Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
Caring for Cast Iron
A cast iron skillet is one of the most versatile tools you can have in the kitchen. If you take care of it properly, it will last a lot longer than you will. And, unlike you or me, it will achieve a nearly perfect non-stick surface. Want the crispiest fried chicken ever? A gorgeous, crackly cornbread crust? Even temperatures for deep frying? The perfect sear on a steak? Then cast iron is your friend.
There are some rules, though. Cast iron doesn't like three things: high-acid foods (like citrus or vinegar), soap, or water. And even old, well-seasoned pots and pans will need to be re-seasoned over the years to maintain their luster. Keep these things in mind and you'll have some of the best cookware in the world.
How to Rescue a Rusty Cast Iron Pan
Sometimes, you might abuse or neglect your cast iron cookware. Other times, you might find an old rusty skillet or other piece of cookware that wasn't cared for correctly. These rescue pieces can be hidden gold, but you have to know how to bring them back to their glory. I had one recently that was brought to me for medical attention. Here's how I nursed it back to glory.
Note: You can do the same for a new skillet; you just will be removing the protective coating the manufacturer applies to protect a 'pre-seasoned' skillet from oxidizing if it comes into contact with moisture.
How to Re-Season Cast Iron
The photo above shows what an abused piece of cast iron looks like. It was rusty, and there were lots of places where the carbon seasoning had cracked and was actually flaking off. Since I didn't want carbon dust in my food, I had to do something. All you will need is some steel wool, paper towels or rags, your oven, and some cooking oil.
- Clean it thoroughly with warm, soapy water. (Note: This is one of the only times you should ever use soap on your cast iron pan!)
- Next, you'll want to break out the steel wool. There's really only one way to do this: Scrub it to get off the grime. Normally, steel wool is the enemy of cast iron because it does so much damage to a seasoned surface. But that's what you want here: Scrub until clean.
- Next, grab some paper towels or rags and keep rubbing. If you have an old skillet, the Lord only knows what all you're wiping off at this point.
- Note: Some people scrub the outer surface of the pan as well—the part that comes into contact with the burner—which looks nice but isn't necessary.
- Once you're down past all the rust and carbon gunk (yes, gunk is a technical term), you're ready to treat that old skillet the same way you'd treat a new one: Preheat your oven to 450 to 500°F, break out some paper towels and a little vegetable oil, and you're ready to go.
- Cover the entire surface (the inside and outside of the pan) with a thin coating of oil. Not too much or you'll gunk it up again.
- Put the pan upside-down in the oven and bake it for an hour at 450 to 500°F.
- Remove it from the oven, and once it's cool enough to handle, rub a paper towel or rag across the surface. If it comes away clean, you're done. If you're still pulling off icky stuff, then repeat the rub, oil, and bake process.
- Once the towel comes clean, you have a seasoned surface.
How Often Should I Re-Season Cast Iron?
A few times a year, depending on how you use and care for your pan, you may find the need to re-season your cast iron in the oven.
How to Season Cast Iron
Before you use a brand new cast iron pan, if it is not pre-seasoned, you will need to season it first. The method of seasoning a skillet is the same whether you're restoring one or getting a new one ready for cooking.
- Preheat your oven to 450 to 500°F.
- Pour a little vegetable oil into your skillet and rub it thoroughly around the interior cooking surface and exterior of the pan, too.
- After wiping away any excess oil (which could lead to a too-sticky surface) but leaving a thin coating, you're ready for the oven.
- Put the skillet in upside-down and bake for an hour at 450 to 500°F.
What If My Pan Is Sticky After Seasoning?
It's likely that you used a too-thick layer of oil or that your oven wasn't hot enough.
What's the Difference Between Seasoning and Re-Seasoning?
"Seasoning" is just baking oil into cast iron in a process called polymerization. It gives your cast iron that lustrous and shiny black patina and creates a natural nonstick cooking surface that repels rust. The first time you use an unseasoned cast iron pan, you'll want to season it first. From then on, you'll want to re-season it any time carbon or gunk builds up or if you ever see any rust.
What Does "Pre-Seasoned" Mean?
If your skillet came 'pre-seasoned,' it will have a protective coating applied by the manufacturer. Some good companies do the seasoning for you ahead of time and oil and bake their cookware at the foundry. Lodge, for example, has been pre-seasoning all their cookware since 2007. So if you bought a pan that has been officially 'pre-seasoned,' you don't need to season it before first using it (although all cast iron pans will need re-seasoning eventually).
How to Prevent Cast Iron From Rusting
The best way to preserve cast iron is to use it! Every time you cook with oil, you're adding a layer of goodness to your pan. If you're cleaning it properly and avoiding certain ingredients (see list below), then the more you use your cast iron cookware, the better and more non-stick the surface will get. It will eventually look gorgeous, shiny, and black. The more you use it, the more you'll fall in love with it and find you want to care for it—nice how that happens.
Tips for Maintaining Cast Iron Pans
To care for cast iron that has already been 'seasoned' (it already has a black, sort of shiny surface that's nearly non-stick), just do the following:
- Don't cook high-acid foods in cast iron. Chicken piccata is best done in a different skillet. You can use small amounts of acids (like wine, lemon, tomato, or orange juice) without a problem, but try to keep acidic ingredients in check when you're using your cast iron.
- Wash by hand. Never put cast iron in the dishwasher! To clean it, you can use soap if you must, but mostly you'll just use hot water and a sponge or bristle brush. Use a stiffer brush to remove stuck-on bits. Instead of soap, you can simply rub it with a couple tablespoons of salt. Rinse it well and dry it immediately and thoroughly.
- Dry completely and immediately. Remember: Water will rust your cast iron! After washing, heat the pan on the stovetop to get it to dry quickly and fully. While the water is evaporating, use a paper towel to smooth a tiny bit of vegetable oil all over the surface of the pan.
- Periodically re-season the surface. On occasion, especially if you use it a lot (or rarely!), rub the interior and exterior of your pan with a thin film of oil, place it upside-down in an oven at 450 to 500°F, and let it sit for an hour.
That's it—give it a little care, and it will give a lot back to you.
Common Questions About Cast Iron Cookware
What kind of oil should I use on cast iron?
When you're cooking, any oil can be used, and the oils of both veggies and meats add layers of luster to your pan. For seasoning, though, vegetable oils set a better and harder finish than animal fats and will also not get rancid, so I use vegetable oil. If you don't have any, canola oil or shortening will do.
Can I use soap to clean my cast iron?
If you really need to, you can use a mild soap to clean cast iron, but soap is usually not necessary and should be avoided. Remember, your cast iron likes to stay a little oily! But when you very rarely need to cut the excess grease, a little soap won't hurt.
Can I clean cast iron with water?
It's fine to rinse your cast iron, as long as you dry it quickly and completely and coat it with a thin layer of oil. Just skip the soap.
Do I need to wash cast iron right away after cooking?
When you don't have time to wash the pan right away, what is best: leaving it dirty or leaving it to soak? You should never leave a cast iron pan to soak. If the food you cooked isn't acidic, it's fine to leave a greasy pan overnight.
Should I clean both the inside and the outside of the cast iron skillet?
It is not necessary to scrub and season the outside of your cast iron cookware since this surface never comes into contact with your food (although many people do because they like the way it looks).
Can you ruin a cast iron pan?
It's very hard to ruin cast iron, but it is possible. Iron is not indestructible. Extreme heat can bend and warp it, and if it's cracked, it can't be saved. It is possible to ruin a cast iron pan with too much rust, but a little rust is not the end of the world; it'll just take a little elbow grease.
What kind of cooktop can I use with my cast iron cookware (gas, electric, induction, etc.)?
You can use cast iron on any type of heat source—flame or electric—except a microwave. It can even be used in the oven or on a camp fire.
Can I use metal utensils with cast iron?
Utensils of any material will work—wood, silicone, or metal.
Do you always have to season a new cast iron pan?
If it was not pre-seasoned at the foundry, all new and unused cast iron cookware should be seasoned before use.
Is it true that I can't cook any acidic foods?
A little lemon juice or tomato sauce isn't going to ruin a well-seasoned pan. Large amounts of acidic foods can thin the seasoning and may hasten the need to re-season, but they won't ruin your pan. In fact, cooking highly acidic foods will increase the amount of iron that leaches from the pan into your food, which can be a good thing.
Is cast iron bad for your health (like teflon)?
Cast iron will not leach dangerous chemicals into your food. It may leach iron, but that's a great thing, especially if you're anemic! Cooking with cast iron can increase the iron content of the food by as much as 20%; acidic foods increase the release of iron.
Shea on December 22, 2018:
I use a much higher heat. I bake it at 500
Liza from USA on December 19, 2018:
Such an interesting and knowledgeable article about the cast iron. I need to do to my cast iron skillet! Thanks for sharing.
DanaK on June 19, 2018:
Read Lena's comment below; she’s correct. Get yourself a stainless steel pad, the heavier the gauge the better. My regimen: I cook, transfer the contents to a dish, carry (use potholder) the skillet to the sink counter, empty excess oil, wipe clean in a circular motion with paper towels, then hang it up from a hook on my pan rack. Yes, it’s still piping hot but that’s fine. It remains seasoned because I don’t allow water to touch it. I use the ss pad if I overcook and something adheres to the surface.
Louise on April 03, 2018:
Carefully followed instructions and skillet came out with sticky surface
Joel on December 28, 2017:
New Skillet here! Gonna season now, per instructions. Do I HAVE to scrub off the manufacterer’s “preseason” though? What happens if I don’t? I’d have figured my seasoning would only add to what’s already there.
Delilah on September 25, 2017:
Interesting information. My father used to cook with cast iron.
Jan Charles (author) from East Tennessee on August 25, 2017:
What an awesome heirloom! I use mine for exactly the same thing!
Thelma Raker Coffone from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on August 23, 2017:
I have a cast iron skillet that is over 100 years old ... my grandmother used it, my mother, and I have had it for 40 years. It makes the best cornbread! I have treated it as you said and it keeps working great.
Lena Durante from San Francisco Bay Area on May 03, 2017:
Personally, I shudder every time I hear about someone washing a cast iron pan with soap.
I cook everything in cast iron, because it adds iron to your diet. If you've built up a good seasoning through years of regular use, high-acid ingredients are just fine; in fact, they ensure more iron is transferred into your food. Of course, I also regularly cook in the same pan with fats, which helps. And if I'm ever worried, I just give it a good rub with oil.
Cindy on May 02, 2016:
I dug my old cast iron pan out of the cabinet. Looked ok, no rust, but needed seasoning. I rubbed vegetable oil in the pan, then into the oven at 350 for 1 hour. When I took it out, the oil feels sticky and I can see revilets of oil on the inside, what did I do wrong? Too much oil?
Annie on February 24, 2016:
A few years ago. I bought at a thrift shop a old cast iron kettle, that has a handle, that I want to bake bread in. It also came with the lid.
It looks clean , shiny and smooth on the inside bottom. Out side looks like dark cast iron.
Is that what the inside should look like? , does any one think something nasty was used inside, which makes it unhealthy to use this???
I have two very old cast iron small pans that I have not had any luck using to cook even eggs in!
I have seasoned those also.
What could I be doing wrong, that makes me NOT like using these two skillets ?
kitkat1141 from Ontario, Canada on March 06, 2013:
With all of the scary info out there about non stick pans, I always use my cast iron skillet! I looove them. Nothing browns meat quite like a cast iron. I have bought several at flea markets, including corn bread ones. The only thing I don't like is how heavy they are to lift out of the oven!!
Jan Charles (author) from East Tennessee on February 25, 2010:
I'm so glad! Give it a try - you'll fall in love with cast iron. It's so easy to use once you know the tricks, and works as well or better than most 'high end' cookware!
askjanbrass from St. Louis, MO on February 24, 2010:
I've always been very intimidated by cast iron cooking materials, just because I had this idea that they take so much work to clean, etc. But this article is certainly eye-opening, and I'm going to reconsider making a purchase!
Thanks for the encouragement.
Jan Charles (author) from East Tennessee on February 22, 2010:
Good point J.S.! I tend to use a very thin film of oil, so I haven't had one drip in a while, but you're right!
I love my cast iron - I inherited some awesome old pieces - my pride and joy is a 150+ corn stick pan that was my 4th great grandmother's. No kidding.
And yes - Lodge rocks! As a Tennessean I take great pride in it! It's my favorite too!
JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on February 21, 2010:
Well, Dixie, you've hit a soft-spot here! I am an avid user of Cast Iron. My first exposure to it was in the Boy Scouts as a child. I never really grew up with Cast Iron in the home but once I moved into my own place, I began to purchase "raw" (unseasoned)Cast Iron Cooking Supplies; I prefer the "Lodge" brand as it is made in the USA.
I've got quite a collection now and I have most of all the sizes and styles of pans, minus the "fancy" ones. I have a great Grill Press, Dutch Ovens, Frying Pans of various sizes, and other things. I have a couple of pans in the basement that need to be seriously repaired...maybe this summer?
Anyway, great Hub! One thing that I would like to add, is that when you are seasoning the pans in the oven, it is a good thing to turn the pans upside down and put Aluminum Foil on the bottom of the oven to catch the drippings. This can be smokey & smelly, so proper ventilation is necessary!
Jan Charles (author) from East Tennessee on February 20, 2010:
I've heard that - just haven't tried it. It's a good idea - I personally HATE touching steel wool - and it will kill a manicure. LOL! I usually bribe someone with baked goods to do that part for me, cause steel wool will poke right through rubber gloves.
Devil Anse on February 20, 2010:
Very good advice but if you do not want use steel wool, you can toss the iron piece into a a wood fire and roast the piece well. This will burn off all of the gunk and when taken out of the fire the clean up is much easier. Then it is time to season. Got this from my 94 year old grandfather.