Cooking in and caring for cast iron

I was trying to decide what a good dish to make for my post on cooking in and caring for cast iron would be, and thought it would be easiest to make something I’ve already featured so the meal itself isn’t distracting from the tips on using cast iron. I realized that Carolina Red Rice was perfect because it allows me to demonstrate just about everything I want to show you.

Because it is so heavy, cast iron takes a little time to heat up. Once it’s hot, though, it can’t be beat for heat retention. After prepping all my ingredients, I usually set the pan on the burner, set it to medium or medium high, and let it heat for a minute or so while I finish setting everything nearby for my mise en place. After the pan is hot, I add a small amount of oil. There are three basic ways to add oil to the pan: 1) pour it in, then tilt the pan to swirl the oil until it coats the bottom, 2) mist with spray oil, and 3) brush the oil on. I like the last two best because you can use less oil and not only is cast iron heavy, but the handle gets hot (grip it with a tea towel if you need to touch it).

I have this little brush I got in Japantown that I often use:

You could also use a pastry brush that you’ve dedicated to this purpose, or if you must, a paper towel, although I think that’s wasteful. In most cases, you need only a very thin layer or oil.

Wait 30 seconds or so for the oil to heat up, then add whatever you are frying. I’m frying some fake bacon here; I only brushed the smallest amount of oil onto the pan (and I probably could have gotten away with no oil):

Now a word about utensils. The best rule of thumb is to stick to the same utensils you’d use for non-stick cookware, because you don’t want to scratch your seasoning. Scratching the seasoning on a cast iron pan is not the mortal mistake it is on non-stick cookware: the worst that will happen is you have to re-season it, but it’s best to treat it somewhat carefully. That said, the occasional use of metal utensils, such as these tongs, is not going to do any real damage.

It’s my opinion that babying cast iron too much rather defeats one of the main reasons for using it, which is that it’s indestructible. So once your seasoning is in good shape, don’t be afraid to let loose and use whatever utensils you want. You probably don’t to chop anything with a knife while it’s in your cast iron skillet, as that probably will damage your seasoning, but using a metal spatula here and there isn’t going to do significant damage.

Once the bacon was done, I removed it. Here I’m showing you my other preferred method of oiling the skillet: spray oil.

You probably need a lot less oil than you think do – especially after you’ve been using the pan regularly for a few months – so just spritz a little. If stuff starts to stick, I’ll show you what to do.

Now I’ve added the veggies I am sautéing.

Back to utensils again. As I mentioned, you can use any type you prefer (just be mindful not to scratch the seasoning up too much if you use metal), but I like wooden or bamboo best. My favorite utensils are the wooden spoons my mom handed down to me, and I also have this set of bamboo spoons and turners, which is great. They are also perfect for use with a wok as well. I’d go so far as to say my wooden utensils are among the top five most important things in my kitchen.

Sometimes, especially if your seasoning is pretty new, you’ll find food sticking to the pan. Don’t be alarmed, and don’t add more oil. Now, I actually tried to get my onions to stick so I could show you this, and they just refused! So I had to pretend. If your food is sticking, first make sure the heat is high enough. Food is less likely to stick at higher temperatures. To deal with food that’s sticking, deglaze the pan: just add a little stock, wine, or water …

… and stir, scraping off the browned bits and mixing them into rest of the food.

I usually use a little bit of any liquids I have prepared that are to be added later, or if I’m drinking a glass of wine at the time, I just dump some in, or if necessary, I just use water. Here I’ve measured the stock for the recipe; to deglaze the pan, I just poured a little of it into the pan:

The next step in the Carolina Red Rice involved adding additional ingredients including tomatoes, which is a good prompt for me to discuss the cooking of acidic foods in cast iron. Acidic foods like tomatoes like to eat through your seasoning, and for this reason, some people suggest never cooking these foods in cast iron. Some people have also complained of cast iron imparting a metallic taste to tomatoes. While it may be a good idea to shy away from tomatoes and other acidic foods the first few times you use a recently seasoned pan, there is absolutely no reason to not cook any type of food in cast iron once it’s well seasoned. In fact, I bought my first piece of cast iron, a pre-seasoned Lodge Dutch oven, specifically for making tomato sauce because I wanted to get more iron in my diet: it leaches into tomatoes well. If you by a pre-seasoned piece, you should be able to cook tomatoes right away. If you have just seasoned raw cast iron, I’d say use it maybe 5 or 6 times before cooking with tomatoes, just to be on the safe side. If your food tastes at all metallic, it’s not seasoned well enough. Re-season once or twice. What you don’t want to do is let tomatoes sit around in your cast iron for hours on end, but you don’t want anything sitting around in your cast iron for hours: it’s always got to be cleaned right away, which I’ll discuss later. So, by all means add those tomatoes to the skillet! Trust me, nearly everything I make has tomatoes in it.

Next up is another reason to love cast iron, though I didn’t do it when I featured this recipe last time (probably because I planned to refrigerate the leftovers in that Corningware dish). Cast iron can go from burner to oven, in fact, cast iron can withstand any temperature a home oven can throw at it. In fact, some people recommend putting cast iron through the oven’s self-cleaning cycle as a way to remove rust. I’ve never tried it because I’m afraid of the self-cleaning cycle, but I have put cast iron in a 550-degree oven and it couldn’t care less about the heat. Being oven-proof makes cast iron great for, say, browning onions on the stovetop, then tossing in the rest of a casserole’s ingredients and moving the whole thing to the oven to bake.

The original recipe for Carolina Red Rice called for covering the oven-safe casserole with foil, but I always use a lid if I have one. I don’t have a cast iron lid, but I do have a Calphalon lid that fits my skillet, so that’s what I’m using here:

After baking for 40 minutes, the rice was done:

Now, at this point in time, a lot of people would insist that you remove the rice to a serving dish, and then clean your skillet before it cools. The key to cleaning cast iron, they say, is to do it while it’s hot. This is where I am in contention with the hardliners. I’m not saying that cleaning it while it’s hot is not the best way to do it, but I am saying that there is no way I’m going to do it before I eat. I actually do clean up as I cook: all my prep bowls from the mise en place get cleaned up as I go along, and the only thing that’s left over to do later is the very last pan, pot, or dish required by meal. But I like to eat my meals hot and although cleaning cast iron is not the scary ordeal some make it out to be, I’m simply not going to do it until the meal is over.

Often Mark and I will watch a movie while we eat. So sometimes my skillet might sit, unclean, for two hours, as it did tonight. All that rice and tomatoey goodness was just hardening right on to my skillet!

As I said before, if your cast iron is not perfectly seasoned, you may not want to let acidic products sit in it for too long because they are corrosive, so if you have a newly seasoned piece and you’ve cooked tomatoes in it, that’s one case in which I would say you should move the food from the pan before sitting down to eat, especially if it’s going to be a while before you get around to cleaning it up. Otherwise, it’s okay to go enjoy your meal before cleaning up. It’s not okay to wait until tomorrow to clean up, but an hour or two isn’t going to hurt the pan.

After you’ve eaten, remove most of the food from the skillet, preferably with your wooden tools.

The key is to do as little cleaning as you can get away with. Ninety-five percent of the time, I can get away with rinsing the pan out and maybe wiping lightly with a soft sponge: no soap and no abrasive scrubbies.

Soap is the enemy. Or rather, most soaps are the enemy. Most dish detergents are made to cut oil, and while that’s great in most cases, it’s exactly what you don’t want when the oil in question is seasoning your pan! A small amount of very mild soap isn’t going to ruin your seasoning, but dish detergent will. Honestly, once your pan is seasoned well enough, even washing with dish detergent once in a while isn’t going to hurt it, but once you get the hang of it you’ll realize you don’t ever need dish detergent on cast iron.

Never plunge a hot cast iron pot into tepid or even warm water. The rapid change in temperature could cause it to crack, which is just about the only way you can possibly destroy cast iron. Never soak cast iron. If I need to lightly scrub the pan, I use a bamboo brush, just as I do on my wok. If there is gunk that’s being very resistant, simply fill the pan with water and bring to a boil; simmer for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat and pour the water off. The gunk should slide right off with it.

If you simply can not get rid of baked-on food, even after boiling water in the pan, sprinkle some salt in the pan and rub with a paper towel, then rinse with water and re-season. I’ve actually never had to do this. Boiling water in it for a minute or two has always cleaned it right out with no problem.

When the pan is clean, dry it completely with a towel. Never let it air dry.

Cast iron’s biggest enemy is rust. It’s not a very formidable enemy because it’s pretty easy to clean up, but even so, since it takes a few months of regular use to get a beautiful seasoning, it sucks to have to start over again. To avoid rust, keep the pan dry at all times. One of the reasons I told you in the seasoning tutorial to season the outer as well as inner surface of the pan was because the seasoning helps prevent rust. (The other reason is so you can use it as a grill press!)

After the pan has been cleaned and dried, you can prepare it for storage. There are three ways you can do this, and you can decide which to do based on how roughly you treated it during its last use and cleaning. 1) You can do nothing: simply store the clean, dry pan wherever you keep it. This is the method to use if you used it lightly and the seasoning is in good shape. If all you had to do to clean it was wipe it out and the seasoning looks black and shiny, you don’t need to do anything else. 2) Spritz lightly with oil and store. If the pan seems a little dry or looks sort of matte, you can spray it lightly with oil before storing. Sometimes I’ll rub the oil in with my fingertips (I don’t find it necessary to waste a paper towel for this). 3) Do a light re-seasoning. If the pan got pretty dirty and you had to work pretty hard to get it clean and you really want to give it a special treatment before putting it away, spray or rub the interior of the pan with a thin film of oil, then heat the pan over medium high heat for about 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the oil to bake on. Let it cool then store. You can do this while you are cleaning up other stuff in the kitchen.

I usually do #1 or 2, but it never hurts to do #3, so when in doubt, season! Here I’ve sprayed it lightly with oil:

Then I just rubbed with my fingertips:

And that’s pretty much it. The main thing I want to stress is cast iron is not as big a deal as some people make it out to be. It’s strength is its durability. You have to remember a few things, primarily that water is the enemy of iron, but for the most part, you can really do anything with it and that’s what makes it so great. The only things you can’t do is leave it soaking in the sink overnight or put it in the dishwasher. I actually forgot to mention the dishwasher before now because it would never even occur to me to put a pot or pan into the dishwasher. But please don’t put cast iron in the dishwasher. Or the wooden utensils I recommended. Those don’t go in the dishwasher either. (Putting wood in the dishwasher actually opens its pores and infects it with bacteria! And if it didn’t rust first, the same thing would probably happen to cast iron as well…it’s porous, believe it or not, and heating it causes it to become more so.)

You’re not going to ruin your cast iron, though. There’s no need to be afraid of it. The main thing to do is just use it often. In fact, I meant to mention this in my previous post, but one of my recommendations is to not buy a full set of cast iron. You don’t need one in every size. Buy one large skillet, then later buy one small skillet if you feel you need it. And a Dutch oven if you like. But the best thing you can for your cast iron is to use it, and if you only have one skillet, you’ll have to use the same one all the time, and the seasoning on it will just keep getting better and better. A couple of months after getting my cast iron skillet, I can’t even make things stick to it when I try!

I started writing this post up while the rice was baking, then when it was ready, Mark and I went downstairs to eat and watch TV for a couple of hours. When we came back upstairs to clean up, we found this:

That’s Brachtune sitting on this post. She had typed a lot of Zs. Oh my, how many Zs she had typed in the middle of this post. Bad cat!

Also, today was Free Comic Book Day. Mark and I got free comics at our local comic book store. And also spent $60 on comics. I see how this works.


  1. Lisa Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    This post is awesome! Very informative.

    I use only cast iron, and I love it. (I have a stainless steel frying pan that I use when/if I have a lot of frying to do and have already filled my cast iron pan — which is very rare.)

    I have been keeping an eye out for a bean pot/dutch oven at flea markets, but have yet to score one. I may have to just buy it new.

    I care for my pans pretty much the same as you do, although after towel drying, I put the pan back on the burner for a minute or so on low to further dry it. Then when it is cool enough – generally about 5 minutes, I rub in the oil (with my fingers, usually).

  2. Katy Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Great post! I have learned so much from you! 🙂

  3. Chris Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Just wanted to thank you for motivating me to dig out my rusty cast iron skillet and get it cleaned up. I’m still in the beginning seasoning stages, but I’m gettin there.

  4. Cyn Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Yesterday I actually said while at the comic book store, “How come Free Comic Book Day always ends up being Sixty Dollar Comic Book Day?” I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Great tutorial!

  5. Jain Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Perfect. I predict that this, and your earlier post on cast iron, will become the go-to site for years to come!

  6. Jes Said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    Again, what a wonderful post! And hilarious about the “free” comic day–at least your keeping the store in business!

  7. Josiane Said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    Once again, thank you for provinding the info I needed to feel comfortable using a cast iron pan! Now, I need to go and get one.

  8. bex Said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    thanks for these cast iron posts. I have recently tossed my nonstick pieces of crap and replaced them with a couple cast iron bits and am loving it. I was kinda feeling my way through the dark though, this helps a lot.

  9. Mario Zammit Said,

    October 27, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    Very nice down to earth article. Shows how much you appreciate cooking in cast iron, as a thing you love doing, not cooking out of necessity. The only thing that I may say that I disagree with is the recommendation not to buy different utensils. You are right in principle so that you are forced to use and thus season the one you possess. But being a cast iron pot afficionado like me, with owning over thirty different pieces, I look at them at far more than cooking utensils, they are treasures with that old time feel in them.

  10. Alex Said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    I’d love to see the actual recipe for the Carolina Red Rice. It looks delicious.

    And I really do love my cast iron. I don’t have nearly enough of it.

  11. renae Said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Hi Alex, the recipe for Carolina Red Rice is here:

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