For some reason, cast iron cookware has the unfortunate reputation of being difficult to care for. It’s likely the top reason intrigued home chefs question investing in a solid cast iron skillet. But according to a slew of kitchen experts, cast iron is fairly easy to maintain, and learning its quirks (uneven heating, for example) won’t take long. With a little care and attention, a cast iron skillet retailing for as little as $20 can become a kitchen staple that lasts for decades.
Just remember: If pioneers could make wagon-side meals over a campfire using a cast-iron skillet, you can master this piece of cookware from the comfort of your modern indoor kitchen.
A brief background on cast iron
Cast iron is far from new — historians believe that basic cast iron cooking utensils were used in China more than 2,000 years ago. The technique for forming cookware out of molten-hot metal spread throughout Asia and Europe for centuries before making its way to the American colonies. Cast iron pots and pans were reliable kitchen necessities until just after World War II, when aluminum and stainless steel cookware became popular thanks to kitchen-coordinating colors, low cost, and ease of use — all things cast iron couldn’t compete with.
While most cast iron manufacturers shuttered their factories by the mid-20th century, some still create the classic skillets (as well as griddles, woks, and more) using the same technique of pouring super-heated liquid metal into a sand mold, then blasting the cooled skillet with metal pellets for a smooth finish. Modern cast iron is usually preseasoned and ready to use, though owners of a brand new skillet may find that additional seasoning is needed to achieve a super slick, non-stick cooking surface.
Why seasoning is needed
Seasoning is essential for cast iron cookware, but many uninitiated cast-iron cooks might not understand how it works or how to maintain it. Seasoning is formed when fat and oil are heated to temperatures hot enough that they polymerize — essentially changing their molecular structure into a plastic-like protective layer that bonds with the cast iron skillet. This layer stays with the skillet (it can’t be washed away) and can be built thicker and thicker over time.
Seasoning allows a skillet to be non-stick and acts as a buffer from damage caused by acidic foods and water. Skimping on seasoning can lead to rust and other damage that will render it less useable.
While new cast iron pans come preseasoned, they often have a gritty surface. Lodge, the largest cast iron manufacturer in the U.S., says that some of its skillets may have a slightly rough surface because of how the skillets are formed in sand. With continued use and regular seasoning, the rough surface will eventually fade (though if you’re in a hurry to smooth out your cast iron, you can buff away imperfections with sandpaper).
What about enameled cast iron? This version of cast iron cookware became popular in the 1920s thanks to its vitreous enamel coating, a non-stick glaze that doesn’t require seasoning. Enameled cast iron requires less maintenance and is extremely durable, but has its own disadvantages, such as a higher cost and a limited range of cooking activities to protect the enamel coating.
How to season a cast iron pan
Luckily, seasoning a new (or well-loved but abused) cast iron pan is easy. While every cast iron aficionado has their own tried and true method, there are only three things you need to get the job done: heat, oil, and a towel. Start with a clean, dry, cast iron pan and the cooking oil of your choice (Lodge recommends a neutral-tasting oil, such as vegetable oil or canola oil). Buff the oil into the skillet or pan, wiping away any excess with a towel. From there, you’ll want to heat the cast iron to polymerize the oil; the most common method is placing the skillet upside down in an oven that is warmed to at least 375 degrees for about an hour.
How often you need to repeat the seasoning process is subjective; some home cooks prefer to season a new skillet multiple times before its first use. Older cast iron pans with a thicker layer of seasoning may only need occasional touchups if an area of the pan sticks, or if the skillet was left to soak in water. And if that happens, don’t panic — cast iron is both beginner-friendly and forgiving. After all, it’s practically indestructible.