restored cast iron

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.

three rusty cast iron skillets

Photo credit: WestChesterCyclesrst

In the interest of full disclosure, the shot above is not of my skillet. An apt depiction, however. Mine looked like all of them. 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, chisel 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.

 

restored cast iron

I restored this baby to better-than-new condition. It was a process and didn’t happen overnight! But now, 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 is 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 is just oil baked onto cast iron through a process called polymerization. It gives your cookware that classic black patina. Seasoning forms a natural, easy-release cooking surface and helps prevent your pan from rusting. It may take a little extra care, but a well-seasoned pan will last for generations. The more you cook in your cast iron, the thicker this layer of oil becomes, transforming your pan into an heirloom with a smoother and darker cooking surface.

How to season cast iron: 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.

Use soap if you want

Shocked? Shouldn’t that be “never use soap?” I’ll confess to doing a one-eighty on this. For many years not a drop of dishwashing liquid or other soap touched my beloved skillet. But turns out, we can actually use soap on our cast iron! The myth that you shouldn’t wash your cast iron skillet with soap is just that—a myth. It’s driven by two theories.

Theory #1

The first is that since oil is used to season the cast iron skillet and create a nonstick surface, soap would effectively wash away the cure that you worked so hard to build.

Theory #2

The second reason that this myth persists is that soap isn’t the most efficient cleaner of cast iron. Strictly speaking, oil is not responsible for the slick-hard surface of a well-seasoned cast iron pan — polymerization is. The oil combines with the porous surface of the pan when heated creating a surface harder and smoother than the pan itself. It would take a lot more than soap to remove the seasoning from a skillet. In fact, the best way to remove seasoning is to bring the pan to high heat in an oven or grill—not with sudsy water.

You don’t need soap

Most cast iron purists simply wipe their pan clean after cooking instead of exposing the pan to water and harsh scrub brushes. But for those of us who’d prefer a cleaner cast iron skillet, oil and kosher salt are more effective than soap and a sponge will ever be. Pour a few tablespoons of each into the still-warm skillet and scrub the pan with a paper towel until the pan is shiny and the salt is near black. Rinse out the salt and thoroughly dry the pan. Rubbing it with a touch more oil before storing will ensure it doesn’t develop rust.

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 oil (as above) to scrub it clean—almost like sandpaper, but without removing the patina. The salt gets 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 and oil, scrub it away, and then re-season.

Dry immediately

I dry my skillet over low heat on the stovetop. 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 as needed

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 skillet for under $20.

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.

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 is sure to become the envy of your friends and family. 

Resources

 

      WALMART $19.40

 

 

 


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  1. Jenni says:

    I love my cast iron, and I have converted my husband. Once he learned to let the skillet pre-heat, it was the first pan he’d reach for when cooking. When we were dating, long-distance, I mistakenly entrusted him with my Dutch Oven. After running it through the dishwasher, it was stored under his sink. Talk about a rust-bucket! I am embarrassed to admit that I donated it to some azaleas and dogwoods. I’m sure they’re still thriving. It was my grandmother’s, and now I have my mom’s. He’ll never do that again!

    Reply
  2. Patricia says:

    We use our cast iron daily. We have some prized cast iron pans that are over 100 years old. We have a chain mail sponge we use to clean our pans with, made by Lodge. It is a silicon bar wrapped in chain mail. We dry them immediately then put them on the burner to heat, then wipe them with oil. It keeps them well seasoned and non stick.

    Reply
    • Jenni says:

      I’m not so sure about that, Tom! My cast iron is my best source of Iron, and my hemoglobin numbers are always excellent. Meat eaters would add – for a vegetarian!

      Reply
  3. Jean Miller says:

    I inherited my 4 cast iron frying pans that are now about a hundred years old. They are used regularly for browning, frying, baking etc., and maintained as you outlined. They don’t stick any more than any other pans, remain attractive and indestructible with cooking surfaces smooth as silk. I wash and wipe them out with vegetable oil as needed. Though a klutz I won’t be acquiring a glass top when my stove needs replacing.

    Reply
  4. Lynn Luft says:

    Once I forgot to take my long used cast iron skillet out of the oven before i used the self clean feature. That skillet looked like brand new when it was cool enough to take out of the oven. Years of carbon had fallen off and it was like brand new. I wondered about a skillet like in your pictures above if the self clean oven would clean it up like new….

    Reply
    • Vicky Schiller says:

      CAUTION on putting cast iron pans in the oven on self clean!
      Using self clean on a cast iron skillet sounded like a good idea. We were leaving, so I turned the oven off early. I was devastated to find that it damaged the porcelain lining in our 3-month old oven, especially the door. The pan looked great , but I will never do that again.

      Reply
  5. Gina D Stevens says:

    The BEST cast iron trick I learned from Mary is using a cast iron skillet for pie baking! The added bonus is the handle to safely take the pie out of the oven. Thank-you, Mary!

    Reply
  6. Debbie says:

    My dad used to throw the cast iron pans in a roaring hot fire to clean off crud (this cannot be done if you have a wooden handle, obviously, but mine don’t). So when I find a rusty abused cast iron pan for cheap, I buy it and throw it in my oven when I do a self-clean, then season it to it’s previous glory!

    Reply
    • crabbyoldlady says:

      Barbara, I’m with you! I tried lugging that thing around for a bit, but I’m just not strong enough. Plus for me, it was just way too much work. My husband washes the dishes, and he wouldn’t do it either.

      Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Any vegetable oil will season cast iron including olive oil. The oil used by artists and woodturners is linseed oil. The food-grade equivalent is called flaxseed oil, which is ideal for seasoning cast iron for the same reason it’s an ideal base for oil paint and wood finishes. It’s a “drying oil”, which means it can transform into a hard, tough film.

      Reply
      • Becky says:

        Thank you for clarifying. I was assuming you meant to use only the product labeled “vegetable oil”. Since I am allergic to some of the oils in the mix, I only buy certain oils like olive, avocado, etc. Good post today, thank you.

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