Cast iron cookware has made a stunning resurgence in our culinary world in the past decade or so.
Skillet cookies, Dutch oven breads, campfire-cooked meals and a host of comforting stews and soups cover Pinterest feeds all over, all touting the benefits of cooking with tried-and-true cast iron cookware. After all, it’s a type of cookware that’s been in use for centuries and has been perfected by craftsmen and manufacturers around the world. Cast iron only went out of fashion in the 1950s after the electric stove was invented along with aluminum-based cookware, though cast iron never truly left the market.
Now, though, it seems to be making a resurgence not just for its superior nonstick qualities, but also for its toxin- and additive-free material structure, since cast iron is molded from a single piece of iron-carbon alloy. And, because of its ability to get seasoned, cast iron actually gets better with age! This puts it high above other nonstick pots and pans which use toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance) compounds, like Teflon.
And therein lies the heart of what makes cast iron cookware so special — its seasoning ability! A well-seasoned cast iron pot can last generations and can work better and better as time goes by.
If you’ve ever had any reservations about using cast iron, such as its intimidating care routine, we’re here to set the record straight. It’s not all as complicated as some may make it out to be, and it’s a lot more accessible to cooks of any level of experience than one may have thought.
So, let’s dive in!
The definitive cast iron care guide
Cleaning cast iron
It’s always a good idea to give new pots and pans a wash before their first use, so we’ll start with the cleaning guide first.
Now, you may have heard that washing cast iron with soap is the cardinal sin of the culinary world, but it’s really not that big of a deal!. You definitely don’t want to make a habit of it, but one or two sudsy scrubs a year isn’t going to ruin your cast iron. The first wash is one of those times, as it will get rid of any rusty bits or factory residue.
The reason soap doesn’t mix well with cast iron is that back in the day, dish soaps were made with ingredients like lye and vinegar, both of which would strip pots and pans of the seasonings that took so long to build up. Although soaps nowadays aren’t nearly that strong, they can still take off some seasoning if used too often.
For everyday washing, it’s best to wash cast iron immediately after it's been used. Use hot water and a stiff brush or sponge (avoid steel wool!) to scrub as much food off the surface as you can. If there are particularly sticky bits, then sprinkle some rough kosher salt onto the surface, then add a little more hot water and scrub.
Dry using a dish towel or paper towel, then leave the cast iron on the stove at a low heat until thoroughly dry.
Storing cast iron
After washing and drying your cast iron, turn your stove burner up to medium heat and apply a light coat of vegetable oil or olive oil to your cast iron using a paper towel. Most people season just the inside of the cookware, but some also like to apply it to the outside to keep the entire piece seasoned. Wipe off any excess oil with a paper towel so that there's just a thin film of oil coating the pan, then place it on the burner for a few minutes to let the oil adhere to the pan. After a few minutes, let the pan cool, then it’s ready to store!
Store cast iron in a dry place. If you’re stacking pots and pans, then add a layer of paper towel in between them to prevent any rust or moisture.
Cooking with cast iron
Cooking with cast iron is pretty easy, thanks to the material’s nonstick qualities!
In fact, we’ve got a cooking guide for cast iron, so check it out here if you’re looking for some inspiration and ideas to try out.
Seasoning cast iron
There’s a lot of science behind seasoning a cast iron pan, surprisingly. If you want your cast iron to last for generations — and it most certainly can! — then seasoning it with the right oil and at the right heat will make a world of difference.
Essentially, seasoning on a cast iron pot or pan is what keeps the metal smooth and strong. This smooth surface is created by layers of fat that have been polymerized through heat, and that fat comes from different kinds of oil.
All oils have fat, but not all of them have the ability to dry into smooth layers. Flaxseed oil is the only drying oil that’s edible, so technically it's the best kind of oil to use on cast iron, but you can get away with using vegetable or olive oils in a pinch, too.
To season your cast iron, pour a little bit of oil into your washed-and-dried cast iron piece, Rub the oil all over the surface (both the inside and outside of the pan) until the piece is evenly coated in a thin layer of oil.
Plate the pan face-down in an oven preheated to 350°F. Use a sheet of aluminum foil to catch any drippings below the pan, and allow to bake for an hour. Turn off the what, but leave the pan in the oven until completely cool before taking it out.
And voila! You’ve got a seasoned piece of cast iron!
Repairing a rusty cast iron
On the off chance that your cast iron develops some rust, fret not. It’s a bit of a pain to fix, but it’s a totally doable task that will return your pots and pans to their normal quality in no time.
Rust occurs on the surface of the iron-alloy material, so most of the time it just takes a good scrub to get rid of the reddish-brown colorants.
Use a steel brush to scour the cast iron until all the rust is gone and the surface is pure cast iron again. Immediately after, wash and dry the cast iron until completely dry. Follow by seasoning the cast iron to restore the layers of fat, as the steel wool will have removed most of it.
If your cast iron is really rusty, then you could always take it to a metal shop to get sandblasted. If you do this, make sure to wash, dry and season it again regardless of how well the sandblasting worked.
And there you have it! You have everything you need to know about cleaning, drying, storing, seasoning and repairing your cast iron cookware— now all that’s left is enjoying it for years and years to come!
Featured photo courtesy Unsplash/Artur Rutkowski