Owning and using cast iron is easier than you think. The ability of cast iron to retain heat means that it is the perfect choice for frying, braising, browning, and baking. A well seasoned pan is also non-stick. And unlike a cheap pan with a non-stick chemical coating, cast iron will last forever. Every time you cook with your cast iron pan you are adding to the seasoning and making your pan even better. If you have neglected or mistreated yours, don’t worry I can show you how to bring it back to life!
Cast iron creates a sense of nostalgia when we see it and use it. I think we all have a family member who cooks with cast iron. At least that has been both Zoe’s and mine experience. In my case it was my grandmother, whom I used to help cook whenever I would go to visit. Since then, I have been building my own collection of cast iron. There is also a sense of expectation from the food cooked in cast iron. Almost the idea that the food will be even more tastier, just because it was cooked in a pan or pot made of iron. Zoe re-tells stories of her mother’s childhood of when her great grandmother would make cornbread in cast iron and set it on the tin roof. Stories like these where the reason why Zoe fell head over heels with cast iron. As a way to stay connected to her past and heritage.
When I met Zoe, she too had a small collection of her own, and together we have gathered many pans with many sizes and uses. The one thing I did see with Zoe’s collection was that some were quite rusty. Zoe will confess, as much as she loves her pans, she didn’t quite know how to properly care for them. This is why she asked me to write this post.
What is available
There are many companies selling cast iron pots and pans out there. Some are inexpensive, and some are high end. You will find some pans coated with enamel or ceramic, as well as the classic black pans. These are the ones we are going to cover today. These are the ones that are the more affordable.
Inadvertently both Zoe and I bought one brand in common, Lodge. Zoe has a couple of off-brand cast iron pans, which work just as well, but once we were seeing that Lodge was the favorite, we have fixed our sights on that brand. Lodge is available in many stores, Zoe bought hers at Walmart, but very easily we have added to our Lodge collection by buying from Amazon.
Skillets, Dutch Ovens and More
From 3.5 inches to 15 inches in diameter, the skillet is the most popular and versatile cookware you could buy. If you are working on building your collection or don’t even have good reliable cookware, this is a great place to start. We right now have a 15”, a 10”, and a 6.5” skillets, and Zoe uses them for anything and everything, more so than her stainless steel set. One good reason is because it sustains heat well and they are perfect for popping into the oven to finish the cooking process. They are deep enough to make sauces and shallow enough to be used as a frying pan.
Dutch ovens and deep skillets. A dutch oven is normally a deep pot with short handles and a lid, about 5 quarts of food capacity or more. The deep skillet has a smaller capacity starting at 3.5 quarts and it is more reasonable in price. It also has one long handle and a short handle at opposite ends. Both dutch oven and deep skillets come with lids. We have a 6 quart dutch oven with enamel, it is perfect for a family of 4-6 and we have used it to make whole chicken roasts, stews, sauces, soups, and casseroles.
Other sizes and specialty pans. The smallest size pan or skillet we have is a square 5 inch pan that could be used to make grilled cheeses. Zoe uses it to make eggs as well, especially when she is cooking for herself or when she wants to make a single sandwich at a time. She came across this pan at a relative’s house and she found it so cute and convenient I had to get it for her.
Another pan we have is the grill pan. It has grooves that will create grill marks on vegetables and meats. The pan has a spout area to remove excess liquids or oil drippings from the item being grilled. We do not use this pan as much, but it is still a good alternative when we want a “grilled” item but do not want to fire the grill.
Seasoning your cast iron pans.
It used to be that cast iron pans would come un-seasoned, but most brands are offering the pans pre-seasoned. Seasoning is just a layer of oil which has become baked into the iron of the pan. Although most new cast iron comes already seasoned, it’s a very thin coating just to prevent rust during shipping. You will want to season the new pans the same as your existing pans. Seasoning takes a little time but once it’s done, this will become your favorite pan.
- Start by washing and drying your pan. Go ahead and use soap and scrub if you need to. Normally this is not how treat your pan but we are preparing to season it.
- Place it in a warm oven (175-200℉) for about 10 minutes. This will dry it completely. Allow the pan to cool enough that you can handle it.
- Carefully, apply a very thin layer of oil to the entire pan inside and out. Using a lint free cloth, wipe off any excess oil. Too much oil will result in sticky spots. I use a high smoke point oil like peanut or grape seed. Plain vegetable oil or shortening will also work, but avoid olive oil.
- Place your pan upside down in a hot oven (450-500℉) with a baking pan underneath to catch any drips. Bake for one hour then allow to cool enough that you can handle it.Repeat this process by adding another thin layer of oil and baking again. If you do this multiple times you will get better results. The most I bake mine is twice and have gotten very good results.
Cooking with cast iron.
What can you cook in cast iron? Almost anything! Steaks, burgers, fish, vegetables, cornbread, pizza, even desserts. For almost everything, you will want to start off with a hot pan. This creates a sear on your meats and a crispy edge on your cornbread and pizza.
A note about breakfast: start cooking bacon from a cold pan. Fried eggs are a true test of your pan’s seasoning. Start with a medium-hot pan, use a good amount of butter, turn the heat down to medium-low and don’t flip them until they set.
Recipes You Can Make With Cast Iron Skillets, Dutch Ovens, Deep Skillets, or Grill Pan
- Green Tomatillo Enchiladas
- Mushroom Soup
- Crispy Roasted Chicken with Bacon, Apples, and Dates
- White Chicken Chili
Regular cleaning of your cast iron.
- Wash - It’s easier to clean cast iron while it’s still warm, but I’m busy eating the meal I just made. Clean with hot water and a nylon brush or plastic scraper. For stubborn spots I’ve added a little salt to scour with. A little bit of soap isn’t going remove your seasoning layer but don’t overdo it and don’t use scouring powders. Don’t soak things in your pan, if you are still having problems getting it clean, add some water and try boiling for a few minutes to loosen it.
- Dry - Dry it right away. Don’t let water sit in your pan.
- Oil - Put a thin layer of oil in your pan and put it in a warm oven, or a few minutes on a low burner to complete the drying process.
What not to cook in cast iron.
Avoid long simmers with acidic foods. Tomatoes and wine based sauces will eat away at the seasoning if left for too long. You can still use cast iron for quick pan sauces, just do not let the sauces sit in the pan for an extended period of time.
I hope this post eases your concerns about using or purchasing a cast iron pan or dutch oven. Yes, the pan will rust if it is not well taken care of, but it cannot be completely ruined. At least nothing that a little bit of oil and 400℉ bake won't fix. The versatility, functionality and durability of a well crafted cast iron skillet or oven outweighs the hassle, for lack of better term, of care.