There's a reason people wax poetic about the magic of their grandparents' cast-iron skillet. Unlike other pans, cast iron just seems to get better over time, layers and layers of seasoning building up until everything from pork chops to skillet cobbler cooks up in it like a dream. But caring for your favorite pan can be confusing. There's a lot of information out there that can honestly make having a cast-iron skillet seem like more trouble than it's worth, but we promise you it's not hard at all. Use this guide, and you'll be serving up perfectly seared steaks and cheesy skillet potatoes in no time.
1. How to pick a cast-iron pan
Cast iron is extremely resilient. If you're buying vintage cast iron, look for a pan that doesn't have any pitting or gouges in the surface of the metal. If the pan is rusted, you'll need to get the rust off (either by scrubbing it with coarse salt or gently using steel wool) and reseason it. Any new cast-iron pan is fine, but be aware that even a pan that claims to be preseasoned will need to be properly seasoned at home.
2. How to season your cast-iron pan
When you season your cast-iron pan, a special magic happens. The magic of… chemistry! When the oil you slick over the cast iron's surface is heated, it polymerizes, meaning that the oil actually bonds with the surface of the metal rather than just sitting above it. This is what creates the durable "seasoning" layer that makes cast iron so resilient and mostly nonstick — not as nonstick as Teflon, but nonstick enough that as long as your pan is well-seasoned and preheated, you should be able to cook almost anything in it.
Seasoning your pan is simple. Heat it up on the stove over high heat. Then, swipe it with a layer of neutral oil (think canola, not olive), and let it cool down. Repeat this process two to three times, and your pan should be seasoned to perfection. You should do this seasoning step once after every time you use your pan.
To keep building up the seasoning, try making bacon or frying up some of your favorite foods the first few times you use your pan. This will help continue to build the nonstick layer, which will save you from heartache down the road.
3. How to wash your cast-iron pans
Don't soak your pan in the sink. Wait until the pan is warm enough to handle, and wash it then. You can use mild dish soap on your pan (again, since the seasoning is actually polymerized and not a surface oil, it should be fine after coming into contact with soap), but if you want to be really safe, just use warm water and a gentle scrub sponge or stiff dishwashing brush. Wipe the pan dry as soon as you're done cleaning it and reseason.
4. Getting rid of stubborn stains
If you have a really stubborn, stuck-on stain on your pan, there are two things you can do. First, boil some water in the pan. This should loosen and soften the stuck-on food. Once the pan is warm enough to handle safely, scrub it with a stiff dishwashing brush. Empty the pan, sprinkle in some coarse kosher salt, and use your brush to continue scrubbing (the salt acts as a gentle abrasive). You can use a steel wool pad as a last resort, but it may damage the seasoning. When the pan is clean, wipe it dry and reseason it.
5. How to store your pan
Make sure your pan is absolutely dry before you store it — this will help prevent rusting. Then, store it in a cool, dry cupboard.
Now you know how to take care of your cast-iron pan! Once you build up a good layer of seasoning, you can make all manner of things in it… yes, even eggs (get the pan hot first though!).