Cast iron skillets are the workhorse of many kitchens. Yet in others they're left to sit at the back of the shelf like a big paperweight. Perhaps the bottom has gotten rusty or the sides have started to flake, or maybe you've heard about the special care these skillets require and are a bit intimidated by it.
We're here to make sure that stops now. A cast iron skillet can do so much good for your cooking. And it's also not finicky, being able to stand up to the scraping of metal utensils or the scouring of even the toughest sponges. In fact, once you've prepped your pan properly there's just one thing that you should never ever do to it. Find out what that is below!
1. Season a cast iron skillet
All cast iron skillets need to be seasoned, first right after you purchase it before cooking with it and then every once in a while when you notice it's starting to look a bit dull and grungy. Seasoning these skillets does take some time, but hardly any effort.
Simply rub the entire skillet inside and out, making sure you get into all its nooks and crannies, with an oil such as lard, shortening or vegetable oil. Then place it on a baking sheet or piece of foil large enough to catch drip and leave it in a 325 degree (F) oven for a couple of hours. When done, turn the oven off and leave the skillet inside, allowing it to cool completely before taking it out and wiping off any remaining fat.
Seasoning allows that fat to be absorbed by the skillet, which is quite porous. And as it fills in all those little holes and spaces, it creates a coating that will give you what is now the best pan you've ever used.
2. Cleaning a cast iron skillet
You might often read that the only thing a cast iron skillet needs to be cleaned are some paper towels and salt. And in some cases, that may be true and it could also work, provided that you clean it while it's still warm. But for those other times, when the food has really gotten good and stuck to the bottom of the pan or there are remnants of a sauce that need more than salt and paper towel, you can wash it with soap and water. Don't use a lot, just enough to lift that food off, and rinse and dry the skillet right away. This little bit of water won't hurt it and if, after doing this a few times, your cast iron starts to look a little worse for the wear, you can always just season it again.
3. Never soak it
There is only one thing that cast iron skillets simply can't stand up to - water, especially when there's a lot of it. Remember, cast iron is just that - iron - and when you leave it in the water for too long it can quickly start to rust, which can be a pain to care for once it's found its way on there.
If you have really stuck on food that you would usually take care of by allowing a pan to soak, place the dry skillet back on the burner over low heat instead and sprinkle a good amount of salt over the stuck-on food. As it begins to warm the food will likely release itself so you can just empty the contents and wash and dry as you normally would.
4. Use salt and a potato to take away rust
So it's happened. You go to use your cast iron skillet but when you take it off that back shelf you find that the sides are flaking and the bottom is covered in rust. While you may think it can't be saved, only tossed, there is something you can do.
Sprinkle salt generously along the bottom of the skillet and then, cut a potato in half and use that as your scrubber. Use the potato just as you would a sponge, rubbing and scrubbing away until the rust is entirely gone. The salt will work as an exfoliator, lifting off any flakes or rust, while the moisture of the potato will also help to remove debris, dirt and rust. Then just season your pan before you use it and it will be as good as new.
5. Know what to cook, and what not to
Cast irons are great for just about any job in the kitchen and can help create a wonderful crust on a steak or brown a cornbread nicely. This is because cast iron skillets can heat up fairly quickly and once they do, they hold onto that heat for some time. But, if you also want to use that same cast iron for a peach cobbler (which it will also excel at), you may want to season it in between the savory and sweet dishes.
Cast irons are the only pan that will start to take on the flavor of what's been cooked inside. It's one reason why so many families pass them down from generation to generation. So if you're going to make that peach cobbler, don't be surprised if it tastes a little like that steak seasoning you used in it the other night.
Cast iron skillets are also great for deep-frying with many preferring that their fried chicken comes out of one of these rather than a deep fryer. If you have many batches of food to make though, or the food you're frying is rather large, get a cast iron skillet with really deep sides, such as the Dutch oven style skillets that are available.
And one more thing to avoid cooking in a cast iron skillet - anything that's super acidic like marinara sauce or deglazing with vinegar or wine. This acidity can cause an unpleasant chemical reaction with the metal in the skillet and can quickly wreck it.