Learning to Love Cast Iron

“It’s hard to cook with." 

"Food sticks to it.” 

“It’s hard to clean.” 

“It’s hard to take care of.”

“Cast iron is too heavy.”

I think cast iron cookware just gets a bad rap. 

Actually, none of those statements is true. (OK, the heavy part is true.) What else is true is that many cooks are simply afraid of cast iron. I know I was. Then I bought a few pieces from Lodge about 2-3 years ago. They were reasonably-priced, and I was curious. I have to admit I’m still learning; but I have definitely fallen in love with my cast iron.

It feels so strong and solid. It heats very well - and keeps that heat for a long time. Cast iron just adds a note of warmth to my kitchen. And, no, I'm not talking just about heat warmth. It's a coziness and even a sense that I am connected with the past. Perfect for Autumn and Winter when the days get shorter, the temperatures drop, and the dark nights seem ever-present. I can't completely explain it. It's just a feeling.

So, are you ready to start your adventures cooking with cast iron yet? Well, hold on there hot-foot! There's a few things you probably need to know before you just dive right in. 

Here’s a little about what I’ve learned as I've used my cast iron cookware.

What’s to Love?

I think when you get used to cooking with cast iron you will grow to love it. There are some adjustments to make. Nothing crazy-hard...just a little different.

It gets very hot, quickly - and stays that way. Because of that, I tend to reduce the heat from what I’d use if I were using nonstick. To me, it just gets THAT hot.

They say that cast iron doesn’t necessarily heat evenly. You need to move food around a bit - especially if you have a gas cooktop. But I have to say that in my experience I don't really notice any hot spots. It feels pretty even to me.

And since cast iron is often one single piece (handle and all), remember the handle can get VERY hot too! I bought a handle guard to help with that. But, my experience is that it really doesn’t work very well even at lower heat. The guard may keep you from burning your hand if you touch it, but it’s not cool enough to pick it up by the handle. (At least not for me.) The pan still gets very hot and so does the handle. Treat it accordingly!

Cast iron is very versatile. You can cook on the stovetop and then finish in the oven. How great is that?

It's very difficult to completely ruin it. Yay! I’ve probably done several things wrong with it along the way. But, hey, you can always re-season it and just move along.

Taking care

So, speaking of re-seasoning. How do you do it? Well, seasoning is really not difficult. It takes a little time to do it fully. Basically, it involves are adding some oil to the pan's surface, baking it in, and then letting it cool. Really, that’s it. Here are the two main methods:

Oven:

  1. Place a layer of foil on the oven's bottom rack (to catch any drips)
  2. Preheat the oven to 350-450 degrees
  3. Spread some neutral oil (canola, vegetable, and flaxseed work well) or melted shortening (not too much - just a thin layer) over all the surfaces inside and out
  4. Place the pan in the oven upside down (to prevent the oil from pooling inside the pan)
  5. Bake it for 1 hour. 
  6. Turn off the oven and let it all cool down.

Stovetop:

  1. Place the skillet over a burner set to high heat.
  2. Leave the skillet on the burner for a while to let it dry out
  3. Add a half teaspoon of a neutral oil (canola, vegetable, and flaxseed work well) or melted shortening (not too much - just a thin layer). Wipe it around with a paper towel.
  4. Continue heating the pan until it just starts to smoke then give it one more good rub.
  5. Let it cool.

Ongoing care is not hard either. Just remember not to soak it or put it in the dishwasher. And avoid metal scouring pads, which can scratch, damage, and remove the layers of seasoning and expose the metal. 

After cooking I usually put a little warm water in it while the pan is still warm and wipe it out with a paper towel or rub with a brush. I use a dish scrubber without any soap in it or the scrubber side of a sponge. Sometimes I use just a bit of mild dish soap if I feel like it needs it. If I end up with some stubborn crusty bits in the pan, I rub it out with kosher salt and a few paper towels while it’s still warm and then clean it as usual.

The key is to dry the pan completely as soon as possible. Then when it’s all done I put a few drops of oil in it and wipe it all over the interior surfaces. That’s it. And so far my results have been good.

What to Cook - Yes

Because it gets so hot and retains heat so well, cast iron is ideal for high-heat cooking. So, what would that include? Meat that gets seared like steaks or meat that gets browned before braising work really well.

Remember cast iron is oven-safe. You can take it from the stovetop directly into the oven. So recipes that call for stovetop cooking and oven baking or finishing (as long as they’re not on the avoid-cast-iron list (see below) will work great.

I’ve had great success with stir-fries. Since the cast iron gets and keeps its heat it feels a lot like a wok. In a stir-fry you crisp up the meat and/or rice and cook the veggies (but without over-cooking them). The fact that cast iron retains it’s heat even after you add food (unlike other pans) makes it great for stir-fry.

I’ve had mixed results with eggs - but mostly very good. It depends on how well the pan is seasoned. I’ve had scrambled and fried eggs that have stuck to the pan a bit. But if I have it seasoned well and/or use a little fat like butter, no problem. Again, I think the key is keeping your pan well-seasoned.

Lots of people talk about cooking awesome cornbread in their pans, but I must admit I haven’t tried that. I even inherited a beautiful Lodge corn bread cast iron pan from my mother-in-law. That needs to be on my list of to-dos, huh?

WHAT TO COOK - NO

Fish might not be greatest choice, especially some of the more delicate pieces. If you must try fish, maybe try a meatier fish like salmon or mahi mahi. They stand up to the heat better.

Tomatoes. The acidity in tomatoes or tomato sauce can be too harsh for a cast iron pan. For the same reason, don’t deglaze a cast iron pan using wine or vinegar.

So don't be afraid to try cast iron cooking. It's easier than you might think. And the versatility and the results are great! The key is to get to know about it - what it’s good for, what you probably shouldn’t use it for, and how to care for it. Just get these few pointers down and you’re good to go!