Cast Iron Skillet Care | 8 Things You Must Know

For those of you who are “seasoned” cast iron users, this information might be stuff you probably already know. But for new cast iron users, here is everything you need to know about using and taking care of it that I have learned over the past 50 years of using this wonderful type of cookware.

Here are 8 things you need to know before using cast iron:

  1. Which foods can and can’t be cooked in cast iron.
  2. How to clean cast iron.
  3. How to remove rust from cast iron.
  4. How to tell whether it’s seasoned.
  5. How to season it.
  6. How to cook with cast iron.
  7. How to store cast iron.
  8. Which is the best type of cast iron to use.

Now, let’s dive into the details.

Note: I have provided links to other resources I have created if and when you need to take a deeper dive into the topic.

Multiple-Cast-Iron-Pans-Hanging-in-Kitchen

1. Learn Which Foods Can’t Be Cooked in Cast Iron

Most foods can be cooked in cast iron, with the exception of a few things listed here:

  • Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can ruin the finish of cast iron and cause them to need re-seasoning.
  • Smelly foods like fish should not be cooked in cast iron but, instead, be pan-fried. This is because cast iron can absorb odors from some foods and transfer them to others. This does not apply to deep frying fish because the fish, when deep fried, does not come into direct and close contact with the pan’s surface.
  • Jam and jelly should not be cooked in a cast iron pot because cast iron can affect the flavor of the foods that are cooked in it.
  • Sticky, sweet desserts like cobblers can be cooked in cast iron but may stick to the pan, causing it to require scrubbing to remove all the food particles. That scrubbing can begin to break down the finish on your pan requiring more frequent seasoning.

Although this list of foods should not be cooked in cast iron, if your cast iron is the type that is coated, then any foods can be cooked in the coated cast iron, and those pots and pans cook all foods beautifully.

Related Why You Have to Cook Cornbread in a Cast Iron Skillet.

A slice of cornbread with a cast iron skillet and the rest of the cornbread in the background
Cornbread simply must be cooked in cast iron.

2. Learn How to Clean Cast Iron

One of the more important points about cleaning cast iron is that it is best to clean it relatively soon after cooking while it is still warm.

When cooking quick breads like cornbread and biscuits, making pancakes, or frying eggs, cast iron can simply be wiped out with a paper towel or damp cloth and does not need washing.

When cooking things that are a little messier, like making gravy or goulash, just hand washing with warm water and a mild dish detergent, then drying thoroughly with a clean dish towel, will do the trick.

3. Master Removing Rust From Cast Iron

To remove rust from cast iron, just follow these 3 simple steps:

(1) Scour the rusted areas with steel wool. 

(2) Wash the pan, rinse, and dry thoroughly.

(3) Re-season the pan by following this process:

  1. Apply oil to the entire surface of the pan.
  2. Bake the pan in the oven at the oil’s smoke point for 1 hour.
  3. Allow the pan to cool completely before removing from the oven. 

For more information on this process, see my article How to Remove Rust and Restore Cast Iron Skillets.

4. Check Whether It Has Been Seasoned

Before using a piece of cast iron that is new to you, check to make sure it has been seasoned. If unseasoned cast iron is used for cooking, the food will stick to it and will get into the cracks and crevices that are natural to cast iron and can ruin the cast iron and render it unusable.

How To Tell Whether Cast Iron Has Been Seasoned

The best way to tell whether cast iron has been seasoned is to check the color and the surface. An unseasoned cast iron pot will be a gray-green color with a rough surface. If the pot has a black surface that is smooth to the touch, then it has been seasoned. 

If the piece of cast iron is used, it could need re-seasoning. But if it has a black surface, it was seasoned at some point.

Most new cast iron cookware is seasoned before it is sold, and the label or packaging should indicate that it has been seasoned.

Two cast iron pans on a wooden table
My two favorite cast iron pans, seasoned and ready to cook.

5. Learn How to Season Cast Iron

The process of seasoning cast iron is quite simple and involves just 4 basic steps:

  1. Clean the pan.
  2. Apply oil to the entire surface of the pan.
  3. Bake the oiled pan in the oven at the oil’s smoke point for 1 hour.
  4. Let the pan cool completely before removing it from the oven.

For more details on these basic steps for seasoning cast iron, check out my video:

The Best Oils For Seasoning Cast Iron

The following 5 oils are my recommendations for the best oils for seasoning cast iron. They all have the qualities needed to add a good protective non-stick coating to your cast iron cookware. 

  1. Pure Vegetable Oil
  2. Canola Oil
  3. Peanut Oil
  4. Grapeseed Oil
  5. Lard

The best oils for seasoning cast iron all have the same basic qualities. Those qualities are:

  1. A high smoke point.
  2. A mild flavor.
  3. A neutral odor.
  4. Easy to find.
  5. Not too expensive.

For more information on the best oils for seasoning cast iron, see my article entitled “5 Best Cast Iron Seasoning Oils (Advice From a 50-Year Chef),” which provides more details on this topic.

If you prefer the video version, check this out:

6. Cooking With Cast Iron

The beauty of using cast iron is that you can cook with it anywhere. It can be used on any kind of stovetop, even glass (with care), in the oven, on the grill, over a campfire, in the coals of a fire, and if you so desire, over a fire in the fireplace. To my knowledge, there is no other type of cookware that is so versatile.

Best Utensils To Use With Cast Iron

Metal utensils can scratch the protective coating that seasoning provides to cast iron. It is better to use spoons, spatulas, and other cooking utensils that are made from wood, silicone, or rubber, which will not damage the surface of cast iron cookware.

7. How To Store Cast Iron

The best place to store cast iron cookware has these two requirements:

  • Use a dry area that is unlikely to become wet from any kind of water leak or any possible flooding.
  • An area that is well-ventilated to reduce the chance of moisture buildup.
  • If stacking cast iron, it is better to separate the cookware by some sort of barrier like a paper towel or cloth.

8. Kinds Of Cast Iron Cookware That You Need

Cast iron cookware is available in every kind of cookware that you can imagine. It comes in Dutch ovens, griddles, skillets, deep fryers, cornbread stick pans, woks, grills, loaf pans, muffin cups, and many more. Plus, cast iron pans come in all different sizes, coated and uncoated.

The different kinds of cast iron cookware that you need depends on your particular cooking habits and the number of people you cook for on a regular basis. There is no one-size-fits-all collection. Only you can make those choices.

But, there are a few items that most households can benefit from having in their stash of cookware, and they are included in this cast iron bundle that has a 10.5” Dutch oven with lid, a 10.5” skillet, and a 10.5” griddle.

These are the pieces that I have used most often over the years, whether I was cooking for my family of four or cooking for myself. They somehow always seem to be the right size for the job.

For more information on this topic and more suggestions for you, check out this article entitled “The Best Cast Iron Skillet Size (Based on Your Needs).”

Ben's-Cast-Iron-Dutch-Oven
A 19th-century cast iron dutch oven owned by my cousin.

Things That Can Damage Cast Iron

Here are the key points to remember when using cast iron to protect its surface and keep it working perfectly for you. These are the things that can cause damage to your cast iron cookware:

  • Cooking in cast iron before seasoning.
  • Cooking high-acid foods like tomato sauce.
  • Scrubbing with steel wool (unless before seasoning).
  • Soaking cast iron in water.
  • Washing cast iron in the dishwasher.
  • Air drying after washing.
  • Stacking pans that are still damp.
  • Storing in a humid or damp area.
  • Getting water damage during storage.
  • Using metal utensils.

What Exactly Is Cast Iron?

Cast iron, according to Wikipedia, is made of pig iron which is crude iron with a high carbon content. After manufacture, cast iron cookware has a rough surface that cannot be used for cooking until it has been seasoned by spreading a layer of oil on the cookware and subjecting it to high heat, which creates a smooth, non-stick surface through a process called polymerization. 

Once seasoned, cast iron is ready to be used for cooking and is one of the most versatile and useful kinds of cookware you can own. And if it is cared for properly, it can be passed down from generation to generation and will continue to provide excellent service as long as it is given the proper care.

Best Places To Get Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware can be bought at most stores that sell cookware, but if you can find a piece of cast iron cookware at a yard sale or a thrift store, or if Grandma gives you one of hers, there is no difference in the service that those pieces of cookware will perform for you. Cast iron is truly “lifetime cookware.”

Thanks for stoppin’ by!

Jelly Grandma

For more, don’t miss How to Season Cast Iron Skillets (So They Last Forever).

Anne James

Anne James has a wealth of experience in a wide array of interests and is an expert in quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, mixing drinks (bartending), and making jelly. Anne has a professional canning business, has been featured in the local newspaper as well as on the Hershey website, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is. With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass. Amazingly, she doesn’t need to reference many resources due to her vast wealth of experience. She IS the source. Anne wants nothing more than to pass on her extensive knowledge to the next generations, whether that be family or anyone visiting her website, her YouTube channel, or survivalfreedom.com.

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