Every skilled cook needs at least one cast iron pan, but caring for a good one is a bit different than most other cookware. If not treated properly, it can be easy to ruin cast iron. While some tips are simple common sense, such as not running a cast iron pot or pan through a dishwasher, other tips are more counter-intuitive. However, with just a little effort and knowledge, anyone can end up with cast iron cookware that will last their entire lifetime.
The first step in properly caring for a new cast iron pan, after thoroughly hand washing it with dish soap, is to season it. This involves rubbing a layer of vegetable oil or lard all over the front and back of the pan, and then baking the pan in an oven at a high temperature for an hour. This creates a natural non-stick layer, which both aids in cooking and protects the pan itself. After seasoning, wait for the pan to cool before removing from the oven and gently wiping it down with a paper towel. It’s also a good idea to place the pan in the oven upside down, so that a gunky layer of sticky oil doesn’t form in the base of the baking cookware. If properly maintained this seasoning can last a long time, but keep in mind that cast iron may need to be re-seasoned at some point.
Another trick in maintaining a cast iron pot or skillet is to never use dish soap when washing it. It removes the seasoning and leaves the pan vulnerable to rusting and degradation. Using a soft sponge and water, or at most a very delicate soap, is enough to clean any cast iron. After cleaning, a small amount of oil should again be rubbed into the pan to maintain the seasoning. For cooks more used to traditional cookware, this tip may be difficult to follow, as no one wants to cook on dirty pots or pans. Remember, however, that after seasoning cast iron becomes naturally non-stick, so cleaning with water should be enough to remove any food particles.
If despite carefully seasoning and washing rust starts to form, don’t despair. Rust can only form if the seasoning has worn down enough that it no longer is coating the entire pan. Just thoroughly wash the pan with soap and scrub off the rust and the existing seasoning, then re-season the pan in the oven to replace and restore the protective layer. This should take care of the problem and prevent it happening again.
If these instructions are followed carefully, cast iron cookware can easily last a lifetime. Any additional effort these high quality pots and pans require more than pays off in even cooking temperatures, non-stick properties, and the dietary iron added naturally to food cooked within them. Not just a tool, a cast iron skillet can be an heirloom passed down from one generation to the next. All it takes is a little extra love and care.