By Rhoda Boone
After a recent trip to Woodstock, NY, we brought back two well-used cast iron pans into the test kitchen. Cast iron cookware holds a special place in our culinary hearts because it's economical, durable, versatile, holds heat well, and cooks food evenly. Properly seasoned and maintained, cast iron can last for generations and sustain a longer-lasting easy-release surface than contemporary non-stick pans. But in order to do all this, cast iron has to be well taken care of. And that's no small task, because no other piece of cookware incites greater debate and panic over its care and maintenance. To soap or not to soap? What's the best way to season it? And what about store-bought pans that claim to be pre-seasoned? Take a deep breath, people—we've got answers.
1. WASH WITH SOAP ONLY ONCE.
When you purchase a piece of new or used cast iron cookware it's okay to use mild soapy water for the first washing. But that's it! Avoid harsh soap and scouring pads thereafter because they can remove the seasoning you'll be trying so hard to achieve. And don't even think about running your pan through a dishwasher.
2. SEASON YOUR PAN.
We're not talking about salt and pepper here. "Seasoning" on a pan is fat or oil baked into the iron, which helps create a natural non-stick coating. The more you use your pan, the more seasoned it will become.
To season a cast iron pan, preheat the oven to 300°F. Place a layer of foil on the bottom rack of your oven and the pan on the top rack. Heat the pan for 10 minutes and remove. Using a cloth or paper towel, coat the pan with about 1 tablespoon of vegetable shortening, lard, or bacon grease. (Don't use vegetable oil—it creates a coating that feels sticky.) Place the pan back in the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove and pour out any excess fat or oil. Turn the pan upside down and return it to the top rack of the oven (position it over the foil to catch any drips). Bake for 1 hour, turn off the oven, and let the pan cool in the oven. Repeat this process often to maintain and intensify your pan's seasoning. Some new pans are labeled "pre-seasoned" but we recommend seasoning them at home anyway to create a stronger seasoning bond.
3. GET COOKING!
Cast iron cookware is great for everything from pan-searing pork chops to baking cornbread. With new pieces, we recommend starting off with foods with a high fat content (like bacon) to help with the seasoning process and solidify the non-stick surface. Note: never store food in cast iron. Acids in food can break down the seasoned surface.
4. KEEP IT CLEAN.
We don't recommend letting your cast iron soak. Wash your (preferably still warm) pan with hot water and use a sponge or stiff non-metal brush to remove cooking residue. To slough off tough bits of stuck-on food, pour a cup of coarse kosher salt into a still-warm skillet. Squeeze a folded kitchen towel with tongs and scrub the pan with the salt. Toss the salt and rinse the pan with hot water.
5. DRY IT COMPLETELY, EVERY TIME.
Moisture is the enemy. Not properly drying your cast iron can cause it to rust. So after rinsing, dry it well and place it on the stove-top over low heat. Allow to dry for a few minutes, then use a cloth or paper towel to rub it with a little shortening, lard, bacon grease, or vegetable oil. Heat for 5 to 10 minutes more, remove from heat, and allow to cool. Wipe with another cloth or paper towel to remove excess grease.
6. STORE IT CAREFULLY.
Keep your cast iron cookware in a dry place with the lids off to avoid rusting. If rust appears, scour your pan with steel wool to remove it and re-season the pan.
Ready to give your cast iron a test drive? Fried chicken is a great place to start.