Cast-Iron Pan 101: How to Season, Clean, and Use
Cast iron, schmast iron. Why does everyone rave about those pans? And how do you care for the things? The incredible author of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," and friend of Good Eggs, Samin Nosrat, explains:
I don’t think I crossed paths with a cast iron skillet until I was a young cook in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, and even then it freaked me out. To be fair, everything freaked me out at that point, but the fact that it was so heavy, black, and smoking hot didn’t help. Neither did the fact that I wasn’t supposed to use water to clean it. Huh?
Well, now, all these years later, the cast iron is the most beloved pan in my kitchen. I use one (or more) in almost every class I teach, and am usually met with puzzled, fearful looks from my students. I recognize those looks all too well. Time to start demystifying this most excellent of cooking implements for home cooks.
Why cast iron?
I think a better question might be “why not?” but the truth of the matter is that cast iron pans are terrific at retaining and distributing heat evenly. Because they can get really hottttt, they’re perfect for searing food. And they can travel seamlessly from the stovetop into the oven, which is handy for roasts and braises. Or cornbread. Everyone loves cornbread.
Furthermore, in this age of BPA, PFOA, phthalates and other unpronounceable carcinogens, cast iron offers a naturally non-stick way to cook, as long as the pan is cared for.
Cast iron TLC
With proper care, cast iron really can last forever. Keeping water and really acidic foods (like wine) away from the pan, and storing it in a dry spot after each use will ensure that the pan will retain its non-stick seasoning and remain rust-free (and keep your food from discoloring, too). The excellent thing, too, to remember is that if the pan does get rusty or lose its seasoning at any point, you can always re-season it and get a fresh start.
Non-stick it to me
One of the wonders of cast iron is that it can be very non-stick. However, a few things need to be in place to “activate” its slippery qualities. Make sure you’re working with the right conditions and you’re set:
• Seasoning: the pan needs to have a healthy coat of seasoning (the black stuff)
• Fat: you need to use enough fat (i.e. butter, oil, bacon fat or lard) to lubricate the surface of the pan
• Heat: the pan needs to be hot before you add your fat, or cooking oil, and the oil needs to be hot before you add your food
‘Tis the season
Seasoning a cast iron pan might be the most confounding part of the whole deal. But, it’s also the most important. Because cast iron is porous and prone to rusting, the pans aren’t naturally non-stick—it’s the seasoning that keeps food from sticking and protects the pan from rust.
What is seasoning? And how do you do it? Well, basically, it’s a thin layer of fat that stays on the pan. Applying a little fat to a clean pan and then heating the pan for an extended period of time is all it takes to season it, but like most things, there is an art to seasoning cast iron, and lots of conflicting opinions on the best technique. The most classic way to get the job done is to make a few Sunday night fried chicken dinners, and just wipe out the grease with a rag or paper towel (don’t wash it). My preferred method involves a bit more work and, if you’re up for it, you can find it here.
Cleaning up your act
As with seasoning, it seems that everyone has his or her preferred way to clean a cast iron pan. Most people agree that soap shouldn’t ever come into contact with the seasoning, nor should the pan sit and soak in the sink. After you’ve done all of that hard work (and eaten all of that fried chicken) to achieve such an excellent layer of seasoning, the last thing you want to do is scrub it off with soap and a sponge. Furthermore, letting water sit in the pan for any period of time will just encourage it to rust.
I was taught to never let water touch my cast iron, unless the pan is hot enough to boil and steam it away immediately. Most of the time, a simple wipe down with a dry rag is enough. For more stubborn messes, I subscribe to the Madeleine Kamman method, heating the pan after I’ve used it, pouring in kosher salt, and scrubbing the bejeezus out of any sticky bits. If things are really dire, I might add in a ladleful of boiling water, or a splash of cooking oil to help loosen cooked-on food. When I’m satisfied, I’ll dump out the dirty salt, wipe out the pan, and rub it with fresh oil before putting it away. And by away, I mean leaving it out on the stove, or in the oven where it’ll get periodic bursts of dry heat to keep it rust-free.
If I ever do allow water to touch the pan, I’ll make sure to heat it over a medium flame to evaporate any remaining liquid, and then wipe it down—inside and out—with oil to keep it rust free.
If you haven’t yet, give cast iron pans a try. They’re durable, versatile, non-stick, and a joy to cook with, but if for not other reason you convert to the love of cast iron, they’ll at least save you a few minutes of dish duty.
Samin Nosrat is a writer, teacher and cook based in the Bay Area who treats her pans like her food: heat properly, season well, and if things get sticky, add salt. Purchase her New York Times Bestseller, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated to include original photography and mention Samin Nosrat's latest cookbook.