My Hate-Love Relationship with a Cast Iron Skillet

I really don’t know when I got the thing. It was part of a set of cookware. What I know is that I tried to use that cast iron skillet without success and I mean not even a little bit.

Food would become hopelessly stuck to it and burned beyond recognition. If it wasn’t turning out charred fare, it was growing a fine coat of rust.

Photo credit: WestChesterCycles c/o Flickr

In the interest of full disclosure, the shots above are not of my skillet. They are an apt depiction, however. Mine looked like all of the above. At the time, I wasn’t photographing my culinary disasters with hopes that one day I could share them with you.

Things got so bad, one day I threw that skillet and its sorry charred contents into the trash. What followed what a case of guilt that prompted me to dig it out, chiseled it down, put it through the dishwasher (the worst thing ever for cast iron) then banish it to the back of a closet.

Years later—OK decades—I pulled that skillet out of detention. I’d been learning that cast iron skillets are highly revered by experienced cooks. I was determined to take on the challenge of cast iron. I am proud to say I won that battle. 

This skillet pictured below—now more than 40 years old—is the skillet I abused and which abused me right back. It has become one of my most prized possessions. All is forgiven and now my skillet and I have quite a thing going on.

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I restored this baby to better-than-new condition. Every time I use it, which means every day—it just keeps getting better and better. Can you feel the love?

The thing about cast iron it that it must be “seasoned.” It needs a lovely coat of patina that makes it gloriously “non-stick,” keeps it from rusting and makes it shiny. And there’s something magical about a well-seasoned cast iron skillet that makes food taste better. Apparently, it’s called “seasoning” for a reason. 

Season it

Seasoning a cast iron pan is easy. Rub it down with a thin coat of vegetable oil (inside and out if it’s the first seasoning) and bake it in a 350 F oven for an hour. This produces the first “non-stick” layer. Every time it’s used and cleaned properly another layer of seasoning goes on. Seasoning can be done as many times as necessary throughout the skillet’s life, which is pretty much eternal. A cast iron skillet can never have too many layers of seasoning. My skillet must have 1,000 layers of seasoning by now. More will never be enough.

No soap

While you should wash a brand new cast iron skillet with soap, that’s the only time it should ever come in contact with soap or detergent for the rest of its life. I know there are those who will disagree with me on this point, but I stand firm: Never use soap on it again after that first wash. Instead, use a hard-bristle brush or stainless steel scrubber like this Ringer Cast Iron Cleaner to clean it with water. This Ringer is so cool because it is chainmail. It just balls up in my hand, cleans like a champ and then rinses completely clean. For really tough spots, I use coarse salt and the cut end of a potato to scrub it clean—almost like sand paper, but without removing the patina. The salt will get very dirty. Then a quick wipe with a towel and it’s back to beautifully clean. 

No soaking

Never allow a cast iron skillet to soak in water. That will only produce rust—the arch enemy of cast iron cooking. Should you ever develop rust, don’t freak. Just get out the salt, scrub it away and then re-seaon.

Dry immediately

I dry my skillet over heat on the stove. Once dry (it takes only a couple of minutes), I give the inside a light coat of vegetable oil and it’s ready for its next cooking assignment.

No metal utensils

Scraping a beautifully seasoned skillet with metal utensils  breaks down the seasoning and allows it to flake off. Of course that can be repaired, but you don’t want to start over if at all possible. The way to preserve the seasoning is to use wood or other non-metal utensils in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.

Re-season

You’ll soon learn to detect if your pan needs to be re-seasoned. You can never have too much seasoning on a cast iron pan. Always err on the side of re-seasoning too often.

Use often

Use your cast iron skillet to fry, sear, cook and bake just as often as you can. Yes, I’m talking about cooking at home to eat better and save money, too. Get a great cookbook (The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook is my favorite) with recipes that are ideal for cast iron. 

A great cast iron skillet is a thing of value—becoming more valuable with age. I’ve seen vintage skillets selling for thousands of dollars and read stories about skillets being named in wills and family members fighting over who will get Grandma’s skillet.

Cast iron cookware is making quite a comeback and I could not be happier about that. Don’t worry that the price of an excellent cast iron skillet might be out of your budget. You can get a fabulous Lodge 10-inch cast iron skillet for about $15. Bump that up to a Lodge Dutch oven and skillet lid for less than $30.

Or scout out the local thrift store or junk collector. It would not be at all unusual to find a horribly abused, rusty pile of cast iron pots and skillets just waiting to be rescued.

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photo credit: TheNaturalLivingSite.com

Restoration is not particularly difficult, but it can be time consuming. This tutorial might inspire you to make a rescue or two—provided the price is right. 

Take care of your cast iron and it will repay the favor by turning you into a fabulous cook. As a bonus, your skillet just might become the envy of your friends and family. 

Speaking of bonuses, Beer Glazed Citrus Chicken with Orange Arugula Greens from the blog How Sweet It Is,  relies on the goodness of a fine cast iron skillet.

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Beer-Glazed Chicken

  • 1/2 cup of your favorite beer
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons orange marmalade
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs (and/or drumsticks)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper

Orange Arugula Greens

  • 6 cups baby arugula
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tangerine or orange, segmented
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeeze orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Combine 1/4 cup of beer, orange juice, marmalade, zest and garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until slightly thick, for about 6 to 8 minutes.
  2. Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat and add the olive oil. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper and add it to the skillet, searing on both sides until deeply golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. After the second side is seared, add the 1/4 cup of beer to the skillet and use a wooden spoon to scrape any bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour in the orange mixture and turn off the heat.
  3. Place the chicken in the oven uncovered and bake for 20 minutes. Every 5 minutes, baste the chicken with the glaze in the bottom of the pan. Serve with greens.
  4. Prepare greens: Combine arugula, tangerine and onion in a large bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk together the oil, juice, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined, then pour half on the greens and toss well to coat. Save the mixture for extra dressing if desired. Sprinkle the pine nuts on the salad and toss once more. Serve immediately with the chicken. Servings: 4. 


 

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27 replies
  1. peggy
    peggy says:

    i owned a set of cast iron from my father. it was purchased 1935-1940. they were super-duper. unfortunately, i had to give them up because of the wgt. i have arthritis in hands and they r just too heavy. (weeping, sniffle). however, my daughter is now the proud owner, and she is ecstatic. hope they go down the line for a long time.

    Reply
  2. kcjmc
    kcjmc says:

    Outside of a bench grinder (which I don’t have), is there any way to get the years of baked-on carbon layers off the outside edges — not on the bottom, just the sides — of my cast iron skillet?

    Reply
    • BethSh
      BethSh says:

      I wouldn’t use oven cleaner, yuck, but you can use your oven cleaning cycle, and I have heard that a torch, like a propane torch, used outside in the fresh air will burn every thing off the skillet and have it ready to season in no time.

      Reply
    • jimijean
      jimijean says:

      My grandmother cleaned her skillets by covering them with coals from a wood fire. This cleaned inside and out with re-seasoning required but in her day there were no oven cleaners.

      Reply
    • Pamela Martin
      Pamela Martin says:

      You can do two things. One, use oven cleaner and put it in a garbage bag to sit for a day or so. may need more than one application. You can also put it through the clean cycle of your oven; however, lots of smoke and maybe flame may be produced. After both reseason : coat with vegetable oil, heat to 375, and turn the oven off and leave until totally cooled down, then wipe with paper towel. Long time at high heat can make the oil gummy, letting it cool helps the seasoning to stay longer.

      Reply
      • kcjmc
        kcjmc says:

        Thank you, Pamela. The oven cleaner method sounds like the best option for me. I will certainly give it a try.

      • Carolyn Crawford
        Carolyn Crawford says:

        There is another way to rid your cast iron of that gunk on the outside. Just take it camping, and when you build a campfire, set it on the fire and let it do the work for you. When the fire burns out and the pan is cool, just re-season and your pan is back to normal. I’ve used this method many times over the years and it always works great.

  3. Colleen Lill
    Colleen Lill says:

    I recently bought my first ever ceramic top stove. In reading the owners manual, it states that cast iron skillets are not to be used on the stove. Is this true? Will using this skillet scratch the surface of the stove?

    Reply
    • Bookworm
      Bookworm says:

      As long as the skillet has a flat bottom, and as long as you don’t drag the skillet over the ceramic, it shouldn’t be a problem. It’s hard sometimes not the slide the skillet, but it’s doable.

      Reply
    • Kimberley Hunter
      Kimberley Hunter says:

      I use my cast iron frying pan on my glass top stove and nothing bad has happened. Of course, I may have still scratched it, and just can’t see it. And ceramic might be different.

      Reply
  4. Betsy Cook Hoekstra
    Betsy Cook Hoekstra says:

    My husband loves our cast iron pans and has loving cared for them. Some came from our camp in Maine and are 75 years or more old! He often marvels at their incredible finish!

    Reply
  5. Mary
    Mary says:

    I love cast iron pans. I was given a chicken fryer and a large and small skillet as wedding gifts 60+ years ago. I loved them and used them daily until the strength in my arms and hands gave out and they got too heavy for me to lift. I passed them on and hope they are still used and loved.

    Reply
  6. Bookworm
    Bookworm says:

    I don’t buy vegetable oil. Would olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, bacon grease, or lard work? Anyone use any of these?

    Reply
    • Robert Thornton
      Robert Thornton says:

      I recommend any high smoke point oil. You don’t need a lot (1-2 tablespoons) per application. So a small bottle should last a decent while. No matter what oil you use, be sure to heat it above the smoke point.

      Reply
    • BethSh
      BethSh says:

      I have used bacon grease, without noticing a flavor issue, I also use coconut oil. In a pinch you can use any food oil, peanut, olive, avacado whatever you have.

      Reply
    • Mary Hunt
      Mary Hunt says:

      I’d avoid the bacon, as that is likely to flavor everything you prepare in that pan for at least awhile. I have used olive oil with success.

      Reply
    • J Cy
      J Cy says:

      I use olive oil all the time. I’ve never tried other, higher smoke point oils. I suspect that olive oil might take longer to season than the alternative oils, but if you cook with it regularly, it will turn out just fine.

      Reply
  7. PHOW
    PHOW says:

    I have several sizes of cast iron pans, but don’t use them because I can taste the iron in the foods I cook. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt
      Mary Hunt says:

      I believe that will dissipate once it becomes well-seasoned, PHOW. They need to be used! Follow the expert seasoning instructions that came with the cookware, or refer to the book I recommend in the post. By the way, cooking in cast iron is healthy because yes it does add iron to whatever you’re cooking. It’s a good thing!

      Reply
    • J Cy
      J Cy says:

      I had the same problem until I properly seasoned my Lodge 10″ skillet. Two more tips not mentioned in this article, avoid prolonged contact with acid-based foods (think tomato-based sauces). The rule of thumb is no longer than 30 minutes of exposure to acid, and then make sure to completely cleanse and re-season afterwards.

      Tip 2: Ensure the pan is hot before use. I usually give the pan 10 or more minutes on my electric stove before use. You can pre-heat your cast iron in the oven if you want a specific temperature (I just read an article about doing an oven preheat to 450 degF). Cooking on a cold pan will lead to sticking, which could lead to unpleasant tastes.

      Reply
  8. Harpone1
    Harpone1 says:

    No steel utensils yet you seem to like the ringer cast iron cleaning tool which seems to be metal! Can you please clarify these 2 statements for us.

    Reply
  9. Robert Thornton
    Robert Thornton says:

    I wash mine with soap all the time, like my mommy taught me, never had any issues. Wash, wipe dry, put on stove with the burner on high, and apply a light coating of oil. I also only use metal utensils, my seasoning is fine. I do upkeep season mine on a fairly regular basis to keep it nice and shiny and slick. I use safflower oil, or any other high smoke point oil, and (most important) heat it to or above the smoke point. If you don’t heat it to or above the smoke point the oil Will not polymerize.

    Reply
  10. KMcCMedia
    KMcCMedia says:

    I love all my cast iron cookware; Griddles large and small and several skillets/frying-pans, and a 100 y.o. Griswold waffle iron.

    One thing I learned in “The Food-Lab Cookbook” is that iron is actually not as good a conductor of heat as other metals (think copper, aluminum and “clad” pans) so heat should be applied evenly. I have a flame spreader for gas and am looking into trying induction, but hotspots can be a problem, unless you have an even heat source. I use cast iron a lot in the oven…

    Reply

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