In this post I’m going to be talking about traditional cast iron cookware made of uncoated and bare cast iron. Cast iron cookware has many advantages over other types of cookware but it is not without its drawbacks. Some of the advantages are it is durable, damn near indestructible and can last generations. I have in my possession three pans that go back four generations so far as I know. They well could be older than that. My chicken fryer being one such oldie but goodie.
In my teenage years I used to go yard sale and flea market “hunting” as we called it. My mom was baffled by my desire to own all sorts of cast iron. By that point in my life I was already quite the accomplished tent camper and use my cast iron to cook over a campfire. I learned the techniques involved in using a footed Dutch oven to cook meals over the coals of a fire (some coals on the lid I might add) and loved doing so every chance I got. I even used to make biscuits in my Dutch oven.
Fast forward many years and I still love using cast iron but nowadays I use enameled cast iron since my wife has to be careful of how much iron she consumes. But I still remember how to take the rustier of my purchases (some really high quality pots and pans end up at flea markets still that are badly cared for antiques.)
I was inspired to write this post when I realized that this subject comes up a lot on Quora and decided I’d answer it for the last time by writing an article on the subject.
here are several levels of “cleaning” that I do with a cast iron pan.
I’m at a flea market or a yard sale. I see a cast iron pan, not just any cast iron pan because there were many cheaply made and inferior pieces of cookware made from cast iron I’d never consider owning but maybe a good quality antique or perhaps one of the brands I like finding out and about. In this case it has a three dollar price tag on it. Worth it… I won’t even haggle.
My wife asks me “why that rusted out piece of junk?” with a look of absolute horror on her face.
“Gimme some time you’ll be amazed at the transformation”
First thing I’m going to do to it in my open air shop behind the house is take a wire wheel chucked up in my drill and lightly take some of the surface rust off. This is a step you need to be very careful with as overdoing it may result in wrecking the piece. Some shiny metal may show through at this point.
While there are many brands that do much the same thing my favorite is “Naval Jelly” which is getting more and more difficult to source. Apply a good layer to every part of the pan and wait three hours. Rinse off with a garden hose taking a wire brush to encourage the last bits of crap to leave.
You should have a nicely cleaned and derusted piece of cast iron cookware. The one PITA piece I never could get clean was a cast iron tea kettle. Since I don’t have a wood furnace to put it on (they were used to add humidity to the room while a fire burned in the furnace) I don’t much care to own one anyway.
At this point the piece is not ready for prime time yet.
Seasoning the Pan
Seasoning a pan is a requirement if you want to be able to have a low maintenance piece of cookware that will last generations.
Liberally coat the piece in cooking oil. I normally use peanut oil as trial and error have taught me this works the best. I’ve heard nearly every kind of edible oil used for this purpose and some work better than others. I use peanut oil.
Leave it sit that way for about three hours if this is the first seasoning. If you are renewing the seasoning on a piece proceed to the wipe down. Don’t ask me why this works because intuitively this shouldn’t make a difference but I learned this technique from an old timer and it does seem to work.
After three hours proceed to the wipe down.
The wipe down
Have your oven preheated to the highest baking temperature it can support. The wipe down and trip to the oven are best done last thing of the day before you go to bed.
Take a soft rag or paper towels (you’ll go through a lot of them) and wipe the metal down all over until the oil almost seems like its not there.
Place the piece in the oven and turn the oven off. Leave overnight
Your pan is now seasoned.
You cooked something in your pan and you’ve gunked it up to no end with things just glued to the surface. Happens to all of us and it is not a point of no return.
First: don’t panic.
Fill the piece with water and bring to a boil. Add salt and vinegar and allow to boil for fifteen to twenty minutes. Using a wooden spoon or spatula scrape at the stuck on bits. Then proceed to Level 2.
At this point your piece is just dirty. Using a sponge. If you must and this should be avoided unless necessary use a bit of dish soap. Rinse thoroughly as you don’t want your food that is cooked in this piece to taste like soap. Dry thoroughly and put a teaspoon of oil in the pan and using a rag or paper towel spread the oil around leaving the surface almost dry to the point of the oil being undetectable to the touch.
Level 3 — maintenance
Typically anywhere between one month to three months apart I do maintenance on my cast iron cookware. This involves
Putting the oven into self cleaning mode and putting the cookware (as much as you can fit) into the oven and running a full cycle in self cleaning mode. Allow to sit in the oven after self cleaning mode until they cool (or overnight). Remove from the oven and wipe each piece thoroughly to remove any ash that may have resulted. Go to seasoning step.
Some of my older cast iron cookware only receives level 3 maintenance on an annual or longer basis as they are well seasoned to the point they act like nonstick cookware is supposed to act. These are pieces I’ve owned for the forty three years I’ve been married and some past that.
If you take the effort to care for it there is no reason cast iron cookware can last several lifetimes. As I said at the beginning of this post I have pieces that date back at least four generations that I can confirm. Others only three. But the point being I fully expect my offspring will take charge of them when I’m finally completely done with them.