If there were a fire at our house, the first things I’d save are my family, my dog, and my great-grandmother’s cast iron skillet. Heather, Jack, and Ella are obviously first, but that skillet is a family heirloom to me. I can’t even imagine the number of biscuits that were baked in the skillet or the amount of chicken that it fried to golden perfection. There is a countless number of mouths that have been fed out of that piece of cookware – thousands I’m sure. So when she passed nearly 18 years ago, that skillet was the greatest treasure that could have been bequeathed to me.
It’s a workhorse at our house, too. It’s not reverently displayed up on a high shelf. That thing gets used weekly, because that’s what I know BigMama would want. It’s heavy and a little rough around the edges, but the inside is as slick as glass. Nothing sticks in this thing. That’s what makes it so amazing.
Cast iron cookware, like this skillet, is great for many reasons. It holds heat well. It’s virtually indestructible. It’s pretty easy to use. It’s great for cooking about anything from eggs to cookies to cornbread. It also helps contribute iron to our diet, which is a vital nutrient, when we cook in it.
But for some, the care and cleaning of cast iron can be a little intimidating, but with a few helpful hints, you’re sure to be a cast iron pro.
How to Season Cast Iron
Seasoning (or curing) a cast iron skillet is one of the most important things you can do to new cast iron. It’s the process of applying very, very thin layers of fat and cooking them on at a high temperature. This process allows the fats to polymerize and form a hard, plastic-like coating on the iron surface. This coating is what makes the pan nonstick. And each time you cook with it, another layer is added making it even thicker and more nonstick. So, the more you use it, the better it gets.
While many new products come from the factory pre-seasoned, I find that the factory seasoning just isn’t quite enough. In fact, I actually prefer to get my cast iron unseasoned (or bare) and season it myself. The process takes a little time, but is pretty painless. It’s just all about the method…
- Start by washing the skillet with soap and hot water – yes, soap… more on that later. Dry it completely.
- Turn the oven to 200°F and place the skillet in the oven to warm. After about 10 minutes, remove the skillet and use a lint free towel to apply an incredibly thin layer of vegetable oil over the surface – inside and out, handle and all. Then take another clean lint free cloth and wipe off all the oil you can. This is going to seem a little strange, but we only want a microscopically thin layer of oil on the skillet. Too much and the fat on the skillet can get sticky.
- Now, there’s a lot of debate out there about what the perfect fat is for seasoning cast iron, but I always use vegetable oil – like soybean or canola – or vegetable shortening. Those items are easy to come by, affordable, and do just as good of a job as any.
- Once you’ve got as much of the oil wiped off as you can, place the skillet upside down on the center rack of your oven and crank the heat up to 500°F or as high as your oven will go. Bake for 1 hour. Baking the skillet upside down prevents any pools of fat from forming on the cooking surface and creating sticky little spots.
- After an hour, turn the oven off and allow the skillet to cool enough to handle – at least 30 minutes. On a new skillet you should see a noticeable change in color.
- Once it’s cool enough to handle (but still warm), apply another thin layer of oil and wipe off the excess. I can’t stress how important it is to wipe off everything you can. Then turn the oven back up to 500°F and place the skillet back in the oven, upside down, for another hour. You’ll want to repeat this process about 3 or 4 times to get the best finish. It takes a little time to get it done, but the results are certainly worth the effort.
My friends at Stargazer Cast Iron sent me this bare 10.5-inch skillet so that I could show you the change in color as you apply the layers of seasoning. A bare skillet starts out a silverish-gray but turns the much more familiar dark patina when properly seasoned. I love Stargazer’s cast iron because it’s American made and because they polish the cooking surface very smooth. This smooth finish performs better and cleans easier. They are more expensive than your big box retailer cast iron, but as with most cookware, it’s an investment. And it’s something you can pass on one day when cared for properly. Visit them at StargazerCastIron.com
How to Wash Cast Iron
Growing up, I was taught that you NEVER EVER put soap in a cast iron skillet. Now hold on to your hats for a second, but modern science tells us we can actually use a mild, nonabrasive soap if we need it. That hard polymerized coating we created by seasoning the skillet is actually like plastic, and it takes more than a little soap to wash it away. That said, I still prefer to wash my cast iron without soap – if I can help it. Old habits die hard, I guess.
I typically wash the skillet with hot water and use a plastic scraper or even a couple tablespoons of kosher salt to scrub and scrape off the hard-to-clean stuff. Just be sure not to use abrasive scouring pads and cleaners. They will damage the finish. Then dry it, and wipe a super thin coating of oil over the surface – and just as before – use another cloth to wipe off the excess. I then place the skillet back in the warm oven or on the stovetop over super low heat to ensure that it’s completely dry.
I try to store my cast iron with cloths or paper towels between them as stacking them in the cabinet can sometime cause the seasoning to be scratched or gouged. They even make these great cookware protecters that fit between each pan to keep the surfaces from touching.
How to Cook with Cast Iron
In most cases, you’re going to want to heat the skillet before cooking with it. This is especially true with cornbread and when searing meats. There’s nothing quite like a steak cooked in cast iron, but you want to get that skillet screaming hot before putting the meat in it so it gets that nice sear on the outside. The best part is that cast iron can handle the heat, so feel free to get it smoking hot.
You need to make sure to be cautious about the utensils that you use with cast iron. Wood, plastic, and silicone are the best options as metal tools can often damage your seasoning.
Also, give consideration to cooking things in cast iron that are acidic for long periods of time. Thought a quick dash of lemon juice in a dish won’t cause much harm, slow cooking things like a tomato sauce in cast iron can cause the seasoning layer to start to break down.
Restoring Cast Iron
Do you have a piece of cast iron that’s rusted or has a damaged finish? A round or two of the seasoning method should correct most issues. Simply scrub the pan well in hot soapy water and follow the seasoning steps.
If it’s a more serious issue, don’t just throw the pan out. You can start over from scratch. Simply run the cookware through the self cleaning cycle on your oven. This high temp cycle will burn off any old seasoning and built up gunk. Then allow it to cool completely, wash with hot soapy water, and season it using the method above. Just be cautious when using your self cleaning oven cycle as many oven racks can’t be left in the oven during the process because it will cause them to lose their shiny finish. Be sure to check your oven manual for details.
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My iron skillet is well seasoned. My biggest concern is lingering odors if, for instance, I had fried onions and want to make sure the onion odor doesn’t remain. I also like to make SL’s recipe for apple pie in my iron skillet. . So how can I make sure onion or other odors don’t cling to the skillet?
I’ve not ever had that issue, but did find this article which might be helpful… https://www.americastestkitchen.com/cooksillustrated/how_tos/6499-deodorizing-cast-iron
I found a skillet in an old house ..man it is soooo rusty !Ihave been trying to clean it with a kitchen dish brush for 3days now nothing is happening !Should I give up ?
Try a little oil and bunch kosher salt in the skillet and scrub with a clean cloth. Might take some serious elbow grease. Then just re-season it.
What can I do with over seasoned/ sticky pan? HELP PLEASE
You can strip the pan using oven cleaner or self-cleaning function in your oven and then re-season it.
I’m way behind on this post/article but what a great read! It is exactly how my mom taught me to care for them. I inherited all of my moms cast iron skillets. She has been gone now 20yrs and the skillets have been in storage. It’s time to get them cookin again but unfortunately they are in rough shape. I read somewhere to remove rust I can soak in 1 part water and 1 part vinegar. Is this not good? Should I just use a steel wool ? Thanks
It really depends how bad the rust is. Either way you will have to make sure that you season them well after removing the rust.
I late to this post but thank you so much. I got my first cast iron skillet last year but I’ve been washing it with soap after each use the towel drying, heat on low heat to dry, then rub with a bit of oil each time. It’s not non stick. I can’t wait to fix it bd season the small one that I just bought today! Thank you!
Hope you get tons of great use out of it!
You are very welcome and stay safe!!!!
Sorry it has taken me so long to answer back.
No, as I do it periodically to keep them shinning. To me it just helps them.
Gotcha! Thanks for sharing that tip!
Do you use a pastry brush to apply the oil inside and outside?
What type of towel is lint free?
I’m afraid a pastry brush would apply too much oil, so I just use a rag. You can buy lint free shop towels, but I normally just use pieces of old t-shirt material.
I have two pans that I am trying to clean up I have wash them baked them and they still look bad what else can I do to clean them up please help
You can strip them using oven cleaner or the “clean oven” function on your oven. You can also scrub them down with steel wool and re-season, if they aren’t too bad.
I have an old cast iron cornstick pan. Absolutely ruins cornbread every time I use it. Have seasoned it several times with no luck! Any suggestions?
The more ornate a pan is, the harder it is to use effectively. That said, I never have much luck with cornstick pans. Are you heating the skillet in the oven before pouring the batter in?
Stacey, I was told a long time ago to use flax seed oil on them to get a good shine. I thought I would share that with you (it may be on the internet now). Thanks for your great info and recipes!!
I’ve read some info recently that flax seed oil, while works beautifully initially, will eventually flake off. Have you noticed that happening at all?
I’m trying to stay away from industrial seed oils and have found avocado oil works well. It has a high smoke point and mild flavor. Also, chain mail scrubber works well for cleaning.
I’ve not had much experience with avocado oil.
Laurie L Otto
WOW, thank you for this. I’ve been wanting to get these two I have (one old, one new) nice and seasoned. I did try last weekend, but it was sticky due to the oil being too thick. Now I have some confidence to try, try again. Damn just wish it wasn’t so hot out for the hot oven to be on for that long.
It is hot, right!? I’m with you… I might wait for a cooler day. 🙂
I received a Smithey Skillet last Christmas, and it is wonderful! They are a small producer of ironworks in Charleston. That pan is smooth as glass! They are expensive, but meant to be handed down. They have a really nice website as well, with a lot of tips for caring for your pans. I also have my Grandmother’s well loved pan that gets used a lot. It makes the best cornbread in the world!
Thanks for all of the tips, Stacey!
I’ve heard great things about Smithey!
Great article on caring and seasoning my cast iron skillets. Best I have read. Thank you.
Awesome! Thanks so much.
This is by far the best article I have read about maintaining cast iron. Thank you so much for sharing. Have sent copies to our daughters who will inherit my cookware someday which is from 2 of their Grandmothers and myself. I know at least 2 of them own cast iron themselves. What a great post!
Thanks so much, Vickie! I’m so happy you found it helpful!
I only clean my cast irons with Salt And a soft pad then rinse with hot water heat on the stove to dry then oil with vegetable oil seems ok