While cast iron might seem out of place in today’s modern kitchens, it’s a homestead staple and a must have for any homestead cook. It’s relatively inexpensive and practically indestructible. You can cook nearly anything in cast iron that is properly seasoned, and it’s easy to care for once you understand how to properly care for it.
For many, cast iron is intimidating, for others, it’s something that is passed down in the family from one generation to the next. In my family, cast iron is passed down. I love how easy it is to cook on it and how easy it is to clean up after cooking. One rule that my grandma drilled into me regarding cast iron is that you never, ever, wash it. Unless you’re planning to re-season your cast iron.
Many people think that there are a lot of don’ts when it comes to taking care of your cast iron, and perhaps this is true, but once you catch on to how easy it is to use your cast iron and care for it, you’re going to love it.
New Cast Iron
Before you ever use your new cast iron skillet, there are some important steps that you should take to prepare it. It just doesn’t arrive pre seasoned. The smooth, non stick finish is something that you have to put on the cast iron yourself. It’s going to take some time for that smooth black patina to transpire.
Picking the right cast iron skillet is actually not that hard, but the main thing is that getting a vintage cast iron skillet is better, because newer ones aren’t milled, for a non-stick surface. There’re a few brands out there such as Griswold or Wagner you might want to keep an eye out for.
When receiving new cast iron, it should always be washed with warm soapy water and dry it immediately using a soft dry cloth. After this step, you’ll want to season your cast iron as directed above.
How To Clean Your Cast Iron
Cleaning your cast iron isn’t as daunting as it may sound. All you need are a few simple items and you can have clean cast iron that is ready for use. If your cast iron is properly seasoned, you won’t need to do anything more than wipe it out when you’ve used it. If there is anything sticky or stuck on your cast iron, you can use a damp cloth with a bit of water and a clean sponge. This will go far in helping you to simply clean your cast iron without removing the seasoning or patina.
Avoid using soap to clean your cast iron unless you plan on seasoning it when you’re finished. Soap will remove the patina that you’ve gained when you season your cast iron skillet. Simply rinse your cast iron skillet and scrape out any bits of food that may be stuck on. You can use a wire brush or a rubber scraper to gently remove foods that are stuck on your cast iron skillet. Just be sure that you’re not scrubbing hard and that you’re not removing the nice finish you’ve worked so hard to obtain.
When you’ve cleaned the skillet like this you’ll preserve the seasoning and you won’t have to re season your cast iron for the next use. After you’ve wiped your cast iron skillet out you can then gently dry it with a soft towel. Avoid storing your newly cleaned cast iron skillet in the oven, it can retain moisture here and may begin to rust.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron Skillet
Grandma used her cast iron skillet for everything. It’s the perfect kitchen pan for anything and everything. One of my favorite things to use it for is baking corn bread or brownies. But to do this, it must be properly seasoned at all times. As long as it’s properly maintained it will release the foods that are prepared in it and you won’t have a huge mess to clean up. The process of seasoning your cast iron skillet is to fill in the surface and smooth it. This, in turn, makes it non-stick.
Traditionally, homemakers would use lard to season their cast iron, however, lard is becoming harder to obtain and many have turned to shortening as a solution. A good vegetable shortening will work just as well as lard for seasoning your cast iron. You can also use cooking oil, however, most claim that the shortening works far better than the vegetable oil. Personally, it’s all a matter of preference.
The goal is to find a fat that has a high smoke point. This means that the fat will bake cleanly and it won’t become sticky. Avoid using olive oil and butter to season your cast iron, both of these are ideal for cooking, but they won’t give you the result that you’re seeking when you season your cast iron skillet. Here’s how to properly season your cast iron and maintain your cast iron skillet.
Here’s what you’ll need on hand to season your skillet:
- Cast iron skillet or griddle
- Stiff brush
- Dry clean cloth
- Shortening or vegetable oil
- Kosher salt (as required)
After using your skillet to cook with, you’ll want to learn to clean it right away. To do this, it should still be hot. Don’t soak it as this may cause it to rust. Instead, follow these easy steps:
- Wash the skillet with hot water and a stiff brush or a sponge. If there are any stuck on bits of food or other debris, get some salt and dampen it and use it as scouring powder. It works well and will remove anything that is stuck on your cast iron.
- Use a rubber scraping spatula (found where kitchen utensils are sold) to gently scrape off bits of food that are stubborn and want to stick. Avoid using steel wool except prior to seasoning your cast iron. Never put your cast iron in the dishwasher.
- Once everything is wiped out of your skillet, gently dry it with a soft towel, paper toweling or set it on a hot burner until the water has sizzled out of it drying it. Then remove it from heat.
- Apply your vegetable oil or lard to season your pan and place it upside down in your oven. Place a baking sheet with foil on it underneath of your pan and heat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and allow your pan to “bake” for about an hour. Allow it to cool and you’ll have a nicely seasoned pan.
Properly seasoning your cast iron can take an entire day. You’re coating the cast iron with oil and heating it to fuse it into the cast iron. You’ll want to heat it, allow it to cool and repeat it as required several times. Each time that you do this you’re bringing a smooth patina to the pan and it becomes more non stick and will help you to remove foods from it when you’re cooking.
Store your skillet in a dry location where it won’t gather any moisture.
How to Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet
When I was 18 years old I moved into an A frame cabin in the woods. This A frame had sat empty for a number of years and there were all sorts of debris on a patio.
One afternoon, while the dogs were hanging out in the yard, and I was feeding the pigs, I decided that it was a good time to sweep off the “patio”. As I began to move the debris and dirt from this patio I discovered a nice cement slab underneath, and underneath of all of the debris I found an old cast iron griddle.
The griddle was covered in rust and I wasn’t sure I could save it, first, I called my grandmother who walked me through what to do to save this griddle. And her suggestion worked very well. I now had a great cast iron griddle.
What You’ll Need
- Steel Wool
- Scouring Pad or brush
- Dish Soap
- Paper Towels or newspapers
- Vegetable Oil or Lard
- Aluminum Foil
Start by using your steel wool and remove the rust from your cast iron. You want to scrub your cast iron with this until you get down to the cast iron itself. It may take several steel wool pads to reach this point depending on the amount of rust on the cast iron. At this point in time you don’t need any water, you just want to use the steel wool to buff out the rust and get it off of your cast iron. This may take awhile depending on the extent of the damage.
Once this is complete, you will use the dish soap and wash the skillet. Use the scrub brush and get all the areas of the pan. You should be seeing the raw cast iron by now.
Completely dry your skillet with a clean and dry dish towel. You can use paper towels if you desire. My grandmother taught me to either put the pan on a wood stove that was in use until the water was all dried up, or to turn my burner on medium and keep an eye on the cast iron until it was completely dry.
Now you want to take your oil or lard and apply it to your entire pan inside and out. Many prefer to put the oil or lard on a paper towel and wipe it all over the pan with the paper towel. Be generous and don’t forget the handle.
Now, place your newly oiled cast iron skillet into the oven. Turn the cast iron pan upside down on the rack and place a sheet of aluminum foil underneath of it on the rack below (many prefer to put the foil on a baking sheet and place the baking sheet on the shelf underneath of the cast iron skillet) this will catch any of the oil or lard that may drip off of the pan and into your oven.
Heat your cast iron in the oven for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I like to put my cast iron into the oven before I turn the oven on. This way the cast iron slowly comes up to temperature and will maintain the heat for the entire time.
Turn the oven off and allow your pan to cool before you remove it from the oven. Some prefer to repeat the process at this point. They’re aiming for the smooth, shiny, black patina that cast iron is famous for. This is fine just make sure to re oil the pan each time so that it will soak into the cast iron. Once you’re satisfied with the patina of your pan, it’s ready for use.
Special Notes On Cast Iron
It’s easy to tell a seasoned cast iron skilled from one that hasn’t been seasoned. A seasoned cast iron skillet will be smooth and shiny and nothing will stick to it. If it appears dull, rusty, or if food begins to stick when you’re using it, it’s time to re season your skillet.
Many people would never buy a brand new cast iron skillet, they’d rather go to a thrift store or wait for a family member to pass on and be gifted a previously owned cast iron skillet.
Originally, older skillets were polished prior to being sold. It was a part of the process of manufacturing. However, as sales rose in the 50s, the manufacturers began to leave this step off as they didn’t have time to keep up with the demand.
More modern cast iron skillets will have a slightly bumpy surface area that will only smooth out with regular seasoning and use. Older skillets don’t have this issue with a bumpy surface.
Never soak your cast iron in the sink. This is the worse thing you can do, even worse than cooking tomatoes or other acidic foods in your cast iron. Since cast iron is porous, it will begin to soak in the water and rust more quickly.
The more you cook in cast iron, the better the patina and the non sticking benefits. Just make sure to wipe it carefully after each use and avoid scrubbing it out unless you plan to re season the skillet.
Never use scouring powder on your cast iron. Instead, use some salt and a splash of oil. This will work just as well as scouring powder would and it won’t remove the season.
When storing cast iron, many prefer to place a piece of paper towel in the bottom of the pan before stacking another pan in the top. This helps to reduce any moisture and will help it to maintain the season coating that is on the pan itself.
Cast iron is very durable. Forged out of cast iron, this is a metal that will stand the test of time and last from one generation to the next. If it becomes rusty, simply clean it as directed above and re season it.
Cast iron can be used over an open campfire, on the stove top, in the oven, on gas, propane, or electric stoves and even on an induction stove top. You can also use it on a grill.
Cast iron is able to hold in the heat like no other cookware. Always remember that the handle is also cast iron so be sure to wear oven mitts or use pot holders when picking up a heated pan. Also, use a trivet for it to sit on as it will retain the heat for a long period of time and could melt or damage a counter top.
Always be cautious if cooking anything that is acidic. Tomatoes, beans, citrus and other foods with high acid content can all do serious damage to your cast iron and cause it to discolor and make the foods taste metallic.
Always ensure that cast iron is completely dry prior to putting it away. Just a few drops of water can begin to cause the cast iron to lose its seasoning and begin to rust.
Cast iron works the best when it’s heated up slowly. If you heat the pan too quickly it will make foods stick and burn and you’ll lose the seasoning on the pan. Slow and steady will get your food cooked faster and more evenly.
Cast iron is porous and can take on flavors of foods if it’s not properly seasoned. Even well seasoned pans are likely to do this if they’re not carefully cared for. Always make sure that the pan is well seasoned before cooking to ensure that this won’t happen.
Avoid cooking delicate fish in the cast iron. Delicate foods won’t stand up to cooking in cast iron and will quickly begin to fall apart when you flip them over.
Avoid cooking overly sticky foods in pans that aren’t well seasoned. A well seasoned pan will be shiny and have a smooth surface that is ideal for cooking any foods on. The darker and shinier the pan, the better seasoned it is.
Never store food in your cast iron. If you made corn bread or brownies in your cast iron skillet, remove them from the pan and store them separately. Storing foods in your pan can cause the seasoning to break down and the foods may begin to absorb the flavors of previously cooked foods from the pan.
Never store your pans in the refrigerator as this can cause the pan to absorb other flavors and the moisture may begin to damage the patina of the pan as well.
Avoid using soap on your cast iron unless you’re going to re season the pan. Also, if you do use soap on your cast iron, make sure that it’s a mild dish soap.
Never put your cast iron in the dishwasher. This can be very damaging to your pan and you’ll have to scrub it down to the raw cast iron again and re season it completely before you can use it again.
Oil your cast iron after each and every use. After you’ve cleaned your pan from cooking in it give it a thin coating of oil to help preserve the patina of your pan.
Why Cast Iron Is Good For Your Health
Thanks to the wonderful seasoning on cast iron, it requires less oil to cook. This is an added bonus when you’re trying to cook foods crispy with less oil.
Cast iron is chemical free and works better than non stick pans that are full of chemicals which are linked to liver damage, developmental issues and cancers. Non stick pans also emit PFCs when they’re being used.
Cast iron isn’t easily scratched like non stick pans are.
Cast iron doesn’t leach chemicals into your foods however, it can help to improve your iron levels. According to studies as many as ten percent of women are iron deficient. It’s important to note that some foods, such as hamburger, corn tortillas, liver and onions don’t add as much iron to your body as others that are cooked in the cast iron.
You can get by with fewer pans in your kitchen when you have cast iron. It’s ideal for cooking and serving and easy to clean and care for.
How to Store Your Cast Iron
Many prefer to store cast iron on top of the stove, others prefer to store it underneath of the stove in the drawer and still others swear by hanging it on the wall on nails. It’s entirely up to you just remember you want to store your cast iron where it will remain dry.
If you do decide to stack your pans, make sure to place a paper towel in between the layers to help preserve the patina that you’ve worked so hard to create.
As a homesteader, cast iron makes a lot of sense and it’s an ideal way to get back to the roots of my ancestors. My grandmother blessed me with some of her cast iron and taught me how to care for it when I was a young child. I love using my cast iron and it works well in my kitchen as well as when I go camping and have an open fire pit.