The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Cast Iron Care

published Jul 7, 2018
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So you’re the proud new owner of a cast iron skillet. Whether you bought it new, scored it at a yard sale, or are finally getting your family’s heirloom skillet, there are a few things you need to know before you start cooking. Cast iron pans need a little different care than other pans, and because cast iron is so beloved (and has such a long history), there are also a few myths about cast iron care you need to steer clear of.

Here’s the absolutely beginners guide to cast iron care — including cleaning and storage, troubleshooting, and what we think you should cook in it first.

Our Favorite Cast Iron Skillet

Not lucky enough to find one at a garage sale? You can buy our favorite one online!

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Your First Cast Iron Cleaning

If you are just peeling the sticker off that new Lodge skillet or you found one at a thrift store — the very first thing you should do is wash the skillet. This washing will be slightly different than daily upkeep because we’re going to suggest hot, soapy water!

Maybe you’ve heard that you shouldn’t use soap on cast iron, but that’s not exactly true. When it comes to new and used skillets — a little soap and water is a good thing. This first wash removes factory residue or rust bits. Make sure you rinse and dry the pan well after this first washing. You’ll likely only need to wash your skillet with soap once or twice a year if you take good care of it.

The complete tutorial: How To Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Season or Re-Season Your Cast Iron

The “season” on your cast iron skillet is what makes your cast iron skillet nonstick. Here’s the short and simple take: Cast iron “seasoning” is the process that occurs when multiple layers of oil bake into the skillet, creating a rust-resistant and nonstick surface. Many new skillets come with a factory seasoning on them, but if you bought yours used, chances are high that you’ll want to create a hardier seasoning by cleaning up the pan and re-seasoning it. For a more in-depth explanation on this, we love this piece by Sheryl Canter.

More on Cast Iron Seasoning

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Storing Cast Iron

Where you store your cast iron is a lot less important than how you store your cast iron. First off — your cast iron should always be bone dry before you stack it or hang it. Rust is the enemy of your well-earned seasoning! Second, we love a single paper towel slipped into the skillet for storage — especially if you’re stacking it with other pots and pans. It wicks away any moisture and protects the pan’s surface.

More on Cast Iron Storage

Cast Iron Upkeep

Once you’ve washed, seasoned, and properly stored your cast iron, you’ll probably want to cook with it. May we suggest eggs? More on that below, but it is helpful as a newbie to know how you’ll clean and maintain your skillet on a daily basis. For starters, it is easiest to clean your pan while it is still warm. Read on for what basic cleanup of a cast iron pan looks like.

  • Rinse with warm water and use a brush or scraper to remove stuck-on bits. If you used enough fat for cooking, you might not need more than a quick rinse with warm — but not soapy — water and a gentle scrub. You can also use a gentle brush or plastic pan scraper to remove stuck-on food.
  • For really stuck-on food, scrub with salt and oil, rinse and wipe clean. If rinsing and scrubbing aren’t enough, pour a few tablespoons of canola oil and a few tablespoons of kosher salt into the pan and use a paper towel to scrub the pan with this mixture until it comes clean, then rinse.
  • Dry the pan and coat with a thin layer of oil. Dry the cast iron with a clean towel and then place over low heat. Add a thin coat of more oil, but make sure the oil doesn’t pool anywhere — one teaspoon wiped across the entire cooking surface is just right for most pans.
  • Store until ready to use. Cool the pan and store until ready to cook again.

Quick Dos & Don’ts of Cooking in Cast Iron

  • Don’t be afraid of eggs, tomatoes, or fish in cast iron. Some of these recipes take practice, but don’t be afraid of trying them. You can read more about that here.
  • Do be mindful about what you first make in your skillet. Follow our guide to the first five things to make in your cast iron skillet and you’ll be on your way to a perfectly seasoned partner in the kitchen.
  • Do use gentle utensils like wood, silicone, and rubber. The occasional metal fish spatula or pancake turner is okay, but try to avoid lots of metal utensils in your pan – especially while building up the seasoning.
  • Don’t store food in cast iron. It is bad for the pan and bad for the food.
  • Do clean the pan right away. And avoid soaking it.

Cleaning Your Cast Iron Skillet

You’ll also need to know how to take care of your cast iron skillet. Most importantly, you’ll need a good brush.