Some people swear cast iron is the only proper cooking utensil. They’re wrong, of course, because as good as cast iron is, there are some foods that react poorly with cast iron, either damaging the cook pot or altering the taste of the food so radically as to render it inedible. For those foods, stainless steel or pyrex works best.
Cast iron has a lot to recommend it for most cooking tasks. It’s versatile and durable, able to go from stovetop to oven and back again, and can even be used on the table. It cooks over open fires and buried in ashes. If you heat it slowly, it will heat evenly, and will hold the heat a long time. It can be heated hotter than pyrex. Cast iron griddles make marvelous pancakes and French toast and grilled cheese. Treated well, it will be as non-stick as Teflon coated cookware.
The problem is that most of us have not used cast iron cookware right, and so we have a mess we shove to the back of the cabinet. We may have inherited a cast iron pot that spent years hidden in a dark cabinet from a relative who misused it. Maybe we heard how great cast iron was and we picked up a find at a garage sale or a flea market. And maybe, we were all gung ho and bought a brand new cast iron skillet and now we have this rough, shiny pot that mocks us from among the pots and pans.
However you acquired your pot, you will have to clean and season it, and take care of it. Then we’ll have to teach our descendants how to care for it so when they inherit it, they’ll take care of it, too.
Let’s assume you inherited a rusty baked on mess of a dutch oven or chicken fry skillet. First thing you have to do is clean it, and it’s gross. You can hardly look at it and are reluctant to touch it. If you have a modern self-cleaning oven – or know someone who does – your task is greatly simplified. If it’s your own oven, I recommend buying an extra rack that you will only use for cleaning disgusting cast iron pots and pans. This is because the rack will darken and warp slightly when left in the oven on the self-cleaning cycle, and it will stick when you pull it out. If you only use it for cleaning the cast iron (or if you also do things like bluing and browning knives and gun parts, you can use the rack for that, too).
Do not do the self-cleaning oven method on cast iron ware with wooden or plastic handles (and yes, there are clueless manufacturers who put plastic handles on cast iron) because the extreme heat of the self-clean cycle will either burn or melt the handles.
If you don’t have access to a self-cleaning oven or your cast iron ware has wooden handles you’ll have to use good old elbow grease and some steel wool to scrub it clean. I recommend cleaning as much out as you can with scrapers first. Soak it in hot water for no more than 45 minutes, then tackle it with scrub brushes. Rinse it often under hot water until it’s clean. Once you have removed all the grunge, you’ll need to dry the cast iron as thoroughly as possible with towels. At this point, it will rust. You may even see signs of rust forming as you dry it. This is normal.
Since using the self-cleaning cycle on the oven will also leave your cast iron ware rusty, the next step is to treat it for rust. For this, you’ll need to soak the cast iron ware in a solution of half white vinegar and half water, completely submerged for no less than one hour and no longer than four hours. Use a timer if you need a reminder. Once the rust is off, rinse the pot under running water, dry it thoroughly with a towel, then finish drying it in a warm oven (350ºF) for a few minutes. If there’s still some rust, use a fine grit sandpaper to rub it lightly off and then buff with a soft cloth.
Now, you’ll need to season it because this process has removed every bit of seasoning it may ever have had. This is the same process you use for brand new cast iron cookware. Coat the whole thing inside and out with a very thin layer of vegetable oil. Place a foil lined cookie sheet on the bottom rack of your oven and place the pot on a rack just above it upside down. Heat it on the oven at 350ºF – 400ºF for 45 minutes. Buff it with a soft cloth or paper towel as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. Repeat this 2 or 3 more times before using it.
Now that you’ve spent all this time cleaning and seasoning your cast iron, you need to take care of it. Unlike Teflon coated pots and pans and pyrex cookware, cast iron cannot be run through a dishwasher or put up wet. Even well-seasoned, it will rust – and you’ll have to go through the above process all over again. Cast iron ware is actually simply to care for than most people think.
1. Empty the pot or pan as soon as you are done cooking by transferring the food into a serving/storage dish
2. When it’s cool enough to handle without getting burned, scrape any excess food out
3. Rinse under hot water and use a plastic scrub pad to scrape off any cooked on foods
4. Except for the initial scrubbing of a crusted and nasty inherited/flea market find of cast iron, never let cast iron soak in water at all, not even for 1 minute – rinse only
5. Dry immediately
6. Set the dried pot or pan on a low burner for no more than 5 minutes to make sure it is thoroughly dry.
7. While the pot or pan is still warm, very lightly coat the inside with vegetable oil to seal the cookware from moisture (and thus preventing rust) and to help preserve its non-stick nature
8. Never put cast iron in a dishwasher
9. When you put the cookware away, do not put the lid directly on the pots or pans – place a paper towel, cloth towel, or a section of that shelf liner that looks like an open-weave burlap to allow air circulation and prevent moisture buildup that could lead to rust.
Rust is your biggest enemy in caring for cast iron.
Now, in cooking with cast iron, there are three important rules you need to pay attention to:
1. Never pour cold liquids into a hot cast iron pot or pan. The temperature difference can cause it to crack.
2. Always have lots of oven mitts and hot pads around when using cast iron as these pots get very hot, even the ones with wooden handles.
3. Never store food in cast iron. The acids will damage the non-stick seasoning and accelerate rusting as well as weakening the cast iron.