This guide aims to answer all the questions you may have about Cast Iron Skillets or Pans. A good Cast Iron pan will last you a really long time and is even something you can pass down to your children. They come with loads of positives which we will go over shortly but they do also need a bit of care and attention to make them last this long. Hopefully this guide can answer all your questions on seasoning, stripping, washing, storing, removing rust and much more.
- Reasons why Cast Iron is so good
- Some Drawbacks to Cast Iron
- How to Clean a Cast-Iron Pan?
- How to Season a Cast-Iron Pan
- How to Remove Rust from a Cast-Iron Pan
- What Oil Should You Use for Seasoning?
- How often do I need to season my pan?
- How to store a cast iron skillet
- How to Strip a Cast-Iron Skillet
- Myths about Cast Iron
- Is Cast Iron Safe or bad for your health?
- Vintage vs. Modern Cast Iron – What’s the Difference?
- Tips for buying second hand or vintage cast iron skillets
Reasons why Cast Iron is so good
1. They don’t use chemicals! Many modern pans use chemicals like Teflon to form a non stick coating. These coating can flake off and get into your food. There is a lot of debate around whether non stick chemicals are safe for humans to consume but I’d personally rather my cookware didn’t use any chemicals at all.
2. They are really durable. Cast Iron pans can last 100 years or more if they are looked after. As most cast iron pans are 1 piece there is no wear and tear like there is on a modern pan for example where the handle has been attached. They are also really tough, they won’t warp or scratch. Even if rust sets in (will only happen if not treated properly) you can restore them back to full working order with a little elbow grease. Cast Iron pans are now getting passed from generation to generation too so some people are cooking with the same pan their Grandmother use. I don’t think any modern cookware can compete with this kind of durability!
3. They have a great non stick surface. Without using any chemicals at all you can get a really nice non stick surface on a cast iron pan, it just needs seasoning properly. This non stick surface can improve with age as well as you build up layers of seasoning. Modern day non stick pans are only going to deteriorate over time, plus once the non stick is gone it’s not coming back. With cast iron you can just re-season to restore a great nonstick surface. Plus no chemicals.
4. Less oil needed. It’s healthier to use less oil in your cooking and you don’t need to use as much with cast iron.
5. You can use super high heat! You can heat cast iron as high as you want without any fear of it being damaged or starting to warp.
6. Stops food burning. If you pre-heat your cast iron pan before you start cooking you will get a really even and consistent heat throughout the pan. This stops hot spots which can lead to food getting burnt.
7. They can adapt to any cooking type. Grilling, roasting, sautéing, broiling and even shallow frying are no problem for cast iron.
8. Insane value for money. Cast Iron pans really aren’t very expensive and once you have one it will last you a lifetime.
Some Drawbacks to Cast Iron
We won’t dwell on the negatives but there are a couple of cons to be aware of.
1. Heavy. Yeah cast iron is really heavy so they can become a bit awkward to use as you get older.
2. Seasoning. While it’s straight forward it can be a chore.
3. Rust. If you don’t treat your pan well you could end with a rusty one.
4. Iron transference. A badly seasoned pan can mean too much iron getting in your food and affecting the taste.
How to Clean a Cast-Iron Pan?
Cleaning a cast iron pan that is in good condition is really straight forward. You should clean your pan after every use.
Basic Cleaning Method
1. Wipe the surface of the pan with paper towels to remove any food or oil. This should preferably be done while the pan is still a little bit warm.
2. Rinse the pan under hot running water and use a brush (not a metal one) or non-abrasive pad to clean. If needed you can use a small amount of gentle soap.
3. Immediately dry your pan, do not allow it to drip dry as this can cause rust to form. Heat over a low heat to make sure all moisture is removed. Add half a teaspoon of oil to the pan and then use a paper towel to spread the oil around the surface giving it an even coating. Use paper towels to wipe away excess oil, no residue should remain. The pan should look dark and smooth.
If your pan is in poor condition then a more intensive cleaning may be needed to restore it back to pristine condition.
Advanced Cleaning Method
1. Rub the pan thoroughly using fine steel wool.
2. Wipe away loose dirt and rust using a cloth. Keep repeating steps 1 and 2 until the rust is cleared.
3. Place your pan on the stove over medium heat. Add vegetable oil to give the bottom a heavy coating. Heat the oil for around 5 minutes or until your pan handle is too hot to touch. Then turn off the heat.
4. Add salt to the oil and mix into a gentle paste. It should still be fluid enough to move easily. Use a wad of paper towels to scrub the paste around the pan. Use a heat proof glove here to help you scrub without getting burnt. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the pan is looking a dark slick black color.
5. Once your pan is the desired color you can rinse out the paste with hot water. Dry with paper towels.
6. Use a small amount of vegetable oil to coat the surface, again using paper towels to spread around and remove excess oil.
Alternatively, if you have access to a wood burning stove you can put your pan in the fire and all rust and dirt will be burnt away. You can then season the pan.
Now that your pan is back in top condition follow the easy cleaning method above to keep it that way.
How to Season a Cast-Iron Pan
The most basic method of seasoning is pretty much what we describe above on the easy clean method. You can do this on the stove top or in the oven. Here is the basic method using your oven.
The Basic Method
1. Heat your oven to 500 degrees
2. Add 1 tablespoon (1 tablespoon for 12-inch pans, 2 teaspoons for 10-inch) of vegetable oil to the pan.
3. Use paper towels to spread around the pan and to remove excess oil.
4. Place in your preheated oven for 1 hour.
Once the surface starts to wear away we can repeat this process or keep it topped up after every use. This becomes a chore though and you soon get sick of doing it. I was the same and I soon started neglecting my pan because I was too busy to look after it properly. With Cast Iron, this really isn’t an option as a pan in bad condition with start to leach more iron into your food and affect the taste as well as possibly your health. We will talk more about that later.
A new seasoning method was brought to our attention though, one that promised really long lasting results. We decided to give it a go and were blown away at the outcome. The pan looked immaculate and even after months of use it still looks amazing. This method is quite a lengthy process but you won’t have to do it very often and it keeps the pan perfectly seasoned for a really really long time. This method was developed by online blogger Sheryl Canter.
The Advanced Method
1. Your pan must be cleared of old seasoning for this to work. The easiest way to clear it is run the pan through the oven while it’s in self-cleaning mode. However, we have a manual stripping method here.
2. Warm your new or stripped pan in the oven at 200 degrees.
3. Remove the pan and place 1 tablespoon of flax seed oil into it. You can use vegetable oil here if you wish but the results are nowhere near as long lasting as using flax seed oil. Rub the oil into the pan’s surface using paper towels. Use a heatproof glove or tongs to assist you here as the pan will still be very hot. Wipe away excess oil.
4. Place the pan upside down into a cold oven. Turn the oven on to its maximum baking temperature. Once the oven reaches that temperature, allow it to bake the pan for 1 hour.
5. Once the hour is up, turn the oven off and allow it to cool with the pan inside for at least 2 hours.
6. Now for the tough bit. You need to repeat this process 5 more times or until the pan has a dark semi-matte surface. This can be done over a period of a few days if you wish as obviously, this is quite a time-consuming process.
How to Remove Rust from a Cast-Iron Pan
1. Using fine steel wool scrub the pan to remove the rust.
2. Wash the skillet with warm water and gentle dish soap. You can use a scouring pad here if needed. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until no rust remains.
3. Dry immediately using paper towels. Do not drip dry.
4. You can now season your pan using either the basic method or advanced method described above.
If you come across an old cast iron pan that is extremely rusty and looking in poor condition do not think you have to chuck it away. Cast Iron is extremely robust and even the worst cases of rust can usually be eradicated and the pan returned to a fantastic condition. It is quite rare to see cast iron pans being sold second hand because of this. They are handed down from generation to generation as they just keep going.
What Oil Should You Use for Seasoning?
Vegetable oil will suffice for basic seasoning methods. However, linseed and flaxseed oil have shown to be extremely good at providing a strong seasoned surface. We tested the advanced seasoning method described above using both flax seed oil and vegetable oil. The flax seed oil surface just seemed to stay in perfect condition no matter what we threw at it. With the vegetable oil seasoning though it didn’t fare as well. It didn’t for example, survive a trip through the dishwasher but the flaxseed seasoning did and looked no worse for wear.
How often do I need to season my pan?
There isn’t really a correct answer here as all cast iron pans will be different depending on how you use them and how well you season them in the first place. If the pan looks like it needs seasoning then you should do it. Keeping it topped up after every use is the best method as then your pan is always in perfect condition.
How to store a cast iron skillet
Cast iron pans are really popular because they last a long time. They generally last a lifetime and can even be handed down through the generations. However, they do have a tendency to rust if you don’t store them properly. Before you place your pan into storage you should make sure it is clean, completely dry and well seasoned. DO not place a lid over your pan when putting into storage as moisture could become trapped inside and rust will form. We have already explained earlier in this article how to deal with rust but it’s a pain to get rid of so it’s best we avoid it in the first place.
Store your pan in a clean and dry cupboard. Do not store it in the cupboard under the sink as there will be moisture here and even a small leak could rust your pan.
If you are stacking pans under or on top of your cast iron skillet then you should place paper towels in between. This will prevent scratching and any damage being caused to your seasoning. You can actually buy pan stacking pads which protect your pans from damaging each other when in storage. These are a must have if you have expensive cookware in our opinion. You can find them here.
How to Strip a Cast-Iron Skillet
If you have a pan in poor condition or the seasoning has become very damaged the best thing to do is completely strip the old seasoning and then give it a new one once you are done.
Things you will need to strip a cast iron pan:
- Easy Off Oven Cleaner
- Rubber Gloves
- Concrete Block
- Heavy duty trash bag
- Steel Wool
- Distilled white vinegar
Easy Off Oven Cleaner is really caustic so do this outdoors and keep it away from your face and skin.
Step 1: Place your concrete block on the ground. Stand it on it’s end so it stands tall. Cover the block with your heavy duty trash bag. Keep the sides of the bag wide and loose you can easily lift the bag up and around your pan later.
Step 2: Place the skillet on top of the block. Spray the skillet all over with your Easy Off Oven cleaner. Make sure you are wearing your rubber gloves at this point. Another reminder to keep this stuff away from your face and skin. Flip the pan over the spray the other side as well.
Step 3: Grab the plastic bag and pull it up and around your skillet. Tie the bag tightly and leave the pan inside for 24 hours. Leave the bag outside or in a garage or shed.
Step 4: Get your rubber gloves back on and grab your steel wool. Remove the bag and scrub the skillet using the wool and hot soapy water. Rinse and then repeat this step to ensure you have gotten rid of any residue.
Step 5: Mix 2 cups of your distilled white vinegar with 2 cups of water. Fill your skillet with this solution and allow it to stand for 1 hour.
Step 6: Discard the solution and rinse well. Dry well with paper towels.
Step 7: It is now time to season again. You must do this step immediately after step 6 otherwise your pan will start to rust almost straight away. Use a tablespoon of vegetable oil and spread it over the pan with paper towels. Wipe away excess oil. Heat your oven to 500 degrees and place the skillet in the oven for 1 hour. Remove and let it completely cool.
Alternatively to step 7 you can follow the advanced seasoning method described above.
Myths about Cast Iron
Myth #1: Rust means the pan is ruined.
No! Please don’t throw your cast iron pans away if they are rusty. They can almost always be rescued with minimal effort. Unless the pan has a crack in it or has rusted through you can follow the intensive cleaning method described here.
Myth #2: A seasoned pan doesn’t need to be seasoned again
Often when you buy a cast iron pan new they come pre-seasoned for your convenience. You can begin using these straight away. However they still need regular re-seasoning and looking after properly. Seasoning doesn’t last forever and occasionally needs to be completely redone.
Myth #3: You can’t use metal utensils with Cast Iron pans
Not true. Many other non stick pans carry this rule as they use chemicals that will scrape off permanently ruining the non stick surface. Cast iron doesn’t have any chemicals though. A good seasoning will stand up to metal utensils but if you do find the seasoning has become a bit scratched you can simply season it again.
Myth #4: There’s no such thing as too much seasoning
Too much of anything can be a bad thing. You need to make sure you use the right amount of oil when seasoning your pan as they all vary in size. 1 tablespoon for 12-inch pans, 2 teaspoons for 10-inch is a good rule to follow.
Myth #5: Cast iron is difficult to maintain
Not at all. A lot of people will avoid cast iron as they don’t know what seasoning is and think it’s going to be a pain to do. It really couldn’t be simpler to season a pan. All you need is oil and some paper towels. While it’s true cast iron can rust if you don’t look after it properly even that isn’t the end of the pan. Rust can be removed and the pan easily restored to its former glory using the information on this page. There is a reason that you can find 80 year old cast iron pans in your local antique shop. These things are super durable and will last pretty much forever with a little bit of love.
Myth #6: Cast iron heats really evenly
Yes and no. The truth is while cast iron does hold heat for a long time, it does take longer to get hot in the first place. Once hot the pan will be a very even heat but you need to preheat your pan for around 10 minutes before you get to that even heat stage. They don’t compare well to a modern aluminum pan which distribute heat very evenly from the get go.
Myth #7: You shouldn’t wash your Cast Iron pan with soap
Not true. While often you won’t need to use soap, a small amount of gentle dish soap is completely fine. You aren’t going to wash away your seasoning by using soap. If seasoned well even the dishwasher won’t be removing that. I don’t recommend using the dishwasher though as it will definitely shorten the lifespan of your seasoning. Of course you can just re-season again if anything does happen to it.
Myth 8: Modern cast iron is better than old cast iron
While there is nothing wrong with modern cast iron pans the old ones are definitely the best. That is why they are so sought after and you won’t often see old pans for sale. They tend to get handed down by family members but any that do make antique stores are quickly snapped up. Modern methods of producing cast iron don’t include the hand polishing of pre-1950’s pans. Older pans tend to be a lot smoother and therefore you can get a much better non stick surface with them. New pans have a more bumpy surface and while they are still great there is a difference there. If you get offered a cast iron pan by a relative don’t pass it up!
Is Cast Iron Safe or bad for your health?
People have been using iron to cook with for thousands of years so at this point it’s pretty well established they are safe. Cooking with cast iron can and in most cases will raise the iron levels in your food and therefore your body. This isn’t a bad thing in most cases as iron is a essential dietary mineral and cooking with cast iron is sometimes recommended to treat low iron levels. However as with most things an excess can be harmful. Too much leached iron will also affect the taste of your food in a bad way. That is why it is essential to keep your pan well seasoned.
We aren’t medical experts here so aren’t going to offer a scientific or medical opinion on cast iron.
Generally cast iron is safe to use, make sure your pan is in good condition and well seasoned. Check with a health care professional if you think you have a condition that may be affected by excess iron or think you are feeling the symptoms of having too much iron. For more information on this subject I recommend reading the following articles:
Things to consider when buying your cast iron pan
Cast Iron pans are heavy and the bigger the pan the heavier it is going to be. Cast Iron is so cheap you might think to get a really big one but think about what you are going to be using it for. If you need it to fit in your oven then obviously you will need to take that into consideration. 10.5 inches is probably going to suffice for most people.
Having a helper handle on your pan is a must. The pans can be heavy to begin with but once you get them full of delicious food they can be really heavy. Having that extra handle is absolutely essential especially if you are lifting it in and out of the oven. Consider getting a heatproof cover for the handle as well as everything on cast iron gets really hot.
Does it come pre-seasoned? If you are new to cast iron then you definitely want to get one that is pre-seasoned. That way you can start using it straight away. Most new pans will come with this but check that it does before you buy.
Do you need pouring spouts? Not everyone will need this but depending on what you are planning on cooking you might want to give this some thought. Same with a hanging hole.
Vintage vs. Modern Cast Iron – What’s the Difference?
You will often hear that older cast iron is better than newer produced pieces. It can be easy to dismiss this as one of those “good old days” type things but when it comes to Cast Iron, older tend to be better. Vintage pieces are getting harder to come by and often cost more than a brand new pan.
Vintage Cast Iron
Both cooks and collectors are on the lookout for vintage pieces. Pans made by Wapak, Wagner or Old Griswold are highly sought after in particular and even pieces that are 100 years old or more are wanted for modern day use. With them being so sought after, vintage pieces are generally much more expensive than modern pans.
Vintage pieces generally have thinner walls and a thinner cooking surface, this means they are lighter in weight. Before mass production changed the game Cast Iron pans were hand made by skilled craftsmen. Well made pieces would have a lot of time spent on them and in particular, they would spend a lot of time polishing the cooking surface. This is why vintage pieces tend to have a better nonstick surface when seasoned. The cost of modern day production means that companies couldn’t afford to have individuals spend hours and hours hand polishing products. Especially when people tend to be looking for lower cost items.
Modern Cast Iron
There’s certainly nothing wrong with modern day pans. They retain all the advantages of older pieces like a great and natural nonstick surface, being able to cook at really high temperatures and even, consistent cooking. Modern-day pieces are incredibly high in quality and are one of the best buys you can make for your kitchen. You can pick up a superb Lodge pan for well under fifty dollars and it will last you the rest of your life and probably your children’s lives too.
Modern-day pans are generally heavier and have a rougher cooking surface.
Modern pieces tend to be heavier since they lack the finish of the vintage pieces. They also tend to have a more “rough” cooking surface. While this does have some effect on the cooking properties, it’s not without advantages. Though the smoother finish of the vintage cast iron cooking surface is great for cooking foods that are especially prone to sticking, such as eggs, it also makes it somewhat harder to get a good initial season on the pan. Some would say that the rougher surface is also superior when it comes to seasoning.
Tips for buying second hand or vintage cast iron skillets
Like I mentioned earlier in this article, vintage pieces are highly sought after but that’s not to say there is a shortage of them out there. There is however a shortage of quality pieces. Collectors are incredibly good at spotting a high-quality piece, they can then pick them up at a flea market and sell them for a large profit. So if you are new to the cast iron hunt there a few things to look out for. While Cast Iron can be cheap you don’t want to waste your money on a worthless and useless piece. Whether you are looking for a pan to cook with or one to flip for a profit here are a few tips to get you on your way.
1. Check for warping
Cast Iron pans are pretty resistant to warping as they can survive really high heats but pieces that have been around for a few decades will have been through a lot. Check how flat the pan lies. Lay it on a flat surface and check there isn’t too much movement when adding pressure to different areas of the pan. A small amount of warping is ok but the flatter the pan the better. This is especially important if you are planning on cooking on an electric or induction cooktop where the pan needs to be in direct contact with the cooking surface.
Pans that haven’t been looked after well will end up getting rusty. Rust isn’t the end of the world as it can be removed and the pan restored however if it is left rusty for too long it will eventually cause the pan to crack or even rust right through. Cracks may be hiding under a layer of rust but there is an easy way to check that a pans structure is sound and crack free. Give the pan a knock with your knuckles on the base of the pan, it should ring like a bell. If it sounds dull then it could be hiding damage and you will want to give that pan a pass.
Pans that are suffering from pitting should be ignored. This can’t be fixed and the pan won’t be a good buy. Pitting is usually caused by rust and it causes an uneven surface where the rust has eaten away parts of the metal.
4. Brands to look out for
American brands are the ones you really want to be keeping an eye out for. Lodge, Wagner, Griswold and Wapak are the top manufacturers to look out for. The manufacturer is usually stamped into the bottom of the pan. Obviously, if you flip one over and it says made in Taiwan you want to move on.
5. “Made in USA”
While you do want a pan that was made in the USA you should generally avoid pans that are inscribed with this if you want a true vintage piece. Up until about 1960 manufacturers would stamp their pans with the city and state of origin. Early Griswold pieces, for example, will simply say “Erie”. Once cheaper imports started flooding into the market in the sixties new laws were introduced that declared products must be marked with their country of origin. By the time manufacturers were required to stamp “Made in USA” into their pans, mass production had come into play. The vintage pieces we are after came before this change.
6. Size numbers
The size numbers are stamped into the handle of the pan. That will tell you the dimensions of the pan. The numbers are simply 1 number so don’t indicate much unless you are familiar with what they mean. This table shows you the dimensions indicated by the stamped numbers.
7. Ask the seller
Even loaded with all this knowledge it’s impossible to know the history of the pan, so ask the seller. If the pan has spent it’s life in someone kitchen being cooked with and looked after then that is obviously a good sign. If the seller is unsure then you will have to use your best judgment. Check carefully for signs of damage and misuse.
Buying a second-hand pan can be a bit of a minefield and finding a good one is really difficult. If you aren’t that bothered about vintage or don’t like the idea of using a pan that has a lot of history and possibly unknown history, then go for a new one. You can’t really go wrong with new Cast Iron, the quality is really high especially if you stick to well-respected manufacturers like Lodge. You can see a list of the best new Cast Iron pans here.