How to Cook with Cast Iron Pans

June 22, 2011

Food Preparation

In a previous post, I recommended investing in cast iron pans that will last you a lifetime rather than a series of non-stick aluminum ones that will need replacing every few years.  Now I want to address how cooking with cast iron is a bit different than with newer non-stick cookware.

What does it mean if cast iron is “seasoned”?

Often times when you are looking at new iron skillets and such in stores, you will notice that the better iron ones often say they are “pre-seasoned.”  That does not mean that flavors have been applied to help your food taste better.  Rather, it means that a layer of oil has been baked onto the surface (and into the small pits and rough places) to help keep food from sticking while you cook.  When the pan is heated, that oil liquefies again and provides the non-stick surface that should prevent your food from adhering to the pan.

While I appreciate that good start, I go ahead and season it again (or at least make the first thing I cook in it something a little greasy, say maybe ground beef) so that I can be sure the food won’t get stuck.

At times I have found distressed cast iron pieces at thrift stores and have seasoned them from scratch.  There are lots of opinions about the “proper” way, so I’ll give you a run down.

It seems that most people use vegetable shortening.  Some use liquid vegetable oil.  A few use meat fats.  There are pros and cons to each.

I once followed the directions that came with a new set of unseasoned cast iron to lightly coat all surfaces with oil and bake for a couple hours at 400 degrees.  What a stinky mess!   And the liquid oil left all surfaces of the iron sticky where it had scorched.

A Better Way

Since that time, I have read a lot of other people’s advice about the best way to season pans.  The best and easiest way I’ve found is to use a paper towel to apply vegetable shortening (this is the only thing I would use shortening for) to the interior of the pan and then put it in a warm oven (around 200 degrees or so) and leave it for several hours.  I usually do this after dinner and then just turn the oven off and leave the pan in until morning.

After the pan has cooled, it should have a dark shiny surface.  If there are pooled places where the shortening congealed, lightly wipe them with a paper towel.

For good measure, the first time you cook with it, either add a little olive oil or cook a greasy meat to be sure.  After the meal, clean the pan with hot water and a plastic scrubber, but NO soap.  This is important.  Detergent of any kind will break down the coating you have built up and cause the food to stick.  Don’t worry about having it squeaky clean- remember you will be cooking in it again and the heat will kill any bacteria.  If you have ever used stoneware (like Pampered Chef sells) you are familiar with this routine.

Be sure to dry the pan thoroughly to prevent rusting.  My wise mother-in-law puts her cleaned pans back into the warm oven to allow the heat to evaporate any missed moisture.

Other Possibilities

There is a bit of debate about whether you can use meat fats to season pans.  Some think they will turn rancid.  Surely our “foremothers” on the frontier did not have shortening or even liquid vegetable oil probably.  They must have used rendered fats from the animals that were hunted and did fine with it.  I’m guessing that it could possibly be a problem if the pans are only seldom used, but with regular use, I doubt it will be an issue.

One thing worth mentioning-  if you are going to cook something that is prone to sticking to the pan (like eggs), it can’t hurt to put a splash of oil in the pan right before you add the other ingredients.  Olive oil is a very healthy oil and even a bit of bacon grease every once in a while won’t kill you (and it sure tastes good).

Joe will soon give some instruction on using Dutch ovens around the campfire.  They are very versatile and can be used to cook or bake lots of things you would not have expected.  I have used them for things you may otherwise use a crockpot for.  He has become a gourmet campfire cook at scouting events.  He is quite celebrated for his peach cobbler.

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9 Comments on “How to Cook with Cast Iron Pans”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    I bought a cast iron pan recently and seasoned it by using a little vegetable oil to cook some hamburgers on a low heat. I know, lots of fat and grease, but when I was done I just drained the oil and fat, wiped it with a paper towel and let it sit. I don’t use soap and water either for the very reasons you described in your (excellent) post.

    It works beautifully and I always leave a little sheen of oil in the pan for the next use.


  2. Marcy Says:

    Since your first post on cast iron I’ve been quite excited about using cast iron skillets again; so I’ve pulled the two we had buried in the bottom storage drawer of the stove and am going to “re-season” them along with one I just purchased at the Livery Stables last weekend!! Thanks again, Laura, for helping me take these small steps!


    • Joe Says:

      Once you get used to the cast iron pans, I think you’ll really enjoy cooking with them. As Laura mentioned in the post, they last forever; just re-season them periodically as needed. Or cook with them as JarHead described and the re-season with the cooking.



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