I believe a cast iron skillet is the number one item every cook should possess — no matter no matter what the skill level. I’ve used it for everything from a crisp ribeye steak to moist skillet brownies. It’s immensely versatile, but it requires a bit of TLC if you want it to perform correctly.
There are several reasons to get a cast iron skillet. They’re inexpensive, practically indestructible, very versatile, and they come in different sizes so you can get creative with what you use them for.
When you acquire your first cast iron skillet, you should jump for joy because you now own what every master chef possesses. However, before you can start sizzling in your brand new skillet, there are a few things you should know. Cast iron skillets are as not straight forward like other pots and pans. I'll admit, there is a bit a care that corresponds with the ownership of cast iron cookware. Whether you purchased new, used or were lucky enough to inherit one, all cast irons will need to go through process called seasoning. No, I'm not talking about salt and pepper, but we'll get to that a bit later.
CLEANING FOR THE FIRST TIME
There is a great debate about whether you should use soap on cast irons. In the South, where I just spent a few years cooking in commercial kitchens, I learned it is a huge offense. Now, if it’s going to be your first time using it, I do recommend using a bit of soap to clean the skillet. Wash off that factory residue or dust and debris from sitting in you great aunt’s attic. You can use a sponge with a soft scrubber on the opposite side. Using a small drop of soap and hot water, create suds and gently wash thoroughly. Using a paper towel, dry the skillet off thorough, top and bottom. Make sure it is 100% dry.
When speaking of seasoning a cast iron skillet, it‘s referring to the process of baking layers of oil onto the surface of the pan. Cast irons have a porous surface so these oils will act as a barrier and will also create a nonstick layer.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, how do I even season a cast iron skillet?
First, it begins with with the right oil. I personally use any oil that has a high smoke point. I use olive oil for just about everything, but this is not the one time I don’t recommend it. The ideal oils to use are sesame, coconut, or vegetable oil. Sesame is my favorite since I happen to have it on hand already for cooking. A cheaper alternative would be vegetable oil, which most people have in their kitchens already. The oils do not make any difference when it comes to seasoning, just make just it has a high smoke point because it will be in the hot oven for some time.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Drizzle about a half a tablespoon of oil into the skillet. The amount of oil will depend if the size of your skillet (mine is 10”), so use your discretion. You don’t need a lot, just enough to give your skillet a nice sheen. Using the same paper towel you used to dry the skillet off, rub the oil all over the surface. All over. Don’t forget the outer sides, the bottom, and the handle. The oil essentially also provides a coating to protect any rust from forming.
Place the skillet in the oven for an hour. Turn the oven off and let it completely cool in the oven. Remove from oven and now you’re good to go!
You don’t need to reseason your skillet after every use. You don’t have to even clean immediately after either. Remember: the more you cook, the more layers of seasoning will be produced naturally. So if you rinse all that away after every use right away, you will find you need to season more often. A seasoned skillet should have a sheen and should be smooth to the touch. You’ll know it’s time to re-season if food sticks to the surface or if the skillet appears dull or rusted.
POST COOKING CLEANSING
Once you’re done using your skillet and it has completely cooled off, you can now scrape whatever has accumulated on the bottom. I like to use a rubber spatula because it’s effective, yet gentle. It may seem impossible to get those stubborn burnt pieces off the bottom, but do NOT resort to something like steel wool. It is terribly abrasive and will strip your skillet if it’s precious coating. After you’ve scraped off all the remnants of your food, discard it. Then briefly rinse the skillet using hot water. If your faucet has a hose with a sprayer, I suggest using that because the direct force will help loosen up any pieces that are resistant. Use the spatula while the water is running until the surface is smooth. After a minute or so, turn the water off and if needed, use the scouring pad to help if the spatula alone is not doing the job. Do NOT let the skillet soak in water. Any prolonged expose to moisture will encourage rusting.
Do not be concerned if you’re skillet is not as clean as it was when you first purchased it. In fact, historically in the South, it was highly discouraged to let any water or soap touch your skillet at all. All the flavors of previous meals just means the next one you cook will taste better than it’s supposed to. But do not consider it a sin to want to remove the unpleasant caramelized materials on your skillet.
Enjoy your cast iron skillet and I hope it brings you many years of convenience and delicious food!
Here are some more tips on caring for your cast iron skillet and ensuring its longevity:
- use steel wool
- soak in water
- put in dishwasher
- store it in the oven
Foods I wouldn’t recommend cooking on cast irons:
- Eggs: I suggest using regular stainless steel for cooking eggs or making omelettes. I’ve found that the eggs will be marred by dark bits from the skillet. If you want pristine eggs, do not use a cast iron.
- Tomato sauce: acidic foods like tomatoes are highly discouraged. The acid from cooking of something like tomato sauce will damage the seasoning on tour skillet. Even worse, prolonged cooking of acidic foods will result in a metallic taste. This includes any cooking that needs to be deglazed with wine or vinegar.
- Desserts: like I mentioned before, baking desserts is definitely feasible, but unless you have another dedicated skillet, the flavors from your savory meal flavors will emit into the desserts you make.