Cast iron skillets are fantastic for thick-cut steak, juicy burgers, and bacon strips—and less so for other foods. Here’s which.
Sturdy, durable, and inexpensive, a cast iron skillet works with any stove, heats evenly, and holds on to heat well. It’s so versatile, it can move from stovetop to oven and can also be used on the grill. You can even cook with it over a fire.
Since they’re basically bulky pieces of metal, cast iron skillets provide a hot cooking surface for meats, vegetables, and baked goods that yields exceptional browning and caramelization. (And, as any chef will tell you, browning and caramelization create taste.)
Still, cast iron cookware has its peculiarities. For starters, cast iron is a reactive metal, so it needs to be seasoned for protection against rust and corrosion. The seasoning has the added benefit of giving the cooking vessel non-stick properties. On the flip side, it has to be cared for.
For the same reasons, some foods simply don’t belong in your cast iron skillet. So, in this post, we’re going to talk about what not to cook in it.
Acidic foods and cast iron skillets don’t get along. The bare-iron cooking surface reacts to the acid in the sauce, leaching significant amounts of dietary iron into your food.
Sure, your body needs iron—and cooking in a cast iron skillet can actually help you meet your daily recommended iron intake, especially if you don’t need enough meat.
Still, if you simmer tomatoes, vinegar, wine, lemon, or lime for a long enough time in a cast iron skillet, it can seep enough iron into your dish to impart it with a strong, metallic taste that takes everything else over.
The other issue of cooking acidic foods in cast iron is that doing so can strip away bits and pieces of your skillet’s seasoning. So you’ll get strips of black, carbonated oil floating around and about in your food, and you’ll need to reseason your skillet afterward.
Simply said, you’re better off using another kind of pan. (A non-stick pan or an enameled Dutch oven provides the least reactive surface to acidic sauces).
The jury’s out on whether it’s okay to cook acidic foods in cast iron briefly. Some folks say that it won’t make your food taste metallic, and that it won’t damage the seasoning on your pan. Personally, I don’t risk it.
Boiling water or boiling foods:
Boiling water in a cast iron skillet is a no-no, and so is boiling foods, such as pasta shapes, dried beans, or liquidy broths, in water. Doing so causes the seasoning on your pan to release, and it can peel away in strips and patches.
Simmering gravies and sauces, as water and salt are not the only components of the cooking liquid, is less detrimental to the seasoning on cast iron cookware (though not necessarily the best thing to do if the recipe calls for a long simmering time).
All in all, uncoated, well-seasoned cast iron skillets are best used for preparing fatty foods that require a little cooking oil or butter. Think bacon strips, burger patties, thick-cut steak, pork chops, chicken breasts, turkey fillets, etc. They double up as excellent bakeware for cornbread, pizza, and pies, too.
Eggs and omelets:
Cast iron skillets tend to have a rough, porous surface, which, as YouTuber Cowboy Kent Rollins fittingly describes, feels like truck bed liner when you run your hand over it.
Though that’s great for cooking up a thick-cut steak to form a crispy, flavorful crust, it’s kind of counterproductive when you want to fry sunny-side-up eggs or an omelet.
Unless you cook the eggs with plenty of butter or cooking oil, the eggs may stick to your skillet, and you’re going to have a hard time not mangling them as you try to flip them over with your spatula.
Die-hard cast-iron fans will disagree with me—and that’s okay, as there is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion here—but a better choice of cooking vessel for this task is a non-stick or ceramic frying pan.
The eggs will glide on the slick surface of non-stick and ceramic cookware, allowing you to fry them and flip them overly effortlessly. Of course, you could achieve a similar cooking experience in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and a generous amount of fat.
Smellier, fattier fish:
Ask anyone who cooks primarily with cast iron about the drawbacks of this type of cookware, and they’re almost guaranteed to tell you that it catches the smell of every single food item you cook in it.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. For example, frying a burger in the same skillet that you just finished browning bacon in will impart it with a rich, bacony aroma and flavor that you only get at a high-end steakhouse.
But when today morning’s pancakes remind you of last night’s salmon dinner… I don’t know about you, but I can hardly call it appetizing!
Though there is a way to deal with a fishy-smelling skillet, readers who own more than one kind of cooking vessel can consider reaching for a non-stick or stainless steel pan to cook smelly fish.
Delicate, less oily fish such as arctic char, cod, and flounder tend to be less smelly than their hearty and fatty counterparts like herring, mackerel, sardines, and salmon.
Also, the fresher the fish, the less stinky it will be. The reason for that is simple: that smell comes from bacteria that eat away at the flesh of the dead fish. The less time it’s had to “work it’s magic,” the less stinky the fish’s body will be.
So, if you’re one of those people who can’t stand the smell of fish (my wife is one of them, so I empathize), get your fish from a local fishmonger who you can trust instead of shopping for it from the supermarket.