Tips for Cast Iron Care and Cooking
Cast iron for many people can seem like a lot of work. But learning how to care for your cast iron comes with many benefits. I use and clean cast iron every time I cook. These few tips along with changing the way you think about your cast iron can lead to pans that you can hand down for generations to come. Not to mention greater flavor, easier quicker clean-up, and a great way to increase your iron intake.
With cast iron care I tend to take a step back and look at exactly what it is… A piece of iron. When talking about cast iron people think they are some mystical cooking devices that in order to use you must be dedicated to cooking or hard work, in some cases both.
Yes, that age-old question of using soap to clean your cast iron. If you Google this question most people will give you the answer “It is just fine to use a small amount of soap to clean your cast iron.” or “back in the old days’ soap contained Lye which was hard on cast iron, but it no longer does”. Although these statements are true, I still recommend not using soap on cast iron unless you really really need to. Let’s put it this way I’ve been using cast iron religiously for 2 years now and not once have I needed soap.
I recommend not using soap because soap is a degreaser. What is your best friend for creating that nice non-stick surface to cook all that delicious food on? That’s right it’s grease. Every time you cook in cast iron it adds to the non-stick properties and also the flavor. So if you choose to use soap on your cast iron (which will not ruin it) but it will take off all the grease and oil that the food has left behind. Slowing down the process to make that beautiful cast iron surface we all strive for.
Don’t believe me? Put some butter on your finger and wash it off with just water then rub your fingers together. You’ll see that your fingers are still oily. Then use some dish soap on your fingers and you will see that in a matter of seconds all the oils have been removed.
So now you might say “well I season my cast iron after every time I clean it”. That’s great! And something we will get into, but I still think you miss out on that flavor for the cooking process in the first place…
How To Clean Cast Iron
My cleaning process starts with not having stuck-on food in the first place. If you have ever spent some time barbequing, you will know that food can even stick to the grill. The trick is to let the food cook longer on one side so that it releases from the pan itself before you try and scrape it off. That mixed with a generous amount of oil will make cooking go much smoother with little to no sticking.
There are times that food will just stick no matter how hard you try to avoid it. I have recently found that different cooktops make cast iron cooking better or worse, but more on that later. I learned how to clean cast iron from where you learn anything these days… Youtube. But I think knowing the best method is what makes things just a little easier. Enter Cowboy Kent Rollins. In this video Cowboy Kent shows you his (and my) preferred method of cleaning cast iron.
To expand a little bit on really stuck-on food, especially if you don’t want to dry your cast iron and reheat it again. I take a sponge that has an abrasive side (I keep one off to the side just for cast iron) using no soap, fill the bottom of the pan with hot water about a quarter to half an inch, and do small circles in the areas with stuck-on food. Do this twice and things should be pretty cleaned up.
Pro Tip: If you still have stuck-on food Lodge sells plastic tools made for scraping cast iron or my preferred method, scrape it with a fingernail. Never use metal.
Cleaning Part 2: Season After Every Use
I season my pans after every use. This process takes about 3 minutes and most of the time is letting the pan reheat.
So as Cowboy Kent has already gone over. It’s important to dry your cast iron with a clean towel. I use old chunks of t-shirts. Do not dry your cast iron by heating it, take the added 10 seconds to dry it yourself. Once the cast iron is dry place it back on the stovetop and re-heat the pan. This opens the pores of the cast iron allowing the oil to penetrate the surface more efficiently.
Once the pan gets hot place a small amount of oil right in the center of the pan. The amount of oil depends on a few things. One, the size of the pan, and two how dry the rag is that you use to oil the pan. I say dry because I use the same t-shirt every time I oil the pan so it absorbed oil every time in turn becoming very oily. But if the t-shirt has never been used before it will soak up most of the oil and not spread it around.
I use about the size of a quarter for a 12in pan.
Oil the entire pan. I start with the inside bottom surface of the pan and move up to the edges and finally around the entire outside of the pan. This oil displaces any water leftover from the cleaning process to protect the pan from rust. Place the pan back down and let cool slowly and you’re done!
This entire cleaning process takes anywhere from about 1:30 to maybe 5 minutes, but you end up with a nice clean pan ready for its next use. No matter what pan you use, it will still need to be cleaned. And the more times you clean cast iron the quicker you will get, making cleaning cast iron faster and easier than cleaning your other pans.
An added benefit is that it makes you clean your pans every time and not stack up dishes to be done later.
This again can be a huge debate among cast-iron enthusiasts. And I’m here to tell you… It really doesn’t matter what oil you choose. I prefer to use olive oil because it contains healthier fats than some of the other oils while remaining affordable. I don’t really recommend using things like bacon fat because of its shelf life and can turn rancid. Though it can be used.
Olive oil has a lower smoke point than some of the other oils. This low smoke point is an added benefit to the seasoning process. When oil smokes it creates a carbon bond to the surface of the pan, building up that great non-stick surface.
Although it’s great for creating that surface on the pan, olive oil isn’t always ideal to cook with. I do use it for almost all my cooking, but deep-frying usually causes problems because you can’t get the oil to the proper temperatures before it starts to smoke. I choose to use the less healthy canola oil for these situations. Yes, it is much less healthy, but I’m deep-frying anyways and that’s not exactly the most healthy form of cooking. Another alternative could be avocado oil, which has a higher smoke point but is still much healthier than canola oil.
when cooking, do not heat oil above its smoke point. This process changes the oil both in flavor and can be unhealthy for you, But when it comes to seasoning your cast iron the smoking of the oil creates a very hard non-stick surface. Which is exactly what you want.
Types Of Stove Tops
Cast iron is extremely durable. Pretty much its only enemy is rust. But I have also found that different cooktops seem to work better than others for cooking with cast iron.
For example, I started using cast iron on a natural gas cooktop. This is one of the most ideal cooktops to use for cast iron in my opinion although I have heard that induction works very well with cast iron as well. I just haven’t tried it myself. Recently upon moving I have been using a glass cooktop that is not induction for my cast iron. It was a night and day difference from using gas. Both the control over temperature and the distribution of heat makes things a little more difficult than with gas. So I went from cooking scrambled eggs every morning with nothing sticking using gas, to struggling to find that sweet spot where the eggs would release from the pan yet not burn the eggs on the bottom. Letting the pan heat up before you start cooking is extremely helpful in these situations.
That being said I still recommend trying out cast iron no matter the type of cooktop you have.
Cons Of Cast Iron
Like anything in life, there is always a little bit of a downside. Cast iron is no exception. Although I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives you might not feel the same.
I think one of the biggest cons of cast iron is the weight of the pans alone. We use the 12in cast iron the most out of all our pans. This means having to clean a heavy pan every day. This makes things even more difficult on glass cooktops as to not drop the pan on the glass surface. On the bright side of having a heavy pan is that on something like a gas cooktop that pan doesn’t want to slide around as you are cooking in it. unfortunately, it’s the opposite on glass.
To handle your cast iron and make cleaning much easier I highly recommend purchasing a lodge cast iron handle holder. I recommend the fabric version. These make handling the cast iron much easier, even when the pan is not hot.
Another con to some might be having to clean your cast iron right after you get done eating. I personally see this as a pro because it gets me to clean up the kitchen a little more than I would normally. But I understand that’s not necessarily something that everyone wants to deal with.
This is another personal choice you get when using cast iron. Most people use Lodge cast iron. I choose Lodge because their pans are readily available, have many different shapes and sizes, and are a great price point.
Some other options to choose from are Smithy, Field Company, Le Creuset (make great ceramic coated cast iron dutch ovens), and Stargazer. No matter what brand you choose start cooking with cast iron and appreciate the results for yourself.