Cast Iron 101: Basic cleaning & seasoning techniques

by Emily from Frugal Living NW on January 18, 2013

I love my cast iron cookware. I am hoping to eventually replace all my pots and pans with cast iron options. My kitchen shelves might sag under the weight, but that is a small price to pay for true love. I just read in The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes (Amazon) that George Washington’s mother treasured her cast iron pots so much, they earned a place in her will. A woman after my own heart.

Anytime a good cast iron deal pops up, I can barely stand it. You know I have a serious weakness for Dutch ovens. There was this beautiful green enamel-coated Dutch oven that was calling my name on Black Friday. My husband seemed to think I was being ridiculous, “Em, seriously, you don’t need four Dutch ovens.” I tried to compare it to his power tool collection. No dice. Then we hosted Christmas Eve at our house, and I baked two loaves of bread and had three pots of soup simmering at the same time. Proof that I could actually put five Dutch ovens to work at once. But that would just be crazy.

So, if you haven’t already fallen for cast iron, let’s check out some of the benefits. Then, for those of you who are still nervous that these are high maintenance pieces, we’ll go through some (easy!) care guidelines. Most of the seasoning and cleaning tips apply to true cast iron cookware, not the enamel-coated pieces. Finally, a few of my favorite cast iron options. Ready? Let’s do this.

BENEFITS OF COOKING WITH CAST IRON

Cast iron cookware is reliable, durable, versatile, and economical. That’s an impressive list. For some, the biggest downside is the weight. They are hefty pieces, which I actually like, but that is definitely something to consider if you are not looking for a mild upper body workout while making dinner. Here are some more benefits with cast iron:

  • Retains & distributes heat evenly
  • Works well in the oven, on the stove top, and over a campfire
  • When well-seasoned (not enamel-coated), the surface is naturally nonstick
  • Handles extremely high heat
  • Produces a dry heat (unlike Teflon) and can be used with very little liquid or fat
  • Trace amounts of iron get absorbed into the food you cook
  • Creates a crisp crust instead of causing food to “sweat” and toughen like most non-stick pans
  • Improves with age as you are re-seasoning it with every use

CLEANING CAST IRON

Cast iron is not fussy. Treat it right, and it will give you decades of dependable use. Your cast iron should always be washed by hand with a nonmetallic brush or scraper. I have read in several places that small amounts of mild dish soap is fine, but I never use soap on my regular cast iron (I do use soap on my enamel-coated pots).

  1. Scrub the pan clean with soap (optional), salt, or just hot water and a nonmetallic brush or scraper soon after use.
  2. Dry with a towel or place the wet pan on the stovetop over low heat; turn off as soon as it is dry. To prevent rust, don’t let cast iron air dry. When dry, rub 1-2 teaspoons of olive or vegetable oil around the surface with a paper towel to keep it from drying out (not necessary for enamel-coated pots or pans).
  3. Line with a paper towel and store in a dry place or just keep it in your oven.
  4. According to The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook by Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne (Amazon), if food begins to stick to your cast iron pan, just place it on the stovetop over high heat for 1-2 minutes. Remove it from the heat and sprinkle in 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 t. vegetable oil. Scrub the pan, wipe out any leftover salt, and let the pan cool. After it is completely cool, simply buff it with a clean rag.

SEASONING CAST IRON

Many new cast iron pieces available today come pre-seasoned, meaning you can use them straight out of the box. Seasoning simply seals the porous cast iron to create a smooth surface and prevent rust. Cast iron may need to be re-seasoned every now and then to retain that trademark shiny black non-stick surface. This method can be used for new, unseasoned cast iron or used cast iron that is dry and rusty (like a cheap garage sale find).

  1. Scrub pan thoroughly with a nonmetallic brush or scraper.
  2. Dry the pan and coat it with vegetable oil or shortening, inside and out.
  3. Place the pan, upside down, on a baking sheet or place it directly on the oven rack and line the bottom of the oven with foil to catch any drips. Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour at 350-degrees. The pan will smoke at first so turn on your oven fan!
  4. Turn off the heat and let the pan cool completely in the oven. Remove from the oven and wipe off any excess oil. If your cast iron pan is in really rough shape, you may need to repeat this process.

BASIC CAST IRON COOKWARE

These 3 pieces are produced by Lodge, and all are available on Amazon. I love everything I have read about Lodge, especially that they have a long family history (founded in 1896!) of making inexpensive, quality products here in the USA.

Amazon carries this 12″ cast iron Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Skillet for less than $20. That is a great price for such a versatile kitchen tool. Check out the awesome reviews (over 1,500 reviews and it still maintains a 4.5 star rating). It is currently ranked #1 on the top 100 best sellers in Amazon’s kitchen & dining category.

This 5-quart Lodge Logic Cast Iron Dutch Oven might not be as pretty as its enamel-coated siblings, but it works just as hard for half the price. It doesn’t happen often, but when the price drops around $25, add this baby to your cart, if you are in the market for a Dutch oven. You won’t find a better price on such a heavy-duty pot. The fact that it is made in the USA just sweetens the deal.

The Lodge Logic Pro Cast Iron Grill/Griddle is on my wish list. It is double-sided, perfect for grilling burgers on one side and making pancakes on the other (not at the same time, preferably). I could also see myself adding this to our camping gear, which would be a huge improvement on anything the state parks have to offer.

Now it’s your turn! What are some of your favorite cast iron tips and tricks? Does anyone have cast iron cookware that was passed down from a family member or found at a secondhand store?

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Mullennix June 15, 2014 at 7:40 pm

I cooked a large piece of ham and I had a sticky mess when it was over. I used the oil and salt but it wasn’t smooth or satisfactory. I went and got a razor window scraper used for removing paint drops. Oh, yeah. Magic and fast. Only the debris came off.

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Robin Anderson June 9, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Ok, my new frying pans arrived today.
I’m excited! I love my Dutch ovens and now I am trying frying pans. I bought a small lodge that is good to go, but my enamel coated 10 inch cuisinart isn’t according to reviews I read.

I have olive oil, cocnut oil and canola oil. Which should I use?

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Kate from Frugal Living NW June 9, 2014 at 9:43 pm

go with canola — it will work best in the heat

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Robin Anderson June 10, 2014 at 7:54 am

Thanks. Going to do it as soon as I finish my smoothie.

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Gary Mullennix June 15, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Do the research on the instability of polyunsaturated fats high in Omega 6. You’ll have Canola and the rest of the never eaten before by humans up to a 100 years ago out of not only these pans but your kitchen as well. Coconut oil (refined has no flavor), Olive (high in Omega9) and probably the best, lard…not the Armor brand which is partially hydrogenated but actual lard. Rendering it yourself is in fact easy.

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E. Golden May 7, 2014 at 7:59 am

Walmart carries Lodge cast iron. Two sizes of frying pans, a griddle and a Dutch oven. The prices are great. I gave my youngest son a set for Christmas. Every household should have a few pieces of cast iron!

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TonyBear May 6, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Great article. I find many uses for my cast iron cookery. My favorite is biscuits in my skillet in the oven. They come out better than any other type pan.

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Andi April 2, 2014 at 6:31 am

I have found that large outdoor stores (like Cabela’s and Bass Pro) also have decent prices on cast iron cookware, which eliminates the shipping cost of an online store for a very heavy item.

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BARB March 18, 2014 at 6:27 pm

I’m 62 yrs old and I have cooked on cast iron all my life my mom raised 11 children on hers .I got mine at the age of seventeen and I graveyards handrail use them and I think they Marjorie food taste alot better .but some ties I put mine on hot burner and get them hot and I take wax paper and just th on bottom of them if I find really bad rusty one’s after I do tis I use isolated tat and u won’t have any problems of ‘re rusting after a few cooked meals u won’t even know what bad shape u got them .just don’t burn yourself when waxing them .so good luck .

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Jenna March 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

Hello! I’m sure this is a silly question, but how to I know if my cast iron pans are enamel-coated or regular cast iron? For cast iron pans, the ones i’ve seen all look the same. I purchased two cast iron pans (my first ones) at a garage sale last summer. They were in awful shape and I’ve tried re-seasoning them twice after reading a few different articles online but they are still rusty. I am unsure how to get the rust out and make them smooth. Suggestions for the really bad ones? I’ve been anxiously waiting to use them after all the great things I’ve heard about cast iron pans. :) Thanks for any help and feedback you can give me!

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Manda May 22, 2014 at 9:48 pm

If you want to take your cast iron back down to the bare metal (get rid or rust, old seasoning and built up gunk), you can run the old pans through the self clean cycle on your oven. On a day you can open up the windows in your house, make sure you take out the oven racks and any foil you may have in the bottom of your oven. Lay the two pans however you need to in the oven so that they are not touching each other or your heating elements. I usually lean the handle up into the back corner with the frying surface at an angle but facing mostly down, that way any of dust from the junk that burns off falls out of the pan into the bottom of the oven. Run the shortest self cleaning cycle, if you have more then one. If there is a lot of junk on your pans you will definitely want to open windows, run your vent hood… It can be stinky! When the cycle is done, leave it alone! Let the pans cool completely in the oven. When you take them out they will be covered in a thin powder of rust. I take mine to the sink and rinse them off. WARNING: Rust stains! I use paper towel to then dry them off… It will still have a very slight rust coat, but don’t worry, just season them anyway. Just use paper towel to wipe on your oil/shortening/grease. I have used shortening, but it is easy to use to much and then things can get sticky. My favorite cast iron pans are seasoned with bacon grease!

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Teri August 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I have 2 old cast iron pans from Wagner’s that have been passed down through the family. One dates back to 1910 and one is 1925. I love them and use them pretty much exclusively with my enameled cast iron pot. One question. My fry pans are smooth. The newer ones are orange peeled. Did they get smooth from use or are they made differently today? I sure would rather they be smooth.

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Manda May 22, 2014 at 9:15 pm

The older cast iron pots and pans were milled smooth on the inside after they were cast. With the newer pans they have eliminated this step allowing them to be more affordable. I much prefer my old, smooth pans too!

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Betsy Lute August 19, 2013 at 11:46 pm

I have recently found some cast iron pans.. ( a dutch oven $10 and a plate sized frying pan $1… yes 1 dollar) at a flea market. Yes they were rusty and ugly but I had heard i could salvage them. I have seasoned them and and I am ready to start using them but I have a couple of questions. ONE, Is there any truth to the story I have heard about using tomatoes in the cast iron? One person told me soups with tomato base are a real no go for the dutch oven due to the acid level. Two, the frying pan I found has a wooden handle. Are there any extra cautions using it in the oven. I doubt I will broil in it but is there a guide regarding that style and temperatures? Thank you !

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Emily from Frugal Living NW August 20, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Nice finds and good job bringing them back to life!!

Yes, from what I understand, high acid foods, like tomatoes, will strip the finish and give a strong iron taste to the finished product. I think a newer seasoned pan is more susceptible; an older, better seasoned pan might withstand the acid better. I personally avoid cooking tomatoes in my cast iron skillets. http://ruhlman.com/2008/07/elements-cast-i/

And from everything I have read, cast iron skillets with wooden handles are not oven safe. I would stick to using it on the stove top and keep on the lookout for an all cast iron pan to use in the oven (which you will LOVE).

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Sara Long August 12, 2013 at 6:26 am

I agree lodge is great cast iron brand, although I do cherish my older ones that’s been passed down with no name. They indeed are versatile-soup, bread, cakes, there’s nothing ou can’t cook in cast iron

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Sharon @ Parents of a Dozen July 19, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I have an oblong pan that I use several times a week it is around 3 1/2 inches deep and covers two burners. I bought it from an estate sale about 20 years ago and never saw one like it again. We use it for just about everything. Nice post! I love all of our cast iron cookware.

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cathy meyer June 1, 2013 at 10:53 pm

have my greatgrandmas 2 chicken fry pan takes two people to lift when full 3lbs of hambgers .and it blow glass lid. love it .and use all time .started using again because husband was burning handles of pans when frying eggs.will not go back.

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Bev April 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

Cooking with cast iron increases the iron in your blood, increases the hemocrit levels in your blood. All good.

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Gary Mullennix June 15, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Good for women perhaps who shed blood monthly. Not so for men because unless they give blood multiple times a year, the iron will continue to build and eventually it becomes a significant problem in developing arterial inflammation.

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Linda L March 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm

I love cast iron. Great finds at yard sales also:)

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Linda S March 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I use my oven on clean cycle to clean really nasty cast iron. It gets all the rust and old buildup off and leaves the item ready to finish up easily with a nonmetallic pad and flax seed oil.

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Karly March 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

I love the fact that Lodge is American made. However, when you look at the fine print, only the regular cast iron is made here. The enamel-covered cookware is made in China.

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Vickie Todd Brown January 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

Nothing like cornbread baked in an iron skillet!….can’t beat it!

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Robin Anderson January 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm

We have a flat top stove an my husband loves cast iron. He has a box of it in storage since he is worried about it damaging the stope top. Dose anyone have this type and use these pans on it? We have bought some enamel coated pieces to use, but would love to use the stored items as well.

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Ashley Kline January 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

Robin, I have cooked on a friends flat top stove with my cast iron with no problem.

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Robin Anderson January 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

Thank you, Ashley!

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Gail March 15, 2013 at 10:53 am

Robin Anderson, I love the Homestead Blessings DVD collection (in the one called The Art of Cooking) they are using cast iron skillets on a flat top and it looked like it was just fine.

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Shiela March 15, 2013 at 11:02 am

I use cast iron on my flat top daily! It will not scratch your cooktop!

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Joni January 19, 2013 at 8:35 am

Good article, Emily!

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Joni January 19, 2013 at 8:33 am

I’ve had a 12″ Lodge skillet for 6 years or so that I used to only use to make the most amazing Iron Skillet Apple Pie in. Lately, I’ve been using it for more meals. I just got a 12″ Lodge Dutch oven for Christmas and, yesterday, I bought a 10″ Lodge frying pan. I, too, am hoping to replace as many of my pots and pans with cast iron as possible. When I build my new house in a couple of years, I will have a special wall by the stove in the kitchen just for displaying and accessing my cast iron.

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moira January 18, 2013 at 11:29 pm

After drying it on the stove, I give it a spray with Pam (generic). Then just a light wipe with a paper towel. I do it after every use. Have pieces handed down from great grandad that homesteaded in Colorado.

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DJP January 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Check out this article – http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/

I did the flax oil on an older pan and on 2 new preseasoned Lodge pans. It worked great – almost like non-stick! Be aware though, it will stink while you are doing it!

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McKenzie January 18, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I love my Lodge Logic pans! I have three sizes of the skillets and use them all weekly, sometimes daily. They were given to me by my mom as a Christmas present. She couldn’t part with hers yet. My dad also uses cast iron, along with my older brother. It’s a family thing!

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Twin Mom January 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I like my Lodge pizza pan, available at Walmart. I preheat the pan at 450, then slide the pizza on parchment paper onto the preheated pan and bake for 10 min

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Cindy March 15, 2013 at 10:18 am

I have that pan, got it at the Lodge Outlet in Sevierville, TN

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