food/Care of cast iron pans
Published 2020-02-10, updated 2020-02-11
A search for cast iron pan care yields a lot of results. There are as many opinions on how to properly use and take care of cast iron pans as there are people who own cast iron pans.
Here’s what I’ve found works best for me.
When people talk about “seasoning” cast iron, they’re talking about the building up of a solidified (“polymerized”) layer of oil on the surface of the pan. It’s this solid layer that gives the pan
magical non-stick properties.
I’ve seen articles like this one advocating the use of flaxseed oil because of its polymerizing properties. It’s expensive though, so I haven’t bothered. I tend to start by just spreading a thin layer of vegetable oil in the pan (like, very thin—pour some oil in and then wipe it out with a paper towel), and baking it in the oven for about an hour at 350F. Repeat as/if needed.
After that, the seasoning will continue to improve over time (with proper care) as you cook in the pan. Use lots of oil when cooking at first—the non-stick properties won’t be perfect yet.
Cast iron is great. Just use it. Just a couple notes:
- If you get an empty pan really hot, you’ll notice the seasoning will look sort of dry or splotchy. Just put some oil on it before it cools down.
- Try not to cook really acidic things—for example, simmering spaghetti sauce for an extended amount of time. The acid will eat away your seasoning.
- Wash it when you’re done with it. Try not to leave crusty food bits sitting in it for days.
My sister got me a chainmail cast iron scrubber for Christmas a few years ago, and it has made the single biggest difference for my pans. I can’t recommend them enough.
As for the washing, I just throw the pans into my dishwater after I’m done with the rest of the dishes and the water is a little scummy and the soap has mostly broken down.
If your pan has developed a good non-stick seasoning, the chainmail scrubber with the dishwater takes any foodbits right off and leaves the seasoning beautifully smooth.
I know the soap is controversial. Most people say to never let soap near your cast iron. I used to subscribe to the no-wash method. I’d just give them a quick wipe after use, and if there were stuck-on foodstuffs, I’d use some salt with a paper towel as a scouring agent. But my pans were always a little gross and I found the results not that great anyway. I think the salt scrub can damage the seasoning.
You do want to make sure your pans are totally dry before you put them away or they’ll rust. I used to either throw them in the oven (takes too long) or put them on a burner (if you forget about them you risk scorching the seasoning). Now I dry them by putting them on a burner upside down. They dry quickly and you don’t risk damaging the seasoning.
If they do develop a little surface rust, just scrub it off with a copper scrubber or steel wool. You’ll probably have to re-season afterwards.
Some day I’ll write about restoring old rusty cast iron. A cast iron pan is never broken, only unloved.