Ultimate Cast Iron Guide
How to select, use, and care for cast iron cooking equipment.
When it comes to legendary cooking surfaces, it's hard to talk about anything other than cast iron. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is versatile, easy to use, and will last more than a lifetime. The material can be tricky to care for. If the grill, skillet, or griddle isn't properly treated, you will struggle to cook anything. A mistreated cast iron pan is a sad thing.
The good news is that even badly damaged cast iron can be resurrected by following a few simple steps. We will show you how to make cast iron equipment work perfectly, no matter whether it's a brand new griddle or cast iron grill grates that have seen their fair share of barbecue seasons. In this ultimate guide, we will give you all the information you could possibly need about one of our favorite materials to cook on.
What is Cast Iron Made From?
Cast iron is made from molten iron, called pig iron. Naturally-occurring deposits of iron ore are mined and then smelted into a liquid, which is then poured into a mold in the shape of the item being made. Cast iron contains other elements, including silicon and carbon, which allow the material to withstand high temperatures without cracking. It was invented in China during the 5th Century and the material became hugely popular throughout Asia. Until the invention of the kitchen stove, cast iron was one of the primary methods of open fire cooking. The cast iron kettles, cauldrons, and pots became heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next. The unique composition of cast iron gives it the ability to be heated over and over without distorting, something even a high-quality steel pan cannot do.
Cast iron is special because a well-seasoned pan does not stick to food and it can even provide health benefits. Studies have demonstrated that cooking in cast iron greatly increases the soluble iron in a person's diet.
How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware
Caring for cast iron requires a little more work than steel and other cookware. Left untreated, cast iron quickly rusts. Many people make the mistake of using harsh abrasives and dish soap on cast iron without seasoning the pan afterward. Chemicals and soap remove oils from the metal which allows moisture to penetrate the surface and cause rust. The good news is that even severely rusty cast iron can be fixed quite easily. However, if the rust has gotten so severe that deep pits have formed on the surface, the cookware might be beyond saving.
How to Clean a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet
You may have seen tons of cast iron skillets, pans, and other bakeware at garage sales or on online marketplaces that look destroyed with rust. Some of these items may be damaged, but once you learn how to clean cast iron, those garage sale deals may just be the way to get a high-quality cast iron skillet for cheap.
There are a couple of ways to remove rust from cast iron. The "elbow-grease" method is just what it sounds like, scrubbing, sanding, and grinding to remove the rust. A wire wheel on a drill will not damage the cast iron. You can even use sandpaper, scrubbing pads, and scrapers to remove rust without causing damage. We talk about this a little more in our post about cleaning grill grates. Cleaning rust this way is difficult and time-consuming, and is most appropriate for lightly rusted cast iron.
Heavy rust can also be removed using a sandblaster. You can take your rusty cast iron skillet to a machine shop to have the rust removed. Sandblasting uses compressed air and sand or nut shells to strip the cast iron clean. Sandblasting is totally safe and won't damage cast iron.
Another method of removing rust from cast iron that you can do at home is the electrolysis method. This method seems scary, but by using a little caution it's completely safe. You will need a power supply like a manual car battery charger or a power supply from a laptop, wire, scrap iron, and washing soda. To use electrolysis to remove rust, submerge the pan in water and add sodium carbonate. Attach the negative cable of the power supply to the cast iron using clips and wire, ensuring the clamp is not submerged in the water. Connect the positive clamp to a piece of scrap steel and hang it in the water making sure not to submerge the clamp. Turn the battery charger on and leave it for several hours. The electrical current causes a reaction with the sodium carbonate and the rust is drawn off the pan and on to the scrap metal.
Once the rust has been cleaned from the cast iron, the cooking surface needs to be seasoned to create a nonstick surface. The best cast iron skillets and pans are seasoned correctly for long-term, trouble-free searing and frying.
How to Season Cast Iron
There are a few methods for seasoning cast iron and everyone has their own preference. Essentially, seasoning is nothing more than oil that is heated until it carbonizes to the metal. The process is called polymerization, and when done correctly, provides a hard, glossy, nonstick surface. Many new cast iron pans come "pre-seasoned," but it's common to season most new cast iron anyway. Once you know how to season a cast iron skillet, the process becomes very easy and doesn't have to be repeated very often.
You will need a stove top or oven and a high-quality unsaturated oil. In the past, lard was commonly used, but it is somewhat frowned upon these days largely because of the commercial production of lard that contains too much saturated oils. Good choices of oil for seasoning include grape seed oil, vegetable oil, or any other oil with a high smoke point. Olive oil should not be used, as it smokes at too low of a temperature. Flaxseed oil is commonly recommended and does work well, but can be difficult to apply and can flake off after a while. Flaxseed oil is also much more expensive than other oils and is sometimes hard to find.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Apply a very light, thin layer of oil to the skillet, inside and out. Place the pan in the oven upside down with aluminum foil on the lower rack to catch any drips. Bake it for 30 minutes, then carefully remove the cast iron and let it cool. Repeat this process four to seven times, or until the finish is smooth and semi-gloss.
The process will smoke some, but it'll clear quickly. The oils can also smell not so great, but the finished product won't smell any longer. A great tip – use your barbecue to season cast iron outside. That way, the smoke and smell doesn't stink up the kitchen, and your oven isn't heating the house up.
How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet
Once the process has finished, avoid using soap to clean the pan. Soap will break down the polymerized oils and you will have to start over. A well-seasoned pan will not need to be seasoned again for many months. You can touch up the seasoning after washing by wiping a thin amount of oil into the pan and heating it on the stovetop until it has cooked off.
When you have a messy pan with burnt-on food, use a chainmail scrubber to get the gunk off. Don't wash cast iron in hot water. The heat will make the oils come out of the metal and you'll have to season the pan again. Use cold water, then place the pan or skillet on the stove top with medium-high heat until the water has evaporated. Then, simply wipe down with a very light coat of vegetable oil.
Skillet Cooking with Cast Iron
One of the best uses of a cast iron skillet is searing. There really is nothing else out there that gives the perfect, crispy sear than a well-seasoned skillet. It's the absolute best way to sear scallops without overcooking. You can even use your cast iron skillet for reverse-searing a steak. And of course, throwing those beautiful rib eye steaks on the skillet to sear will help lock in the moisture and prevent overcooking.
The nonstick nature of cast iron also makes it excellent for fried or scrambled eggs and bacon. One of our favorite recipes uses a cast iron skillet to bake a loaf of bread. It's easy and delicious, and the skillet provides the perfect, crispy texture.
Cast iron skillets are excellent for frying, also. The metal holds heat well, so it's easy to keep the temperature consistent. Because the pan is non-stick, it's easy to fry fish or chicken without the skin tearing off.
What are the Best Brands of Cast Iron Skillets?
When you search online for a new cast iron skillet, you'll find dozens of recommendations for the best product on the market. Cast iron comes in numerous sizes, styles, and designs to do varying things in the kitchen. For example, you can find cast iron fry pans, griddles, dutch ovens, and lots of designs that fall somewhere in between. And that's just the new stuff. When you start looking into vintage iron, you'll see there are tons of options on the market, some that are brand-name, some that are not. Unlike many products, brand name doesn't always mean better. One of my favorite pans is an unbranded model that was ordered from a catalog in the 1980's, and it's still awesome. With that said, let's take a look at some of the best brands on the market today.
Lodge Cast Iron
Lodge is the largest manufacturer of cast iron skillets in the United States. Lodge pans are affordable, good quality, and an excellent way to go for many aspiring kitchen masters. Lodge skillets are widely available and come in lots of different shapes and sizes. The pans benefit from seasoning for long-term performance. In addition to our Lodge cast iron skillet, another favorite of ours is the Lodge cast iron griddle.
The French company produces some of the highest quality skillets in the world, and buyers pay the price. These are something of a hybrid, as the cast iron features an enamel coating inside and out. The coating provides non-stick action right out of the box with no need to season, ever. On the other hand, enamel is not as durable as a cast iron, so use of metal on the surface should be avoided.
Field produces really good quality cast iron for use when camping, but that doesn't mean you won't use these on your stove top. In fact, the Field pans are somewhat lighter than others, so they can be more comfortable for some users. You'll want to take the time to season these before use.
FINEX makes a distinctive skillet that features octagonal sides. The main benefit is that these are designed to be accessible to anyone, while the high-quality material makes FINEX skillets an instant heirloom. They also have an awesome 5-quart cast iron dutch oven.
When you are looking at vintage skillets, there are a few things you must look for. The most important thing is to look at the cooking surface. If it looks very rough, has gouges, or any evidence of cracking, don't waste your time. Rusty skillets can be fixed, so don't be turned off by a decent-looking surface with lots of rust. Keep an eye out for brands like Griswald and Wagner. These are collector's items and also some of the best you'll find. Cast iron can last for a long time. You might even find skillets that are over 100 years old.
Cast Iron Makes All the Difference
Cast iron skillets are absolutely wonderful items that everyone should try out. Learning the right technique can take practice, but once you've got your pan ready, you'll be searing steaks with beautiful results. Lots of other menu options become possible, like reverse-searing lamb chops, frying trout, and sauteing vegetables. A good skillet makes all the difference when it comes to making really delicious food.
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