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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Brett Regot

The Absolute Dummy’s Guide to Cast Iron Skillets

updated Nov 4, 2020
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I don’t think we’ve ever used the word “dummy” in an article before, as I don’t think that dummies actually exist in the kitchen. Even the least-skilled cook should trust her own taste and instincts more than she probably realizes. But when it comes to cast iron skillets, I see sense and confidence flee the scene. I’ve had so many otherwise competent cooks tell me they are really scared of a cast iron skillet: Do they need to (laboriously) season it? How to clean it? What if it (whispers) rusts? There’s this sense that a cast iron pan is a finicky and delicate thing — a project right up there with a sourdough starter for sheer babysitting. Cast iron skillets seem to make otherwise smart people feel like dummies, and that, my friends, I just cannot abide.

If you too are just a little too nervous about cast iron skillets or have one that you just don’t use very much, consider this an intervention. You too can be a powerful and wise cook, and your skillet is a huge asset. Let’s just get you comfy with each other. Both of us (Meghan and Faith) are here with really strong passions for cast iron skillets, ready to take your hand and turn you from a cast iron dummy into a cast iron evangelist.

Why Cast Iron Skillets Are Simply Essential

So a bit about me (Faith), first — just to earn your trust. I’m not one of those falsely modest good cooks. I am truly a lazy cook. I also just do not have any time. Far from my early days of learning how to cook leisurely as a hobby, I now have two small children in the particularly high-maintenance ages of nearly 3 and nearly 5. I have a busy job. I do not have a sourdough starter (well, not one that’s alive, at least). If something needs to be dry-cleaned it does not enter my house. I don’t do high-maintenance (except for those aforementioned kids).

But I treasure my cast iron skillet. It’s the pan I use the most, by far. Why? Here’s what makes a cast iron skillet the treasure of a kitchen: It’s heavy. It captures and retains heat, and gives you the most extraordinary sear and crusts on everything from steak to pie. It’s indestructible. No, it’s not a finicky pan; it’s amazingly easy to clean up, and you don’t have to worry about it losing its finish. It’s all-purpose. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things I’ve cooked recently in cast iron: steak. Pork tenderloin. Mushrooms. Pasta sauce (yes, with tomatoes!). Dutch baby. Biscuits (and more biscuits). Cinnamon rolls. Brussels sprouts. Baby turnips. It’s the do-everything, default pan that makes everything you cook in it taste just a little bit better, thanks to the heat and the sear you get.

A practical interlude: Cast iron skillets are also wonderful because they are cheap and often American-made (see how Lodge cast iron skillets are made in Tennessee). Dollar for donuts, there is no better deal in cookware.

Maybe most crucially: The cast iron skillet is a refreshingly reliable pan. You put something in a cast iron skillet? It’s going to cook. Not wilt, limply, with a faint sizzle. The cast iron skillet makes NOISE. The cast iron skillet is an upstanding citizen that by God does what it’s supposed to do. You want it hot? It gets damn hot. You want it in the oven? It goes in the oven. You want it to, like, cook your food? It will COOK your food. And that (I’m sorry to say) just isn’t something you can say about every pan. Many pans really let you down. When it comes to cast iron skillets, pretty much every question you ask of it — the answer is yes.

Why Cast Iron Skillets Make Good Cooks Think They Are Dummies

There’s a whole lot of lore about how you should and shouldn’t use your cast iron pan. Even smart cooks have heard that they should never cook acidic foods in their cast iron, that their cast iron should never be used on a glass cooktop, and that soap should absolutely never touch their precious skillet. Honestly most of that lore is completely bull. Think about it! Cast iron cookware is beloved for camp cooking — over a fire without a fancy setup for washing it “properly” — how could you possibly ruin it with a little tomato sauce?

As a total aside, I (Meghan) was once tasked with ruining a cast iron skillet during my time working on Good Eats. It took a punishing with steel wool, a can of tomato paste, and leaving the skillet outside (wrapped tightly in a garbage bag, lest any of the tomato paste be washed away by rain) to develop a little bit of rust on a cast iron skillet. And even that was remedied by a quick wash and a bit of frying. And let us never forget this feel-good story of a skillet rescued from a house fire.

The worst thing you can do for your cast iron skillet is leaving it unused on the shelf for an extended amount of time.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Do Cast Iron Skillets Need to Be Seasoned?

Probably not, actually. The arcane arts of seasoning a skillet are fun to discuss (and we’ve done it plenty here), but most new skillets come pre-seasoned. Older, secondhand skillets might need a good washing and a quick seasoning (we’re talking a coat of oil and 30 minutes in a hot oven) before using, but that’s it.

Roll back up though; what even is seasoning?

Seasoning is essentially creating a protective layer on the surfaces of your skillet. Iron is actually not completely solid, but is quite rough and a bit porous. During the seasoning process, fat sinks into the pores and seals the metal from the air, which prevents wear and rusting. The good news is that every time you cook with fat in your cast iron skillet, you’re seasoning it. It’s one of the reasons we love frying regularly in cast iron.

If you aren’t using your skillet with loads of fat every day, you can swipe the whole thing with oil after cooking in it and cleaning it.

In case you’re curious: How To Season a Cast Iron Skillet

What about rust? Surface rust is common on skillets that have been stored for a long time. Over time, that protective layer of seasoning isn’t quite as strong and when moisture gets on the surface of the iron a little rust might develop. Don’t panic! Use a stiff brush or a steel wool and a little bit of soap and water to remove the rust. Follow the cleaning with a good, fatty cooking session, and carry on.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

In my (Faith’s) house, washing a cast iron skillet is extremely basic: Wash with a little regular soap and a scrub brush, which is gentle but firm and will remove any bits of food without harshness. Dry with a towel and, if you like, heat up briefly on a burner to evaporate any moisture more quickly. That’s it.

Now, Meghan does have different thoughts on soap. “Faith,” she told me, “people are going to freak a little bit when you mention soap. I don’t use soap on mine, if only because it rarely needs it.” In her house, it’s just warm water, a little scrub with a brush (and some salt for really stuck-on food), and then dry completely and seal with the tiniest bit of oil.

But that’s the difference between the two of us and yet we both have really lovely and well-seasoned skillets. Use soap if you like; don’t if you don’t want to.

Our favorite brush for cleaning cast iron skillets

Don’t put it in a dishwasher; don’t stress about soap. That scrub brush is great for other pans too (I’ve pretty much converted to it entirely). THAT’S IT. It’s not rocket science; it’s not your 10-step facial routine. It doesn’t need a serum; just wash it, dry it, and put it away.

How to Cook with a Cast Iron Pan

You can cook and bake everything in cast iron. It holds heat well and can get hotter (more safely) than any nonstick pan on the market. In fact, you can treat your cast iron skillet like a nonstick pan and cook delicate things like eggs and crepes in it.

I’ve (Meghan) cooked with cast iron on electric stovetops, high-end gas ranges, over camp fires, and even use it daily on my glass cooktop. So if I can impart just two pieces of advice about actually cooking in cast iron, it’s the following:

  • Give it a little more time to preheat than you would flimsier skillets. Given its density, cast iron just needs a few more minutes to get hot, but once it is preheated, it will stay hot for a lot longer, making your cooking faster, especially on cheaper electric and glass stoves where the cal-rods heat and cool repeatedly.
  • Use plenty of fat (be it butter, olive oil, or bacon fat). That extra fat is good for your pan and also prevents sticking as you slowly build up the more permanent seasoning while cooking.
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Which Cast Iron Skillet Should You Buy?

A 10-inch skillet is perfect for most home cooks; it’s ideal for skillet cookies, eggs, and searing a steak. But a 12-inch skillet is my dream skillet for families — I wish everyone had one. A large cast iron skillet could easily replace your electric skillet for Sunday pancakes (you can cook four silver dollar sized, side by side) and can hold a whole broiler fryer for roasting or frying too.

We love Lodge skillets for their price and reliability, but also because they have both a long handle and a helper handle (this is the smaller handle that can make lifting a heavy skillet from the oven easier).

Did We Convince You?

And that’s truly it. A cast iron skillet is not frightening; it doesn’t need special treatment, and you will honestly improve your cooking if you reach for it first nearly every time you cook. If you still are eyeing yours nervously I propose this: Pull it out and cook a mess of caramelized onions in it, or a batch of stovetop bacon. Let it get nice and hot and see how much color and flavor it gives your food, where a nonstick or flimsy pan would be weak sauce. And then give it a quick rinse and a brush, and put it right back on your stove, ready for your next adventure together.

Are you a cast iron evangelist or a newbie? If the former, what advice would you offer a new user? If the latter, what holds you back and what questions do you have about your cast iron skillet? Share in the comments below and we’ll respond to as many as we can!