There are few implements in any given American kitchen more important than a cast iron skillet. These things are so durable and useful that half the foodies in America inherited theirs from their grandmothers. Durable, affordable, and almost impossible to mess up, a cast iron skillet is the workhorse of the American kitchen. From scrambled eggs to skillet-fried chicken, the cast iron skillet is practically a member of the family.
Unfortunately, most of us weren’t smart enough to take notes when our grandmothers were telling us how to clean our cast iron skillets. Thank goodness for the Internet, right?
The Importance of Seasoning
Another wonderful thing about our modern times is that most new cast iron skillets come pre-seasoned. “What is this seasoning of which you speak,” you ask incredulously? It’s a vital part of using a cast iron skillet properly. Basically, we’re using a bit of oil and some simple chemistry to add a non-stick coating to the skillet. If the manufacturer didn’t pre-season yours, you need to create that layer from scratch. Just coat the pan with some vegetable-based cooking oil and bake it at 350 degrees for an hour. Wipe off the oil and the pan is ready to use.
How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet
There’s no faster way to start a fight among chefs and foodies than declaring the best way to clean a skillet. The truth is you have some options.
The fundamental tenet is that old school cooks believe you shouldn’t use soap to clean your cast iron skillet. In point of fact, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Some foodies think that soap will rub away your seasoning, which is one of the most important features of the pan in the first place. But here’s the thing about chemistry: remember how we put in our oil and heated up the pan to create our seasoning? The process of applying heat to that oil creates a chemical process by which the oil is turned into a thin, plastic-like layer that makes it nonstick. That process is called polymerization, and it’s very difficult to remove with anything less hardy than steel wool. So if you’re worried about germs, feel free to use a little soapy water, but you don’t strictly need to clean your cast iron skillet with soap.
The second tenet is old-school as well, and it’s actually important: don’t put your cast iron skillet in the dishwasher! Not only will the process of exposing your cast iron skillet to extremely hot water potentially diminish your seasoning, exposure to water can also cause it to rust.
Now, the important part: There is no single best way to clean your cast iron skillet, but we can point you in the right direction.
For a basic cleaning, just wash the pan, either with soapy water or simply warm water, wiping it with a kitchen sponge. If there are a few stubborn bits hanging on, you can use the synthetic scrubber found on many modern kitchen sponges. Just don’t break out anything stronger than that, such as steel wool.
If, let’s say, you’ve pan cooked a whole fish or pork loin or other food that has gotten stuck to the pan, go back to chemistry for the clean up. Toss some kosher salt into your skillet, put it on the burner on high heat, and then scrub out the charred messy bits with a spatula followed by some paper towels. The salt creates an abrasive substance that will free up the gunk, but won’t damage your seasoning. The heat simply carbonizes the leftover food, making it easier to pry up. Then rinse out the salt and wash the pan with warm water.
As we stated before, water is a really bad thing for a cast iron skillet because it can start the process of oxidization, meaning your pan could rust. Because of this risk, make sure to dry your skillet thoroughly with kitchen towels or paper towels immediately after washing. On that note, you can cook just about anything in a cast iron skillet, but don’t try to boil water in it or make soup. That’s just asking for trouble.
As an additional option, you can also hand-dry the skillet and then set it over a high flame. The heat causes any remaining water to evaporate, guaranteeing that the skillet is really dry.
As one last optional step, you can re-apply your vegetable oil to the pan and set it over a high flame to ensure your pan is seasoned and ready for its next outing. Just keep in mind that you need to heat it up if you choose this last option. If you just apply the oil without heating it, the oil can be sticky and even rancid by the time time you use it, necessitating the search for a new skillet.
Some Final Tips
Don’t overdo it on size. A 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet will be a very versatile tool for your kitchen.
Cast iron skillets take longer to heat up than Teflon or other pans, but keep in mind that they also retain heat better and distribute it more evenly than other surfaces.
It’s easy to get burnt on a cast iron pan, especially if you pop it in the oven, so always use a towel or an oven mitt to handle the skillet.
Cooking in cast iron increases the iron content in food. Kids under the age of three can be prone to iron toxicity, so use caution with the kiddies.
Use caution in cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce or recipes that contain wine in the cast iron skillet, as these types of foods can be abrasive to your seasoning.
Always heat the cast iron skillet up before cooking in it; if you start with a completely cold pan, your food is more likely to stick.
Which Cast Iron Skillet to Buy?
There are a wide variety of cast iron skillets on the market, from the relatively cheap T-Fal pans at retailers like Target to full-on professional cookware for chefs. Given that this is a vital part of your kitchen arsenal, it’s better to spend a little more money and get a cast iron skillet that will meet your needs. Weight, handle length, and size also play key roles in how easy a cast iron skillet is to use. Longer handles will give you better leverage, although shorter ones can be good, too, if they also include a handle helper.
You can do your own search online, but here are three options. For a good basic pan ($30-$50 range), you can try the Calphalon pre-seasoned cast iron skillet or the Lodge LCC3 Cast Iron Combo Cooker, which is also pre-seasoned and comes with a Dutch oven. For something a little more high-tech, try the Le Creuset Signature Iron Handle Skillet, which comes with a decorative red exterior.
Now you know. Go forth, and cook something good tonight!