Kitchen Lessons: How to Care for Cast Iron

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.

The Basics of Cast Iron Care | Oysters & Pearls

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.

Heat Ring on Cast Iron Skillet | Oysters & Pearls

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.

Cast Iron Skillet Care | Oysters & Pearls

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.

Cast Iron Care | Oysters & Pearls

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.

Bacon Grease in a Cast Iron Skillet | Oysters & Pearls

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.

How to Scrub a Cast Iron Skillet | Oysters & Pearls

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.

How To Care for Cast Iron Skillets | Oysters & Pearls

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?

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20 thoughts on “Kitchen Lessons: How to Care for Cast Iron

  1. Rachel

    I really need to invest in one…it’s been on my list or years! My parents use their skillets from when they were newlywed s and I would love to snag those. Please find about about the store in Dillard. We pass through there to go to our house in the mountains…clearly I need to make a stop :)

    Reply
  2. Jim McClellan

    I’m sharing this and bookmarking it. I’ve had a bunch of folks ask me how to do this and my best answer is to just keep using it and wiping it out when you’re done. Now I’ll just send them this. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. oystersandpearls Post author

      That’s a good tip, too! I’ve heard of people doing that, especially if they don’t have a bonfire handy. I had never heard of anyone doing it that way first hand though, so I am so glad you commented! I would much prefer that over oven cleaner chemicals. Thanks so much!

      Reply
  3. Lisa Jo

    The antique store with lots Of old cast iron cookware was on the back side of the strip of shops on the right as you are going north through Dillard. I can’t remember the name of the shop though, sorry. Their inventory fluctuates but we have managed to catch him just back from a buying trip a couple of times!

    Reply
  4. Debbie

    Hey Natalie, I am very much enjoying your blog and all the great info! I got some passed down cast irons from my parents and I bought some of the Lodge. I like them all. On some of the passed down pieces there was a good bit of build-up on the bottom(wasn’t heating so even), so I took to the bottom with a scraper and safety glasses! My husband comes out and says “why are you doing that? I can clean that with a wire brush on my drill or on the grinder wheel!” This would be only for the outside of course. Worked great! It looked new. I clean mine by draining them and immediately dousing under HOT water with no soap I use a scrubber with plastic bristles and then return to the burner I had cooked on or turn the oven on 350* or so till it’s good and dry. Just another variation, my Dad used this method.

    Reply
    1. oystersandpearls Post author

      Thank you so much! There are so many ways to clean them. Thanks for adding to the list! I hope this post will become a good resource for those who have cast iron and are saying, “Now what?” :)

      Reply
  5. Larry

    I stopped at a garage sale. The guy had spray painted ten to fifteen skillets instead of just putting them up for sale I educated him on the waste he had done and how. The once valuable skillets are now worthless.

    Reply
  6. Pamela

    I have a few cast iron skillets but didn’t know how to season them. I have a favorite one that doesn’t stick and I do make milk gravy in it but the only way to clean off the flour and milk when done I thought is to wash it out just with water then put it on the stove with heat on to dry it. I have others that need to be seasons but didn’t know how to do it. I got a little one recently and tried to season it with olive oil then put it in the oven but it came out awful is didn’t know what to do and I don’t have a fireplace.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: The Basics of Cast Iron Care | Southern Blog Society

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