to use bacon grease or some other animal fat. Others pull out a bottle of mysterious seasoning oil passed down through the generations and based on an old pioneer recipe that was given to them by a wise old American Indian. But if it’s an edible oil, it will work. Wipe your entire piece of cookware down liberally with oil, and bake it in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. (Some prefer 350 or even lower.) The trick is to heat your skillet enough so the iron absorbs some of the hot oil. Bake for at least half an hour or so, and then let the cookware cool down. Done properly, you now have oil-seasoned cast iron. I like to fry up a few batches of bacon or repeat the seasoning process a couple more times to build up the seasoning. Afterwards, as long as you keep your pans properly oiled, you can maintain the seasoning forever, and you will eventually develop a rich, shiny coating in your cast iron.
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When I was a teenager, I took up collecting vintage cast iron, and I managed to get my hands on a wooden handled waffle iron. This precluded me from baking it, so I filled it up with oil and put it on the stovetop to heat up for a while. This was when I had my first lesson in the flash point of cooking oil, and I had the embarrassment of watching my mother stare at me with a disproving glare as I poured baking soda all over my antique cast iron and made an unholy mess in her kitchen. Learn from my fail and don’t puddle up oil in your cast iron if you are seasoning on the stove top. (Or, at least, watch the temperature of your cookware.)
Taking Care of a Seasoned Pan
Never EVER use soapy water to clean your pan. Ever. The soap cuts the protective oils and strips away the seasoning in the skillet. Instead, use hot water to rinse the pan, and either wipe it down with a clean cloth or sponge, or buff out stubborn food deposits with some salt and oil. Once clean, apply a thin layer of oil and put it away. It’s really that simple. Near-boiling or boiling water sanitizes your cookware, and everything else is just basic cleaning. If you are going to store your cast iron for a period of time, oil it up well and put it in a dry location. Check on it now and then to make sure it is still in good form.
Caring for cast iron isn’t hard. Getting it seasoned is the hardest step, and once you’ve accomplished that, it is just simple maintenance from there. Cast iron cookware can become a multigenerational heirloom, passed down for generations. I have personally seen century-old cast iron in regular use by third and fourth generation family members. Truly, there can be no better way for the well-prepared person to cook.
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