Pans_2                                                                                                                                 Photo by DTR

Cast iron: When properly maintained, cast iron pans are superlative cookware.  They are inexpensive, durable, and because they’re so dense, they’re slow to heat, but when they do get hot, they stay that way.  When they are properly “seasoned,” they are virtually as good as the fanciest non-stick sauté pan, better in fact, because they can take a beating.  They do react to acid and salt, however, so you wouldn’t want to salt food down in cast iron, and the acid in tomatoes will actually draw iron into a tomato sauce (iron is good for you but tomato is bad for the pan).

To season cast iron, pour a half-inch layer of oil into it, put it over high heat until the oil is very hot or put it into a 300 degree oven for an hour or so, then let it cool completely.  Pour off the oil and wipe it dry with a paper towel.  (If you make fried chicken or deep fry potatoes in your cast iron, it will season itself.)  Never use soap on it, only an abrasive (a copper scrub pad or some kosher salt), dry it with a paper towel, and if it needs it, rub some more oil into it.  It will stay seasoned and glossy indefinitely.  If you neglect it, it can be re-seasoned.  Even old and abused cast iron pans can be cleaned, seasoned and reborn as first-rate cookware.

Enameled cast iron is cast iron that has an enamel coating—and therefore is non-reactive to salt and acid and should not be “seasoned”—is also an excellent cooking material.  It can be used on the stove top or in the oven and is especially suited to braising because, while its surface is semi-non-stick, it still allows food to brown and the bottom develops a fond.
                                                                                              —From The Elements of Cooking

Some readers have asked me about cast iron cookware—I have the three pans above and I use them all the time, love them. I don’t think I paid more than $10 for any of them.   Great for any kind of cooking.  It’s what I roast chicken in, and bacon seems to taste better when fried on cast iron.  Turn them upside down and use them as a pizza stone.  They truly are some of the best cookware available from a practical standpoint, but also there’s something satisfying in cooking food in these elemental vessels, in this age of plastic handles, non-stick surfaces and marketing ploys.  Food looks great when it’s cooking in these things (see Moonstruck for one of the most memorable food shots in film).  Look for used pans in antique stores—all of my pans were found on travels through Amish country in central Ohio.  They’re easily brought back to gorgeous gleaming black life, they make great gifts, they last forever. Heavy expensive copper pans hanging in your kitchen intimidate.   The sight of cast iron inspires.

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144 Wonderful responses to “Elements: Cast Iron”

  • Bob delGrosso

    milo

    As long as the pan is clean (no build up of tar anywhere), oiled and free of excessive pits and bumps, it should not be sticky. Perhaps you are not getting it hot enough?

    Try heating over a high flame until just before it smokes. Then turn down the flame a half measure and wait three or four minutes.

  • milo

    My cast iron pan has always been great for bacon, but that’s about it.

    For anything else, stuff seems to stick very easily unless I use a ton of oil, then is impossible to clean.

    I’m pretty sure I seasoned it correctly, but I suspect that to get it really nonstick, I’d have to season it multiple times? Once doesn’t really seem to do the trick.

    Question – once a pan is seasoned well, can you really cook stuff in it without it sticking, without having to use a ton of oil? Stuff like hash brown potatoes? I thought a cast iron pan would be great for that sort of thing, but it all totally stuck unless I used just gobs of oil.

    I’d love to get away from nonstick cookware as much as possible, but most things I have tried just end up sticking and making an awful mess.

    So what am I doing wrong? Not seasoning it enough? Or will cooking in cast iron always need a lot of oil?

  • Messy

    Right. If anyone’s interested, cast iron skillets were rated by Cook’s Illustrated in Sept/Oct 2007. The top three:

    1. Lodge Logic 12-inch Skillet.

    2. The Camp Chef SK-12 Cast Iron Skillet. The notes say that with a bottom 10.37 mm thick, it’s awkward to handle because of the weight.

    3. Lodge Pro-Logic 12-inch Skillet. I like the look of this one for the sake of the curved sides and bigger handle. Apparently it’s easier to clean.

    So there you go, if anyone (like me) wants to buy a new pan, those were the three top-rated.

  • Kurt

    Excellent topic. My cast-iron skillet and Dutch oven are my most prized cooking utensils, hands down. They literally improve with every use. My $0.02 on use and care:

    - more grease is always good. oil-fry if you want, coat with oil whenever you think you need to. NEVER use soap.

    - always dry thoroughly and immediately. iron + water = rust.

    - if you have rust, the pan likely needs re-seasoning. you need a protective coating of oil to make a non-stick surface, as well as to separate the iron from the water. rust means that the non-stick surface is almost certainly gone.

    - Ruhlman mentions scrubbing with kosher salt, but a mixture of kosher salt and fresh oil works best for me. after scrubbing, wash the salt away under running water and dry the pan thoroughly with paper towels. use dry towels to coat with more oil if needed.

    - better yet, don’t scrub…just deglaze the pan when it’s hot. the sticky bits will come right up with minimal scraping. make a pan sauce if possible, or dump it and dry out the pan with paper towels. coat with additional oil if needed.

    - don’t buy a panini press. heat a cast-iron skillet and drop it on top of your favorite sandwich.

    Questions:

    - I’ve never heard that salt reacted with cast iron. What does it do? Why is scrubbing cast-iron pans with salt okay?

    - Anyone got tips on cooking eggs in cast iron, other that floating them in grease?

  • Harry

    @Ken: copper pans are easy to keep clean.

    The *outside* of the copper pan is another thing entirely. I didn’t buy copper pans till I’d had my itty bitty butter warmer (<$50 and still used to make garlic oil) for a year and decided I could live with unpolished copper. I keep my pans in a drawer anyway – the better not to intimidate my guests, I suppose.

  • kristin

    my mom has this cast iron wok that is so great. The thing could be a lethal weapon. Got my dad a Lodge cast iron hibatchi a few years ago. He uses it almost as much as the gas grill.

  • Darcie

    @Lisa

    I take your point, but beg to differ. First, canola and safflower are mostly monounsaturated, not polyunsaturated.

    In a well-seasoned pan, there won’t be much iron oxide (aka RUST). More likely I think what gets absorbed into the oil are impurities from the food.

    I use these oils to fry in a cast iron pan with no problem, but it is difficult to REUSE these oils because they do become rancid easily. I don’t like using shortening for anything. I’d rather have the free radicals from the cast iron than the artery clogging properties of partially-hydrogenated oil.

    But the best fat for frying is lard. LARD RULES. Don’t use the shelf-stable stuff; it’s full of preservatives. Render your own and savor the flavor.

    Remember, if at first you don’t fricasse, fry, fry again!

  • motoko

    Taste memories…cast-iron takes me back to childhood, when my uncle lived with us. I guess I can say he was a “personal chef,” or rather, my own short-order cook. He and my dad were raised in poverty in Mexico so his cooking reflected his simple upbringing. He would make all kinds of meals for me with his cast-iron skillet like fried-chicken or a fried egg/potato concoction and best of all, refried beans. None of it was fancy, but it was always flavorful, with chiles, salsa, and fresh corn tortillas on the side.

  • Ken

    Let us all sing the praises of cast iron cookware.

    When I was heading off to college 36 years ago, I decided that all my belongings needed to fit into a backpack. One of those items was a large cast iron pan that I cooked everything in (it was the only thing I had) and lugged from place to place to place. I still have it today. It’s a champ.

    Let us also sing the praises of Griswold cast iron cookware. I inherited a set of Griswold pans from my grandmother, including a pancake griddle, and Lodge and other modern cast irons pale in comparison. Griswolds are significantly lighter (and, so, easier to handle) but without losing all the benefits of their clunkier cousins.

    I haven’t had to reseason any of these for years. Clean up is easy. (Compare the mainenance and clean up to copper.)

    Back to black, I say.

  • The Yummy Mummy Cooks Gourmet

    Great post, Michael!

    I cook nearly everything I can in cast iron. And all of my cast iron is old and re-seasoned from various flea markets and antique stores. I absolutely love it!

    But what is this about tomatos and cast iron? I never heard of this. Does this mean I shouldn’t make my marinara or my other tomato-based sauces in cast iron anymore?

    Yikes. I’ve been doing this for years…

    Kim

    PS And this is why I keep reading you…

  • Lisa

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1bKvLrz_lI

    You neglect to mention that deep frying in cast iron is not recommended with polyunsaturated oils such canola, sunflower or safflower. The iron when heated quickly makes the oil absorb iron oxide turning it rancid. Rancidity involves all of those nasty cancer-causing free radicals, that you don’t want in your body.

  • Arturo

    You do see some cast iorn in working kitchens, usually not more than a couple peices though. Much more common are the blue steel pans by DeBuyer/world cuisine.

    They are great for pan roasting protiens and getting a great crust. Although not light, they are compared to Lodge pan, so you can have a stack on your cook top.

  • Kitt

    When I finished gradual (sic) school and was moving to South Dakota for my first real job, my mom came out of the house carrying a package and handed it to me tenderly, like a baby. It was my great-grandmother’s Geman pancake pan. It’s really just a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, but German pancakes were its special purpose.

    I know it was hard for Mom to give it up, but I cherish it and use it regularly, but only for foods whose flavors won’t clash with the German pancakes I make in it still. Never fish.

    I clean it with water immediately after use, and reheat it with grapeseed oil, wiping out the excess for storage. The bottom is as smooth as glass.

  • luis

    Michael thank you for the great tip about tomato and cast iron. If I use a tomato based sauce I will be sure and use the enameled or non-stick wok instead of the cast iron. Great tip.

  • luis

    I recently purchased a Joyce Chen flat bottom cast iron wok. the wok itself is round as most woks but the base is flat. At first it seemed a bit gunky until reading the “Breath of a Wok” and searching around I discovered the cast iron woks come with a protective coating so they won’t rust in the stores.
    To remove the protective coat I kept oiling heating and washing the wok and drying it until there was no more residue coming off.
    To cure it is simple brush it with oil and heat it over and over and over again until it’s properly seasoned.
    The cast iron pores keep openning up and drinking in the new oil.
    After I use it now I gently wash it and brush away the food and oil and then I dry it under medium heat on the stove top. After its dry I apply a coating of oil while the wok pores are open to receive it and then I put it up.
    The more I use it the more I learn about it.. like everything else in life. Also I think its very important to use the thermopen whenever you cook in anything. I am now learning to up the heat and down the heat on the burner based on the temperature of the oil in the wok. In time I suppose I am also learning to read the texture of the oil in the wok and guess what the temperature of the oil is. Without the temp measuring I would never reach this level of understanding.
    I also have an enameled cast iron wok which I haven’t used all that much. The few times I have used it I have had very good results from it as well. But it cooks at lower temperature settings than the raw cast iron one. I have a non stick and two cast iron woks and I may purchase a 12 in steel wok if I find a good one sometime. Just to see how it cooks… The seasoning for steel is same as cast iron. As I am getting rid of all heavy store bought sauces in my pantry and I am making my own from fresh ingredients.. washing the woks is a snap. No sugary gunk to deal with anymore.

  • Cyndi

    years ago a wonderful small bakery was closing in my town, Ann Arbor, MI. My (not yet, but eventual) husband and I were walking down Main Street and decided to check to see what they selling. I love to cook (he’s a good cook too)and he loves to eat. They had a pile of round flat griddles they were selling. We ultimately bought 2 (probably for less than $5 each) Needless to say, they were well seasoned from all the goodies they made for many years. I recall thinking that 1 would be enough, but what the heck… We cleaned them up and use them often, especially for pancakes. One of the best purchases we’ve ever made! So glad we walked by at the right time!

  • Amy

    My mom owns a cast iron skillet. It cooks the BEST fried items and the BEST steaks. I have yet to own one myself…and as others have noted I have been intimidated on how to care for it.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve had to reseason cast iron a bunch of times- newer pots+clueless roommates=rust and sorrow. While frying potatoes seems to be the popular suggestion, I’ve found that cooking a whole bunch of bacon works really well too, as does rendering chicken (or I suppose any) fat. If a pan does get a bunch of stuff stuck to it, instead of scrubbing it out, I put it on a high burner until the stuck stuff chars and can be wiped away- though this only works when it’s warm enough to open the windows. Then I smear the whole thing with oil and leave it on the floor of my gas oven over the pilot light until I need it again. I suspect that some problems with seasoning and rust are putting oil in a pan that isn’t yet dry, so after I rinse a pan, I put it back on the burner for a few minutes to make sure all the water is gone before oiling it up again.

  • nondiregol

    I will also chime in on the virtues of cast iron cooking. I love this stuff, and unless you are keeping kosher it’s easy to season by just frying bacon in it.

    I have a “gumbo pot” and a French style “cocotte.” The latter, made in England, actually works really well for baking bread. Sort of like a pullman loaf. Last time I used I put a blister the size of a quarter on my thumb but the bread was really good.

    Could we move on to earthenware? The virtues of cooking in earthenware are almost spirtitual. There is just something about the taste that comes out of those vessels…

  • Yolanda

    Re: Re-seasoning

    We let a cast iron pan of our rust accidentally (it was left in the oven without being cleaned). We searched the internet for a way to bring it back to life and it was suggested to place it in the oven during a cleaning cycle (we also found suggestions of throwing it directly into a burning fire for 3 hours). The long exposure to the high heat will burn off any debris, surface rust, and seasoning. When cool, you wipe it with a dry cloth to remove any soot. Then, you coat all surfaces of the pan with shortening (vegetable oil works, but shortening is preferred). Then, place on a rack in a 350 degree oven for at least an hour face down (use a foil covered cookie sheet to catch the grease).

    We keep one cast iron pan for exclusively searing beef (steaks, roasts, burgers, etc.). We never cook any non-beef item in this special pan. The result? After five years of regular use, it has developed a deep, smokey, beefy flavor that really adds to the flavor of cooked meat. Like a well-used restaurant flat top.

  • Harry

    @Schlake: The method that works best for me is almost the same as Michael’s, but repeated. Generously grease the pan. I like crisco best because it sticks to the pan longer, but any neutral oil will work also. Bake it as he suggests, but upside down over something to catch the drippings. Wipe out extra grease while it’s hot, let cool. Lather, rinse, repeat till you like the seasoning.

    For anyone who wants to rehab a ruined pan and has the right oven, there’s a really easy way to remove burnt-on junk, rust, sticky-tacky grease, etc. Put your pan in an oven while the oven self-cleans. Your pan will be thoroughly clean and 100% unseasoned. Rinse out the junk and you’re set to go.

    That said, I haven’t used my plain cast iron much since I bought Le Creuset & Mauviel. But cornbread can’t be cooked in anything else, as far as I’m concerned. Ditto for the-real-thing fried chicken. I also have ONE nonstick pan for eggs. I’m not a fan of nonstick: onions don’t brown, roux doesn’t get dark, meat “browns” funny.

  • Messy

    I got rid of some cast-iron pans during my student days when it seemed I moved every 15 minutes. One was just way too big for me – it was difficult to lift at all. The other wasn’t a particularly good one to start with, I still don’t regret tossing it.

    I think I’ll replace them now. Cook’s Illustrated (love those guys) tested cast iron pans sometime late last year. All I remember is that Lodge was not at the top of their list. I shall have to look up that list.

  • Dennis

    Re: seasoning pans. If you have rust on your old pans, take steel wool to them. I use the Alton Brown method for seasoning pans – it is written up here:
    http://www.ehow.com/how_2001030_season-cast-iron-pan.html

    To take care of it after cooking, I use a nylon scrubby with minimal water and never use soap. I dry it off then spray the inside down with nonstick spray (Pam) and wipe it all over with a paper towel and store it in my oven.

  • Becky And The Beanstock

    Thanks so much for this! I’ve been slowly cobbling together my hodgepodge of cookware, and though I’ve been cooking for a long time, I have a whole lot to learn. i came of age in the paradigm of nonstick, and I’m just beginning to appreciate the quirks, idiosyncrasies, and particular superiorities of cast iron (my favorite to look at!) and stainless steel.

    Now, what about knives???

  • Jim Dixon

    I’ve got about 15 cast iron skillets in my kitchen that I use regularly (and quite a few more in the basement awaiting cleaning and seasoning). They’re all Griswolds, the best cast iron cookware around but only available at garage sales, antique shops, or through eBay. Made in Erie, PA, from the late 1800s through the 1950s, Griswolds were made using better materials and the finishing is nicer. I still find them for a few bucks at garage sales.

    I have to disagree with your advice about never using soap or detergent. A little won’t hurt a well-seasoned skillet, and it makes getting the grease off much easier.

    I’ve got a little more info about my skillets and a photo of the Griswold trademark (or one version, anyway) at my web site:

    http://realgoodfood.com/cast_iron.html

  • DAC

    Does anyone know how to re-season an old cast-iron pan. I have my grandmother’s and I want to start using it but it’s showing rust in certain places. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • ikate

    A few years ago when moving my Busia out of her house I foolishily allowed her 3 ancient cast iron skillets to go to Goodwill. Two days later I came to my senses and begged my way into the drop-off facility and dug through piles of donations until I found them (and paid for them). It was worth it as I use them for just about everything. I’ve purchased a double-burner griddle to go along with them but it doesn’t have the same non-stick and flavor of the 3 70 year old skillets!

  • Camille

    Cast iron pan as pizza stone! That’s brilliant! I was almost there – I tried baking calzone in the dutch oven à la the no-knead bread and it worked great, but I had yet to come up with a solution for pizza. Thanks!

    p.s. Is anyone familiar with Staub cookware? I’m having the hardest time telling whether the interior surface is enameled or not. The literature says that it is, but it seems to require oiling after washing.

  • Darcie

    I have several inherited cast iron pans and use the Dutch oven and 10″ skillet almost daily. The others, however, are warped and I’m afraid nothing can be done to correct that. If I had a gas cooktop it wouldn’t be so bad, but all I have is smooth-top electric so I can’t use them.

    I picked up an old portable induction unit for $25 that I use with the skillet, Dutch oven and my enameled cast iron pans. It’s a great extra burner and can be set up anywhere.

    As much as I love cast iron and induction, I can’t part with the Mauviel that my husband surprised me with one Christmas. I guess it will just have to intimidate visitors to my kitchen because it’s too pretty to hide (and its performance equals its beauty).

  • Sarah

    I have two cast iron pans–one (I think) British 10 inch number that my granny picked up heaven knows where in her early married life–it’s been making cornbread, fried chicken, collards, and other southern delicacies for since the 50s in air force postings all over the united states. It’s one of the material things she left to her cooking-mad granddaughter (in addition to teaching me most of her recipes and cooking tricks), and I treasure it more than the wedding china I also inherited from her, because I use it nearly every day. It’s still in service making proper southern cornbread, searing steaks, and pretty much anything small enough to fit in it that doesn’t require teflon, though I suspect I’m the first to whip up chicken korma and chorizo hash in there. :-)

    My second cast iron is a lodge of fairly recent vintage, square, 12 inches, and a bit more suited to things like bacon, and can handle two burgers, steaks, or checken breasts without crowding the pan. It doesn’t cook quite as well as Granny’s beauty simply because it doesn’t have 6 decades of curing and daily use on it, but it is starting to mellow nicely. Honestly, if it weren’t for a few stick-prone items like fish filets and eggs, I could probably do 100% of my sauteeing and frying in cast iron.

    Point of all this? I have as many name brand knives and stockpots and appliances as any other amateur food nerd, but those are just tools, and like any other tools eventually they will wear out or break down and be replaced with the next new technology, and I’ll take them to goodwill with only a small sigh of nostalgia. My cast iron is family history–it’s a link to generations of women who loved to cook, did it well, and who passed that heritage on to me. Whether or not I have kids, I hope to pass that knowledge and love of cooking to the next generation in some form, and I hope that in another 60 years, somebody somewhere will still be whipping up cornbread in that 10-inch round beauty.

  • Jeff

    I have a decent amount of cast iron, having made many stops at the Lodge factory outlet, but the piece that I cherish the most is the 10″ skillet that my grandmother gave me.

    She had received it as a wedding gift over 60 years prior, and I remember how she would use it to make breakfast for my grandfather. The finish is as smooth as you might imagine and no, water does not touch it.

    I lovingly care for it and plan on passing it down.

  • Schlake

    Your cast iron seasoning instructions are lacking. I’ve followed instructions like those many times and never managed to season my pans. I finally figured out how to do it when I realized that my cast iron deep fryer was the only seasoned pan I have. Now I season all my cast iron pans by deep frying potatoes in them every day for two weeks. A little messy with a skillet, but most effective.

  • Cooking Zuni

    One of the three cast iron pans that I love was given to me by a friend. It had been in her family for two generations, so I was extremely lucky that she passed it along to me. Carbon steel frying pans, with heavy iron handles, not flat handles, are also favorite pans of mine. I have given up nonstick for everything other than crepes. Perhaps I will be able to season my carbon steel crepe pan well enough to ditch that one too. It is with great difficulty that I am about to part with three tin-lined copper saute pans. When I bought them, Falk hadn’t even developed the process of lining copper with stainless steel, that’s how old they are. If I can’t get rid of them, the devil made me do it.

  • Marcy

    Aaah, Moonstruck eggs…but how about the scene in The Color Purple when Celie makes breakfast for Shug—the eggs and ham look so unbelievably delicious sizzling away in that cast iron pan—makes me want to go cook eggs every time I see it.

  • Kate in the NW

    Thank you for singing the praises and giving proper “care and keeping” advice for these unparalelled instruments. I cook just about everything in either lovingly-seasoned naked cast iron or in heavy enameled pieces – almost every one purchased at Goodwill and rehabilitated. Surely there is some sort of wisdom in “vintage” or antique cookwear. I buy them and joyfully speculate as to their history, the many meals they have brought forth. I feel more like their custodian or curator than their owner.

    Question: do chefs use cast iron in profesisonal kitchens? If no, why not?

    Just curious.

  • bloviatrix

    There are two things that have long intimidated me – sharpening knives and seasoning a cast iron pan. I bought Chad Ward’s book last week to work through the first one, now I’ll print this out to work through the second.

  • Dennis

    I absolutely love my Lodge 12″ cast iron pan for all the reasons you list. That pan outshines its more elegant All Clad cousins in many respects. I would like to add another pan to your list though – black steel. Harder to find but about as cheap as cast iron, and the treatment is completely similar for care and maintenance. I ordered mine from Bridge Kitchenware:
    http://www.bridgekitchenware.com/browse.cfm/2,142.html

  • rockandroller

    Getting a cast iron pan a few years ago was key to my actually learning how to properly cook and handle heat for food. I think Teflon and other non-stick has really dumbed down cooking and really delivers unsatisfying results, not to mention the toxicity.

    I did learn last Fall that acid/citrus + cast iron doesn’t work when I tried making MS’s brussels sprouts recipe in my cast iron. I know that should be obvious but if nobody has pointed out you shouldn’t do it, you don’t know. Dark purple, gray sprouts are not visually appealing. :)

  • Joanne

    Do you have any suggestions on how to clean a cast iron grill pan? I have a Calphalon grill pan, one side is a smooth surface, the other has the raised ridges. My stove is gas, so I find some difficulty cleaning it, I find when using one side the underside gets a bronzy sticky sheen to it. I clean my 12″ pan by heating it with a neutral oil, then sprinkling kosher salt and scrubbing it with a spatula or paper towels.

  • Shannon

    I’ve had lousy luck with cast iron. I can never get it seasoned right and it starts rusting. Your instructions are different than what comes with the pan, so I will try your way. It sounds exactly like it will do the trick! I think I hadn’t applied enough oil.

    My dad has a nice cast iron pan.

    Back in the 70′s, I remember us lugging his pan to camping trips and him banging it on our apartment wall and telling the crazy lady next door to shut up when she’d start yelling at her husband, LOL.

    He still has it and uses it daily….for cooking only.

  • frenchtart

    we have one that my husband inherited from his grandfather. it’s many decades old, and makes the best fried chicken.