Cast iron cookware is a durable and rugged option for cooking, both at home and while camping. While cast iron is well-known for lasting decades, they are not a fool-proof maintenance-free item. Unlike other types of cookware, cast iron requires special care techniques and processes. Taking proper care of your cast iron pots and pans ensures that you will be able to enjoy meals for years to come.
You may have heard of seasoning on a cast iron pan; this refers to the coating created by polymerized oil or fat. It does not refer to herbs used to add flavor to foods, like garlic, salt, or pepper. The seasoning makes your cast iron non-stick and keeps it from rusting. Maintaining the seasoning is a vital part of cast iron cookware ownership.
Cast iron retains heat very efficiently, and thus it is not necessary to cook at high temperatures. Cooking with cast iron over high heat can make your food more likely to stick to the pan and damage the seasoning coating. Hot temperatures can destabilize the polymerized oils in the pan, which results in bare spots within the seasoning layer.
Without the layer of seasoning, the cast iron is no longer non-stick and is not protected from rust. High heat can also warp the metal and permanently alter the pan. Cooking over low and medium temperatures allows the cast iron to perform better and keeps it in good condition for future use. As always, be sure to heat any food to a safe temperature before consuming it.
Soap will affect the finish on a cast iron pan, and the use of soap should be avoided. Soap is too strong on oils and will wash away the finish, resulting in a loss of the non-stick qualities. Soap should only be used to clean rust off the pan before you completely re-season it.
To clean your cast iron, it is best to use warm water and a scrub brush. If there are stubborn bits a chainmail scrubber is more than sufficient for removing stuck-on food. Using soap is not necessary to keep your cookware clean. There are some other simple cleaning methods that often perform equally as well.
Using an abrasive cleaning tool, like steel wool, and too much pressure will undoubtedly damage the cast iron seasoning. It is much too abrasive to clean off food particles. Steel wool should only be used to clean rust and other debris on the pan before starting a complete re-seasoning.
Rather than using steel wool for cleaning, a silicone scraper or textured rag sufficiently removes food residue. If you experience stuck-on food that is very difficult to remove, some coarse salt and rubbing with a paper towel should do the trick.
The black finish on cast iron protects the iron from rusting and makes the pan non-stick. Getting rid of this finish only leads to the eventual demise of the pan and makes cooking a hassle. There is no reason to try to wipe off the black finish of cast iron cookware.
If you do degrade the finish, you will have to thoroughly scrub all of the seasoning layers off, clear any rust that has started, and start the re-seasoning process from the start. Coat the pan in a small layer of oil and place it into the oven for about an hour to build up seasoning again.
Cooking with acidic foods, like tomatoes, wines, and more can wear down the seasoning on a cast iron pan. You don’t have to completely write off cooking with acidic ingredients with cast iron cookware, but you should limit the length of cooking time.
For example, simmering a tomato-based marinara sauce all day in a cast iron pot is not the best idea. The seasoning is somewhat fragile when up against acid-heavy foods. When cooking with wines or vinegar-based sauces, or citrus, limit cooking time and be sure to clean the cookware as soon as possible. Never leave any acidic residue on your pan.
While the seasoning on a cast iron pan creates a “non-stick” surface, it still requires adding oil or butter before being used for cooking. Not only does a bit of oil help to keep food from sticking (especially foods like fish and meat), but it slowly adds layers of seasoning to the cooking surface. The additional layers help to strengthen the overall integrity of the seasoning, meaning it will become harder to damage it during washing, using metal cooking utensils, or during storage.
Cast iron is best used by heating the skilled gradually to reach cooking temperatures. While cast iron is very adept at maintaining heat, it does not distribute the heat nearly as well. Sticking a cast iron pan directly into a roaring fire or over a high burner can warp or shock the iron, leaving permanent damage. You can cook in or over a campfire; you just need to pre-heat the pan.
Additionally, putting cold food into a pan that is not adequately pre-heated will cause the food to stick, making for a messy and frustrating cooking experience. The proper way to pre-heat your cast iron pan is to place the pan over low to medium heat for several minutes until the heat is distributed throughout the bottom of the pan. Once even heating has occurred, you can begin cooking.
Repeated or prolonged exposure to moisture is a surefire way to rust your cast iron, and rust is the number one enemy of cast iron cookware. Whether it’s water from washing, leaving it out in the rain while camping, or storing it in a humid place, the wetness of any kind will seep into the iron and create rust.
Once your cast iron pan has rusted, it’s no longer suitable for cooking. It often requires a lot of work to get the pan back to normal with a quality seasoning layer and ready for cooking. Sometimes, if the rust is severe enough, nothing can be done to restore the pan.
Soaking your dishes is a popular way to soften stuck-on food. A cast-iron pan, though, should never be soaked. Soaking a cast iron pan can soften the non-stick seasoning layer and slowly leak into the iron. Eventually, this will cause unwanted rusting and requires a lot of work to re-season. It is safe to use water in your cast iron cookware, but any contact with water should be brief, and afterward, thoroughly dry the pan.
Putting your cast iron pan in the dishwasher is one of the fastest ways to ruin your pan. Dishwashers are very damaging to the seasoning build-up on cast iron skillets. Not only does the dishwashing detergent cut right through the seasoning, but the hot temperatures and vigorous water rinse cycles are not ideal for cast iron cookware.
Though at times, it is necessary to use water when cleaning a cast iron skillet, improper drying techniques will result in rusted cookware. Short durations of water interactions with cast iron are not a big concern. However, anytime water is used on a cast iron, whether for cooking or cleaning, thorough drying is essential. Putting away a cast iron pan while still wet will result in a rusted and unusable pan.
To properly dry cast iron, use a dish towel or paper towel to soak up excess water on all surfaces, including the underside and handle. Then, place the pan over a heat source to evaporate any water that did not soak up with the towel. Even if your pan looks dry, it’s important not to skip this step. Using heat as the last drying method ensures that every drop of water, even the smallest ones unseen by the eye, is completely evaporated.
Vinegar is an acid and thus should be used carefully and sparingly in any cast iron cookware. Avoiding acidic ingredients is not a hard and fast rule, but try to use them sparingly. When cooking with vinegar, it is crucial to clean the cast iron skillet as soon as possible.
When you use vinegar in your cooking, wash and thoroughly dry the cast iron skillet before putting it away. The sooner you wash chemically abrasive substances like vinegar out, the better for the longevity of the seasoning. If you want to strip the seasoning or any accumulated rust spots, vinegar makes a good choice. It will cut through the rust and the seasoning, allowing you to start fresh and rebuild the seasoning layer.