Guide to Cooking with Cast Iron

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There are many benefits to cooking with a cast iron skillet or pan. They’re practical, easy to clean, durable and versatile. If they are cleaned, dried and seasoned properly they can be handed down to the next generation of cooks in your family. When seasoned properly, they are non-stick, and don't have chemicals such as PFTE or PFOA.

In this article, we will cover the following:

  • What is Cast Iron?
  • What's Great About Cast Iron Cookware?
  • Difference Between Enameled Cast Iron and Bare Cast Iron
  • What are the Drawbacks to Cast Iron Cookware?
  • How to Cook with Cast Iron Cookware?
  • What Not to Cook in Cast Iron Cookware
  • How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware
  • How to Season Cast Iron Cookware

What is Cast Iron?

Cast iron is a mix of iron and carbon which can be molded and placed into a cast. It contains 2% carbon which is the main alloying element and 1-3% silicon. The melting temperature point is very low, making it a lot more useful than other metals. It is very rare that cookware made from cast iron will get damaged due to its high indestructibility.

Since cast iron is a mix of iron and carbon, it can be used on induction cooktops, as well as on electric and gas stoves.

Variety of cast iron frying pans on a marble background.

What's Great About Cast Iron Cookware?

One of the reasons people are drawn to cooking with cast iron is it doesn't have a non-stick coating like Chemours, Teflon™ or other PTFE compounds. There's no coating to wear off, get scratched or putting potentially harmful substances in your body.

There are conflicting opinions as to whether PTFE is safe. In the past, Teflon contained perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which was a potential health risk. Chemours nor any reputable chemical company uses PFOA in its coatings.   

The American Cancer Society (ACS) states the main focus of concern is not whether Teflon and other non-stick substances cause cancer. The concern is with compounds such as PFOA and similar substances. DuPont no longer uses PFOA in the manufacture of Teflon™.  ACS also states if one breathes in fumes from a Teflon-coated pan that was overheated, they might experience flu-like symptoms. [Cookware coated Teflon™ should not be heated above (500ºF). ] Other than this, they maintain any risk to humans using cookware coated with Teflon has yet to be proven. 

Another great reason to use cast iron pots and pans is that they retain heat well. If you’re cooking something like a baked egg dish where the egg finishes cooking outside of the oven, it is ideal. 

Cast iron pans can also be used to make pan pizza, sear meat, fry eggs, and sauté vegetables. If it is well-seasoned then less oil will be needed to prepare your food. 

The cast iron skillet or pan is versatile as can be moved from the stovetop straight into the oven without having to worry about ruining it. They can also be used over a campfire.

Altough the cast iron skillet is the most well-known and often used, other cast iron pieces include grills, griddles, dutch ovens and cast iron woks.  

Related Content: Can I Use a Wok on an Induction Stove?

Difference Between Enameled Cast Iron and Bare Cast Iron

There are two types of cast iron. The first is the traditional bare cast iron cookware. The second is enameled cast iron in which an enamel glaze is applied to the bare cast iron. 

Four advantages of enameled cast iron are: 1)  it won't rust , 2) it doesn't have to be seasoned, 3) it can be used to cook acid foods such as spaghetti sauce and 4) it is easy to clean and no seasoning is required.

The two drawbacks to enameled cast iron are: 1) they are more expensive than bare cast iron products and 2) they are less durable as the paint can chip off.  

What are the Drawbacks to Cast Iron Cookware?

There are two main reasons why people might be opposed to using large cast iron cookware.  One is that it can be too heavy for some.  There are smaller cast iron skillets available for those who don't want to life a 12" skillet. Another disadvantage is that seasoning your cast iron pans is crucial to obtaining a non-stick surface.  However, once you get into the routine of cleaning, drying, and seasoning it takes just a few minutes. 

cast iron frying pan with eggs in tomato, onion, garlic, pepper and green parsley sauce.

How to Cook with Cast Iron Cookware

Cooking with a cast iron is similar to frying, however, the pan can go in the oven afterward. You can cook sauces in a cast iron skillet or pan then add your other ingredients such as meat or cheese and stick it in the oven to cook furthermore. 

You can also serve your dishes on the cast iron (but be aware as the food item will keep cooking and the pan will remain hot for a while. This is a nice idea for restaurants if they want to serve their steaks or other meats on a hot plate, they can use a cast iron skillet, pan, or piece of cookware.

Cast iron waffle irons are terrific for making hot waffles. Although there is a wide range of waffle irons/makers from which to choose, some people prefer the old fashioned cast iron waffle iron.  

If you are in the market for one, visit this site to see some of the best waffle makers and irons on the market. They also have a nice roundup of other innovative appliances that aren’t widely advertised.

What Not to Cook in Cast Iron Cookware

We recommend you stay away from cooking certain foods in cast iron skillets as it can not only ruin the way the food tastes (it will have a metallic taste), but it can often ruin the lining of the pan and cause the cookware to rust. These food items include acidic foods (tomato sauces or lemon-based ingredients), sticky foods (anything with a glaze on, as this, can cause the seasoning of the pan to get damaged), and delicate fish (as it can often overcook the fish and ruin the food for your meal). 

Some people have a cast iron skillet that is only used for preparing desserts. Their theory is that if a skillet is used to cook spicy foods and then used to prepare an apple pie for example, the residual flavors from the spicy food can transfer to the apple pie. 

Helpful Tips Chalk Illustration

How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware

There are a lot of myths that claim it is difficult to clean and season cast iron cookware. However, it isn’t that hard to take care of, and the more you take the necessary steps to keep it in good condition, the longer it will last.  

There is a lot of discussion about seasoning cast iron cookware. Seasoning just refers to the layer of polymerized oil that has bonded with the cast iron cooking surface. The purpose is to have a slick surface so that food does not stick. It is a lot easier to cook with cast iron if the seasoning is protected.  

In terms of maintaining cast iron, don't put it in a disher or a hot pan in cold water as the cast iron could warp. Finally, be sure to thoroughly dry the skillet as soon as it has been washed to prevent rust from forming.

We have outlined the process for cleaning cast iron purchased new or at an estate sale is different from routine cleaning.

old dirty cast iron pan with wooden handle

Cleaning Newly Acquired Cast Iron

1. Line your sink with a towel so it doesn't get scratched.

2. Using a Brillo pad with soap or soap, water and a stiff bristle brush, scrub the inside, outside, and handle of pan. Rinse with hot water.

3. Coat the inside and outside with a solid shortening.

4. Place upside down in oven on a foil lined cookie sheet or place foil on the lower rack and the pan upside down on the upper rack. Heat at 350ºF for one hour.

5. Turn oven off.  Take out when the oven has cooled.

a new, clean and empty cast-iron pan for the grill.

Steps for Routine Cleaning of Cast Iron

1. Scrub with a nylon bristle scrub brush before the pan cools. Don't use abrasive cleaners. Rinse with hot water. Dry with a towel or paper towel.

2.If there is food stuck on the pan, sprinkle coarse kosher salt into the pan. Then rub the salt into the stuck on food into the pan with paper towels. Add more salt as needed. Empty the salt and food out and wipe remnants away with paper towel.

3. Heat on low heat until dry (5-10 minutes) to remove remaining moisture.

4. Wipe pan when cool to remove remaining grease. Don't store pans with lid on them. The moisture in the air could become trapped resulting in rust.

How to Season Cast Iron Cookware

If you purchase a new or used bare cast iron vessel the first thing to do is to wash it and then season it. The purpose of seasoning is to get a non-stick coating on the pan's cooking surface that is natural. Lodge uses soy vegetable oil to season their cast iron products. Shortening or canola oil are also acceptable seasoning products. The following is the seasoning process recommended by Lodge.[2]

Steps for Seasoning Cast Iron  

1. Rub a small amount of cooking fat/oil into the pan. The purpose of this is to create a layer of fat that is bonded to the iron.

2. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven.

3. Place the cast iron skillet face down on the upper oven rack.

4. Heat at 350ºF for one hour.

5. Turn off oven. Take out when oven is cooled.

Repeat the process again another 2 or 3 times.

[1] http://www.engineershandbook.com/Materials/castiron.htm

[2] http://www.lodgemfg.com/use-and-care/cast-iron-lets-cook