How to care for a cast-iron skillet

Proper maintenance is the key to cast-iron

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There are many benefits to using a cast-iron skillet. Not only does it get super hot and retain that heat, but the heat distribution is even across the surface. It’s also versatile. It not only gives ground meat a nice browning you can’t get on other surfaces, but you can use it to make batter breads (like corn bread) and even pies for a gorgeous, rustic presentation.

The problem most people have with cast-iron is that they don't know how to care for it properly. You might be nervous about the seasoning process or just about keeping it clean and rust-free. But caring for cast-iron is easier than you think!

Seasoning

Seasoning your cast-iron isn't for everyone. But there's a very good reason for it. It makes the skillet nonstick, just like the other pans you pay so much for. If you'd like to skip this step, feel free, but don't treat it like a non-stick pan when you cook (and be aware that it may not last as long).

First, preheat your oven to 200 degrees F. While it's warming up, wash your new skillet in hot water with mild soap. (Note that when you re-season it later, you can skip this step.) Dry your skillet on the stovetop or in the heated oven, then allow it to cool.

Now, you'll need some… fat (lard, bacon or sausage drippings, etc.). We know, but it's necessary. If you don't save the drippings from your bacon and other fatty meats, just keep a small supply of lard on hand at all times, and your cast-iron will never wear out. Spoon a bit (approximately a quarter cup for a large skillet) onto the surface and use a folded-up paper towel to smear the fat all over the cooking surface (you can add more if you think you should). Coat the outside surfaces on the skillet too (except the very bottom, which will only cause the fat to burn off and smoke when you use it).

Place your skillet in the oven for 3 hours (do not raise the temperature to decrease the cooking time). While it's in the oven, the pores of the metal will open, allowing the fat to soak in as it liquefies.

When the 3 hours are up, cut the heat, but leave the skillet in the oven to cool slowly. When it's cool enough to touch, use a clean, dry paper towel to remove the excess fat. Your skillet should still be shiny due to a thin layer left on the surface. Set the skillet aside, then re-wipe it with another clean, dry paper towel an hour or so later. After that, it will be deep black, but no longer shiny.

After seasoning

The first couple of times you use your skillet after seasoning, try to cook something really greasy to help the non-stick barrier created by the fat to set. It's going to smoke the first couple of times, so make sure you turn on the stove's fan and open some windows.

Cast-iron skillet maintenance

The key to keeping your cast-iron skillet in great condition is proper maintenance. That may sound like a pain, but it's actually very easy. Just follow these tips.

  • Never put your cast-iron in a dishwasher or submerge it in water. Use a solution of mild soap and water to clean it with a non-scratch sponge. Not only could you remove the seasoning layer using harsh soaps, you could cause your cast-iron to rust if it stays in water for an extended period of time.
  • Always dry your skillet immediately after washing using dry heat from the stovetop or oven, then allow it to cool completely before you put it away. Simply wiping it dry will leave moisture in the pores of the cast-iron, causing rust.
  • Never allow food to sit in the skillet. When you're done cooking, transfer the food to another dish as soon as possible, then clean it immediately.
  • To maintain your skillet, just wipe it down with lard or fat drippings every couple of months. This step is actually pretty easy with a barbecue brush. After cooking a fatty meat like bacon or sausage, just use the brush to spread the fat around the interior cooking surface (including the interior sides). Add a little lard or leftover drippings if you need more.
  • Do a full re-season every other year.

Recipes for cast-iron skillets

How to make your own corn and flour tortillas
All-American corn bread recipe
Cast-iron skillet steak recipe

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix the Fish. You can follow her on Twitter @HireHeather.

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