Cooking with Cast Iron

by Matt Moore on June 25, 2012 · 122 comments

in Food & Drink, Travel & Leisure



This post is sponsored by Bing. What’s this?

My passion for cooking was first born in my grandmother’s kitchen.  On Sundays, she would always host our entire family, extended family, friends, and strangers for a post-church lunch that invariably stretched well into the evening.  It was a day filled with food, laughter, and fellowship.  Of course, the Southern staples of collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac n’ cheese, squash casserole, and spiral-sliced ham always made their way onto our family table.  But my grandmother — Sitty as she was known — was famous throughout Valdosta, Georgia for one thing: fried chicken.

Wet battered and fried in a black cast-iron skillet, the crispy skin and moist, tender chicken was almost prophetic.  My father still jokingly tells my mother that Sitty’s fried chicken was one of the reasons he proposed over 30 years ago.  Rightfully so — we Southerner’s take pride in our traditions and food.

Sitty passed a few years ago, but her memory still lives on.  Not only through the memories of her joyous smile or sharp sense of humor — but also through her cookware.  That’s right — I celebrate her love every time I pull out that perfectly seasoned cast-iron skillet she handed down to me.

There’s something incredibly comforting about cooking in her old skillet.  I’m reminded of those childhood family meals, while at the same time I know that I am creating new memories for myself and friends — all through the same cookware.

For that very reason, I have long felt that when it comes to cookware, cast iron is king. It lasts a lifetime(s), cooks evenly, and even supplies a healthy low-dose of iron to your diet.  It’s arguably the most versatile piece of cookware you will ever find.  It performs on the stove top, in the oven, over coals, or even on top of a grill.  From frying, to sauteing, to searing, to baking – it’s truly the Swiss Army knife of the kitchen.

The best part?  Cast-iron cookware is super affordable when bought new and can also be snagged on the cheap at yard and barn sales and restored.

So, listen up men.  Before you go buy a bunch of expensive gadgets to outfit your kitchen, start first by picking up a cast iron pan.  Treat it right, and you’ll be passing it on to your grandkids.

MM

SEASONING CAST IRON

Unlike Teflon pans, which get their non-stick properties from chemical compounds, the stickiness of a cast iron pan is diminished by a natural layer of oil/fat called “seasoning.” The seasoning also protects the pan from rust.

These days, the majority of skillets you will find come pre-seasoned by the manufacturer.  While you should always take steps to maintain the seasoning (see below), you may encounter times that you want to repeat the seasoning process.  Of course, if you are starting with a brand new, unseasoned skillet, you will need to follow this process before you begin using your cast iron.

WASH –  This will be the only time I advise you to use soap on your cast iron, as you will want to strip it completely clean.  Repeat, only use soap on your cast iron prior to seasoning your skillet — never again — got it?  Good.  Now, rinse that skillet with hot water to remove ALL of the soap.  Done?  Rinse it some more to be sure — you want ALL of that soap out of the pan prior to seasoning.  If you are re-seasoning the surface due to stuck-on food particles or uneven color, go ahead and use a brush or even steel wool to form an even, clean surface.

DRY – After the skillet is completely cleaned, make sure the entire surface is dry and smooth.

SEASON – I prefer to use a thin layer of melted (vegetable) shortening.  You will want to apply this layer over every part of the skillet.  If you do not have access to shortening, choose a cooking oil such as canola, soybean, or safflower, and follow the same procedure.  Avoid using low-smoke point oils such as extra virgin olive oil or butter.

BAKE – Set the oven to 350 – 400 degrees F and place the cookware (upside down) on the top rack of the oven. Bake the cookware for at least one hour.  You can place aluminum foil underneath the pan to avoid drippings getting on the heating element.  Then turn off the oven and allow the cookware to cool to room temperature in the oven — several hours.

STORE – cookware in a cool, dry place.  Thinly coat the cookware with cooking oil in-between uses to maintain seasoning.

USING CAST IRON

As I mentioned earlier, cast iron cookware is extremely versatile.  This is good news, because the more you use it, the more slick with seasoning it will become over time.

One thing is also certain: the handles will typically become VERY HOT!  Always use an oven mitt or folded towels over the handles to prevent burns when handling cast iron.

PREHEAT – cast iron typically takes a bit longer to preheat than standard stainless pans, and it should be done slowly.  Heat the pans slowly over low heat, and then adjust to your desired cooking temperature.

COOK – Once the pan has reached your desired temperature, begin cooking.  Cast iron will maintain that level of heat, thereby providing a reliable and steady heat source.  The pan can also be placed on top of a trivet or towel on the serving table, keeping dishes warm through most of your dinner service.

CLEANING CAST IRON

DO NOT – put your cast iron in the dishwasher.

NEVER – use soap or detergents to clean your cast iron.  Only use soap when you are stripping the pan to re-season (see above).

AVOID – running cold water over the surface of a hot pan, as this can shock the pan, causing fissures or possibly even warping the pan.  Allow the pan to slowly cool before rinsing with hot water.

CLEAN – the surface with a stiff nylon brush and hot water.  For stubborn food particles, you can also add kosher salt to the pan, and work the brush against the salt to serve as an abrasive.  For more stubborn food particles, heat some oil in the pan along with some kosher salt and use a kitchen towel to scrub the surface to remove the particles — careful to ensure you fold the towel enough to protect yourself from the heat.  For super-duper stubborn food particles, boil some water in the skillet for a few minutes while carefully loosening the residue with the brush.

DRY – the cookware thoroughly after cleaning. If you had been using the oven, you can stick the pan in the cooling, still-warm oven for awhile or heat it on the stovetop for a few minutes to make sure all the moisture is removed.

APPLY – a thin layer of cooking oil to the surface while the pan is still warm.

STORE – cookware in a cool, dry place.  Storing the pan in the oven is a viable option, but remember to remove the pan prior to turning on the oven. If your pan has a lid, store the pan and lid separately, or place a folded piece of paper towel between the lid and the pan so the pan is ventilated.

***************************************************************************

Let’s put all of that information to use — here are a few of my go-to recipes!

Cast Iron Pan Seared Salmon

A unique attribute of cast iron is its heavy weight and reliable temperature control.  It makes for the perfect piece of cookware to get that crispy sear on a salmon filet every time — without the smoke.  That’s right – I simply cook this fish over medium heat to get a great sear without smoking out or smelling up my kitchen.  It’s a great one skillet meal for the busy bachelor.  (Prep 5 minutes, Cook 10 minutes, Serves 1)

1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Kosher Salt
Fresh Cracked Pepper
1 8 oz. Fresh Salmon Filet
1 Zucchini, roughly chopped
1 Vine Ripe Tomato, cut into quarters
½ Fresh Lemon

Preheat skillet over medium heat, add oil.  Liberally season salmon filet on both sides with salt and pepper.  Add to skillet and cook for 3 – 4 minutes on each side.  Don’t poke or play with the fish!  Leave it alone to develop a nice sear.  Add zucchini and tomatoes in the last five minutes to soften and cook through.  Season with salt and pepper and finish with freshly squeezed lemon.  Serve.

Cast Iron Grilled Strip Steaks

No matter your choice of cast iron — steaks love direct heat.  Cast iron pans or grill pans can be heated directly over the stovetop for creating that perfect sear.  For thicker cuts, sear the steaks on the stovetop over medium-high heat, flip, and insert into a high-heated oven (500 degrees F) to finish cooking through.  Many conventional grills also offer cast iron cooking grate inserts.  These grates essentially work the same way, while retaining high heat levels and a durable cooking surface.  Better yet, pick up one of these cast iron camp grills (as pictured) and you’ll have the best of both worlds.  (Prep 5 minutes, Cook/Rest 12 minutes, Serves 4)

4 8 oz. Strip Steaks, at room temperature
Canola Oil
Kosher Salt
Fresh Cracked Pepper

Heat cast iron cooking device over direct heat.  If using a cast iron pan/grill pan on the stovetop, preheat to medium-high.  If using a gas grill, preheat burners to medium-high.  If using charcoal, pile the coals to one side to create a high-heat, direct grilling surface.  Coat the steaks in a thin layer of oil and season liberally with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.  Place the steaks directly over the heat, and grill for 2 – 3 minutes per side, flipping only once — do not mess with the steaks during the cooking process.  Remove steaks from grill and allow to rest 3 – 5 minutes prior to serving.  Serve.

{ 122 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Janet B April 5, 2013 at 4:09 pm

My mother cooks only with cast iron and I have gone that route also. I did use teflon until I developed severe hyperthyroidism. I found several articles explaining how the chemicals in teflon have been known to have a direct affect on the thyroid. It can flake into the food with just one little scratch and the fumes are always present, but odorless. I now own skillets from 4″ to 12″ (8 total) and a griddle. Cast iron is definately the most healthy alternative.

If not using cast iron I use glass for not only cooking but for storage. Plastic has some of the same harmful properties. Just different chemicals.

Thanks for the recipes. Will be trying them soon!

102 Erin April 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm

This is great advice. Quick question, though: If you use the pan to fry fish one day but don’t clean it with soap, wouldn’t the pancakes you make the next day taste a little like fish?

103 Bill in St. Louis May 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Erin – Yes, a little. I tend to use my skillet for bacon every morning, so dinner always has some bacon flavor.

104 Blanche June 8, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I relied on cast iron for years, and my daughter continues to use it almost exclusively. Now I can lift only the 8″ skillet. Sadly, these pans weigh a ton! (But there’s nothing like it, or maybe it’s just a nostalgic connection.) By the way, I love this website. I can’t believe how many details I’ve forgotten over the years which you cover in your articles. Good job!

105 Caleb Luther June 28, 2013 at 11:41 am

One quick tip about the baking to season the pans. If you use too much oil, it will smoke at first (within the first 10 min.) – just open the oven door and ventilate with your oven hood or a fan or whatever. Then the smoke will clear and you’ll be fine for the rest of the baking time.

106 Tim July 2, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I have a question – I just bought my first cast iron skillet (Lodge 12″ preseasoned) and I am taking it camping this weekend. I want to cook some steaks on it but should I use some oil so the steaks don’t stick? I don’t know how well it’s seasoned.

107 Al Clayton July 29, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Are you sure you are not describing my grandmother Mary. Perfect description. right down to sunday dinner and all the family and friends. Our memories are so wonderful.

108 Daryl August 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

Found an old skillet when cleaning out my grandparents place. Starting cleaning a seasoning this morning. Glad to find the instructions on here.
The Art of Manliness is my Google.

109 paula marunde September 3, 2013 at 9:36 am

I want the recipe for your Grandmothers fried chicken!!! please. I love cooking with cast iron and when my husband goes to give blood they always comment on his iron level. He tells them it is because I cook with cast iron, lol

110 Patty Evans September 12, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for all the information, it is GREAT! I have a question for you that is like NO other here. . . . and I have not been able to find anything close to what I need to know. . . SO maybe you can help me. We just purchased a stove top that has cast iron grates! I know if I take care of it from the beginning and do not allow things to get baked on it should be great. However, the grates have a course feel to them and I am afraid they will get scratched up and also grease from the gas burners will start collecting on them. My question is should I “season” them before I begin cooking on them? Thanks for any help you can give me.

111 kyle November 18, 2013 at 4:34 am

you never use soap? you never clean your cast iron?

the health and safety inspector will shut you down bro

112 Jimmy December 2, 2013 at 10:34 am

Kyle, you obviously are a young man who has never used cast iron skillets so learn. You never use soap, it’s not necessary if rinsed and wiped properly. Soap ruins cast iron. No worries about the safety inspector.

113 Andy Westerhaus December 9, 2013 at 6:09 pm

I found the instructions for seasoning a cast iron pan helpful. However, to attach a recipe using tomatoes is inconsistent. The acids in the tomato do a number on the seasoning. Don’t use tomatoes in a cast iron pan

114 Dan December 21, 2013 at 11:16 am
115 David V December 31, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I’ve been using cast iron for a few years now, but when seasoning my pans, I’ve always been wary of putting shortening on the bottom surface where it contacts the unit. Instead, I just season the entire inside surface to up and just over the rim. Can anyone comment on that? Will it actually hold up to direct contact once the seasoning process is finished? It seems like it would just make it so the pan will smoke everytime you use it and mess up your units.

116 Frank January 5, 2014 at 6:00 pm

David V. I use beef lard on inside and out to season with no problems. I would like to see Matt’s fried chicken recipe though.

117 Frank January 10, 2014 at 3:23 pm

“You will want to apply this layer over every part of the skillet”
I know this is a stupid question, but does that include the bottom of the skillet and the handle too?

118 Max January 11, 2014 at 7:45 pm

This article is incredible. Flax really does make an amazing seasoning oil. I initially used lard, but after stripping my cookware and using flax, I’ll never use anything else.

http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/

119 doyle w. ayers January 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

When you / I first season a pan you do season it inside and out. I have a collection of 13 skillets and 2 dutch ovens. I have even in the past year given away 2 skillets to friends. A a kid my momma always told me to always buy cast iron if I seen it at garage sales. I still use my mommas old cast. Nothing cooks catfish or corn bread any better. I am learning to use my cast for all my cooking needs as I’m tossing my teflon coated set as it gets worn marks.

120 Ian February 26, 2014 at 8:08 am

I’ve cooked with cast iron for a while now and at first I just used a little olive oil to season. A few years ago I went to a friend’s house and he made dinner in his cast. After he cleaned it, he pulled out a mason jar full of reserved bacon grease and used that to season it. I started doing it myself and haven’t looked back. I do it in my Emeril cast Dutch Oven as well. Excellent method. Bacon grease is free (if you are a bacon eater, as most men on this site probably are). And it yields excellent flavor to everything you cook.

121 Joyce March 27, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Not only that you can make great meals with them, they can also be good home self-defense weapons; and lifting one is a workout in itself.

122 Mark March 31, 2014 at 7:55 am

Thanks, very helpful article.

Rachael Ray shows how to make a sticky mess

http://www.rachaelrayshow.com/tips/7960_How_to_Break_In_Your_Cast_Iron_Pan/index.html

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter