Cast iron cookware often evokes images of olden days and campfire cookouts, yet the classic culinary tool remains just as popular today as it ever was.
There’s a good reason why cast iron cookware has been around for so many years — it’s incredibly durable and long lasting.
If you’ve never used cast iron before, you may have heard intimidating horror stories about how hard it is to use, clean, and store.
But once you know the basic principles of cooking with cast iron, there’s a good chance you’ll find it just as easy to use and care for as many other types of kitchen equipment.
This article presents a general overview of cast iron cookware, its benefits, tips to get started using it, and more.
One of the main reasons cast iron has been held in high regard for so many years is that it’s nearly indestructible.
In fact, with a bit of cleaning and care, even cast iron cookware that’s been neglected and left to rust can often be restored to a condition almost like new.
What’s more, cast iron that’s been properly seasoned develops its own nonstick surface.
The best part is, unlike traditional nonstick pans made with Teflon or ceramic coatings, the nonstick surface on cast iron can be reapplied over and over again with a process known as “seasoning.”
The natural nonstick surface and sturdy nature may be cast iron’s most notable benefits, but the perks of the cookware don’t stop there. Some other notable benefits of cooking with cast iron include:
- Holds heat well. Once cast iron has warmed up, it stays warm which helps keep food hot. But you should also know this means it takes a while for cast iron to fully heat up and fully cool down.
- Works well with many heat sources. Cast iron can be used on any type of stovetop (gas, electric, or induction). It can also be used over an open flame like a campfire or placed directly into the oven as a baking dish would be.
- Easy to clean. Once you know the fundamentals of cleaning cast iron, it’s no more difficult to clean than other types of cookware. Plus, its natural nonstick surface might even make it easier to clean than glass or aluminum.
- Affordable. Cast iron cookware is often sold at affordable prices and since it lasts nearly forever, you can view it as a one-time investment. It’s usually easy to find cast iron at thrift stores and second-hand shops too.
- Comes in many shapes and sizes. Cast iron skillets are probably the most popular form of this cookware, but cast iron is also used to make pots, griddles, cake pans, pizza sheets, and more.
- Can be used for cooking and serving. Many people find cast iron cookware aesthetically pleasing and it can make a nice addition to any table setting. In fact, many restaurants even use mini cast-iron skillets as serving dishes.
Does cooking in cast iron have health benefits?
You may have heard that cooking with cast iron is a natural way to add more iron to your diet.
It’s in fact true that cooking with cast iron might add some iron to your meals, but exactly how much depends on a number of factors like what you’re cooking, how long it’s in the pan, and how well your cast iron is seasoned (
If you’re looking to treat a condition like iron deficiency anemia by cooking with cast iron, you should know that the research on this topic is still very limited, and the amount of iron added to your diet by cooking with cast iron is likely negligible.
Using cast iron to get more iron in your diet may be most effective when used alongside other therapies like supplements and dietary changes (
Cast iron cookware is long lasting and with proper care it maintains its own natural nonstick coating. It’s also versatile, affordable, and readily available in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
Cast iron cookware is suitable for many types of cooking but especially:
Some foods commonly prepared with cast ironware are:
- meat substitutes like tofu
- baked goods
- griddle cakes like pancakes or fritters
Cast iron works wonders for many foods, but there are a few cases where you might want to avoid cast iron cookware, such as when you’re boiling water or letting something simmer.
The reason is that your food may absorb more iron flavor than you’d like if it’s cooked in cast iron for an extended period of time.
Further, acidic foods like tomatoes, lemon juice, wine, and vinegar are likely to absorb the iron flavors of cast iron, which may be undesirable at times. They’re also harsh on cast iron cookware and might remove some of your pan’s natural nonstick coating.
Cast iron works best for browning, sautéing, baking, and frying but should be avoiding when boiling and simmering. Meats, vegetables, and baked goods work really well in cast iron but acidic foods like tomatoes should be limited.
There are four fundamental steps to caring for cast iron cookware:
- Season it properly.
- Clean it regularly.
- Store it safely.
- Re-season it as needed.
Compared to tossing a pan in the dishwasher, caring for cast iron may seem like a lot of extra work at first glance.
But once you’ve run through the process a couple of times, you might decide the extra few minutes you spend caring for your cast iron is worth having a sturdy nonstick piece of cookware that can be used over and over again.
Here is an overview of each step in caring for cast iron cookware:
Season it properly
“Seasoning” cast iron protects the cookware from rust and creates a natural non-stick surface. It’s arguably the most important step to caring for cast iron.
Seasoning works by coating cast iron in liquid fat-like oil and heating it up past the smoke point until the fat polymerizes. When fat polymerizes, it turns from liquid into a slick, hard solid that the porous iron cookware absorbs creating a nonstick surface.
Virtually any type of cooking oil can be used to season cast iron but keep in mind that oils with strong flavors, like avocado or sesame seed oil, may subsequently flavor your cookware and the foods you prepare in it.
Many people like to use a basic vegetable or canola oil because they’re affordable, easy to find, and have a neutral flavor profile.
Whichever oil you end up using, be sure to heat your pan past the oil’s smoke point so polymerization occurs.
To season cast iron cookware:
- Starting with a clean piece of cookware, rub a light coat of oil (too much oil will create a sticky pan) over the entire thing including the top and bottom, inside and outside, and any handles.
- Place the piece of cookware in a preheated oven between 450°F–500°F (232°C–260°C) for approximately one hour. It’s usually a good idea to put a baking pan on a lower rack of the oven to catch any oil that might drop off.
Clean it regularly
Cleaning cast iron after each use is ideal to prevent rust and maintain a nonstick coating. Because cast iron tends to absorb flavors easily, it also helps ensure that the next dish you make won’t taste like the one prior.
Some people choose to completely avoid using soaps and abrasive sponges to clean their cast iron out of fear it will damage the nonstick seasoning. For these reasons, it’s also usually best to wash cast iron by hand instead of using a high-powered dishwasher.
In actuality, a little scrubbing and a small bit of soap probably won’t do much harm, but you definitely won’t want to overdo it or you’ll likely end up needing to re-season your cast iron quite often.
An easier option might be to use a bit of salt which provides just enough abrasion to remove any residue and leftovers without damaging the nonstick layer.
Or you can try a tool called a chain mail that’s made of linked rings of stainless steel or titanium. They’re also great for cleaning cast iron yet leaving the nonstick layer unscathed.
Store it safely
To prevent rusting, before you store your cast iron you want to be absolutely certain you’ve removed all food residue from the pan and dried it completely.
After you’ve washed cast iron, you can dry it with a towel, by heating it in the oven, or even on the stovetop.
Re-season it as needed
No matter how well you maintain your cast iron, it will need to be re-seasoned from time to time.
If you choose to dry your cast iron with heat such as in the oven or on the stovetop, it also makes for a good opportunity to add a thin layer of oil and heat the pan up to the oil’s smoke point to maintain the nonstick coating.
If you start to see rust or notice that your pan is turning lighter in color, it’s a good sign that it’s time to re-season.
To care for any type of cast iron: (1) season it properly (2) clean it regularly (3) store it safely (4) re-season it as needed.
Investing in a set of cast iron could mean having a durable set of nonstick cookware that lasts nearly forever.
Learning how to properly care for it is critical to maintaining the lifespan, but once you’re comfortable with the process it’s fairly easy to incorporate into your usual kitchen cleaning routines.
Thankfully, cast iron is relatively affordable and readily available at retail kitchen stores.
Or if you want to test out cast iron yourself before buying a new piece, check your local second-hand shop and try re-seasoning an old piece to make it like new again.