How to Care for a Cast Iron Skillet

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A cast-iron skillet is a quality cooking implement for creating classic and beloved foods enjoyed all over the world. Often mistaken for crude, outdated, and inconvenient antiques, cast iron skillets can be sorely underappreciated.

While it is true that using and caring for such iconic cookware takes more work, the results it can deliver are well worth your effort. The modern counterparts are easier to clean and heat more quickly. But ceramic, other non-stick surfaces, and thin metal cookware does not radiate heat in a way that is suitable for certain foods. Worse, many modern pots, pans, and skillets can leach chemicals that are hazardous to your health.

If you take good care of your iron skillet it can last for generations, certainly for the rest of your life. Learn to use it well, and you’ll have mastered a technique that has largely been relegated to restaurants that deal in fine cuisine. Your cast-iron skillet can help you cook in a way that is more healthy and far more satisfying. Here, we will explain the proper care and cleaning of a cast-iron skillet so that you may join a tradition that is centuries old.

Cast iron skillet on rustic wood background

Washing Your Skillet

A cast-iron skillet should not be washed in the way you wash ordinary dishes. They tend to be too heavy to sit in a dishwasher properly, and detergents will slowly ruin the cast iron. Learning to clean your iron skillet is a skill all its own.

You must wash it immediately after every use. First, wipe out the remaining food before it has a chance to harden.  Using a paper towel is the preferred method.  Then use a small amount of gentle dish soap and scrub it by hand with a sponge or a rag. Use only a small amount of soap, just enough to fill the center of your palm and no more. Detergents will erode the iron. Never use bleach or any harsh cleanser, and never place your skillet in the dishwasher.

Remove any built-up food debris using salt and vinegar. To remove a layer of caked-on food,  rub it around with a paper towel or cloth napkin. Then heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and place the skillet in the oven for approximately one hour. The caked-on food will be burned to ash which can be easily wiped away. This is just one of the important advantages of a cast-iron skillet. Ordinary cooking utensils would not be able to withstand this type of cleaning. Keep in mind that this method of cleaning will make it necessary to re-season the skillet.

Dry the skillet completely to prevent rust from forming. Use a dry cloth to completely dry the entire surface including the bottom and the handle. Finally, store your skillet in a clean, dry place. Consider covering it on the top and bottom with a clean towel to stop the seasoning from getting scratched. Otherwise, you should hang the skillet when not in use.

Pouring oil into skillet. Making Chicken and Egg Galette Series.

Seasoning a New (or Heat-Cleaned) Iron Skillet

In order to protect your valuable skillet, we need to create a layer of hardened oil. Many people mistakenly believe seasoning a cast iron implement simply means cooking with it until the remaining food is carbonized and leaving it on. This is incorrect. You are going to bake the oil into the surface of the iron until it creates a non-sticking coat called “seasoning.”

To season your iron skillet, preheat your oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Then rub the skillet with oil. Flax oil may be the best choice, but lard or olive oil is a more traditional selection. Place it in the oven at 350 for two hours.

The result is the traditional form of non-stick surfaces- and it is far less hazardous to your health than modern non-stick materials. This coating will prevent rust from eating into the cast iron. It also creates an ideal surface on which to cook eggs, cobblers, pancakes, and more.

After the heating is finished, use hot soapy water and scrub the skillet clean with a scrub brush. Only use a scrub brush once after the skillet is seasoned or you will scrape your seasoning away and have to repeat the process. Take care to dry the skillet well, otherwise, it will steam when you heat it again, and this can compromise the seasoning.

Finally, coat it with fat such as vegetable shortening or olive oil. Rub the fat on evenly using a paper towel or a clean hand towel. Be careful not to miss any spots.

Rust Mitigation

If rust develops, soak the skillet in vinegar. This will work even if the skillet is covered in rust. Using a solution of 50% water and 50% vinegar, completely submerge the skillet and let it sit for three hours or more. This will give the vinegar plenty of time to dissolve the rust. Do not soak the skillet for more than four hours as this will degrade the iron.

Examine the skillet closely after the three hours have passed. Look for any remaining rust spots and scrub them away with a scrub brush. Rinse all of the vinegar away and use a clean dish towel to thoroughly dry the skillet.

Now, once again, coat the skillet with fat just as if it was brand new. This will serve as the coat of seasoning for your skillet. Then bake the skillet for two hours at 350 Fahrenheit. Remove it after the two hours has passed and allow it to cool thoroughly.

For good measure, repeat this process a second time to build a good, solid layer of seasoning that will protect your skillet well.

After you have fought off the rust and re-seasoned a few times, you’ll develop an appreciation for that layer of seasoning. Follow these instructions and your cast iron skillet will be the crown jewel of your culinary toolkit.