The Use and Care of Cast Iron Pans

Last week I bestowed the virtues of the cast iron pan, and received an email asking exactly how to go about using one. 

“I loved the article on pans.  My mother gave me a cast iron skillet that used to be my grandmother’s years ago and I am anxious to try it out.  ……. is there anything special I should do since it hasn’t been used in years?”  – Cast Iron Quandry

Now the care of these pans is very different than what you may be used to, so lets look at the three key steps.  The seasoning, cleaning and storing.  If you don’t treat this pan right, you can bring it back, don’t worry.  But treated well through its whole life, it will last for generations.

Chances are if you recently purchased a pan it came pre-seasoned and this step might not be necessary at this moment, but it will be a step down the road.  The act of seasoning is to coat the pan with several layers of oil and bake it into the surface.  This creates a virtually non-stick surface.  Basically the oil fills all the nooks and crannies in the surface which gives the product on top, say a fried egg, a silky smooth surface to play on.  See the illustration for a rough idea.

How to Season
Begin by getting a vegetable oil that is neutral in flavor.  We also want to stay away from Olive oil and animal based oils as they can either add flavors we don’t want, or they can go rancid if left unused for long periods.  My mother used to use bacon fat, and that is all great if, say, you don’t mind that flavor making its way into your foods, and who doesn’t like bacon!  Crisco is almost the perfect thing to use, but I do realize many of us don’t even use this anymore, so a light canola oil can do the trick.

Before we begin, now is the time to wash the pan well with a good detergent, but non-abrasive.  Also do not use abrasive cleaning pads, I tend to find the Dobie by 3M is a great tool for this.  Dry this thoroughly.  I mean, when you think it is dry, do it again.  Remember oil and water don’t play well together.  Then put the pan on the stove over medium heat for about 5 minutes, and let cool.

Pour about a tablespoon of oil into the pan and wipe around with a cloth, then pour off any excess.  Place in the oven, then turn the oven on to about 300 and let it bake for about 2 hours.  We don’t want to preheat the oven in this case, we want the pan to come up to temperature slowly.  How will you know when its done?  It will look shiny, but dry at the same time.  If this is a first season, you should repeat this one or two more times.  If this is a refreshing, then usually one does the trick. 

Before you put the pan away, be sure to wipe the entire inside surface with a towel of oil.

Cleaning a cast iron pan is pretty easy.  Don’t use a harsh detergent, in fact, don’t use any detergent.  Detergents are designed to cut oils and release them.  If we used them, we would have to season our pan constantly to replenish the oils.  Instead, just use hot water and a non-abrasive scrubbie.

If you have bits of caked on stuff, I have found filling the pan with water and heating on the stove for a little while does the trick nicely.  You can free up attached bits with a wooden spoon or other non-stick safe utensils.

When you are done cleaning, dry the pan completely.  Even place the pan on the stove for a quick blast for 5 minutes to make sure its dry, we don’t want it to rust now!   Then make sure to give it a quick layer of oil before storing it away.

NEVER – Place a hot pan in cold water.  These things are pretty tough, but this will make them crack. 
NEVER – Place in a dishwasher as the temperatures will surely do in any seasoning, and the iron doesn’t take well to process.

Keep with your normal pans, but try not to put anything on top of it.  If you can hang it, great.  Also keep it away from moisture if possible.  When storing for long periods, say between camping seasons, place in an airtight bag and take out as much air as possible.  I found a Space Bag is perfect for this.

Enjoy using your pan, treat it well and it will last for years to come!  Now, we need to make some recipes for you to use this great tool!

Happy Panning!

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