In my modern kitchen, on my modern stove sits a piece of equipment that connects me to the generations of cooks that came before me. It’s something that people have used for hundreds of years to make nourishing food for their families, and I love carrying on this tradition.
It seems the answer to this question is often: because it’s intimidating, or even mysterious… like there is this whole set of rules you need to follow in order to use one. And that really isn’t true- using a cast iron pan for every day cooking couldn’t be easier!
And just to be clear- we’re talking about black cast iron. Not the colorful enameled stuff, and not the silvery nickel-coated cast iron (these are great too, just not what we’re talking about).
So, Why is this Stuff So Wonderful?
A cast iron pan will make you a better cook. Since cast iron is so good at holding heat, whatever you cook in it will easily become GBD: golden, brown, and delicious.
These pans will outlive you. Seriously sturdy and solid. This also means that you won’t have to buy new pans every few years when these ones wear out- because they won’t.
They are a safe, non-stick option. If you’re still using Teflon, please stop. A cast iron pan will never be as slippery-slidey as a new non-stick pan, and you still should use some fat when cooking in cast-iron, but it is an incredible alternative to dangerous non-stick pans (—> read this summary from the American Cancer Society).
Shocker: we never wash our cast iron pans! Well, almost never. Not having a pan to wash every night after dinner is reason enough to cook with cast iron. More on this in a bit…
Old vs. New Cast Iron Pans
There are several companies that still make cast iron pans today- and probably the most popular is Lodge. You can get a well-made, lasts a lifetime, pre-seasoned, ready to use cast iron pan from them, and at a very reasonable price.
There is a newer company that came out with the Cadillac of brand new, pre-seasoned pans. Seriously, they didn’t overlook a single detail, down to the proper oil for seasoning it. They look pretty darn awesome. The price tag is impressive too, but one of these pans would make a great gift for the cook in your life. The current price for an 8″ pan without cover is $125 (not an unreasonable investment).
Option two is to get your mitts on a vintage or antique cast iron pan. Whether you inherit it from your great-grandmother or get a killer deal on one at a flea market, this pan will become a gem in your kitchen.
There is some debate as to whether old cast iron and new cast iron are different, and which is better than the other. I have both, and I prefer the old- and it appears that most agree with me. The reason is because most of the older cast iron has thinner side walls, making it lighter, and the inside surface of the older pans is smoother than the newer pans, making them even a little more non-stick.
There are some trade offs between old and new- so just choose the one that fits best into your life. Old cast iron can be cheap, like $5-20 at thrift-sales or antique shops, although price depends a lot on where you live. In some areas, old cast-iron pans can be near impossible to find (although there’s always ebay!). And if you do find an old beauty of a pan, you’ll need to strip it and re-season it. The new stuff comes pre-seasoned and ready to use out of the box. It isn’t quite as nice as a prime older piece, but it will still work great. And it is always available and very affordable.
What Size Pan Should I Choose?
One of each?
I love our 6-inch cast iron pan because it’s perfect for a couple eggs in the morning, or other little jobs like reheating a burger or toasting sliced almonds.
The 8-inch pan is our workhorse. I use this pan the most- it’s perfect for browning up a pound of hamburger, sautéing a side dish of onions and mushrooms, or cooking up a batch of breakfast sausage patties. Plus, it’s not too heavy or awkward to easily move around the kitchen.
Then there’s the 10-inch! I recently acquired this one and love it dearly already. This pan is perfect for bigger jobs like cooking up two pounds of meat, or throwing together a big stir fry with lots of veggies. If you cook for a big family or make doubles batches of a recipe to eat throughout the week, this might be the best option for you. It is noticeably heavier than the 8-inch, but not unmanageable. You’ll appreciate how toned your arms get every time you cook with it.
Everyday Life with Cast Iron + How to Care For Cast Iron
I think the best approach to cleaning cast iron is to do the least amount possible.
If you’ve never had one, it might be hard to imagine what every day life looks like using cast iron, and how we get away with not really washing it. Let me show you…
Breakfast in Cast Iron
I start the morning by heating our small 6″ cast iron pan for a minute before adding a dollop of butter to it and sautéing some chopped veggies, usually onion, broccoli, zucchini, or sweet potato. When the veggies are cooked I pour them onto a plate, add a little more butter to the pan and then crack in some eggs. When my eggs are perfectly cooked, I slide them out of the pan onto my plate. Immediately, while the pan is hot, I run a little warm water into it, it steams gently, I swirl the water around, pour it out and return the pan to the stove to cool and dry. That’s it! No soap, no dirty pan on the counter, nothing.
Dinner in Cast Iron
For something with a little more grease like bacon or burgers, after cooking and while the pan is still hot, I pour out the extra grease, then hit the pan with a bit of warm water- the steam will loosen any brown bits on the bottom, and then they can easily be scraped up and rinsed out. A few swirls of water followed by a quick wipe with a rag or paper towel and we’re done.
But aren’t you worried about bacteria on the pan if you’re not washing it with soap?!
I did a little experiment to ease your mind (I’m talking to you, mom). After cooking my eggs and rinsing my pan as usual, I used an infrared thermometer to take the temperature of the surface of the pan. It was over 190 degrees F… which is plenty hot enough to kill any lingering bugs.
Heavy-Duty Cleaning Cast Iron
And then there’s the rare occasion where I have a really dirty pan. Maybe I’ve braised pork chops in onions and apple cider, made a Chinese dish with a sweet sticky sauce, or cooked tomato sauce and left the remnants in the pan too long. I try to avoid this if at all possible, but sometimes my cast iron needs a little more than a swirl with water and a wipe.
Some people recommend cleaning with salt, and I am sure that it works fine, but I don’t like it because I have a scrubby that does the same thing. If you have really dirty cast iron on a regular basis, you should consider getting one of these chainmail scrubbing cleaners.
To Soap or Not to Soap?
Whether or not to use soap on a cast iron pan is a highly debated subject. Some do it all the time, and some consider it a crime against humanity. I fall somewhere closer to the latter. To clean the pan with soap, I save the pan until the very end of doing dishes, and wash it quickly with weak soapy water. I never submerge it, just wring some soap water into it, wipe it down and rinse.
But doesn’t soapy water strip the seasoning? Kind of, but not really. The actual “seasoning” of a pan is not simply a layer of oil, but oil that has bonded with the molecules in the pan to form a sort-of plastic layer, and this core seasoning can’t be removed with just soap. I do notice that if I use strong soapy water, the pan is a little bit less non-stick for several uses, but bounces back quickly. However, when I use weak soapy water, and only once or twice per month, I don’t notice any difference in the non-stickness. The better seasoned your pan, the less the effect soap will have on the non-stickness- which I believe is the reason why there are such varying opinions on soap and cast iron!
I use more natural dish soap also, not the heavy duty grease cutting soaps like Dawn, which also might make a difference.
To Oil or Not to Oil?
I don’t really oil our cast iron pans, because they sit out on the stove top constantly and are used almost daily. If you’re going to use the pan once a month or put it in storage, you may want to keep it oiled when it is not in use. Any edible oil will do for this purpose, as you are just preventing moisture from reaching the metal, and therefore deterring rust.
Buying Old Cast Iron: What to Look For & What to Pass On
The thing about antique cast iron pans is that they are usually for sale because they are beat up, gunky, and rusted. If you’ve found yourself staring at an abused old pan at an antique store for $9 and wondering if you should go for it, consider the following:
What to Look For When Buying Old Cast Iron & What to Avoid
We’re not talking about buying old, special collectors cast iron worth a lot of money, we’re talking about buying an old piece for a good price. And the worse the condition, the better the price. Which is good for you, because with a little effort, it can become like new again.
Rust Rust shmust. We can usually tackle that no problem. With one caveat- real rust is an orange brown color; watch out for “rust” that is very red in color, as this is an indicator of fire damage. If the pan is heated too hot (like directly in a fire) the molecular structure of the iron can be changed, taking on a red appearance. A little spot or two is probably okay, but if the whole bottom of the pan is streaked in red, you might let that one go. If the rust is really really really bad, you should be able to tell because the pan will look and feel thinner in those spots. If this is the case, pass on it.
Cracks Sometimes they are obvious and sometimes they are small and hidden by rust or seasoning, either way, I don’t want them in my pan. Hold the pan by the handle, make a fist and knock on the bottom of pan, with the emphasis on your sharp knuckles. There should be a nice robust ring. If the sound is dull, flat and short, this could indicate a cracked piece. If there are multiple cast iron pans for sale, knock on some others to compare sounds. Hold the pan up to the light at an angle to get a different view. Inspect the inside and the outside of the pan, and especially the top of the lip. If you find a crack, you might want to keep searching for a better pan.
Chips You can easily spot a chip in the lip of the pan, or on the bottom if there is a heat ring present (a raised ring on the bottom of the pan). Chips often occur when the pan is dropped (they can also be formed during the casting of the iron if there was an air bubble). A small chip in the lip isn’t a deal-breaker on an otherwise nice pan. However, if a pan was dropped hard enough to chip it, it was likely dropped hard enough to crack it, so inspect it well.
Pitting & Erosion This can be a little more complicated… Let’s tackle pitting on the inside of the pan first. Pitting looks like big or deep single pores or pock marks. A couple shallow ones probably aren’t a big deal, and they will fill with seasoning over time. A lot of pitting, or really deep pitting will likely have an affect on the non-stickness of the pan. When forced to quantify it, I personally probably wouldn’t get one with more than six shallow pits on an 8-inch pan. Another thing you might see on the inside of the pan is erosion, or what appears to be missing “flakes” of the surface of the pan. This is likely the old seasoning flaking off of the pan. It isn’t a big deal if you will be stripping and re-seasoning the pan. Take a close look and make sure they aren’t flakes of rust (as indicated by an orange brown color).
On the underside of the pan is where you are more likely to see a lot of pitting or even a crater-like appearance. This won’t affect the non-stickness of the pan, but it can be cause for uneven cooking due to the varied thickness in the metal. This is usually due to acid erosion caused by the coal or natural gas they used to make the fire that the pans were heated over. Those fuels contain higher levels of sulphur, leaving sulphuric acid on the pan, causing it to be eaten away.
Want to know another source of cast-iron-eating acid? Rodent urine.
You’ll have to be the judge when it comes to how much pitting and erosion you’ll tolerate on the bottom of the pan. If there is an obvious difference in the thickness of the bottom of the pan due to these factors, I’d pass.
If the pan was heated too hot with nothing in it, or unevenly, one part of the pan can expand faster than the others, causing it to warp. To detect this, place the pan on a flat surface and press on the top edge in different areas, looking for it to wobble. I don’t like a warped pan because it causes trouble when cooking- depending on whether the warp is concave or convex, your cooking oil will pool in the middle or around sides, or the pan won’t touch the stove evenly. This can make cooking really difficult.
How to Clean Old Cast Iron: Removing Seasoning
There are two main considerations when cleaning vintage and antique cast iron: the seasoning and the rust. Both should be removed before you do any cooking with it.
We’re not talking about a newer cast iron pan that you left water in and rusted a little, and we’re not talking about your grandma’s pan that just needs a seasoning overhaul. (For directions on that, move to the “How to Season a Pan” section). We’re talking about a don’t-know-where-it-came-from, rusty, cruddy pan. A one-time treatment to restore your pan to it’s original factory finish. Even if the antique store you bought the piece from seasoned and oiled it (unless they specialize in refurbishing cast iron) I would still want to remove the seasoning and start fresh.
Why remove fifty years of seasoning? As romantic as it is to imagine the pioneers and housewives that used this pan before you… that is precisely why you want to remove those layers- you don’t know who used that pan before you or what they were cooking in it. People are weird.
To Remove Seasoning
There are many different methods you can try to refurbish a piece of cast iron. And I’m about to recommend something a little controversial. Along with why I think it’s okay.
In my opinion, a lye-based cleaner is the most cost-effective, simplest way to remove all the old layers of built up “stuff” for someone wanting to restore a pan or two at home.
A quick soak in vinegar, or a scrub with coarse salt and lemon just isn’t going to cut it. Go ahead and soak it all day in soapy water. Nope, won’t work either. “Seasoning” is polymerized oil- which means that it is an entirely new substance and no longer just a layer of oil on the pan. Breaking those bonds takes big guns.
Why Lye-Based Cleaner?
Why use a chemical when there are other methods like sand-blasting, using your oven’s self-cleaning cycle, or throwing the pan into a bed of coals? Well, for one I’m not a skilled sand blaster, nor do I have the equipment- I bet you don’t either. And you can easily damage a pan with this method if you don’t know what you are doing.
I really love the antique and vintage cast iron, and the older pieces can warp or even crack under very extremely high temperatures, which is why I wouldn’t use high-heat, including throwing it into a camp fire, or using the self-cleaning oven cycle to burn off all the baked on crud. Yes, it will work, but every credible cast-iron source I have read strongly recommends against this because it will likely damage the iron.
Plus, I feel safe using lye-based cleaners for this purpose- and I’ll tell you why.
First, let me say that we are very mindful of the substances we put on our bodies, the soaps we use for laundry and even the cleaner that shines up our porcelain throne. I generally avoid harmful chemicals whenever I can. And this may be the “whole-fed” homestead, but it is also a practical and rational homestead.
But isn’t lye a horrible chemical?
While I wouldn’t use oven cleaner inside my home where we live, I would use it outdoors where the odor and fumes will quickly dissipate and not jeopardize our health.
But isn’t it bad for the environment?
Well, probably a little. But so are a lot of things, and it’s all about choosing your battles and taking into account your overall footprint. Using lye one time to strip a recycled pan that I am likely going to use for the rest of my life seems like an okay trade-off, all things considered.
But isn’t cast iron porous, and won’t the lye be sucked up into the pan? Isn’t it dangerous to eat out of something that had lye on it?
This answer is a bit more complicated. And I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit researching the porosity of iron alloys.
Porosity, pores… these are more like microscopic nooks and crannies than a sponge that is going to “suck up” and trap lye. And lucky for us, we know that lye is easily and readily neutralized, which we will take full advantage of and use science to ease our minds. Plus, the same nooks and crannies that the lye will hang around in, the solution that neutralizes the lye will also hang around in.
The only risk to your health is if you aren’t careful in handling the lye cleaner and burn yourself, or if you don’t follow instructions thoroughly.
In the same way that something “natural” doesn’t always mean it is good, just because something is a “chemical” doesn’t mean it is bad for every application.
How to Remove Seasoning with Lye
Oven cleaner is the most widely-available lye-based cleaner. Make sure to read the ingredients and look for sodium hydroxide as the active ingredient. Don’t choose oven cleaners with “less odor,” as their active ingredient is likely not lye. Others have reported that Easy Off Heavy Duty seems to work the best.
To remove cast iron seasoning using a lye-based oven cleaner: choose a location outside, but that is semi-protected from the elements, and isn’t accessible by children or animals. It also needs to be during a couple consecutive warmish days.
Always use hand and eye protection when working with lye-based cleaners. Think of treating lye as if it were hot oil. Place your cast iron pan into a doubled garbage bag and then place everything into an old plastic washtub or disposable aluminum pan (to catch any accidental leaks). And don’t set this over or on top of anything you care about.
Following the directions on the can, spray the oven-cleaner foam all over the cast iron and then seal up the bag and secure it tightly (this is just to keep the oven cleaner from drying out, allowing it to work longer). Leave it for at least 48 hours (you can leave cast iron in lye solution for a very long time without harming the pan).
Open the garbage bags and use steel wool to remove as much grime as you can and wipe it off with paper towels. Depending on how thick the seasoning was, you may need to repeat the oven-cleaner application and scrubbing process one or two more times.
When the seasoning has been removed sufficiently, and you can see the original gun-metal grey of the pan, rinse the pan well with water and then wash it with room temperature soapy water. Change the water and wash the pan again. Water will dilute the lye to a safe pH and largely get rid of it. Do NOT skip this step. You may have read that vinegar will neutralize lye- and it will, but not without reacting and releasing a lot of heat. The lye should be diluted with water before being neutralized with vinegar, in order to avoid burns. Do not put a lye-soaked pan directly into vinegar.
Whether your pan is rusty or not, if you’ve used lye to remove the seasoning, you will need to go through the rust-removal vinegar bath (see below) to further neutralize any lye.
Review of Steps to Ensure Lye is Removed:
1. Removed as much lye and gunk as possible with paper towels.
2. Washed pan with soap and water. Lye is very water soluble and should be sufficiently diluted by a thorough washing. Mind you- lutefisk is soaked in lye, and rinsed over and over with water before being eaten…
3. A vinegar rinse is an extra measure of precaution to make sure all neutralization has taken place.
How to Clean Old Cast Iron: Removing Rust (and Neutralizing Lye)
Again, if you’ve used lye on your cast iron pan, rinse with water and clean with soapy water BEFORE applying vinegar.
Use white distilled vinegar (regular, inexpensive vinegar- get the gallon jug). Use a vessel that you can submerge the entire pan in (like a utility sink). Make a solution of equal parts vinegar and water, mix well and place the pan into the vinegar water. Position the pan right-side up; if you put it into the water upside down, an air bubble might be trapped underneath and prevent the vinegar from reaching the inside bottom of the pan.
Soak the pan for 30 minutes. If you are using a vinegar soak to neutralize lye and there isn’t actually rust present on your pan, proceed to the drying step.
If there is rust on your pan, remove it from the vinegar and use steel wool or other abrasive scrubber to scrub off the rust. An additional 30 minute vinegar soak may be necessary for some really bad pans, and this is okay, but don’t soak the pan in vinegar for longer than this, as vinegar will dissolve the cast iron.
Immediately rinse the pan well to remove the vinegar. Dry the pan with a towel and place it into a hot oven or on the stove to quickly evaporate surface moisture and prevent rust.
How to Season a Cast Iron Pan
This is about as controversial a topic as religion and politics. Ask someone what they season their cast iron pan with if you want to risk getting hit over the head with one. This is because just about any edible oil will work to some degree. But hear me out- you’ve found a killer pan, and spent days stripping and cleaning it- don’t you want to follow through with the best seasoning job possible? Especially if it will effect the performance of the pan?
It DOES MATTER what oil you use to season your cast iron pan. There is a superior oil for seasoning, and the reason is very simply explained with science. And it’s not Crisco, lard, bacon grease or any other animal fat. It isn’t corn oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil… and it certainly isn’t Pam. So what is it then?!
The magic oil for seasoning a cast iron pan is flaxseed oil —-> find it here.
Let’s step back for a second and think about what we’re trying to achieve by seasoning our pan. We want a surface that is non-stick, and that won’t scrape or flake off, right? We want a smooth, shiny black pan. In order to achieve this, the best oil to use is something called a “drying oil.”
“A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink by the action of oxygen (not through the evaporation of water or other solvents).”
Linseed oil, a drying oil, is what painters use to achieve a beautiful paint that dries hard and shiny. Woodworkers use this same oil to put a glossy, impenetrable protective layer on their creations. The food-safe equivalent to this is flaxseed oil.
Drying oils are typically high in ALA (alpha-Linolenic acid), and omega-3 fatty acids. This is probably the reason why 100 years ago, people seasoned their pans with lard and it worked wonderfully, but why our improperly fed, low omega-3 containing pork of today is substandard for seasoning. There are some oils that are classified as semi-drying oils, which still don’t come near the ALA content (and therefore seasoning ability) of flaxseed oil.
Yes, flaxseed oil is more expensive, but it’s worth it. Plus, it’s good for you, so buy a small bottle, use it for seasoning, put some in the freezer for later seasoning use, and eat the rest!
What Does “Seasoning” Even Mean? Short Version
Seasoning involves applying oil to the pan and heating it in a certain way so that the reactions that take place between the oil, air and pan cause the oil to turn into a sort-of plastic, with a smooth, glossy, non-stick surface.
What Does “Seasoning” Even Mean? Long, Science-y Version
The process of seasoning involves manipulating fat in a way that turns it into something else, in this case a polymer. Polymerization involves turning many small molecules into one big molecule. The resulting large molecular mass relative to small particle size is what gives polymers their unique properties, like toughness and glassiness- which is what we want for our pan! (Thanks again, Wikipedia) And drying oils polymerize more than other types of oils, which is why they are best.
So, how do we polymerize the flaxseed oil? We need to do something that seems contradictory to what we know is healthy. Polymerization occurs when an oil is heated passed its smoke point and allowed to become rancid, which means it releases free radicals. Now, we don’t want this to happen to the food we put in our bodies, but we aren’t eating the pan, so… there’s that.
Free radicals are the building blocks of the polymer, and are necessary.
How to Season a Cast Iron Pan: The Best Method
Whether you are starting from a fresh pan you stripped yourself, or simply need to give your family heirloom a tune-up, follow these directions for a super slick, glossy pan.
In order to polymerize the oil for seasoning, we need it to release as many free radicals as possible. To accomplish this, we’ll expose the oil to light, heat, and oxygen (everything you’re not supposed to do if you want to keep your expensive cooking oils fresh).
Into your pan, pour a quarter-sized dollop of flaxseed oil. Use your hands or a folded paper towel to wipe the oil all over the inside and outside surface of the pan. Now, take a clean rag or paper towel and wipe ALL of the oil off- it should look fairly dry, not glossy at all. And although it may look like there is no oil, there is a thin layer of oil on the pan. And thin is what you want! The best seasoning comes from building many thin layers. Resist the urge to put a thick layer of oil on the pan.
Place the pan upside down (put a pan under it if you wish, but there should be nowhere near a thick enough layer of oil for it to drip) into a cold oven and then turn the oven on to 450 degrees F. Cook for 75 minutes, then turn the oven off and allow the pan to cool in the oven without opening the door (should take about two hours).
Repeat. Add another thin layer of oil then wipe it all off and cook again. Before using your pan to cook in, you will need to build anywhere from 6-10 layers of seasoning in this manner. You can do this over as many days as you want, no need to build the layers all in one day.
And that’s it! Now get yourself a beautiful cast iron pan and get cooking!
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Printable Seasoning Instructions!
- Flaxseed oil
- paper towels
- Into your pan, pour a quarter-sized dollop of flaxseed oil. Use your hands or a folded paper towel to wipe the oil all over the inside surface of the pan.
- Now, take a clean rag or paper towel and wipe ALL of the oil off- it should look fairly dry, not glossy at all. And although it may look like there is no oil, there is a thin layer of oil on the pan. And thin is what you want! The best seasoning comes from building many thin layers. Resist the urge to put a thick layer of oil on the pan.
- Place the pan upside down (no need to put a pan under it, as there should be nowhere near a thick enough layer of oil for it to drip) into a cold oven and then turn the oven on to 450 degrees F.
- Cook for 75 minutes, then turn the oven off and allow the pan to cool in the oven without opening the door (should take about two hours).
- Repeat: add another thin layer of oil then wipe it all off and cook again.
- Before using your pan to cook in, you will need to build anywhere from 6-10 layers of seasoning in this manner. You can do this over as many days as you want, no need to build the layers all in one day.