Food & Nutrition: How to care for your cast iron skillet

Wash or don't wash? If you have cast iron cookware, it needs to be seasoned with oil and cared for properly.

Posted on Feb. 17, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

This week I have more to share and will answer more of your questions on last week's topic: cast iron cookware.

In many kitchens cast iron fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s, as Teflon-coated aluminum non-stick cookware was introduced and quickly became the skillet of choice. Today there are so many new and improved finishes to skillets, pots and pans. However, the durability and reliability of cast iron as a cooking tool has ensured its survival. Cast iron cookware is still recommended by most cooks and chefs as an essential part of the kitchen.

A seasoned cast iron skillet or pan has a stick-resistant coating created by polymerized oils and fats. Seasoning is a process in which a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil is applied and cooked onto cast iron or carbon steel cookware. New cookware should be vigorously washed in hot water with a strong detergent to remove any casting oils from the cookware's surface. A light coat of oil is applied to the cookware and the cookware is then placed upside down in the oven, on the middle rack and on a layer of newspaper (to drain for an hour), then the newspaper is removed, and the oven heated to 350 degrees and baked for 30 minutes.

The next time we are seasoning our cast iron skillets I am going to try mineral oil. Mineral oil is what I use on my wooden cutting boards, salad bowls and anything else wooden in the kitchen. The article I read suggested mineral oil as it is tasteless, and it doesn’t get a strong smell. I know from past experience you just need to wipe the cast iron with an oiled cloth; you don’t need to poor the oil on or have any standing in the skillet. A good time to re-season your cast iron is this winter when you already have the oven on.

Some cookware comes pre-seasoned from the factory. The seasoning layer protects the cookware from rusting, provides a non-stick surface for cooking, and prevents food from interacting with the iron of the pan. However, frequent use of acidic foods such as tomato sauce will remove the seasoning and the cookware will need to be re-seasoned frequently. We use our cast iron to cook a variety of foods, but we don’t cook high-acid foods such as chili, tomato sauces for spaghetti or high-acid soups in our cast iron. We prefer to cook the high acid foods in stainless steel.

The 20th century saw the introduction and popularization of enamel-coated cast iron cookware, and it is becoming more popular again. Enameled cast iron is cast iron that has a vitreous, or glassy, enamel glaze. The enamel coating over the cast iron prevents rusting, eliminates the need to season the metal, and allows for more thorough cleaning. Furthermore, pigments used in the enameling process can produce vibrant colors. While enamel-coated cast iron doesn't have the seasoning and cleaning issues of bare cast iron, it can be several times more costly, and does not have some of the benefits of bare cast iron, such as the ability to withstand searing heat and resist sticking. It limits the leaching of dietary iron, and chipping of the enamel coating can be an issue. These pans are good and heavy and once hot, really hold the heat, but there is a difference in the flavor of the food cooked in bare cast iron.

When it comes to cleaning your cast iron, ordinary cookware cleaning techniques such as scouring or washing in a dishwasher can remove or damage the seasoning on a bare cast iron pan. These pans should not be cleaned like most other cookware. Some cast iron admirers advocate never cleaning cast iron pans at all, simply wiping them out after use, or washing them with hot water and a stiff brush. Others advocate washing with mild soap and water, and then re-applying a thin layer of fat or oil. A third approach is to scrub with coarse salt and a paper towel or clean cloth.

What I learned at home is what we do to care for our cast iron. The majority of the time we take a metal spatula to clean it, then wipe it out with paper towel. To store the pans, we line the bottom with a paper towel and nestle the remaining cast iron skillets in one another and return the stack to the oven.

I will close by sharing with you a few other ways we use the skillets, we bake our bacon in the oven so we don’t have the mess on the stove and grilled cheese sandwiches in the cast iron are the best! Keep in mind the Dutch oven is the best for ham and beans! Brown the ham in the cast iron skillet or Dutch Oven, then add the onions and brown them; add the soaked beans and water and bring to a full boil for a short time and then simmer until tender. Of course, you serve this with corn bread baked in the cast iron skillet. So please find your cast iron cookware and use it again. 

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is county extension director and an extension educator in health and human sciences at Purdue Extension Elkhart County. You can contact her at 574-533-0554 or lienhart@purdue.edu.


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