Cast Iron Care and Maintenance 101

Published Categorized as Kitchen
A photo of cobbler in a cast iron skillet© 2015 Teri Virbickis - All Right Reserved

A kitchen without a cast iron skillet is a kitchen without a skillet at all. If you’re a newcomer to cast iron, here’s everything you need to know.

Cast iron cookware is thick, heavy, and conducts heat poorly compared to other metals. But once it gets up to heat, it holds onto it exceptionally well and distributes it evenly. It’s this that makes cast iron such a good choice for high-heat cooking methods like searing, pan-roasting, deep-frying, and baking.

Cast iron is also porous and rough. Without seasoning—that is, without a layer of oil baked onto the metal—food will stick to the cooking surface, and the iron will corrode and rust. This is what distinguishes cast iron from other metals and is the main reason why it requires special care.

Whether you bought your first cast iron skillet or you were given granny’s pans and pots, it’s important to learn how to care for cast iron to be able to make good use of this type of cookware.

We wrote this beginner’s guide to help you cook with and care for cast iron without hassle.

Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast iron care and maintenance are all about seasoning the pan properly, then adding to that seasoning with daily use and taking good care of it over time.

These days, new cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are sold pre-seasoned from the factory. So the seasoning is done for you, but you have to cook greasy foods and use plenty of cooking oil the first few times you cook with them.

Even if you bought a pre-seasoned cooking vessel, it’s important to understand the process. Every cast iron owner sooner or later has to understand (and master) the art and craft of seasoning.

The “seasoning” is a protective layer of oil baked onto the interior and exterior of your cast iron pan or pot. It protects the bare iron from corrosion and rust by preventing it from coming into contact with the air and moisture in it.

It’s also what makes the vessel’s cooking surface slippery, providing you with a nonstick cooking experience despite the fact that the cooking surface is uncoated.

To season (or re-season) a cast iron cooking vessel, wash it with dish soap and hot water, then scrub away with an abrasive sponge, stiff brush, or steel wool to strip the old seasoning inside and out.

Give the vessel a good rinse, then dry it thoroughly with a paper towel and heat it empty over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes on the stove. This will allow the leftover moisture to evaporate completely.

Add a tiny dollop of vegetable oil to the skillet and spread it evenly over the interior, exterior, and handles with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. The trick is to use as little oil as possible and to wipe as much of it away as you can before putting the pan in the oven.

Place the cast iron skillet upside down on the middle rack of a 450°F (230°C) oven and bake it for 1 hour. (You’re doing this so that oil won’t pool on the cooking surface and ruin the seasoning. Many cast-iron owners will place a tray on the lower rack to catch the dripping oil.)

Once the time has passed, turn off the heat and let the skillet cool down on its own for a couple of hours.

After that, take it out of the oven and see how the seasoning turned out. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet will appear to be glossy and black, with no gray spots or dark flakes on the cooking surface. Some cast iron owners apply two to three rounds of seasoning before they consider the job done.

Cooking With Cast Iron

Taking care of your cast iron vessels doesn’t end with the seasoning.

This type of cookware can last for generations, there’s no question about it, but you need to give it special care in your everyday cooking.

Bare, unenameled cast iron is best for cooking greasy foods on the stove and baking goods in the oven.

Some of the tasks that this type of pans and pots are great at include searing steak, pork chops, and chicken filets, preparing fries, latkes, bacon strips, burgers, and sausages, as well as baking cornbread or pan pizza in the oven.

Oil your pan well before cooking and use it to make hearty foods, and the oil and fat will help maintain the seasoning over time. As long as you do this and you clean your pan properly, you will rarely, if ever, need to re-season it over the years.

To prevent damaging the factory seasoning (or the seasoning you’ve worked so hard to build), don’t boil liquids in your cast iron cookware and avoid simmering acidic sauces with wine, vinegar, and citrus juice. Iron is not compatible with water and acid; they strip away the seasoning and cause leaching of dietary iron into your food.

Cleaning Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware should only be cleaned once it’s cool enough to handle. Don’t run cold water on a hot pan or pot; the sudden change in temperature may cause the metal to warp or, in extreme cases, crack.

When you’re done cooking, allow your cookware to cool by itself for 1-2 hours, then use one of the cleaning methods below.

Some people will clean their cast iron skillets by scrubbing the food residue off with salt, lukewarm water, and a scrub sponge:

Others wash their cast-iron cookware with only lukewarm water before dabbing it for storage. Then there are those to use a little soap and warm water to remove the stuck-on food.

Many will shy away from washing cast iron with soap. But the truth is that it’s okay to use a little bit of mild soap, as long as it doesn’t have a harsh formula and you don’t put too much elbow grease into scrubbing your pan with it.

The most important thing is not to leave water or food in the vessel and dry it completely for storage. Before storing your cookware, heat it empty for 4-5 minutes over medium heat on the stove to evaporate any residual moisture, then let it cool.

Skipping this rest is a recipe for rust, and a pan or pot that’s rust is one that needs to be re-seasoned.

Storing Cast Iron

Let’s talk about the dos and don’ts of storing your cast iron cookware.

The traditional way to store cast iron skillets is to hang them on the wall in your kitchen. Keep in mind that these cooking vessels are very heavy. So if you go for this storage method, make sure the hooks are properly secured to the wall or another structural element.

Wall hanging may not be practical for some since it takes up space and might not work with the interior design of their kitchen. A more practical way to store cast iron pieces of cookware in such a case is to stack them in a cabinet, with smaller pans inside larger ones, and whip them out as needed.

If you opt for this storage method as many others do, keep your cast iron in a lower—and not upper—cabinet. These cooking vessels are heavy and brittle, and, if they fall, they tend to break apart into pieces.

Wrapping It Up

  • If you bought unseasoned cast iron cookware, or the seasoning on your cookware is starting to peel off, and food is starting to stick, season it.
  • Cook with plenty of oil or butter, and avoid preparing watery or acidic foods in your cast iron cooking vessels to keep the seasoning in pristine condition.
  • It’s okay to wash cast iron with soap and water as long as you use a small amount of mild soap and you don’t put too much elbow grease into scrubbing.
  • Dry your skillets and Dutch ovens thoroughly for storage. Moisture invites corrosion and rust, and corrosion and rust call for special care and attention.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.