Ah, the cast iron skillet: beloved by chefs, but decidedly intimidating to us mere mortals. How do you take care of it? What can you cook in it, and what should you never, ever cook in it? We have answers.
For something literally made of iron, cast iron is pretty high maintenance.
First, you need to season your skilet… but put down the salt and pepper. When it comes to cast iron, “seasoning” refers to a magical layer of oil that’s been baked into the pan, building with each use. When properly seasoned, your pan resists moisture and cracking, and can outlast even you (morbid, maybe, but true). Furthermore, a seasoned pan is just about as nonstick as anything Teflon, without the weird synthetic polymers.
When it comes to seasoning…
Do take your brand new cast iron, wipe down its entire surface with fat – lard or coconut oil works well – and bake in a 350˚ oven with a sheet pan beneath it to catch drips. Bake for an hour, and let cool completely before handling.
Do preempt that step with a good scrub if you’ve inherited a used cast iron. Rub it down with kosher salt and a dampened kitchen towel while it’s warm, then coat with enough oil to restore its luster. You just don’t want it to be sticky because gross.
Do quickly rinse your pan, dry with a cloth and apply oil after every single use.
Don’t allow your cast iron to soak in water. Iron + water = rust. Again, gross. Plus, in a crazy scientific turn of events, water actually leeches moisture from cast iron.
Don’t get in the habit of using soap. Germophobes: a little soap won’t hurt a well-maintained seasoning, so if you’ve been using your pan for a while, detergent is kosher. But if your cast iron is relatively new, your seasoning isn’t stable enough to withstand serious suds.
When it comes to cooking…
Do sear meat. One of cast iron’s best qualities is its ability to get hot and stay hot. Preheat the pan on the stove to let it absorb heat before it comes into contact with your protein. Bonus: cast iron is oven safe, so you can take your filet directly from burner to oven.
Do ditch your roasting pan. Direct contact with an intensely hot surface is what gives roasted veggies a golden crust… and everyone wants a golden crust. Roasting pans and sheet trays just can’t take the heat.
Do stir fry. Your cast iron retains heat the same way a wok does.
Do deep fry. You heard us. Chicken. Onion rings. Get it.
Do bake cornbread and brownies with a perfectly crisp exterior. Just…
Don’t use the same skillet for dessert and, say, fish, unless tuna-infused chocolate cake is your thing.
Don’t use your pan for scrambled eggs and frittatas until you’re confident in your seasoning– or you’d better get used to heavy scouring. Same principle…
Don’t cook anything acidic in your cast iron unless you’ve been building your seasoning for a while. That means no tomato sauce, and no deglazing with wine or vinegar. That said, if you’ve faithfully loved your pan for years, feel free to get your Bolognese on.
Long story short: take care of your cast iron and it will take care of you!