Cast Iron for the Rest of Us

Let’s get one thing outa the way. There are some Cast Iron Fundamentalists in the world (it takes all kinds), and I am not one of them. I take decent care of my pans, and they serve me decently. With a fundamentalist approach you can reach amazing heights with cast iron. You can slide a frying egg around in it before you’ve even looked at the spatula. I’ve seen these feats with mine own eyes.

My pans are good. In their best times, you can easily loosen and flip a fried egg. But ain’t no sliding goes on in my pans. I just don’t have enough space, patience or spousal support for high maintenence pans.

If you want to create cast iron perfection, better look elsewhere. As with everything else in this space, I am concerned with cast iron for the rest of us.

Notice I specified “in their best times.” Cast iron is very resilient, which is one of the things I like. You can fix it up fast. You can also ruin it fast. And then fix it up fast again. No need to worry one way or t’other.

after scrambled eggs with cheese


How to Clean Cast Iron

Let’s start with the big taboo breaker. You know I love me a taboo. Fundamentalists look away.

I sometimes use soap.


Yes, pretty much everyone who’s anyone knows you’re not supposed to use soap. But one of my favorite things to cook in cast iron is salmon. As you might imagine, it leaves a fine fishy infusion that just, no matter how I tried to fight it off, needed soap. The first time I did it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, squeezed my eyes shut and squirted away. The fishiness washed off perfectly, then I did a quick season on the stovetop, and my pan was back in business. Now I never hesitate, if I have a real grease-mess pan on my hands, I squirt on the soap. No regrets.

My point is that it’s not so intimidating or exacting as you might have feared. Cast iron is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many shades of gray. Or black, as it were.

Having got that out of the way, in general the less you wash your pan the better. As I explained in the last post, seasoning is a build up of oils. The more aggressively you wash, the more seasoning you strip off. No big deal, just wash as little as you can get away with. If all you did was fry an egg, don’t wash at all. If you fried a nice piece of fish, scrub with soap, then season to replenish.

As for gear, I really recommend a nylon scrub brush for cleaning cast iron. A metal brush takes too much off. Nylon scrubbies work, but whatever you use on your cast irons will get pretty gross looking, what with all the blackened grease, and I prefer to have a long handle between me and the business end. The trouble is finding a brush with stiff enough bristles. I have used a sharp scissor to clip long, floppy bristles shorter and that stiffened ’em up pretty well. But recently I discovered a thing called a “grout brush” which has really thick stiff bristles and works great. It’s even got black bristles, instead of the usual kitchen white, so it looks less gross with the gunk on it.

cast iron gear-- a stiff nylon scrub brush and a pastry brush for oil

(About that gunk– wash your brush every now and then on it’s own, by dripping soap into the bristles and then scrubbing hard against the sink or something to work the soap around. Rinse with lots of hot water. Repeat till clean.)

For the most part cast iron washing will consist of plain hot water and yer trusty scrub brush. If your pan has a decent season, it should be relatively easy to scrub clean. If you have a real problem pan, soak it for a few hours and it should come right off. If the mess is the greasy variety, use soap, as I said.

The absolute best way to clean a pan is to take it immediately to the sink, still hot from use, run water into it, and scrub clean. This gets stuff off before it gets a chance to crust on. Because your pan is still hot, it dries itself off quickly, which is good too. Best of all, next time you want to use your pan, there it is waiting beautifically for you. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, my most common wash happens when I go to use the pan and discover last night’s dinner crust around the edge, ‘cuz I’m just dirty that way. If running a spatula around to knock out chunks is not enough, I put a half inch of water in it and set it on the stove. When the water’s at a rolling boil, I use my cast iron brush to scrub it clean.

Most important is to dry your pan. Don’t ever leave it sitting with water in it, it could rust. (Again, if it does, no tragedy, just scrub as per post #2 and reseason.) Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry cast iron, it will really scum it up. Instead set your pan on a low flame on the stove and set a timer for five minutes. Do not leave the room!!! I refuse to accept responsibility when you practically burn your house down by leaving an empty skillet on high heat and then going to do just one little chore outside. I would never do such a thing. Ahem….

Having warned you thusly, I will confess I only occasionally dry my pans. A well seasoned pan will just have a few beads of water clinging after the wash, which dry fine so long as the pan is left out in the open air…. At home in Cordova I had a pot rack above the stove. I highly recommend this to anyone with the means to make it happen. I love hanging pots and pans. A joy to behold, but also just darned practical. But here I just set the pan back on the stovetop and even there they dry fine.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn’t even have beads of water on it.

The key amongst all of this is to pay attention to your pan. Consider it a low maintenence pet, akin to maybe a goldfish. You can ignore it most of the time, but once in a while you do actually have to feed the bugger. In the case of cast iron, this means reseasoning. The oven season that I described in the first post is great for popping yer pan’s cherry on, but for regular upkeep a stovetop quickie is perfectly effective.

Say you’ve made spaghetti sauce in your pan (more on that in the next and last post!), washed it with hot water, and now you notice that rather than the “few beads of water,” the whole inside of the pan is wet. You dry it stovetop, and then it looks… well, dry. A well seasoned pan, even when dry, will have a sheen to it all the way accross. That’s the oil that keeps food from sticking. If your pan looks dry when it’s dry, just add a few drops of oil (really, drops are all it takes, be light), brush it around with a pastry brush, and heat it over low again for five or ten minutes. Need I repeat? Set a timer. Do not leave the room. Smoking oil does not smell pretty.

There. All fixed up and ready to go.

Cast Iron Cookery

I found an old cast iron skillet at a junk shop the other day. Brought her home, cleaned her up and seasoned her, and she’s a beaut. It’s inspired me to do a small series on cast iron– how to cook in it, and how to take care of it– so that you never have to buy another damn teflon pan again. Anyone interested?

I am a huge fan of cast iron. I’ve been cooking in it for 15 years. I love the fact of it’s permanence. You can get an old cast iron from your grandmother, and pass it on to your grandchildren. Never worse for wear. I am even fond of it’s heft in a weird way. Cast iron is solid, man. The seasoning may come and go, but the pan itself endures all.

I love the way you don’t have to worry about your cast iron pans. Take care of them, yes. Jealously guard them from well-meaning but ill-informed dinner guests? No. I hate the way teflon encourages stress in the kitchen. My dad always used teflon pans. He was pretty much the only person allowed to use or wash them, and they got stored on a high shelf behind a closed door. After a nice dinner party he’d have to jump up with alarm when someone approached the pile of dirty dishes.

And if you’re not stressed out about your teflon, you should be. Teflon is theoretically safe, so long as it is never heated too hot,  washed with an abrasive scrubbie, or touched by metal of any kind, which will de-laminate the coating. As a side note, if ever you decide your bucket of freshly dug razor clams would be good sauteed with some garlic butter, do not attempt this in your new teflon pan. Ahem. Even well washed clams harbor bits of sand that will rip the shit out of teflon.

So, you’re convinced? Ready to cast off the shaggy teflon nonsense and cast on some cast iron? Alright!

Cast iron skillets can often be found at thrift stores, garage sales, or your grandmother’s basement. They don’t have to look pretty to be good pans. I once recovered a complete rust bucket found in the grass by an old campsite. A little work, as we shall see in the next post, but it resulted in a fabulous pan and a heavy dose of satisfaction. I have a friend who swears she got a “bad” cast iron, that just won’t season, so it’s possible that such a thing exists. So far, I’ve purchased or recovered almost a dozen cast iron pans and haven’t had any bad ones. The brand doesn’t seem to matter. They all work just as well as their seasoning.

New cast iron is actually pretty cheap, compared to other quality kitchen equipment. If you want to buy new, you can probably find a selection at your local grocery or hardware store. Online, Lehman’s Non Electric Supply sells an extensive collection, including my first cast iron, a combination of a 3 quart dutch oven and a lid that is also a shallow skillet on it’s own. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to buy new. It’s a perfect combo. Covers all your bases for only $40.

Are you all fired up? Buy, beg, borrow or steal yourself a skillet or two, and follow along with the next two posts:

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us