How to Care for Your Cast Iron, According to a Couple Who Owns Close to 15,000 Pieces

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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Most chefs love cast iron, and with good reason. It cooks evenly and retains heat better and longer than most other materials, can go from the stovetop to the oven to the table, and it’s incredibly durable. But few chefs — or anyone else — love cast iron as much as Larry and Marg O’Neil. The Tacoma, Washington couple estimate that they have close to 15,000 pieces of the cookware, from the simple skillets that launched their collection 30 years ago to kettles, waffle irons, and muffin tins. 

While they do have some rare mint-condition pieces on display at the O’Neil Family Cast Iron Museum, which is housed in two barns Larry built on their property and open to the public by appointment only, most of their collection has been used, and used hard. It’s proof of cast iron’s durability that many of the pieces in the O’Neils’ collection are centuries old. 

You can’t collect that many pieces of cast iron without learning a thing or two about caring for it. “Sometimes we clean 10 or 12 pieces a day,” Larry says. Here is some of their best advice for caring for cast iron, whether you collect it or cook with it.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Seasoning is essential.

A perfect cast iron pan should be black, smooth, shiny, and so nonstick a fried egg will slide right out of it. But it doesn’t get that way overnight — or without a little help. Before you use any cast iron pan for the first time, rub it inside and out with a little oil or another fat, and heat it in the oven for an hour or so. You can repeat this process until you feel you have a good surface built up. 

Read more: How To Season a Cast Iron Skillet

Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. Don’t soak it.

Cast iron rusts, especially if you haven’t built up enough seasoning (which can take years). You don’t want to soak a cast iron pan in water, or scrub too hard and take the existing seasoning off. A little dish soap, some hot water, and a regular dish sponge should be plenty, Larry says, even against burnt-on bits.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Dry it thoroughly.

Larry and Marg usually just use a towel to wipe their pans clean but if they have a big-ish mess, they’ll reach for a little soap and water. The key here is just making sure the cookware is dried well after it’s cleaned. And then …

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Oil your cast iron after every use.

After your pan is clean, oil it again. You don’t need to go through the full seasoning process, but Larry and Marg like to place their pans inside a warm oven — a good, undisturbed dry place — after oiling.

Credit: Erika Tracy

5. Any oil is fine.

People may argue about the best substance for seasoning cast iron, but Larry says to use whatever works best for you. He prefers peanut oil or lard for utilitarian pieces, and mineral oil for those he’ll put on display. The couple will sometimes even use a quick spritz of nonstick cooking spray in their pans, which can be great if you’re in a rush. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

6. Don’t put it in an open flame. 

Cast iron is great for camping, but you don’t want to place it directly in a bonfire or any other open flame, Larry says. “That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It will warp and possibly crack the metal.” On top of a fire is fine, just don’t put the cookware directly in the fire.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Avoid drastic temperature changes.

Cast iron seems indestructible, but it can crack — especially if it undergoes sudden drastic changes in temperature, like coming off a hot stove and being run under cold water. One collector the O’Neils knew cracked a skillet worth a few thousand dollars simply by taking it out of a 500-degree oven and setting it on the counter at room temperature. Always let cast iron pieces cool gradually in the oven. 

Credit: Cat Meschia

8. Say no to vinegar.

This basic acid is a cleaning multitasker for most things in the kitchen, as well as a mold fighter, but it can eat away at cast iron if it stays in contact with the material for too long. 

Credit: Lauren Volo

9. For hard-core cleaning, use your oven.

Because the O’Neils work with such a high volume — they had just purchased a collection with around 1,000 pieces when we spoke for this story — they have an electrolysis set up, which Larry says is the best, most efficient way to remove rust, paint, and baked-on gunk from cast iron. But for the average home cook, popping it in an oven set to self-cleaning mode will work wonders. Just be cautious, because it will create a lot of smoke if the cast iron piece is especially dirty (which is why Larry set up a stove in his garage).

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

10. Leave it alone.

Cast iron doesn’t really require a ton of care — especially after the initial seasoning process. So do as little as possible, and it will last as long as possible. Wipe it out after use, oil minimally (careful not to overdo it), and store it in a dry place — Larry says many collectors will hang their cast iron right back on the wall as soon as it’s cool.