Even in our newfangled world, there’s something to be said for cooking it old school. Cast iron cookware, around since circa 200 AD, has long been valued for its durability, heat retention, and non-stick properties. Plus, the simple act of cooking in cast iron can up a food’s iron content anywhere from 25% (cornbread) to 2000% (spaghetti sauce)!
Cast iron’s non-stick qualities, coupled with the ability to perform at extremely high temperatures, makes it incredibly versatile. It retains heat well, so once brought up to the desired temperature, you can get an even braise on any protein. You can move a single pan from stovetop to oven with no problem and nothing is better for cooking (or even baking!) in the great outdoors. Throw that baby on some glowing embers, fill it with tasty ingredients, and prepare to swoon.
So, why isn’t cast iron the go-to in every kitchen? In the 1960s and ’70s, cast iron fell out of favor as Teflon-coated aluminum cookware came on the scene. However, studies show Teflon releases toxic compounds when heated above 500 degrees Fahrenheit (which is easy to do). Cast iron can feel mysterious – to use soap or not? If not, how do you wash it? And what’s this “seasoning” all about?
It’s simpler than it sounds and I’ll take an iron boost over inhaled toxins any day, so skip that sketchy Teflon business and get back to the basics.
You can buy new cast iron pieces at your local hardware store, kitchen and home supply store, or online. Some cast iron companies, such as Lodge Logic, sell pre-seasoned pieces. If you want a vintage piece, check your local thrift stores or antique shops. If the iron is rusty, it is salvageable, but may require some work.
How to Season
When chefs refer to a “seasoned” pan, all they’re really saying is non-stick via polymerized fats and oils that have been cooked onto the surface. When you obtain a new (or new to you) cast iron piece, the first step is to season it. This should also be done periodically to boost non-stick properties.
If the cookware is an heirloom and suffers from rust, you will need to remove the rust before seasoning. To do this, make a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and water. Soak your pan anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, depending on how badly it is rusted. Scrub the rust off with a copper pad. Voila!
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash the cookware in hot water with soap to remove any casting oils, old debris, etc. from the surface. This is the only time you will use soap on your cast iron piece (see How To Clean, below). After washing, make sure to completely dry before moving to the next step.
Next, coat the entire piece (including the lid and outside) with a small and even amount of fat, rubbing it into the surface with a paper towel or soft rag. You can use lard, olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, or vegetable Crisco. Lard is considered most traditional.
Place your cast iron piece upside down in the oven on the middle rack with a piece of aluminum foil placed below to catch any drips. Let “bake” for two hours, removing once at the one-hour mark to rub the existing fat into the surface again with a paper towel or rag. Be careful, as the pan is very hot! At the two-hour mark, turn off the oven and let the cookware cool completely before removing.
How to Cook with Cast Iron
While cast iron is number one in heat retention, at heat conductivity, it’s not so hot (ha ha.) Low and slow is the mantra for heating up any cast iron piece. This allows the entire piece to come to temperature before cooking, which enhances the non-stick properties. Because of poor conductivity, if you have undersized burners, a large pan is probably incompatible with your stovetop. You can always pre-heat pieces in the oven. Once cast iron reaches the desired temperature, it stays there and won’t easily produce temperature variations.
Be aware that cooking acidic foods (such as tomatoes or high-acid fruits) in your cast iron will eventually wear down the seasoning. Use other pans or pots for heavy-duty, ongoing, tomato-season feasts, but also know that the occasional spaghetti dinner won’t require a re-seasoning.
When cooking or baking in the great outdoors with a Dutch oven, rotating the lid every 15 minutes (¼ of a turn in one direction, while rotating the pot at the same time, ¼ of a turn in the opposite direction) will ensure even cooking and no hot spots from the coals.
If you are baking, bringing the pan up to temp in the oven with the fat already added before pouring in the batter will produce a nice, crispy crust on the bottom (think cornbread or Dutch baby pancakes.)
Turning off the burner and covering the pan for a short time after cooking allows steam to help some of the trickier cast iron foods (eggs/potatoes/etc.) come off the surface more easily.
How to Clean
The Donts: Don’t use steel wool, soap or a dishwasher and never soak your cast iron piece – it will rust!
The Do’s: Do use a stiff nylon brush or sponge (we prefer Dobie™ brand in our house) and very hot water. Do clean your cast iron while the pan is still hot or warm. Make sure to dry immediately and completely, then use a paper towel or clean cloth to rub a small amount of oil into the surface before storing. If your cookware has a lid, place a paper towel between the lid and the pot to promote air circulation.
The Uh-Oh’s: Too exhausted/tipsy/delighted with the company after dinner to clean up? We’ve all been there! For cold, baked-on food, heat your cast iron until very hot. Pour in enough hot water to cover the bottom of the pan and scrape up leftover food with a spatula. Did your houseguest accidentally use soap on your favorite cast iron skillet? No worries, just re-season and it’ll be good as new!
Cast iron is safe and simple and other types of cookware just can’t compare in performance and versatility. The more you use it, the better it gets, so pull out Grandmama’s heirloom skillet and enjoy, knowing that your beautiful, local, and organic foods will come out of the pan even better than they went in!