It’s hard to think of a more versatile pan than a cast-iron skillet. It bakes cornbread, fries chicken, sears steaks and does much more. When seasoned properly — more on that later — its finish is practically non-stick, and the pan can go from stovetop to oven to table, where it doubles as a handsome serving dish. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing, caring for and cooking with this sensational skillet.
Types of Cast-Iron Skillets
A classic cast-iron skillet is made from heavy, black, solid iron. Its thickness and durability prevent it from warping over time like aluminum and stainless-steel pans. And while cast iron is a poor heat conductor — yes, it’s true! — it is excellent at retaining and slowly releasing heat, which prevents major temperature drops when you add cold food to the pan.
As cookware goes, these skillets are generally affordable. They range in size from mini to huge, campfire-cooking proportions. A good investment is a 10-in. (25-cm) skillet, which is roomy enough for lots of different family-size recipes. You will be able to do just about everything in it, from searing steaks to baking a cake.
If your cast-iron skillet is relatively new and hasn’t had time to build up multiple layers of protective seasoning (see below), it’s best to avoid cooking acidic foods such as tomato sauce or citrus juices. The metal can react with them, discolouring your food and giving it a metallic taste. You can, however, use an enamelled cast-iron skillet, which has a porcelain coating on the inside and doesn’t require seasoning.
How to Season a Plain Cast-Iron Skillet
When we talk about seasoning a cast-iron skillet, we don’t mean getting out the spices. We mean how to make the bottom of the skillet a non-stick surface. Most plain (non-enamelled) cast-iron pans come pre-seasoned, which means they’ve been rubbed with vegetable oil and then heated. This creates a thin, hard layer of polymerized oil that helps keep foods from sticking.
While new pans are technically ready to cook with, it doesn’t hurt to give them a good scrub with soap and water, and an extra seasoning (or two). First, preheat your oven to 450°F (230°C), and place a baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any drips. Using a folded paper towel, rub the skillet inside and out with a neutral cooking oil that has a high smoke point, such as vegetable, canola or sunflower. The pan should be well-buffed, without any streaks or pools of oil. Place it upside down on the oven rack above the baking sheet, and turn the exhaust fan on high — it can get smoky! After 30 minutes, put on a pair of sturdy oven mitts, remove the pan from the oven and let it cool. Going through this process once is enough to get your pan ready for cooking. But go ahead and repeat it a few more times if you’re keen to develop a thick layer of seasoning quickly.
How to Clean a Cast-Iron Skillet
One of the biggest myths about cast iron is that you can’t use soap to wash it. Not true! Dish soap is far too mild to do any damage to that hard-as-plastic seasoned coating. Use a nylon, plastic or natural loofah–like scouring pad — never steel wool! — to scrub off any baked-on food. For stubborn, stuck-on gunk, add a handful of coarse kosher salt to the pan and then scrub; you’ll safely and effectively sand it off without damaging the pan’s finish. After cleaning, rinse the skillet and dry it right away to prevent rust.
Before storing your clean pan, give it an additional protective coating to further keep rust at bay. Place it on the stovetop over high heat. When it’s lightly smoking, remove it from the burner and rub the inside with a folded paper towel soaked in a little neutral oil. Heat the pan again until it starts to smoke (this step keeps the oil from going rancid and getting sticky in storage). Give it a final wipe with a paper towel and let it cool completely before storing.
How to Restore a Rusted Cast-Iron Pan
If you’ve inherited a slightly rusty cast-iron pan from your aunt or found one at a yard sale, you can bring it back to life. Scrub it well and then repeat the seasoning process three or four times. A badly rusted or damaged pan, however, is probably not worth saving. Pitch it and treat yourself to a new one.
How to Put It to Work
Keeping It Non-Stick
A cast-iron skillet may never be as non-stick as Teflon, but following our guide to seasoning and washing will keep most foods from adhering. When you’re cooking, watch for signs of sticking and add a little oil to the pan as necessary. Ultimately, the best way to keep cast-iron working properly is to use it. Every time you sear, fry and sauté, you’ll add to the layers of seasoning and protect your pan for generations to come.