Thumbnail image for HappyHousewife.jpgI grew up seeing my mom cooking with cast iron pans. She had a twelve-inch skillet, two eight-inch skillets, a small (four-inch, maybe? single scrambled egg size) skillet, and a Dutch oven with a lid. They were (and still are) her primary pans, and I believe she is at least their second generation and possibly their third generation user.

There weren't a whole lot of "rules" for cast iron in our house. Mom used the big skillet to make spaghetti sauce. We used soap and scrubby sponges to wash them when they needed it. Apparently they are so old and well-seasoned there really isn't much of anything you can do to keep them from keeping their black glass finish, so rubbing off the seasoning wasn't ever something we worried about. It wasn't until I started living with Mark that I realized that cast iron cookery and cleaning has rules, and is a subject of much contention.

Mrs. Dunwoody's Excellent Instructions for Homekeepingsuggests the following method for cleaning a cast iron skillet:

Wash with a dishcloth using very mild soap and water. Don't scrape with any sharp objects; you may gouge off the coating. Don't use anything that might leave scratches on the surface, as food tends to stick in them. Use salt for scouring. Never drip dry; always dry with a cloth. If you care for them in this manner, they will last forever.

To season a new pan, the same source suggests these steps:


  1. First wash your pan very thoroughly with a mild dishwashing liquid. Rinse and dry completely with a dishcloth. You must never let your cast-iron cookware drain dry; that is inviting rust!

  2. Now, grease the inside with lard. Rub the grease in. Lightly grease the outside of the pan also. Wipe away any surplus. Do the same for the lid, if it has one.

  3. Place it in a slow oven (250 to 275 degrees) and let it "season" (bake) for 8 to 10 hours, or overnight.

  4. Do not put the lid on while treating it--you'd need crowbar to pry it open again.

  5. Let your pan cool naturally. It is now ready for use.

  6. You can apply a second coat if you'd like. Just repeat the process. If the first coat is spotty and bare, a second or third application will take care of that. Since there is now no exposed metal, your beans or stews can be left in your cast-iron cookware with no fear or rust or metallic taste.
Your seasoned pans will get sealed "coal black" with use, and that's what they are supposed to do. Don't use cast-iron pans for food high in acid content or at a temperature higher than 350 degrees, or the pan may crack. Don't leave a pan on high heat with no liquid in it. First it will get red hot, then it will crack in two.

The suggestions given in the Good Housekeeping Complete Household Handbook are similar. Rather than salt, Good Housekeeping suggests using baking soda as a scouring agent. The only surprising difference, though, is that Good Housekeeping suggests you can get a good season in only a couple of hours!

The Better Homes & Gardens book Making a Home as even fewer instructions, saying only that cast iron must be hand-washed and dried completely, and to season it regularly with vegetable oil. The recommended seasoning time? 20 minutes.

Finally, Martha Stewart weighs in on the care and seasoning of cast iron:

Cast iron needs careful treatment to prevent rust. The porous surface is partly sealed by factory grinding and polishing, but cast-iron pans need to be seasoned before first use and periodically thereafter. Seasoning seals the surface, preventing rust as well as the transfer of metallic tastes to food. To season, rub well on all surfaces with vegetable oil and place the pain in a 300 degree oven for one hour. Let the pan cool, then wipe away excess oil. To clean a seasoned pan, wipe with only hot water and a sponge or soft cloth. Never use detergent, which strips cast iron of its seasoned surface. If you have burned food in a cast-iron pan, boil a little salt and white vinegar in it, then dry it on top of the stove over a low flame, or scrub with coarse salt and a cloth. Wipe immediately with a clean cloth, then brush the interior of the pan with another thin coating of vegetable oil to preserve the seasoning. Wipe gently before storing in a dry place; stack by layering paper towels (or paper plates) between pans to prevent scratching. Leave off any lids to prevent mustiness and moisture buildup. If storing a cast-iron pan for any length of time, consider it first with food-grade mineral oil instead of vegetable oil, which will turn rancid.

We don't actually have any cast iron that needs to be cleaned or seasoned currently, so there won't be pictorial evidence of my doing in this post, but I do most of the dishes in our house, including the cast iron, so I use this skill set at least a couple of times a week. Like Martha suggest, we forgo the use of soap on our cast iron (since Mark's collection is neither so old nor so well-seasoned as my mom's), washing with just a sponge and hot water. If something needs to be scrubbed off, I use coarse salt, and it works like a charm. For seasoning, they get an oil rubdown (usually olive oil, just because that's what we most often cook with) and some time in a low oven--more than 20 minutes, but less than 2 hours, probably. Our cast iron is all hand-me-down, so it came with some seasoning, and it has slowly built but a better skin as it gets used. And we store the pans with paper towels between them to prevent scratches and soak up extra oil.

Do you use cast iron? Did you grow up that way, or is it is vintage or retro cooking thing for you? What do you most often make in your cast iron cookware? Do you take care of it any differently than suggested by my books, or differently than we do? Weigh in!

(And thanks to Abi for the post idea!)

9 Comments

I have two pieces that were my grandmother's, and I use them at least twice a week, sometimes more. They do have so many years of seasoning on them that I sometimes use a little soap and a scrubbie to get stuck on stuff out. I rinse, then put them on my gas stove over a flame to completely dry them. I then rub them with a little shortening or veg oil, let them cool off, then store them, usually in the oven. I'd love to get a huge dutch oven, but I'm leery about buying that new; I want to find a well loved one!

I grew up with cast iron, but I got new pans when I got married. I use one of them all the time. I clean with hot water and a nylon scrubbie, then dry on a burner set on low (no cloths) and rub it with shortening. The others need more seasoning, but they're small enough that I don't need them regularly.

I covet my grandmother's cast iron, which is glossy black and impervious to anything.

Excellently handy, thanks for the post! I will definitely keep this in mind: "If you have burned food in a cast-iron pan, boil a little salt and white vinegar in it, then dry it on top of the stove over a low flame" - my cast iron care is not really very great, although I've managed to keep the rust spots confined to the bottom of the pan (oops).

I'm still confused - lard, vegetable oil, 8 hours, 20 minutes!! Ack.

I love my cast iron. I use it for any deep frying, grilled cheese (it makes the best grilled cheese), casseroles, etc.

Mine was all new when I bought it. I seasoned it by coating it in oil then putting it in the oven for a couple of hours.

I wash it with mild detergent and hot water, then dry it on the stove. When the water has all evaporated, I'll wipe it down with oil while it's still hot from getting dried.

Hallee

Grace, the how hot/how long to season a pan has been the subject of contentious debate in my mom's (Southern) family for awhile. So we experimented -- and found that the best season (the glossy black) comes best with 1. lots of use, 2. greasing with crisco/lard, and 3. the long oven time (250 or 275 overnight).

lol. I seasoned mine by cooking lots and lots of bacon.

I use mine as veggie sautee' pans when we cook on the grill. Using them on the grill seems to season them really well. Mom has a fireplace and will burn the seasoning off hers every couple of years and re-season in the oven.

I want to provide a little clarification. Seasoning a pan involves burning a thin layer of grease or oil in the pan until there is only a layer of carbon left. The pan will smoke a lot. I use the barbecue grill.

New pans have lots of bumps in the bottom and really should be ground out to work properly. Have your husband grind that out before you season it. Rust can also be used to eat off all the little bumps on the bottom of your pan, although it takes a lot longer.

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