A good cast iron skillet is one of the most important tools in a kitchen, if you ask me. They are versatile, beautiful, and just plain cook food better than your average stainless steel pan (due to uniform heat retention). And in the South, cast iron is passed from generation to generation. From grandmothers to granddaughters. From campfire to kitchen and back to campfires again. They are treasured family heirlooms.
But cast iron can be an intimidating kind of skillet. Especially if you’ve never cooked on one before.
So today, I’m going to share with you how to care for cast iron. Or at least, how I care for my cast iron.
Disclaimer: I realize that cast iron care can be very personal, and I’m sure that many of you will disagree with how I do certain things. However, this was a requested post, so I’m sharing with you today what I do to keep my cast iron skillets and pots in pristine and bacon-ready condition.
Let’s start from the beginning. I was fortunate enough to inherit three very precious cast iron skillets of various sizes: two from my dad’s mom and one from my mama’s mama. However, I have added to my collection over the years, with gifts from my parents (there is an awesome store with re-seasoned and cleaned up cast iron in Dillard, Georgia apparently – maybe my mom will chime in and share that tidbit with readers?) as well as my own finds in antique stores. And I have done my share of gifting cast iron, too. I like to purchase antique or vintage cast iron, but I have heard very good things about new Lodge cast iron, and of course, you can never ever go wrong with anything from Le Creuset and the like.
When looking for antique or brand-new skillets, look for ones that are deep, in addition to the width you are looking for. That makes them more versatile for cooking. AKA you can sear something in them or deep fry something, too. If there is a lid, you get extra brownie points. Look for smooth surfaces on the interior, and no cracks or huge pockmarks.
If you’re looking for legitimately old cast iron, which I do believe is the best cast iron, look for a heat ring on the bottom of the skillet.
I’ve been told that a heat ring means that it’s a much older piece of cast iron. This would also be a good time to tell you that the bottom of a skillet/pot/etc. is the second place to look (after making sure it’s fairly smooth and crack-free). As you can see, the size (diameter) of the cast iron is imprinted on the bottom, as well as some other information about it. Often, the brand, where it was made, and sometimes, if it’s really old, the person who made it.
If you’re going out on a cast iron scavenger hunt (my favorite kind), I think that an 8 or 8 1/2 size skillet with deep sides is a great, versatile skillet that will work for cooking meals for two to even four folks. You can upgrade your skillet size as you upgrade your family or your dinner parties.
But for those of you who have your grandmother’s skillet that’s seen better days, or a janky junk store skillet that needs some TLC: this part is for you.
The “seasoning” on a cast iron skillet is what makes it non-stick and so great to cook on. However, if not cared for properly, that seasoning can get scratched, sticky, rusty, and/or downright nasty. If the skillet isn’t cracked or permanently damaged though, DO NOT THROW IT OUT. You can still save it. Or you can buy janky cast iron at a junk store and start it from scratch this way.
Restoring Cast Iron
Warning: this part is best done in the winter when it’s cold.
Step 1: Build a really good, roaring fire. Optional: Drink beer and eat oysters around it. Before you go to bed, let the fire die down until all you’re left with is a good thick bed of coals. Using a fireproof oven mitt or something (safety first!) shove the cast iron down into the coals. Use a shovel or something to make sure you get the whole thing covered. Fuhgedabout it.
When you come back the next day and pull it out (or whenever the coals have cooled completely), you’ll be left with a shiny-like-new bright silver skillet!
There are lots of instructions out there for using oven cleaner and chemicals to burn off the seasoning, but I get skeeved out by putting oven cleaner on the tool I use to cook a frittata. Plus, this way involves a fire. And definitely beer. And preferably oysters.
Seasoning Cast Iron
To season this bare cast iron, it’s going to require a little work upfront. I use vegetable shortening to season them this way. Using a cloth or paper towels, rub your cast iron down with a thin layer of shortening. Turn them upside down in your over, placing a rimmed baking sheet below them to catch any drippings. THEN turn your oven on to a very high heat – 400 to 500 degrees. I usually do 450 to reduce the smoking. You may want to do this with the windows open, by the way. Once it reaches the set temperature, leave it in the oven for an hour, then turn the oven off but leave the skillet in there. Let it cool completely. Repeat this process at least two or three times. It’s best to just plan a weekend around this process, because you definitely don’t want to leave a 500 degree oven at home alone. You can repeat it as many times as you like, until you get a smooth, even, seasoning over the entire skillet.
Now you’re ready to do some cooking and eating. Basically, the only things I don’t cook in cast iron is boiling water/pasta and scrambled eggs (they always stick, no matter what). But now that you’ve cooked, how do you keep it clean?
Cleaning Cast Iron
For your average greasy bacon -filled skillet (which I highly encourage you to cook lots and lots of bacon in your skillets), you’ll be left with a lovely layer of bacon grease, as seen below.
There will probably be some bacon bits in there, some of which may be stuck to the bottom of the skillet. If you’re a bacon grease saver like us (aka you live South of the Mason-Dixon), strain the grease into whatever mason jar you keep your grease in. DO NOT PUT THE CAST IRON IN THE SINK. Don’t you dare. Just grab a paper towel and wipe it out. That’s it. This technique works for pretty much anything you cook in your cast iron. Bacon grease is especially good for your cast iron, but any grease will do. Cooking in your cast iron is the best care you can give it.
IF there is some food still stuck to the skillet, simply pour a couple teaspoons of course sea salt into the pan and scrub it with a paper towel and a teency splash of water (or grease left in the pan). This should take care of any remaining food stuck to the surface without damaging the seasoning.
This skillet actually needs to start the entire process over and be re-seasoned, but ignore that for now. The salt cleaning technique is super easy and quick, and keeps your skillets in great condition.
Now, I am aware that sometimes there are unavoidable extreme kitchen episodes which result in certifiable disasters, and sometimes the salt trick ain’t gonna cut it. For those rare(ish) occasions, you can scrub down your skillet with a scratch-free scrubbing sponge, soap, and water. Once it’s clean and smooth, dry it with a towel and put it on a burner on your stove and turn the burner to low. Let it completely dry over the burner for an hour or so, then turn the stove off and let it cool to room temperature. Once it’s completely dry (I usually turn the stove off right before bed if I’ve cooked supper, and in the morning pick back up at this point), use some mineral oil on a paper towel and rub the entire skillet down with a thin layer of the mineral oil. Many people use other oils, but we use mineral oil in our family because it doesn’t go rancid. You can buy it online, or it’s usually in the laxative/medicines section at the grocery store (TMI?). It is really thin, too, which I think helps keep you from gooping your skillets up. That’s a technical term, obvi.
Any time your skillets are looking dry, give them a mineral oil rub down, and always store them with a piece of paper towel in the bottom of them – especially if you live in the oh-so-humid South. It helps keep them from rusting.
I know that cast iron can bring out some passionate and heated opinions on the best way to care for them, but this is how I care for mine and it’s always worked well for me.
How do you care for your cast iron?