The Single Best Thing You Can Possibly Do for Your Cast Iron Skillet

updated Nov 9, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Earlier this year, around the time when we were still excited about #pandemicprojects, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. While I loved the story, one part stood out to me. As the Joad family packed and unpacked and repacked their lives, traveling to the promised land of California from Oklahoma, Ma Joad carried with her one important item: a large cast iron skillet. 

Being the matriarch, Ma cooked all of the meals for the family, and she cooked them with that skillet. Biscuits, greens, salt pork, fried dough were staples (sounds tasty to me, but after months of nothing but bread fried in lard I might feel differently). Not only did Ma cook everything in that pan, but she also did it over a campfire fueled by twigs and trash. Once supper was over and it was time to hit the road, she chucked the cookware in the back of her family’s rickety old truck and rode along until it was time to do it all again in the morning. 

As I read the book, I kept thinking one thing: Damn, I have GOT to use my cast iron skillet more often. 

I’m someone who lives, breathes, and loves cast iron, but this classic tome made me realize that I could be doing a lot more with it. And I feel like you can probably relate.

I asked Will Copenhaver from the cast iron maker Smithey what he thought about all of this. Sounds like he’d agree with Ma Joad: “It’s ironic that a cast iron skillet, which settlers carried across the plains in their covered wagons over 100 years ago and washed in creeks with sand (if they washed at all), is now perceived to be an item that requires delicate maintenance and care.” 

Here at Kitchn, we believe that the single best thing you can do for your cast iron is to just use the darn thing. And yet many home cooks let it kick around in the cabinets. And many who do use it, use it sparingly and cautiously. Really, though, your pan will only get better and better the more you use it! Let’s take a look.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What’s Stopping You from Using Your Cast Iron?

It’s the dread of cleaning my cast iron that keeps me from using it as often as I could. Other folks may avoid their skillets due to fear that they’ll ruin it with a botched sear. Others still consider it a “special-occasion pan,” reserved for the annual Thanksgiving cornbread. The first step to actually using your cast iron is to understand what’s stopping you from doing so.

The great news here is that no matter what’s holding you back, there’s an equally strong argument against it. Afraid of cleaning your cast iron? Turns out, there are some creative and even weirdly fun ways to do it. Worried that you’ll ruin it? Cast iron is basically impossible to destroy. Scared that you’ll make an irreparable mess? Here’s how to clean the worst of the worst.

Credit: Lauren Volo

Why Using Your Cast Iron Is the Best Way to Season It

Sure, we all know that it’s important to rub our cast iron skillets down with high heat-tolerant oil. There’s no doubt about it: Cast iron pans do require a bit of regular maintenance to keep them in fighting shape.

But when it comes down to it, the only way you’ll truly build up a wow-worthy seasoning on your pan is by cooking. Actual food. That you’re going to eat. Over time, the combination of fat and heat helps build layers of seasoning, which gives your cast iron a unique personal history. Think of it as terroir for your cookware. 

While any cooking adventure is better than none, there are a couple of things that will best serve you in the quest to add authentic seasoning to your cast iron skillet. Bacon is an excellent choice (always is, TBH). As it cooks, the grease slowly renders out of the meat and into the pan. This process means the fat gradually seeps into the pan and forms that natural nonstick patina. Searing meat on the stovetop or roasting veggies in the oven are two other simple ways to give your cast iron some love. 

Copenhaver also has some good ideas: “I would recommend foods that you stir and that distribute fat evenly around the pan. Sauteed onions are ideal — they naturally release from the surface and provide a nice even coating of oils to the interior as they’re stirred. For a [cast iron] Dutch oven, I would recommend going straight to frying. Hot oil making even contact with the full interior is the perfect seasoning builder.”

By now, you’re probably sensing a theme: Fat is what makes a cast iron skillet so valuable and special. Fat is to cast iron what Teflon is to nonstick. Both types of pan have a protective “sealant,” but one is tasty and natural, whereas the other is potentially toxic. Fun! If you need proof of the power of fat, go check out Grapes from your local library. Between the pork and fried dough, Ma Joad was decidedly not timid about seasoning her pans with liberal amounts of grease.

Credit: Rochelle Bilow

What to Do If You Make a Cast Iron Mess

Cooking is a naturally messy process. Sometimes steak sticks to the pan, or the edges of the vegetables get a little too crispy. Pans get beat up, burnt, and scorched. If this happens to your cast iron (and if you’re using it on the regular, it will), don’t panic. Instead, take a deep breath and tackle the job with a little age-old wisdom and some good humor. 

Don’t be afraid to get in there and do some major damage control, either. Unlike with your nonstick pans, you can scrape the heck out of crusty residue. Here’s what Copenhaver suggests: “Metal and metal are friends, and the flat edge of a fish spatula can be an ideal tool to scrape off the burned bits. We also recommend a chain mail scrubber — it’s kind of like a scouring pad that never wears out.”

Really, what makes cast iron so special isn’t that it’s a great conductor of heat, or that it is a versatile piece of cookware. It’s the cumulative collection of meals, stories, and people that surround each pan. That’s why generational cast iron skillets are so lovely. When you’re handed down one from a relative, you’re also getting whispers of the past meals, fun stories, and yes, even the cooking mistakes. 

While Ma Joad was probably never so sentimental about her cast iron skillet, the fact remains that it was always the last thing she stowed away before traveling … and the first thing she unpacked. We could all do well taking a page from Ma’s playbook — but let’s leave the trash fires back on Route 66, circa 1939.