6 Tips for Caring for Cast-Iron Skillets

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A clean cast-iron skillet, with a blue sponge resting neatly on top.

Cast-iron skillets makes for beautiful, classic additions to any kitchen, and in recent years they’ve slowly been making a comeback. While many kitchen supply stores are stocked with the newest chemically-enhanced nonstick skillet technology, a lot of people are nonetheless turning back to the joys of cooking with simple cast-iron. When properly seasoned, cast-iron skillets don’t stick, and they can be used safely on your stove or in the oven. They’re also extremely tough and therefore difficult to damage, and they easily maintain their temperature when heated.

But they’re more famous for one very unique, quaint feature. In fact, it’s a feature they share in common with Japanese teapots. Simply put, cast-iron skillets make your food taste better the more you use them. And they actually improve the nutritional content of your food, as a small amount of iron is absorbed into the foods you cook or bake. They’re also beautiful and elegant-looking, which is perhaps one of their biggest draws. Yes, these skillets look hardy, sophisticated, and downright antique even when they’re bought new.

If you’ve recently purchased a cast-iron skillet, or are considering joining the club, here are 6 tips for caring for and maintaining it:

Clean It Up After Purchase

Aside from removing the label and setting it down in your kitchen, the first thing you should do after purchasing your new cast-iron skillet is to thoroughly wash it with hot, soapy water. You’ll see later in this article that soap is actually not ideal for cast-iron, but the first wash is a notable exception.

Start by Seasoning It

The term “seasoning” refers to the process of making and keeping your cast-iron nonstick and rust-resistant the old fashioned way, through the accumulation of layers of oil over time. Sometimes when you buy a new cast-iron skillet, it will come with seasoning that was added at the factory at the end of the manufacturing process. But many people buy these skillets at yard sales, antique shops, and vintage stores, where they’re anything but new.

If this rings true for you, you’ll need to start seasoning the skillet yourself after you give it that clean cleaning. You can do this in a few simple steps:

  • After you’re done cleaning the skillet for the first time, dry it thoroughly with a soft towel.
  • With a rubber or wooden spatula or other unsharpened tool, spread a thin layer of vegetable oil from edge-to-edge on the inside of the skillet.
  • Turn the skillet upside down and place it on the middle rack of your oven with the temperature set to 375° F. To avoid dripping, you can place some foil on the lower rack if you want.
  • Bake the skillet for one hour and then let it cool down in the oven.

Be Gentle When You Cook

A freshly-used, dirty cast-iron skillet.

When it’s finally time to start cooking or baking with your new cast-iron skillet, try to be gentle with it. Ideally you should use utensils made of wood, silicone, or rubber. While it’s not the end of the world to use metal tools, they might possibly scrape off some of the seasoning that you’re trying to build up to make your skillet extra special.

Take Advantage of Recipes

Some recipes are better than others for cooking or baking with cast-iron. You can look up long lists of recipes that will best suit your cool new skillet, or you can just experiment through trial and error. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you shouldn’t store your food in your skillet after you’re done cooking. Instead, it’s best to  remove the food and place it in another container if you’re going to keep leftovers. This is because storing food in a cast-iron skillet is generally bad for both the food and the pan itself.

Clean Your Skillet Properly

Cleaning a cast-iron skillet is a bit of an artform. It’s best to do it right away after cooking or baking while the pan is still hot. Don’t soak the pan or leave it in the sink overnight, because this can contribute to rust buildup. Instead, just add some hot water and wash the skillet by hand with a brush or sponge.

Another key for cleaning cast-iron is to avoid soap and steel wool. After all, these kinds of products will remove the pan’s prized seasoning. If there’s a lot of food stuck to the surface, you can simply scrub it with salt and water, wipe it with a paper towel, or, if the food is especially stubborn, use boiling water to make sure you get everything off.

After cleaning, dry the skillet thoroughly with a towel or by using a little heat from your stove, and then oil up the surface with vegetable oil.

Store Your Skillet the Right Way

Well-Organized Cast-Iron Skillets

Before you put your clean cast-iron skillet away, make sure it’s completely dry. The last thing you want is for rust to build up and cancel out all the beautiful seasoning the pan has been accumulating. Another good trick for storage is to place a single paper towel into the skillet before placing it in the drawer. This keeps it dry from any moisture from other pans you might have in there, and it additionally protects the surface from damage.

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