Cooking with a Cast Iron Skillet
If you only had to have one skillet in your kitchen, I would highly recommend making it a cast iron one. Just by virtue of their manufacturing process, these things are basically indestructible. And like fine wine, cast iron skillets get better with age, provided you give it a little bit of TLC. The only true enemy of cast iron is moisture which makes it rust. Not that a rusty cast iron skillet is ruined, but it will take some work to bring it back. The bottom line is, avoid moisture. But we will get to that.
Do I need a special cooking surface for cast iron?
No. Unlike many other skillets, cast iron can work on gas, electric, and induction stove tops, you can put it in the oven, on the grill, or directly on an open fire. Cast iron skillets are extremely durable and work with just about any source of heat.
What is seasoning? Is it related to spices?
Seasoning a cast iron skillet is the most important step in protecting it from rusting as well as helping it develop the nonstick-like finish. Seasoning refers to coating the skillet with a thin layer of oil and subsequently heating the skillet at a temperature that is higher than the smoke point of the oil. In doing so, the oil molecules start to break down and through cross-linking on the iron surface create a hard layer that protects the pan. Seasoning means building these protective oil layers on the skillet. I should say that you should never take oil that you plan to consume beyond its smoke point. But for a good quality seasoning, it is the best thing you can do.
How do I season my skillet?
There are tons of articles/sites/blogs out there claiming the one fat that works the best. What is being recommended is flax seed oil, but that’s incredibly expensive. What the experts mostly agree on is that neutral oil is best – vegetable or canola. Please avoid using spray stuff like Pam.
To season, preheat your oven to 450 °F, rub a little bit of canola (vegetable, flax) oil all over the cast iron skillet, AND REMOVE AS MUCH OF THE OIL AS YOU CAN! This Is critical. The skillet should not be dripping with oil, or even be very shiny. Even when you buff the oil out with paper towels or cloth, there will still be a thin layer of oil left. If you coat your cast iron pan too thick, it will come out sticky and you won’t achieve the finish we are after. Once ready, place the skillet in the oven for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, repeat 3-4 more times. Let cool completely and you are good to go!
How do I care for it?
Cast iron skillets are easier to clean than people think. They clean best when still a little warm. When you are done cooking, let it cool so you can handle it, and use warm water to remove any food left over. You can use a mild detergent and a regular sponge to do the job. Avoid using steel wool or other harsh abrasive materials. Here is the key: once you wash it, you need to dry it super well! Moisture is the number one enemy of cast iron! So dry it well. Next, put it on a burner and let it heat up – this “opens the pores” of the skillet. Rub it with more oil and, again, remove as much of it as you can. Leave on the stove for a few more minutes and then let it cool and store.
My tips and advice
When your skillet is new, avoid using highly acidic foods as they can destroy some of the thin seasoning. Once your skillet is well seasoned, you can make a tomato sauce in it no problem.
Despite being able to hold on to heat for a long time, cast iron skillets DO NOT heat evenly. This means that you should do your best to match the size of the burner/heat source to the size of your skillet otherwise you will have cold spots.
There is no better vessel for searing and shallow frying than cast iron. I use mine to sauté vegetables as well. It’s also great when you have to start something on the stove and finish it in the oven. Just be sure to have an oven mitt on when you grab the handle.
Because it is cast iron, the skillet will be very heavy. Just be warned.
Also Serious Eats is a fantastic website and my go-to for almost anything. They do a wonderful job with not just the recipes but also with tips, recommendations, and overall advice. Click here to see their video on how to care for cast iron skillets.