AS IF the internet needed another Cast Iron How To Basics Informational Blurb… but I’m saying it does. So here we are. Before you decide whether or not to invest some time reading through this guide, I’ll give you a brief overview on what you can expect. And it’s not a pitch for ditching all your other pots and pans or purchasing anything from the attached links. Although it’s way cool when you do. For two reasons: I’m honored that you trust me, and, the kickback helps me keep doing what I’m doing.
My goal is simple. To provide you with an overview of what cast iron is, why it’s beneficial and practical, why there’s nothing to fear about this cooking method, how to clean and store it, and how to select a pot or pan that’s best for your kitchen. With a bunch of other fun facts and tidbits sprinkled in and on and all around.
If any of that sounds like something you’d love to learn more about- this post has been written with YOU in mind. If you have questions after this read you are welcome to slide into my brain a few different ways. While the best way to reach me with these particular questions will be via the comment section below, I’ve also got a contact page and an active DMs on the gram. Don’t hesitate to reach out!
What once terrified me, is not one of my favorite ways to throw down in the kitchen. And I’d love to make this method of cooking/baking accessible and possible for you too.
Table of Contents
What Is Cast Iron
Can we get to the more important stuff? Sure. Scroll on down to your preferred headline and read from there. But, I’d challenge you to know a little bit about what you are -or are- planning to cook with. And therefore eat. I said eat. Because the tools and pans we cook on leave bits of themselves in our food, and that’s kinda important to know.
Simply put: cast iron is iron ore that has been reduced/melted, moulded into a particular shape, and then cooled. There are varying chemical components which include carbon, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur and manganese. Iron is a key mineral our body uses to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, which carries oxygen from the lungs to all the other bits of our bodies.
Why Use Cast Iron in Cooking and Baking
While my above blurb discussed what cast iron was and how that impacts diet, there are other reasons I could never give up my 12″ skillet. Or my 10″, 8″, bread loaf pans, mini cake pans… ok I have a problem. HA.
By nature cast iron retains heat extremely well, which makes it ideal for cooking with residual heat. Making it the perfect tool for achieving a great sear on both veggies and meats. The heat emitted above the surface of a cast iron is significant as well, which helps cook food through at a much quicker rate.
Cast iron is virtually indestructible. If you are an outdoorsy person, a 10″ or 12″ is a must to your families camping equipment. I’ve taken my 12″ cast iron all over the country and thrown it on more hot coals than I can count. And it preforms just as well on those coals as it does on my cooktop at home. While not ideal… you could leave your pan outside in the elements for months…give it a good scrub to remove the rust, season a few times, and it would be as good as new. Speaking from personal experience here!
The more you use your cast iron the better it gets- in flavor and in nonstick. Which is why some of the most treasured family heirlooms across several ethnicities and regional cultures include great grandmas skillet. You can’t replace years of love. Personally, I can’t wait to pass on my skillets to someone who will continue to share years of love with those who sit at their table.
I touched on this earlier. But it still might low key freak some folks out. Every time we use anything we ingest bits and pieces of it. This goes for cast iron. Which is actually a huge benefit for most! Cast iron was THE standard pan in kitchens for centuries. However, cast iron fell out of favor with homecooks in the 1960’s and 70’s as the option for teflon coated aluminum became all the rage. In fact, the rage was so ragey that most iron cookware manufacturers closed up shop. Permanently put out of businesses. Their merchandise only to be found in antique stores.
Now, I am NOT a medical expert, and definitely don’t pretend to be one. So take this next part with a grain of salt. But since the 1980s, just a few years after the rise of aluminum in cooking, we find a spike in iron deficiencies across the American population. Again. Not a scientist. But for fun, I spent some time digging around for references you might find as interesting as I do! Here’s a fantastic article from the University Health News Daily which also includes the types of foods that absorb the most iron while cooking.
Iron Deficiency in America
Another study, from the Oxford Academic, shows how iron deficiency and its related mortality has increased due to a decrease in iron in our foods along with dietary changes…in just the last 20 years. Of course this isn’t all linked to cooking with cast iron. The lack of iron in our food can also be traced to changes in how food is now produced. Sorry to geek out on you, but man is the science of food and lifestyle fascinating!
Equally important to note- there are a handful of people who actually produce too much iron. For those folks it’s not typically recommended that they use cast iron in cooking. Either way, cooking with cast iron is worth bringing up at at your next Primary Care visit should your blood work come back showing deficiencies as mine did years ago. The more you know, right?
And because you will ultimately be eating your pan, I’ve written the next section below. Where your pan is manufactured and how it’s manufactures IS important.
Purchasing New Cast Iron
Just like there isn’t one manufactured bike or car, there isn’t one type of manufactured cast iron skillet, pot or pan. Different countries, and even different manufacturers within those countries, have different guidelines for what can be mixed with with iron ore in order to produce their product.
As stated above this matters because you eat your pan. And is one reason I have decided to stick with American manufactured cast iron products for new purchases. The current American Made powerhouse of cast iron is none other than Lodge. Made in the foothills of Tennessee for the past 120 years. Still family owned and run. Fun fact- you can actually visit their foundry each April during the National Cornbread Festival!
**For an overview of materials used, process, history, and the companies evolution can be found here. I will note that their enamel coated products are produced abroad, so I have chosen to stick with their bare (which is pre-seasoned) cast iron products as a result.
These are a step up from the 10 and 12er I own! Which is why I'm recommending them here! I don't normally suggest sets... but in this case, I would have purchased both sizes separately so. Why not order together and save?!
I Dream of Pans. Yes I Do.
There are also a few small businesses in the states that specialize in the casting of skillets and cookware. However, price differences are significant. Instead of paying $32 for a pan, you’re looking at $132++ depending on size and style. I have one day dreams… and this Smithey Iron Co pan is on that dream list. For now, I’m more than satisfied with my Lodge. It does what it needs to do and serves up amazing meals weekly. No complaints here.
As a long time supporter of small and local business I’d urge you to check with your local kitchen shop before popping over to Target, Walmart, or online to grab one. Local kitchen shops will often have additional information, classes, and stellar customer service that just can’t be beat. Bonus. You’d be immediately stimulating your local economy and helping that small business owner continue to pay their employees.
This is not anti Amazon. I buy from Amazon. I use affiliate links through Amazon, which means I earn a small commission at NO cost to you when you click on a link and make a purchase. I know lots of small businesses are on Amazon. Hey, Amazon offers some really great service too! It’s simply in my heart to encourage folks to check small AND local first. Because where you spend your dollars matters. Of course I’d be flattered if you decided to support me too 🙂
How to Clean Your Cast Iron
The cast iron world is splitsies on this one. A solid half will tell you you’re headed to hell in a hand basket if you wash your skillets with soap and water, and the other half just rolls their eyes in a giant chuckle at that statement. You do you. I’m team soap when needed. If I don’t have to use soap then I don’t. But by golly, some meals that come out of my pan require a bit of soap be used.
You see, back in the day soap was made with lye. Lye eats iron. Which is why it was a NO NO to wash iron with soap. Today soap is still made with lye, but what 90% of are purchasing to wash dishes and our bodies actually falls under the category of- detergent. Which has no lye. Which means nothing is eating your pan. Which means your pan is safe. Take a deep breath with me. The “soap” we use today combined with cast iron is way ok. Unless you’re old school and making or purchasing lye based soaps that is.
Three MOST Important Cleaning Tidbits
THE UNIVERSAL NO NO is submerging your cast iron in water and leaving it there. I will refer you to the blurbs just below to discover how porous cast iron is. Leaving your pan to “soak” overnight is a tragedy waiting to happen. If I had to break down cast iron care into a short and simple foolproof list, this is what it would look like:
Probably the MOST important tidbit of all- keep that baby dry. Don’t wash with water unless you have to. I’m aware this grosses a lot of folks out, so if you’ve got to dunk it in water and give it a scrub make sure to dry thoroughly with a towel and then place on low heat to completely dry out before storing.
Make a habit of applying a bit of seasoning (oil) to your pan as your dry out your pan on low heat after a scrub. If you scrub, make sure you rub. That’s my motto. It hasn’t failed me yet.
For scrubbing, there are many methods the world of cast ironers swear by. For me, a stiff brush, a scraper, and some hot water, have never not done the trick (more on those “accessories” later). But I also don’t let food sit in my pan overnight.
A stiff brush with a scraper built in?! Heck ya. These are almost identical to the one I snagged from my local grocery which is why I've listed them here!
One of the most popular and natural ways to scrub a pan is with a bit of water and course salt which acts as an abrasive. Steel wool is often viewed as a last resort as most skillet owners are worried about stripping the top layer of seasoning from their pans. Ultimately you gotta do what you gotta do, but don’t start with a harsh abrasive like steel wool if you don’t need it!
What Actually is Seasoning?
When the world chats about “seasoning” a cast iron they are chatting about oil. That’s it. Oil. When heated said oil changes properties through a process called polymerization which creates that nonstick like surface everyone swears is goals. Not any oil will do. The oil you select needs to have a high smoke point and be neutral in flavor. A great guide to seasoning oils can be found TADA. A quick ranking if you don’t feel like reading: Grapeseed, Peanut, Veg/Canola oils are the top 3. I wipe mine down regularly with veg oil and have yet to have any complications with my choice 🙂
Most new cast iron has a base pre seasoning that’s applied during manufacturing. However, this does not mean your pan is automatically 100% nonstick… which is a common misconception for sure. Iron is porous by nature and so a proper seasoning takes time. Due to it’s porous nature the belief that one can simply scrape off seasoning by using a metal utensil or washing with soap is… wrong. So so very wrong. More on that in a bit.
Just like skin, the immediate affects of an overnight eye cream aren’t typically seen for weeks if not months. Do you stop applying moisturizer just because you did it once? Nope. Most of us probably moisturize at least once daily if not more. A cast iron pan is no different. The more you season it the more the more nonstick it becomes as you build up a natural layer of nonstick that is far more that skin deep.
How to Properly Season
So there’s a right way to season? Yup. A few ways you can approach it too depending on what your skillet, pot or pan need.
It is first important to make sure that your skillet is clean and dry. You can achieve this by wiping throughly with a dish towel and placing over low heat for a few. Next, you can simply wipe the inside with a thin layer of seasoning (oil of choice as noted above). Then crank the heat to medium so that the oil can properly polymerize and set into the pan. If your pan is puddling with oil you poured too much. No worries. Just keep on wiping until there’s a sheen, not a puddle.
Every once in a while you’ll need to season your entire pan. Because well. The entire pan is cast iron, not just the inside right? For this you’ll want to heat your oven to 350F or 177C. Again, make sure your pot or pan is completely dry, wipe the entire thing with a thin layer and pop on to the top rack of your oven, upside down, for 1 hour. Make sure there’s a sheet pan (lined with foil for easy cleanup) underneath said pot or pan on the bottom rack. The LAST thing you want is to have drips of oil falling on hot coils! That would be an absolute mess.
Successfully Using Your Cast Iron
While all skillets, pots and pans require that you preheat them dry (no water or oil) before using, cast iron for real requires it. A lightweight pan might take just 3 mins to warm up on low/med low, but a cast iron pan can take 15-20 depending on size. This is an IMPORTANT step that you should not skip.
See, if you just throw a pan on high for a few this thing called hot and cold spots develop. Which leads to frustrations like burnt centers and undercooked sides. Cast iron will inherently be hotter in the middle no matter what you do, but you can alleviate mishaps with any pan for any meal by properly heating your pan on low. Do not, I repeat -DO NOT- preheat your pans with oil. If you’ve set off the smoke alarm more than once, chance are this is one of the things that did you in. A pan might take 10 mins to heat… oil takes about 10 second. Oil heated for long periods of time burns. IE: smoke.
Real Life Example Coming at Ya
Let’s say I’m going to make steak for dinner. Chances are I have a few sides to whip up or a drink to make. I would pull my marinated steak out of the fridge and place on the counter to start warming up… while I have my cast iron turned on low heating up… while I’m mixing a drink and prepping some veggies for the oven. None of these are extra steps. It’s more about awareness and timing. If you’re throwing a steak straight out of the fridge into an improperly heated pan (of any kind) and then wondering why it isn’t searing, or why it’s shrinking, or why it’s sticking, or why it isn’t juicy… the problem is timing not skill. Dropping an entire fundamentals post on that shortly and will be back to link more info!
There are several different ways you can successfully store cast iron, whether you have one pan or an entire collection! Moisture is the devil. So no matter what shelf you plop them on, or wall you hang them from, or closet you stash them in, make sure it’s one of the drier places around. I know lots of homecooks who stash their most used skillets in the oven. I actually keep my dutch oven in the oven. It’s big and bulky and I don’t have a ton of space. So it makes sense for where I am in life. Just don’t forget to take out before you heat up!
If you choose to hang your gear on the wall, make sure you’re check for studs and/or using anchors that are appropriate for the weight you are trying to hang. These skillets are HEAVY. I don’t imagine a bunch of heavy skillets crashing on to a tile floor would end well for anyone. This is NOT one of those wack a nail in the wall and go type projects. Especially if you have animals or small children running around.
It is perfectly fine to stack iron on iron. I’ve got at least three skillets that are nestled one on top of the other. Granted I’ve been doing this for 4 years and not 40… but so far so good. And just like the wall warning, here’s a shelf warning. If one pan is heavy, imagine how heavy 3 or 4 pans on top of one another is. Make sure you are working with secure shelving that is properly reinforced.
Due to the heat retaining nature of cast iron… you guessed it. HOT HOT HOT. You’ll want to make sure you have thick, dry oven mitts before grabbing or moving a cast iron pot from the oven. When it’s plopped on top of a burner, keep in mind the entire skillet will get hot. Which includes the handle.
Cast iron is heavy (broken record I know). So if you struggle with reoccurring joint pains in your fingers, wrists, or elbows please take extra care. Especially if you are used to lightweight aluminum pans. The last thing you want is to pick up a 14″ skillet filled with sauce only to realize you can’t flip it, turn it, or safely move it to a different location.
Cast Iron on Glass Tops
Cast iron works on virtually any cook top surface. This include glass tops. A word of caution however… coming from someone who is currently renting a home with a glass cooktop… glass tops can shatter. A cast iron dropped on a glass top is never a good idea. If you’re wanting to avoid unnecessary scuffs or scratches you won’t want to drag it across your glass top either. Not only will this not look pretty but it will creates weak points that could cause issues later.
When we moved from a rental with a gas range to a rental with a glass top, I was terrified. ME. TERRIFIED. A religious user of cast iron. So trust me when I say “I get it”. But after a few uses, I realized there was nothing to fear as long as I treated my pots and pans with the respect they deserved. I’ve cooked on this glass top now for over a year without any issues, and I’m confident you can too!
You will see plenty of articles out there telling you to never cook with cast iron on a glass top. I stand by it’s not favorable. However, I didn’t get to choose my range. It’s what I have and I learned to respect that and work with it.
Sure. There’s an entire industry designed to get YOU to buy more stuff. Personally, I don’t dig it, but sometimes it’s necessary. After cooking with cast iron for a few years there are definately a handful of accessories I’ve found helpful. In fact, I find the below list necessary so wanted to pass along!
Splatter Screen. I purchased a 13″ that fits over a variety of different sized pots and pans. Cast iron and on cast iron alike. The screen allows steam to escape and minimizes fat/oil/sauce splatters making clean up a cinch.
Designated drying towel(s). Sure you could use any dish towel, but with all that oil I just don’t feel into the whole concept of drying my dishes with oily towels. So I keep two designated for drying and cleaning my cast iron. It’s worked well for me!
Scraper. These little guys run about a buck and are worth their weight in gold. I not only use them on cast iron, but for removing stubborn bits of built up food on sheet pans, other pots and pans, and even dried bits on my counter that just don’t want to budge. They make the most fabulous and practical stocking stuffers too.
First discovered these at a local kitchen shop I worked at years ago.... feel free to make some calls to see if your local shop carries them too! If not, you can snag them here with me (another small business). They make fab stocking stuffers too wink wink
Heavy Duty Oven Mitts. SO important. One of the most important purchase you could ever make in relation to cast iron. It will provide you and your fingers, hands, and other body parts an unparalleled level of confidence to safely use your skill, pan or pot (dutch oven). If you plan on using dutch ovens frequently, I might also suggestion you consider purchasing a pair of welding gloves. This tidbit was passed on to me by Tara Jensen in one of her online baking classes, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant! Talk about the ultimate level of safety.
When purchasing oven mitts make sure they are actually HEAT RESISTANT. No one wants burnt hands.
Enamel Coated vs Bare Cast Iron
Oof. This post is already epic. And I don’t want to keep you tied up longer than necessary, but I do feel like it’s important to note that there is a whole line of cast iron that’s coated in enamel and therefore doesn’t need to be seasoned. The enamel acts as the nonstick surface. To read up on these advantages and disadvantages you can check out this informative article.
Two brand names that might immediately come to mind are Le Creuset and Staub. Both undisputed powerhouses in their worlds. I’ve spent years eyeing their gorgeous cookware offerings and hope to one day add an enamel brainer and dutch oven to my line up. Pricing for the sizes I have my eyes on start at $300… which is why I don’t own one! However, they do carry lifetime warranties. Major bonus if you ask me.
The dreams I've dreamed of this 7 quart... which is perfect for feeding a family of 4 with leftovers to spare. Mark my words. One day, I'll be back to mark this as "I Own This One!".
Another one of those dreamy items I can't wait to come back and switch to "I Own This One!" one day soon! Oh the chickens I'd roast, and soups I'd simmer. Dreams of holidays tables filled with family and friends. YUP. A pot can do all that!
Foods I Love to Cook in my Cast Iron.
We can start with my Spicy Mushroom Fajitas! The sear those bellas get in my favorite 12 incher is UNreal. It’s also allowed me to pump out THE best hash browns, fried eggs, steaks, bratwurst, tortillas, and English muffins. Last year I actually switched my bread pans over to cast iron as well. The loaf pans are slightly smaller and produce the softest, juiciest slices of heaven. I’ve never made a better zucchini loaf, pumpkin loaf, or whole wheat loaf than the ones that pop out of my bread pans.
On social media I’ve received a few questions specifically for baking in cast iron. I simply don’t preheat my skillets or loaf pans for baking like I would if I was cooking (residual heat from a pan wouldn’t be a bakers best friend). I’ve successfully buttered and floured/sugar coasted loaf pans with great success. In fact, I’ve been shocked over and over again at how nonstick those babies are. More nonstick than any other glass, metal, or ceramic pan I’ve ever owned. The only cast iron I preheat for baking would be my pizza round which I preheat on the grill.
On a personal note… my general rule of thumb is NOT to bake in a pan/skillet that has been subjected to a strong flavor profile. For example. I will not bake an apple pie in the same pan I fried fish in last week. I will not bake a peach cobbler in a pan I simmered a coconut beef curry in. Those flavors carry over enough to bother me.
Also, who is fixin to make a 12″ or 14″ apple pie? For this reason alone, I reserve the smaller skillets for baking and large skillets for cooking. I have an 8″ and 10″ that are absolutely perfect for cornbread, pies, cobblers, s’mores dips, brownie bakes, and alllllllll kinds of other goodness. I keep the bigger boys ready to go for actual meals.
I hope you found this post comprehensive and are leaving more confident about cooking/baking with cast iron than when you came. You got this! And if there are any other questions I can answer drop them down below and I’ll either answer or find you the help you need.
While you’re at it, Save to Pinterest or Share on Facebook. Because sharing is caring, and I’ll need all the support I can get to keep on growing this dream of mine. A place where practical is better than perfect and simple, delicious food is a lifestyle. A place where together, we can begin filling homes and tables with joy!
Hugs, because handshakes are awkward~