If you treat cast iron cookware with care, it will last last you a lifetime. (Image courtesy breakawaycook.com)

Cast iron cookware is a hardy bunch and if you treat ’em right they will last last a lifetime. (Image courtesy breakawaycook.com)

Thanks to a surface that heats up evenly and gives meats and veggies a nice crisp with little oil – not to mention a high iron content that fortifies your food every time you cook with it – cast iron has garnered a loyal following. Despite all its benefits, the material doesn’t take care of itself any more than your dog greets you with a whiskey neat after a hard day. Herewith, a guide.

Cultivate the season of your cast iron pan for extra flavor without extra work. (Image courtesy Nic McPhee via Flickr)

Cultivate your cast iron pan’s season – a “deep black coating of flavorful carbonized fats” as described by Brooklyn chef and butcher Tom Mylan – and your dinner will pretty much make itself… (Image courtesy Nic McPhee via Flickr)

First things first, if your pan is adequately seasoned and sealed (like our Turk pans), then cooking meat and vegetables with plain olive oil should do you fine. But if your cast iron needs to be seasoned, keep in mind that quickly low-oxidizing vegetable oils will begin to smoke. Some suggest vegetable oil, while others prefer animal fat, claiming vegetable oils leave a sticky surface.

Cast iron cookware works great over an open fire when you're camping. (Image courtesy campfirecooking.org)

Spotted in the wild: Cast iron does well over an open fire and makes for great camping meals. (Image courtesy campfirecooking.org)

Flaxseed oil is a solid option because of its excellent sealant qualities. It’s also a “drying oil,” meaning it can transform into a tough, protective film. This doesn’t happen through “drying” in the sense of losing moisture through evaporation. (The term is actually a misnomer.) The transformation happens through a chemical process called “polymerization.” No wonder linseed, the non-food-grade equivalent of flaxseed, is used by artists to produce high-quality oil paints that dry hard and glassy on the canvas, as well as by woodworkers to give their work a nice luster.

Protect and preserve your cast iron with flaxseed oil. (Image courtesy food-hacks.wonderhowto.com)

Flaxseed is one of the best oils out there for protecting and preserving your cast iron. (Image courtesy food-hacks.wonderhowto.com)

Now you’re ready to get cooking. Unlike the slippery surface of Teflon, and all the other non-stick chemicals that gas-off when heated, cast iron takes a bit more work to get at the optimal temperature. Two good tricks, according to Brooklyn chef and butcher Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook: “Put the pan on a flame for five minutes to get it nice and hot before cooking. Then add your oil or fat. Once you remove the cooked meat, immediately put the pan under hot running water. The thermal shock kicks off most of the residue.”

Serve baked eggs and other dishes directly in the pan for a rustic touch - and lessen your dish washing load. (Image courtesy thebitesizedblog.com)

Serve up dishes like baked eggs directly in the pan for a rustic touch – or to lessen your dish washing load. (Image courtesy thebitesizedblog.com)

An issue I’ve encountered that may, ahem, arise: the pungent smell that fills my apartment after cooking meat on my cast iron. I’ve been told I’m probably just heating the pan too high and not making sure to clean it well between uses. (If you don’t properly rinse the cooking fat and residue from the previous meal, this re-heated stuff can start to burn and smoke. More on that below.) To prevent your kitchen from smelling like old bacon, try Tom’s hot water shock method after every use, and cook your meat and vegetables on medium heat. Another conundrum is wondering if I’ve thoroughly cleaned the pan. Did I scrub too hard? Not enough? Annie Asebrook, who runs the home blog MightyNest, warns against using even a little bit of soap. “It’s not necessary and will eventually compromise the integrity of the pan’s season.”

Try a halved potato to naturally clean rust off your cast iron pans. (Image courtesy thekitchn.com)

Potatoes are an effective and natural way to clean rust off cast iron pans. (Image courtesy thekitchn.com)

How To Care for Your Cast Iron Pan
These days, most cast iron pans come seasoned. If this is the case, your routine for using and preserving it should be this:

1) Put the pan on the stove over medium heat for a good three to five minutes until it’s thoroughly heated.

2) Add your cooking oil or lard, and throw on your meat or vegetables.

3) After you cook up your meal and remove the food, stick the pan under a hot water stream. This will rinse the surface of any oils, salt and residue.

4) If there are still remaining pieces of food stuck on, “Toss on about ½ cup of coarse salt and rub with a soft sponge,” says Annie. “The salt removes excess oils and bits of food without compromising the seasoning of the pan.” You can also use a scrubber – a brush with coarse bristles, a steel wool pad, or something less abrasive – to loosen any food residue and then rinse again with the hot water stream.

5) At some point you may want to re-season your cast iron cookware, especially if foods are sticking, the pan is looking dull or maybe a relative left it soaking all night in the sink… Scrub your pan, dry and cover in a thin layer of flaxseed oil. Bake in the oven at 400 °F for an hour and then let sit (with the oven off) until cooled. If you prefer, you can re-coat the surface after each cleaning.

And remember:
*Avoid soap and don’t put the pans in the dishwasher. Ever.
*Avoid soaking the pan in a sink full of sudsy water (it will rust overnight!)
*Avoid scrubbing very hard on the surface with an abrasive sponge

Cast iron works great on the grill. (Image courtesy David Reber via Flickr)

Cast iron hits the grill. (Image courtesy David Reber via Flickr)

Fish & Vegetable Skillet Feast
Adapted from Cabin Cookin’ by Rick Black

2 carrots, cooked and sliced
¼ cup diced yellow onion
¼ cup water
2 tbsp dry white wine
½ tsp crushed thyme
¾ lb cooked broccoli
3 stalks chopped celery
1 lb fresh fish fillets, trout if available

Combine the first five ingredients in a well-oiled skillet over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about five minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Stir in the broccoli and celery. Raise the heat to medium and cook until celery is tender. Add fish, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 10 minutes, spooning juices over fish occasionally. When it flakes apart easily, it’s ready to serve.

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  1. Brian
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:10 PM | Permalink

    The flaxseed oil and scrubbing with salt are two things I didn't know about. Nice write-up.

  2. E. Jason McGhee
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:29 PM | Permalink

    I have used cast iron since I was a kid in Boy Scouts and have put many miles on my skillets in kayaks and backpacks. The secret I use is a strip of uncooked bacon to season and sand or wadded aluminum foil to clean. I use cold water too, but mostly because that was the temp of the river or lake I am next too. Great article!

  3. Jennifer
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 4:33 AM | Permalink

    Great article. In my experience nothing works better for seasoning than bacon fat!

  4. John
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 8:33 AM | Permalink

    I have a question…how can you remove rust from a cast iron?

  5. Cass
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 5:14 AM | Permalink

    Great question John. I've done this before and it's easier than it seems. If you've got mild or light rust, rinse the pan with warm-hot water then sprinkle baking soda over the surface and let it sit a few minutes. I'd use a nylon kitchen brush to scrub the surface well, which should remove most of the rust. Rinse it off and immediately apply your fat (bacon fat or linseed oil would work well here) over the entire surface to keep it from rusting again (after you've used the baking soda you've removed any previous seasoning along with the rust, so the rusting process can happen much more quickly). Use a paper towel and rub the oil up really well on the sides too. Stick the pan in the oven at 300F and bake it for 2-3 hours. You should be set to go. I'd then re-season the pan every so often to reinforce the surface.