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Cooking with cast iron is actually kind of magical: With proper care they last forever, are naturally non-stick, and will sear a crispy, caramelized crust on your dinner like no other cookware I know. In spite of all this, cast iron gets a bad rap for being difficult to use and tough to clean— I was among those who were a little gun shy about cooking with cast iron earlier in my cooking career, thanks to lots of myths that I’ve since busted. If cast iron has intimidated you in the past, it’s time to conquer your fears— with a bit of know-how you’ll be cooking with cast iron like a pro in no time.
Actually, quite the contrary: Cleaning a cast iron skillet is simple and takes very few tools. If you have access to hot water and a sponge, you have what you need to give your skillet a good cleaning. Try adding coarse salt into the mix for an extra-deep clean when you’re facing stubborn food residue. Cast iron will rust if you don’t fully dry it after washing, so make sure it’s dry and you’ll avoid any rust problems.
Seasoning is the magical process by which you create a non-stick, smooth surface on your cast iron cookware. You’ll do this once every couple of months if you use your pan often, and maybe once a year if you use your pan infrequently. While seasoning requires a few steps, it couldn’t be simpler. First, make sure your pan is clean and completely dry. Then rub some flax or canola oil into all areas of the pan— the top, the bottom, and the handle (if your pan has an enameled bottom or handle, you can skip those parts). Once your pan is generously coated, take a clean cloth and wipe off the excess oil. What’s needed has already been absorbed into the pores of the skillet, and the rest will just make for a sticky surface that food will stick to. Now, heat your oven to 400 degrees, then pop the pan in upside down for about an hour. Place a piece of tin foil on the rack below to catch any oil drips. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it sit inside the oven until it’s completely cool. That’s it. Your cast iron surface is good to go for more delicious meals.
If you’re a fan of perfectly-crisp vegetables, you won’t want to reserve your skillet for meat alone. You can whip up crispy cauliflower for a side dish, charred peppers for tacos, and pretty much any other vegetable you can think of in a cast iron skillet. If your skillet is seasoned really well, you can also scramble up some eggs and bake off a traditional cornbread. That said, there’s nothing better than a steak with a crispy seared crust that comes from nothing but a bit of oil and a cast iron skillet. They’re made for each other.
Whatever you’re cooking, make sure you preheat the cast iron for 5-10 minutes before you add food to the pan. Dropping cold food into a cold cast iron skillet won’t give you the best results. Also, once you drop your food in, leave it alone. Moving it prematurely will cause it to stick— you’ll know when your dinner is ready to toss or flip when it comes away from the bottom of the pan easily.
Oh, and even though you seasoned the pan, you’ll still want to cook with a bit of fat with a high smoke point to ensure the crispiest, best result.
If you’ve been handed down your Grandmas cast iron, and it’s gotten a bit rusty, there’s no need to toss it. Most can be revived with a bit of elbow grease. A combination of vinegar, baking soda and salt will take it all away. Steel wool is okay to use at this stage, but you won’t want to use it once you pan is properly seasoned. Once you have the rust removed, you can scrub the skillet clean with soap and hot water, then re-season it like you would a new skillet. You may have to repeat this process more than once to get the results you’re looking for. Make sure you dry it thoroughly before starting the seasoning process.
It’s not, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to abide by a few rules. Cooking acidic things in cast iron will mess with your seasoning, so cooking a tomato sauce or something you’ll need to deglaze with wine or vinegar isn’t the best choice for your cast iron cookware. Also do not expose it to extreme temperature changes (like immersing it in cold water straight from the stove) or you could risk cracking the pan. Lastly, something flaky like fish isn’t the best choice for cast iron, for two reasons. One, it’s delicate skin might have trouble releasing from the pan (causing your fish to fall apart when flipping). Two, cast iron takes on the flavor of what you cook in it, so if you cook fish and then use it to bake a brownie, you might have a fishy brownie. Pretty sure you don’t want that.
Yes, it’s not without its protocol, but there’s something lovely taking care of cookware that, if you care for it right, could last long enough to be used to your sons’ or daughters’ kitchens.