Tips from The Kitchn

The 5 Surprising Things I’ve Learned as a Pro Cook About Cast Iron Cookware

published Sep 5, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Brett Regot

I’ve been a professional cook for more than a decade. Since attending culinary school, I’ve worked in corporate catering, restaurant kitchens, and food magazines, but one thing has stayed constant: my love for cast iron cookware. Cast iron is a coveted material for cooks everywhere, due to its great heat retention and durability. Using it also makes you feel like a boss! Throughout my 10-plus years in pro kitchens, I’ve learned a lot about cast iron — some of them seriously surprising! Here are my top five takeaways about cast iron cookware.

Credit: Lauren Volo

1. Enameled cast iron and bare cast iron are (basically) the same thing.

You might think that bare and enameled cast iron are worlds apart. They certainly look different enough! But they’re basically the same thing and can be used pretty interchangeably. They’re both made from durable, intricately crafted cast iron.

Enameled pans, however, are glazed with porcelain, often in a variety of fun colors on the exterior. The benefit of enameled cast iron is that it’s easier to clean (you can use soap and water, or even a specialty cleaner). And because it has that porcelain coating, you don’t have to season it.

Bare cast iron is exactly what it sounds like — there’s no “protective” layer over the surface. You do have to season it, but bare cast iron is longer-lasting (no enamel to potentially crack or chip) and it gets better with time.

When it comes to heat retention and distribution and nonstick qualities, though, both products earn mega gold stars. Le Creuset and Staub make some of the best enameled cast iron skillets, while Lodge and Smithey have top-notch bare cast iron pans. (These four brands came out on top in this recent extensive testing!)

2. Cast iron pans are a lot tougher than you think.

For such a hardworking pan, there’s a lot of mystique and fear around using — and cleaning — cast iron. I know a handful of home cooks and professional chefs who avoid cast iron because they’re afraid to “mess it up.” But, take heart: These pans are so much more durable than we make them out to be. 

We’re often told that bare cast iron should never see water or dish soap, but ever since a conversation I had with Will Copenhaver from Smithey, I’ve relaxed my rules. Copenhaver pointed out that, “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.” This blew my mind! 

Smithey’s head cast iron fabricator, Stephen McClellan, points out that far-gone pans can be brought back to life with an orbital sander. So, if your pan can handle a power tool, it’s safe to say a little cellulose scrubbie and dish soap won’t do any damage. Although I haven’t gone so far as to squirt a quarter-cup of detergent on my favorite pans and let them soak for hours, I have stopped being precious (and anxious) about cleaning routines. I just make sure to dry them immediately afterwards, and heat them with a little heat-tolerant oil or fat.

3. Cast iron can handle acidic ingredients.

Cast iron myth number 7,000: You can’t use them to cook acidic foods, like tomatoes or vinegar. I followed this rule faithfully for years, until I chatted with Smithey’s McClellan. He advised against cooking acidic or delicate items in new and under-seasoned pans, but gave the green light for well-seasoned, aged pans. If your pan has an even, quality seasoning, you can cook whatever you want in it — even prone-to-sticking scrambled eggs! After all, a well-seasoned cast iron pan is naturally nonstick. And if your cast iron is enameled, you’re ready to make a saucy pan pizza or sear delicate fish fillets from day one. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. There’s no “perfect” fat for seasoning cast iron.

Countless articles have been written about the “best” fat for seasoning bare cast iron. (I’ve even penned one or two.) But after years of cycling through different oils and fats, I’ve learned that the perfect seasoning doesn’t exist. Ghee, which I love for its ability to withstand high temperatures, has a strong flavor that can be off-putting to some. Vegetable oil, which is inexpensive, has a slightly lower heat tolerance. Flaxseed oil, loved by many, will turn rancid quickly. Bacon fat can’t withstand super high heat and tastes distinctly savory. 

I’ve tried just about every recommended fat for seasoning my cast iron, and haven’t found the “just right” option. At the end of the day, what matters is that you use fat with a high smoke point (that means coconut oil, butter, specialty nut and seed oils, and extra-virgin olive oil are out). Everything else is pretty much fair game!

5. Cast iron isn’t “healthier” than other pans.

It’s part of our collective cooking wisdom that cast iron is a “healthier” option — especially for people with iron deficiencies. The theory is that your food will absorb iron from the pan as it cooks, replenishing your body’s deficient minerals. A cool (and convenient) idea, but the science just isn’t there.

There’ve been a few major research-based studies that prove only a trace amount of iron gets transferred to food when cooking — and that’s only when acidic, or “stripping” ingredients are used on an under-seasoned pan (see point number 3). In other words, if your skillet is adding iron to your dinner, it’s in negligible amounts … and it’s harming the pan. There are plenty of reasons to use and love cast iron, but not as a cure to iron deficiency.

Did you know all of these cast iron facts? Did we miss any? Share your thoughts in the comments below!