How to care for cast iron

Lauren Corona

A quality cast iron pan can last a lifetime (and more) if you take care of it properly.

How to make cast iron cookware last

Cast iron cookware has a reputation for being difficult to care for, but this isn't necessarily the case.

Sure, it requires a little more TLC than your average pan that you can simply stick in the dishwasher, but once you know how to care for cast iron, it isn't a huge chore.

What's more, the payoff of using cast iron in terms of searing and charring capabilities, heat retention, and longevity are well worth the small amount of time and effort that you must put into cleaning and maintaining your cast iron pieces.

Raw cast iron vs. enameled cast iron

Raw cast iron cookware is made from bare metal, the interior of which is "seasoned" with hardened layers of oils to create a non-stick surface, whereas enameled cast iron is encased in an enamel coating to prevent rusting, so it doesn't need seasoning.

The most famous maker of enameled cast iron is Le Creuset. This article is focused on raw cast iron because it requires special care to keep it in good condition. Enameled cast iron can be cared for similar to how you'd care for any other pot or pan.

How to season cast iron

All raw cast iron cookware must be seasoned before you can use it for the first time.

The seasoning process involves building up a layer (or multiple layers) of hardened, carbonized oil. This process is known as polymerization. Seasoning a cast iron pan from scratch is a fairly lengthy process (though much of it is downtime), so we'd recommend most people buy a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet where the hard work is done for you.

One of our affordable favorites is the Lodge Chef Collection Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet, which is seasoned with oil only for a natural finish. Alternatively, the Marquette Castings Michigan Made 13-Inch Cast Iron Skillet is our top high-end choice — it's made using a special casting process that makes it significantly smoother and lighter than its competitors.

If you'd prefer to start the seasoning process from scratch yourself or add a few extra layers of seasoning, you start by rubbing the inside of a cast-iron pan with oil (any unsaturated cooking oil will do, such as canola or sunflower oil). Then you place the pan upside down in a hot oven preheated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit with a baking tray below to catch any drips and leave it in there. Repeat this process three-to-four times and you have a seasoned cast iron pan.

Subsequent use with a good layer of oil in the pan will season it further over time. See this guide from Serious Eats for more information on the seasoning process. Should you want to season a cast iron pan entirely from scratch, choose an unseasoned model, though they’re difficult to find.

How to clean cast iron cookware

Some people will tell you that you must absolutely never use soap on cast iron under any circumstances, but this simply isn't true. The no-soap argument comes from the misconception that soap will strip away the seasoning on a cast iron pan. While soap is effective at removing grease and oil, the seasoning on a cast iron pan is no longer oil, rather it has polymerized into a hard, slick surface that can't be washed away with a little soapy water.

To remove the seasoning from a piece of cast iron cookware, you must heavily scour it with a metal scourer, heat it for long periods without any fat in it, strip using the process of electrolysis, or soak in a solution of lye, so there's no need to worry about soap.

Go ahead and wash the interior of your cast iron pan with soapy water on a sponge or dishcloth, before rinsing the soap off with fresh water. You can even lightly scour the surface with a sponge scourer, but avoid steel wool or other metal scourers. If your pan has any stubbornly stuck-on food inside, you might want to scrape it off before soaping using a metal spatula or similar utensil. Even small stuck-on morsels can eventually cause problems, as oil will gradually form new layers of seasoning around them, leading to bumps on the surface of your cast iron cookware.

Dry cast iron thoroughly

Water is cast iron's nemesis because leaving cast iron cookware wet can cause it to rust. As such, make sure you dry the inside and outside of your cast iron pan thoroughly after cleaning it.

We'd even recommend putting the pan back on your stove and heating it on a high flame for a minute or so. Then you can be certain that your cast iron is bone dry. At this point, you can rub a thin layer of cooking oil into the interior of your pan to add to the seasoning. After rubbing in the oil, pop your cast iron pan back on the flame for another couple of minutes before letting it cool and putting it away.

You don't need to add more oil after every use if you don't want to — once a week should suffice if you use your cast iron cookware most days, or once a month if you only use it occasionally. 

Utensils to use on your cast iron pan

You find plenty of conflicting advice about cast iron cookware, including what types of utensils are safe to use on them.

While some insist you should only use gentle wooden, plastic, or silicone utensils, it's perfectly fine to use metal utensils on cast iron cookware — after all, it's among the toughest cookware materials out there.

Unless you dig right into the seasoning and scrape it off, you won't do any damage using a metal spatula in your cast iron pan. In fact, you might do it some good by scraping off particles that could lead to a bumpy cooking surface over time. 

Lauren Corona is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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