Cast iron is often lauded as the kingpin of a homestead kitchen – and for good reason. Cast iron is awesome. Welcome to a 3-Part Series on Cast Iron! We are going to start by explaining USING your cast iron, on a daily basis, as well as how to clean you pan (it’s easier than you think!).
My Introduction to Cast Iron
I received my first cast iron pan – a 12″ Lodge – as a Christmas gift when I was a senior in college, and honestly…I had no idea how to take care of it. The person who gave it to me claimed that you just washed and dried the pan like normal; no special care required because it came pre-seasoned from the store. You just couldn’t put it in the dishwasher. So I washed the pan with soap and water, and left it to dry in the drying rack with my other pans.
Yeah, it rusted terribly, overnight. Horrified, I googled cast iron pans and found that you never, ever should leave them to air dry. I also found conflicting advice on what oil to use to re-season it, how to clean it, what to cook in it, and just about everything else. I scrubbed of the rust (since it had only been 1 day, it wasn’t hard to get it off), oiled it, and baked it in the oven, per the Internet’s instructions. Then I put the pan away and didn’t use it because all the conflicting advice was overwhelming and I didn’t want it to get rusty again.
A few months later, I was talking to my sister – who had been using cast iron for years – and she laughed at me. She also told me that her method was to never get her pan wet. She just scrapes out the gunk, re-oils it as needed, and makes sure to cook bacon in it regularly, using the grease to keep the pan shiny and non-stick.
I like bacon, so I gave it another shot, and hey, it worked! I started using the pan for meat and bacon, though I kept using my non-stick skillets for eggs and veggies, convinced that it was impossible to cook sticky food in any other kind of pan (keep reading: I no longer own non-stick skillets).
Over time, I learned that you CAN use water to wash the pan, as long as you dry it thoroughly and re-oil it. You can also just not clean it for awhile, and it’s fine. You can even use soap on it if you want to, although I never do because you don’t need to. The soap will also hurt the patina (nonstick coating that develops on the pan over time). But if something really gross happens, like your neighbor hates you and breaks into your house and poops in your pan…you can use soap on your pan.
You also might want to call the police, because breaking into your house and pooping in your pan isn’t okay.
Anyway. The longer you have the pan (assuming you use it), the more resilient the patina becomes. This is probably why the person who gave me the pan in the first place didn’t realize it needed special care – the only cast iron pan he’d ever used was his dad’s, which had been seasoned for many years.
This Sounds Complicated. What if I Ruin My Pan?
Cast iron pans are magical, and even if you technically screw it up, you’ll be fine. The pan will still work. Remember that people have been using cast iron for hundreds – or thousands – of years. These pans got hauled across the prairie on wagon trains, cooked with over open fires, and used in tents on military marches. In fact, the oldest known cast iron kitchenware comes from China…2,000 years ago.
These are durable. Don’t be afraid of breaking your cast iron pan. You’re not going to break it, even if you mess up.
But for optimal care, I do the following:
Cast Iron Care
Cooking In the Pan.
Turn it on and add food. Duh.
But in seriousness, there are few tricks to keep things from sticking in the pan, and get the most even heat.
1) Always heat the pan up before adding food. The pan won’t heat up evenly, but if you pre-heat then the temperature will be fairly uniform across the whole pan. Also, pre-heating prevents sticking. Sticking is bad.
2) Add oil or butter to the pan before adding food. This also prevents sticking. If you already have oil or grease left in the pan from the last time you used the pan, you can skip the step. Just don’t skimp on the amount of oil/grease. More grease = less sticky & more delicious.
3) Avoid cooking high-acid food in your cast iron. Tomato-based dishes, for example, are best made in stainless steel. The acid in the tomatoes (or lemons, vinegar, etc) can remove the non-stick finish on your pan, particularly if left to simmer for a long time. They can also leach some iron taste out of the pan. If this happens it’s not the end of the world. Your pan is not ruined. Just re-oil your pan when you’re done. But since I own stainless steel cookware and I don’t like unnecessary work, I try to avoid cooking these foods in my cast iron. That being said, adding a few tomatoes to a Mexican skillet dish at the end of the cooking process won’t cause your finish to leach off. Simmering tomato sauce for twenty minutes will. Use common sense.
4) Store your pans with a little oil or grease coating the bottom of the pan. This doesn’t mean to pour 1/4 c. of oil in your pan and make a mess; it just means that the bottom of the pan should feel SLIGHTLY greasy if you rub your finger on it. You can literally re-oil the pan, as described in the cleaning section, or you can just leave some grease from your most recent bacon marathon in the bottom of the pan.
A Note on Grease
For about a bazillion years, since the first caveman stuck a drumstick in a fire and said “cooked meat, good”, people have prized grease. Stop thinking of grease as the yellowish, toxic goo they cook french frys in at the fast food joint on the corner (eew), and start thinking of grease as a multi-use tool: valuable nutrients, non-stick cooking spray, cooking oil, and seasoning…all rolled into one.
In fact, if you read an old-timey cookbook, you’ll see recipes calling for lard (pig grease), tallow (beef grease), and schmaltz (chicken grease). Now I admit: lard, tallow, and schmaltz are rendered, so that they turn out relatively flavorless. They aren’t just grease from cooking your burger. But the grease from cooking your burger is basically cow-flavored tallow and personally, I like how cow tastes. So if you’re feeling adventurous, frugal, or just plain old-fashioned, consider the following:
I rarely use a grease jar. I usually leave my grease in the cast iron pan (unless it’s a truly excessive amount) and use it to cook my next meal. You may think this is gross, but what do you think people used to do, before oil came in nice pretty bottles in the grocery store? They didn’t always have butter, and let’s be honest: as delicious as butter is, it doesn’t work at high temperatures, so you can’t use it for everything. And I’m willing to bet that Ma Ingalls didn’t get enough lard off of their one pig to sustain her family’s cooking grease for a year. Have you seen how much pork fat you need to make lard? The fat cooks downs a LOT.
No, people “back in da day” certainly rendered lard and tallow for things like pastry crusts, but they also just collected and reused cooking grease. It’s so EASY. It’s frugal. It makes your food taste vaguely of animal, which I find marvelous. Vegetarians may not approve, but I’m not a vegetarian.
In fact, my absolute FAVORITE way to make french toast is to cook it in grease that is leftover from making pork chops. I like it so much that I make french toast literally every time I make pork chops.
When I cook something particularly greasy, like bacon, I do pour out most of the grease, leaving just enough in the pan to coat it. You don’t want too much grease for something like, say, eggs because you don’t want your food to turn out “greasy”. But I pour the grease into a labeled container, to use as cooking fat. This allows me to save my expensive oil for things that need the oil’s flavor, like salad dressings or mayonnaise. It’s worth nothing that I also use grass-fed beef and wild venison, which means that most of the meat I’m cooking is leaner than average grocery store fare.
You don’t have to be this weird if you don’t want to be. You can throwing your grease in the trash, and you can clean out your pan and re-oil with store-bought oil if you want to. You’ll still get all the joy of cast iron, and life will continue as usual. But I’m going to save time and money, and reuse my cooking grease.
Clean Your Pan – Everyday Use
As I already stated, you don’t need to “clean” your cast iron pan after each use. Sure, painstakingly cleaning and re-oiling the pan will make it look pretty, but it’s not necessary. What IS necessary is scraping off anything that got stuck to the bottom of the pan, because if you leave that in there, it’ll just get more burned on the next time you heat up the pan.
1) Do it while it’s warm. Cast iron is fairly non-stick, once seasoned, but it is far easier to get a piece of stuck egg out of the pan when the pan is hot. As the pan cools, it’s harder. It doesn’t need to be 400 degrees, but don’t wait overnight either. I usually clean my pan right after I finish eating my meal, before I do my other dishes. If I burned something, I’ll usually clean it immediately.
2) Scrape off stuck on food. You can use a stiff spatula, steel wool, or a stiff brush for this, but personally, I’m in love with my plastic cast iron scraper thingys. You can buy them here for a couple of dollars, and in my opinion they are well worth it. They are plastic, which I normally avoid, but they are incredibly effective at scraping off food. Plus they’re cheap and they last a long time. And they also work on stainless steel cookware. I’m sure you could jerry-rig the same thing out of scrap materials, but they are only a couple of dollars, so I bought some.
3) (optional) Scrub with Salt. If you burned something or are just having a tough time getting something out of the pan, you can sprinkle some salt over the bottom of the pan and commence scraping. The salt acts as an abrasive and helps get stuff off. I rarely need to do this, but it does come in handy once in awhile.
4) Brush the old food bits into the trash or down the garbage disposal, or wipe out with a paper towel.
5) Put the pan away. You’re done!
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but that’s really “clean” enough. You’ll get great flavor and a nice, fairly non-stick surface without actually getting any sort of water in your pan (remember: cast iron must be stored completely dry, or it will rust). If this method bothers your sensibilities, you can use the “cleaning when it’s actually dirty” method every time if you want to. It won’t hurt your pan. It’s just more work. 90% of the time, scraping the gunk out of the pan takes approximately 1 minute, and then my cast iron clean-up is done.
Clean Your Pan – When It’s Actually Dirty
I’m not going to be truly cleaning my pan after making eggs or bacon or most things…but sometimes I need to ACTUALLY clean my pan. After making gravy, for example. Or any kind of sauce. Or extremely spicy food that I don’t want flavoring my french toast. Again, use common sense.
1) Rinse with hot water – as hot as you can stand. Yes, water. In cast iron. Don’t shoot me. It’s fine, really, I promise. Remember, the pioneers took their cast iron cookware on wagon trains. Do you really think they never got the pans wet?
2) Scrub the pan. I usually use my plastic scraper thingys to get off stuck food (as per usual), and also use a cloth to wipe off the sauce or gravy that is on the pan.
3) Don’t use soap. You don’t need soap; you just need hot water. In theory, you probably could use soap but that would eat away at your seasoning, and you aren’t going to be re-seasoning the pan completely, so you don’t want that.
4) Dry the pan. I usually dry it with a dish towel. The pan shouldn’t get grease on your dish towel, because of all the hot water you flushed through it. Hot water cuts through grease. Don’t believe me? Rub butter on your hands, then wash your hands with hot water (no soap). Your hands won’t be greasy. Really.
5) Heat the pan. Put your pan on the stove and turn the burner on. The heat will help dry the pan more thoroughly, which is important. Letting moisture sit in a cast iron pan is a sure-fire way to create rust. I use medium or medium-high; the higher the heat, the quicker the pan will dry, but the closer you will need to watch to see when to turn the burner off.
6) Re-oil the pan. Add just a little oil or grease to the pan. The easiest way is to use a piece of paper towel to spread the oil in a thin layer across the bottom and sides of the pan. Continue heating for a couple of minutes until the oil is hot. The hot oil will bond to the pan, adding extra “patina” or “non-stick-ness” to your pan and preventing any rust problems. When you don’t see visibly liquid oil in the pan anymore, it’s done. It only takes a couple of minutes; I usually wash other dishes while it does it’s thing. Use any kind of oil or grease that you want (well, except vegetable oil because that doesn’t belong in your kitchen). If it starts to smell, you heated it too long, but it’s still okay – just turn the burner off and make a mental note to monitor it better next time. The pan will still work.
Are you with me so far? Sound too complicated? Well, it’s not. I PROMISE. Stay tuned for Part 2: Why You Should Use Cast Iron (PS. Throw Out Your Teflon Pans).