The Care and Feeding of Cast Iron Skillets

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on September 12, 2011

As part of my professional life, I often advise cooks on the right tools to outfit their kitchens. And I’m continually surprised at the resistance I encounter when recommending cast iron skillets. It’s not that people are opposed to the price point, at least for the basic skillets—investing in enameled Dutch ovens is a commitment, I know—but that they think the general upkeep is too much or that they’ll do something wrong and ruin the pan. They’re afraid cast iron skillets are too high maintenance, or in the immortal words of When Harry Met Sally, “the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”

cast iron skillet
Which is not true. Yes, you do need to season cast iron before it can develop the perfect, long-lasting nonstick finish, but it’s something that happens naturally over time as you cook with it. Cast iron is one of the easiest, most versatile cookware pieces you can use, and here’s how to care for it.

What is cast iron?

The process of making cast-iron cookware is a centuries-old process. Foundries like Lodge, America’s oldest cast iron cookware manufacturer, melt filtered scrap steel and pig iron, then pour the molten metal into a mold that’s been made from pressed sand (like making a high-pressure hollow sandcastle!). Once the metal cools, the sand is broken and blasted away from the newly molded cookware, then recycled for use in the next mold.

The incomparable Alton Brown, in his book I’m Just Here for the Food, describes it thusly: “Iron is dense—really dense—which makes it a relatively slow conductor. But that density also allows for even heating, and once it gets hot it stays hot.” Because it locks heat in, cast iron’s ideal for almost any cooking method, from frying and searing to braising and even baking. And because it builds up a naturally seasoned surface with every use, there’s no fear of off-gassing or ingesting chemicals.

Enameled cast iron—those lusciously colored Dutch ovens and pans—has the same dense metal interior, but because it’s been coated in protective enamel, no seasoning is necessary. Though made essentially the same way, there are slight differences in the various companies’ interior finishes. I hold my flame Le Creuset near and dear to my heart for cooking chili, spaghetti sauce and other slow-simmered foods, but I find the black interior coating on Staub’s cookware is superior for searing.

How to season cast iron

Seasoning a cast iron pan is as easy as coating it with a nice layer of fat and baking it on. All the experts have their own preferred methods for doing this; some swear by avocado oil, which has a ridiculously high smoke point, while others like flaxseed oil because it dries “hard.” Alton Brown rubs his skillet inside and out with melted shortening. I do mine with canola or vegetable oil, since it’s a neutrally flavored oil, it’s inexpensive and I’ve always got a gallon or two in the house. Lodge pre-seasons all of its products with vegetable oil in blazing-hot ovens before they leave the factory.

Just smear your fat of choice in a thin, even layer all over the skillet with a paper towel and place the pan upside down on the top rack of a preheated 350° oven. Set a baking sheet or spread a piece of aluminum foil on the lower rack to catch any drips. Bake for one hour, then remove with oven mitts. Wipe any extra drips or shiny spots with a clean washcloth or paper towel, cool to room temperature, and store. Repeat as needed throughout the year when the seasoning looks a little worn.

What (and how) to cook in cast iron

After your pan has its initial layer of seasoning, you might want to cook a few high-fat foods for its first few spins around the block—pan-fry some chicken, crisp up some bacon—to help build up the surface to a high gloss. Eventually, it’ll be smooth, shiny, and way better than chemically coated nonstick. And then the sky’s the limit: fried eggs, cornbread, grilled cheese sandwiches, absolutely perfectly caramelized steaks, delicately fried fish fillets and crab cakes, fruit cobblers and crumbles….

Some think it’s a bunch of malarkey, but high-acid foods like tomatoes and citrus or vinegar-based sauces can potentially degrade the seasoning and leach a metallic taste into the food if left to simmer too long and too often in the pan. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid acid entirely when cooking in cast iron. It’s perfectly fine to throw some tomatoes into a quick pan sauce, or to deglaze with lemon juice when searing scallops, but I’d avoid using your non-enameled cast iron for making a big batch of red sauce or perfecting your slow-cooked baked beans. Leave those recipes for the enameled cast iron pots—that’s why they’ve got the protective coating.

Just avoid using metal utensils on cast iron, lest you mar the well-seasoned finish with scratches. Oh, and all cast iron pans are metal, duh, so don’t put them in the microwave unless you have a death wish.

cast iron skillet

Cleaning a cast iron pan

Do you have water? Then you can clean your skillet. Don’t use soap—that’ll just take the seasoning right off the metal—and don’t you dare put it in the dishwasher. Rinse the pan with water and a clean washcloth as soon as it’s cool enough to handle , and scrub off any stuck-on spots by making a paste with a handful of kosher salt. Yep, good old kosher salt, giving your cast iron some natural exfoliation.

But maybe you accidentally soaked your cast iron skillet in a sinkful of soapy water, and now the seasoning has rubbed off and it’s rusty in spots. As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says, don’t panic. And don’t toss that pan in the trash.

Gently scrape the rust away with Bar Keepers Friend and a washcloth, with a nylon scrub brush, or even (very gently) with steel wool if it’s a particularly stubborn spot. Then re-season as above and you’re back in business.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Kris @ Attainable Sustainable September 14, 2011 at 3:46 am

I LOVE my cast iron! I have a big frying pan that’s (finally) so well seasoned as to be nearly non-stick.


Alicia (Weekly Greens) September 14, 2011 at 6:20 am

I admit to being a cast-iron skillet hold out! This is very useful information. You make it seem like not a big deal – which clearly, it’s not. I may just run out and get one. Thanks!


Casey Barber September 14, 2011 at 10:24 am

Alicia, I’m glad you’re giving it a chance. It’s really NOT a big deal – and it’s kind of like an Etch-a-Sketch in that if something gets messed up, you can just wipe it away and do it again!


Amber | Bluebonnets & Brownies September 16, 2011 at 9:33 am

Casey, I could hug you for this. It’s perfectly timed. I inherited Nan’s cast irons (some of them were her mom’s!) but Nan never could listen when I said DON’T WASH THAT IN SOAP! So I’ve got to rebuild the seasoning on all those pans, and now I don’t feel scared to do it. Thank you.


sarah henry September 17, 2011 at 10:29 am

I so needed this primer, Casey, thanks. I’ve tossed two cast iron pans in the past couple of years due to rust, and now I know I didn’t need to. Will try again.


Living Large September 20, 2011 at 11:57 am

Great post, Casey. We just brought the cast iron my husband uses for outdoor cooking into the house. We are now set for skillets. We’ve read to never season cast iron with butter or lard, as it will go rancid. Thanks for this post!


Justin Matthews July 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I think one of the most important things in this article is the Don’t throw it away when rusty! I dug a dutch oven out of the ground at my in-laws house that they had left outside for years. Cleaned it up with a bunch of steel wool until it was smooth again, then reseasoned it in the oven and then with a batch of fried chicken, and that pan you would never know had spent years in the dirt. Cast Iron is awesome.


Ann February 17, 2014 at 4:09 pm

I recently discovered cast iron in my quest for a pan that truly stayed nonstick. Stainless steel works but it’s fussy and can be horribly sticky if you don’t preheat. I bought a Lodge skillet and fell in love. Then I needed a lid and found one in an antique store, also Lodge but circa 1950. Since then I’ve bought, cleaned and seasoned a 1950’s griddle without a brand name but I love it, and a 1910 Griswold dutch oven that I picked up for $34! It was all rusty and pitted but usable oncecleaned.


Ann February 17, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Forgot to add the vintage pieces are machined smooth, and are prettier, thinner and lighter than new CI. The new pans cook just as well though.


Joe March 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

After obtaining a rusty, caked old CI fry pan, I scrubbed it with steel wool & comet cleanser very well.
After it dried over heat, there were spots, & blemishes that needed to be removed. I used a wire wheel, on a drill, and in some cases, ( a 4& a half inch) grinder / sander to remove bad rust, & some defects in the original casting. Next was scrubbing once again, & drying.
The process of curing / seasoning the pans is long, but simple.
First, remove the eyes of some potatoes, & scrub any dirt off really well.
Peel the potatoes, & SAVE the peels. The amount depends on the size of the skillet. Place peels in the pan, the more the better, half full or more..( you will have enuf peeled potatoes left to make a mountain of mashed potatoes, or scalloped potatoes for a week.)
Next, fill the pan to the top with distilled water.
Bring to a boil & let simmer, and occasionally filling to the top with more distilled water as it evaporates. Let this mix simmer for hours & hours, replacing dis water as it evaporates. The pan will turn greyish black.
after it cools, dump the contents in the compost pile .
I then scrubbed it with a “scotch brite” green & yellow scrubber.
Dry the pan over the stove for a few minutes & while it’s still hot, coat the inside with Crisco shortening.
For preparation before use, I coat the inside of warm pan with canola oil.
After use , I scrub it with the sponge. If there are food bits stuck on, use the scotch brite pad to remove the food bits & rinse well with hot water, & dry the pan with paper towels, AND dry further over the stove for a few moments.
I don’t oil it after use, as this will collect dust. I simply oil it before cooking .
I occasionally use a few drops of dish soap for those hard to clean spots.
YOU can re-cure it with potato skins, & simmer when you think it needs it to be more non-stick in the future.
Heating the pan & then oiling it before each use helps build a non-stick coating.


Peggy Eaker July 22, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Instructions on my new “glass” top stove said not to use a cast iron pan on it. I am upset that they say not to. Is it true that you are not to use cast iron pans on flat surface stoves?


Casey Casey July 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

Peggy, I would defer to the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific stove/range. Some induction cooktops DO work with enameled cast iron pans such as Staub and Le Creuset, but it’s always safest to check with customer service for the brand you own so you don’t void your warranty and damage your oven, your pans, or yourself.


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