Chances are, you have a cast iron dutch oven and a couple of cast iron skillets among your preparedness gear. You’ve chosen it, most likely, due to its ability to use over an open fire and its durability and ruggedness. However, if you’re not cooking with your cast iron every day, why not? Let’s talk about the many ways to use cast iron, so when an emergency arises, experience is on your side.
Table of contents
Types of Cast Iron Cookware
Do you think dutch ovens and cast iron skillets are your only choices?
Far from it!
Some of these, especially #6 and #9, can even be appreciated by college students and recent grads.
- Grill pan, complete with ribbed bottom for grilling meat
- Reversible two-burner grill /griddle, perfect for pancakes or meat
- Tortilla press
- Grill press, great to use with a grill pan
- Pizza pan (reheats delivery pizza better than in a microwave)
- Loaf pan
- Mini-skillet, perfect for a single egg (or buy the slightly larger square one for grilled cheese)
- Muffin pan
A skillet is an indispensable piece to me, though. It’s multi-purpose. For example, we don’t use a pizza pan. Instead, we place a skillet in the oven upside down and place the pizza on the pan’s bottom (now top). Works great.
Or, if you have two different size skillets, you can heat a smaller one and set it atop a sandwich cooking in the larger one. Voila’! Panini!
Basically, I would rather have one piece that performs many functions than one that can only do one thing.
Why Cast Iron Has Fallen Out of Favor
Even though your grandparents probably used their cast iron every day, it’s fallen out of favor in contemporary times for a few reasons:
- It’s heavy. Some of the bigger items can be difficult to manipulate.
- There is a general society increase in a phobia of germs. For example, since you don’t wash cast iron with soap, many people are uncomfortable with simply rinsing out the pan.
- Some are leery of the seasoning process, where a thin layer of fat is burned into the iron. In truth, seasoned cast iron is probably far better for you than non-stick pans, so popular today.
Seasoning Cast Iron
The first thing to keep in mind is that, like any iron, cast iron can rust. Whether you have a new skillet from Lodge or a Griswold heirloom, all cast iron rust when not taken care of properly. (Lodge cast iron is still proudly Made in the USA.)
To keep it from rusting, it needs to be seasoned well and kept seasoned. There are several ways to do this, and in a home environment, it’s pretty easy. However, if you were using it outside on an extended basis, it would need greater care, as it would be exposed to the harshness of the weather (rain, humidity, temperature changes that cause condensation, etc.).
How to Season
Seasoning cast iron involves coating with a layer of fat or shortening and heating until it blackens and smokes. There are differences in methods. The takeaway is there are multiple ways to season properly. Choose the one that works best for you. My process is simple:
Seasoning a new pan
If you’re starting with an unseasoned pan, you’ll want to cover the entire pan with a light coating of oil or grease. Flaxseed oil, bacon grease, etc., and even Crisco shortening, which I find works very well, can be used for seasoning.
Place the cookware in a 400-degree oven for about an hour. Expect a lot of smoke when you season in the oven, so plan accordingly.
Repeat this process two or three times.
Seasoning a seasoned pan
To keep the pan well-seasoned, season it two or three times a year, either in the oven or on the stovetop. This involves heating the pan for longer, applying two or three coats of Crisco, and letting it come to a good smoke.
How to Clean Seasoned Cast Iron
When used every day, the care for your cast iron is pretty simple.
- After cooking, wipe out the pan with a paper towel.
- If needed, use hot water, a brush, nylon scraper, or chainmail-type scrubber, and scrub out the pan. Don’t be afraid to scrub any food stuck to the pan, as any seasoned coating worn off is easily replaced. Another method is to use coarse salt and a sponge and clean while still hot.
- Once cleaned, you can dry it with a towel or put the pan back on the stove and heat the pan, which causes the water to evaporate.
- If drying on the stovetop, give it a light coat of oil, grease, or shortening. The heat opens the pores of the iron and is an ideal time to lightly season the pan.
- Once coated, continue heating until there’s a good amount of smoke. The smoke lets you know the fat is turning into carbon, which is the “season” in seasoning.
This “light-duty” seasoning is usually all that’s needed with everyday home use. You don’t need to season the pan every time you use it, though you could if you wanted to. We find that seasoning the pan every 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time used is generally enough to keep a good seasoning.
To Soap or Not To Soap?
We can’t move on from here without addressing the great cast iron controversy. Most of us have heard or been told: DO NOT wash cast iron with soap. Ever. If you do, you will have to re-season it. Then you hear from an outlier who uses soap on cast iron and has done so for years without harming the seasoning.
So which is it?
Well, the seasoning occurs through polymerization, which happens when the oil bonds with the hot porous metal to form a smoother surface. Soap isn’t going to remove it from a well-seasoned pan, at least not easily. Unlike soap of old made with lye and vinegar, most of the soaps today aren’t strong enough to do so. However, a brand new pan, with only the manufacturer coating of questionable durability, might lose those factory-applied layers.
So yes, you can use soap to clean your cast iron.
Alternatives to Cast Iron
Similar to cast iron is seasoned steel. Seasoned steel is used and cared for just like cast iron. The advantage, though, is it isn’t as heavy.
It might seem odd at first, as it looks different from cast iron, but it performs similarly. While not as thick as the iron pans, the steel is denser and evenly distributes heat. They seem to cool off more quickly, too.
Where to Acquire
It’s not uncommon to find cast iron at yard sales or thrift shops or acquire it from those who no longer want it. This would be an economical way to assemble a Dutch Oven Survival Kit and learn how to cook with one. These can be some great bargains or some real stinkers. Here are a few guidelines for deciding which it is:
- Is the bottom flat? If a pan is improperly heated or cooled, it can warp. If it wobbles, it’s been warped and won’t heat evenly.
- Is it pitted? Pits form when rust eats into the metal. Pitting is different than that bumpy surface you feel when you buy brand new cast iron; those are because it is manufactured in sand casts. However, you can’t get a good season on the pan with too much pitting. That being said, light pitting might be possible to address and, depending on the piece, might be worth the risk. On the other hand, deep pitting is a headache I would pass on.
- Is rust present? As long as there is no pitting and it checks out in other areas, rust is easily dealt with.
Words of Wisdom
When many people use cast iron at first, they hate it. They complain of food sticking and an awful experience with cleaning. It’s understandable. An unseasoned pan truly is a nightmare to cook with. However, a well-seasoned pan has a nearly non-stick surface.
The difference between those two experiences is knowing how to care for and protect your cast iron. Patience and proper care yield a non-stick surface far easier to cook on than the modern non-stick surface. You’ll become a believer in its longevity and ease of use.
In my household, we use cast iron and seasoned steel for nearly all cooking. Cast iron cooks well on gas and electric stoves, and it’s okay to use metal utensils when cooking. When’s the last time you could do that with modern, non-stick cookware?
With care, and perhaps even without care, cast iron cookware will last nearly forever, ensuring you can pass it down to your children or grandchildren. In addition, by using cast iron with your everyday cooking, you are not only getting more iron and fewer chemicals in your diet, but you’re also learning how to cook with time-tested cooking gear.
Do you use cast iron? What is your favorite piece?
The post was originally published on September 30, 2014, and has been updated.