How to season and care for your cast-iron skillet
Earlier this year, in a column about what every home should have, I listed a cast-iron skillet as one of my household essentials. For those unfamiliar with cast-iron cookware, it is known for its black coating that develops over time as oils are polymerized on its surface.
This process is known as “seasoning,” which gives the cookware its nonstick finish. Honestly, I will sometimes just stare at the pan, running my fingers along the surface, admiring how the seasoning has built up over the years. (A little obsessive, I know, but other cast-iron skillet fans will know what I mean.)
Besides its wonderful nonstick properties, a cast-iron skillet has other advantages.
Cast as one piece of iron, there are no parts or screws to come undone. You can bang it around and drop it on the ground and it will not dent. It’s no wonder slapstick cartoon characters whack each other over the head with them (don’t try this at home).
Because of its thickness, a cast-iron skillet takes a little longer to heat up. But when it’s hot, it stays hot. So even if you’re adding cold items such as raw meat to the skillet, it remains at your desired cooking temperature.
Unlike some premium cookware that can sell for hundreds of dollars for one pan, a cast-iron skillet can be yours for about $20. Avoid any fancy options that increase the price, such as a wooden handle. If you’re paying more than $40, you’re paying too much.
You can cook practically anything in a cast-iron skillet. It sears meats like no other pan, and you may be surprised how well it roasts vegetables. The heat of the pan gives vegetables such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts a nice char that a cookie sheet can’t. It’s also great for baking cornbread and cakes that fall right out of the pan when they’re done. The only thing I don’t cook in the cast iron are dishes with tomato sauce or wine, as the acidity can break down the nonstick surface.
Into the frying pan …
Despite the virtues of cast-iron skillets, a lot of people are reluctant to use them. You may even have one tucked away in a cabinet collecting dust. One of the complaints I hear is that they’re too heavy. Personally, I feel that heft is a good thing in a pan, but if the weight of cast iron is a deal-breaker for you, keep in mind that most cast-iron skillets have an assist handle at the opposite end of the main handle so you can lift the pan with two hands.
What keeps most people away from cast-iron skillets, though, is the perception that they are too hard to care for. Part of the problem is that there are so many theories on the best way to season cast iron, and just as many recommendations for cleaning it.
The plethora of opinions can be intimidating for the cast-iron novice — whom do you believe? What if you follow the wrong advice? The good news is that practically every method of cast-iron maintenance you hear about works. It’s really a matter of preference. Remember that your cast-iron skillet is a heavy-duty workhorse — you won’t break it.
How to season cast iron
The majority of cast-iron skillets available in stores come pre-seasoned, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to use. The coating that’s been applied by the manufacturer is very thin and barely enough to create a non-stick surface.
I recommend additional layers of seasoning before you use your pan for the first time. Using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of vegetable-based oil on the inside and outside surface of the pan. Then, wipe the pan again with a clean paper towel. It looks like you’re removing all the oil, but don’t worry, it’s still in there. You just want a very thin layer.
Then place the skillet in a cold oven upside down with a cookie sheet or foil underneath to catch any drips. Turn on the oven to 450 F, and heat the pan for an hour. Turn off the oven and let the pan sit in there while it cools. Repeat this process at least five times before using the skillet. The first few times you use the pan, food may still stick to it. Rest assured, the more you cook with it, the more nonsticky it will become.
Types of oil to use
Some people like to use vegetable oil, while others prefer vegetable shortening. One oil that has received a lot of recent press is flaxseed oil, which some cast-iron enthusiasts swear by. I use plain, store-brand vegetable oil, and it’s given my pan a nice black patina. If I get a second skillet, I may try the flaxseed oil to compare.
Ways to clean it
The most important tip for cleaning a cast-iron skillet is to start cleaning the moment you’ve finished cooking. While the pan is still hot, scrape off any food with the flat edge of a metal spatula. Then sit down to eat while the pan cools. After your meal, the pan will still be hot (like I said earlier, cast iron retains heat like crazy) but cool enough to clean.
One cleaning method is to pour kosher salt into the pan and use a folded paper towel to scrub the salt around the pan. The salt works as a scouring agent to remove burnt bits of food. Then rinse the pan in hot water. This method does work, though I don’t like wasting all that good kosher salt.
Another method, though controversial, is to use a sponge with soap and water. Some believe soap should never touch the surface of the pan for fear of damaging the built-up seasoning, but based on my own experience, a little soap and water doesn’t damage the pan, especially if you dry it immediately afterward. I just don’t find it necessary to use soap to scrub out the pan.
What I use to clean the pan is a stainless steel scrubber called “The Ringer,” which I found on Amazon. It is an 8-by-6-inch piece of chainmail, like something you would see worn by a character from “Game of Thrones.” It scrubs off all the cooked-on food, leaving it spic and span without harming the nonstick surface. There’s usually an oily residue still on the pan, but that’s OK.
The Ringer chainmail cast iron cleaner
I wipe the pan dry with a paper towel, place it on the stovetop and turn on the burner. When the pan starts smoking, I turn the heat off. The oily residue then becomes polymerized, adding to the layers of seasoning. I finish by wiping a thin layer of oil onto the pan with a paper towel before storing it.
A note on keeping kosher
If you have a kosher household, you may want to kasher your new skillet before using it, especially if it’s been pre-seasoned. Check with your rabbi for a recommendation on the best way to do so. It would also be a good ideato have separate skillets for different food