Cooking with Cast Iron

Using and caring for your cookware
by Tim Sousa

Cast iron cookware is an extremely versatile and economic alternative to expensive copper and copper clad cookware. If you aren't currently using at least a couple of cast iron pans in your kitchen, you really should consider it.

Cast iron has several advantages over other cookware. Cast iron pans have excellent heat conduction and retention, so you get even heating over the whole surface of the pan. If there are no wooden handles on your cast iron cookware, you can use it either on the stove, or in the oven. Properly seasoned and cared for, cast iron is just as non stick as any fancy non-stick pans. Cast iron is very durable. Some of you may have cast iron pans from your grandmother's kitchen that are still in excellent condition. Cast iron pans are very inexpensive compared to the fancy copper pans.

On the other side of the coin, there are some disadvantages to cast iron. Cast iron pans are very heavy. If not properly treated, cast iron pans can be prone to rust. Cast iron pans must be handwashed, they are not dishwasher safe. Cast iron pans require a bit more maintenance than regular pans (but not too much more).

If you properly care for your cast iron, it will give you many years of use. Some cast iron comes pre-seasoned, so you don't need to season it yourself. If you need to season it, simply rub it with oil, shortening, or lard, and heat for an hour in a 300 degree oven. Then remove the pan and let it cool. You can repeat this process a couple more times to strengthen the bond of the seasoning. What seasoning does, is it fills in the pores in the iron with the oil, helping to prevent food from sticking and to create a protective coating.

You should never use soap in a cast iron pan. To clean them, just use hot water and a plastic scouring pad, don't use steel wool, or it could ruin the seasoning (if this happens, just re-season the pan). After washing, dry the pan throughly with lint free paper towels. Store the pans with the lid off to prevent moisture from building up and causing the pan to rust.

Other cast iron care tips: Do not use cast iron to cook acidic foods; cast iron is a reactive metal, and will react with the acids. Never use your cast iron pans to store food. You can use them to keep food warm during a meal, but when the meal is over, move the food into proper storage containers, and wash your pan.

If you don't currently have any cast iron cookware, I suggest getting some and trying it. A good skillet and a Dutch oven are good pans to start with. They can be used for pan frying, deep frying, roasting, and stewing. I've even used two pans as a makeshift sandwich press.

Whatever the disadvantages of cast iron cookware, they are far outweighed by the advantages. Properly cared for, cast iron cookware will last for years of great meals.

Tim Sousa is the webmaster for Classy Cooking, an online library of recipes, cooking tips, and other valuable cooking resources.


Jerry's picture

He presents just the right amount of information for the casual cook who want simply to know how to prepare cast iron cookware prior to using it. He presents it clearly without unnecessary elaboration.

Anhata's picture

It's true, properly seasoned the food slides right out of them, like on an infomercial. I'm in love with my cast iron pans and I got them for a song. Two of them I got for a dollar each at a rummage sale. The other one I got for about a buck fifty at my local thrift store. It was brand-new, never been used. It had a wooden goose hot glued to it--it had been not very expertly crafted into a tacky piece of kitchen decor (the Philistines!). After prying off the goose, a good scrubbing, and a proper seasoning, it's perfect. I love how well they cook and how well they clean up and how inexspensive they were. I need a Dutch oven and a griddle for the stove and I'll be set.

Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable; with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats.

-- Woody Allen

Zillah's picture

But we don't have any at the moment. DMIL had a couple of lovely ones, and we're keeping our eyes open for some round here. We have a couple of pans that we season in the same way - a stainless steel frying pan and a copper saute pan - it works very well for them too, no need for non-stick.


jennye's picture

I love my cast iron, too! I have several (most were hand me downs from my MIL, who has several pieces still. You have to remember, her parents came to New Mexico in a covered wagon and homesteaded. MIL is just 61, but used an outhouse til she went off to college. She says the Sears Roebuck catalog made the best toilet paper. LOL!), but my favorites are my 7 qt dutch oven (I saw Paula Deen always using one and I HAD to have it), and the ones I have for cornbread and makes it into 6 little "ears" of corn. So cool!

And since we are talking about it, my two favorite recipes for my dutch oven are these:

Botchulism--a combo of potatoes, onions, cheese and many eggs. Depends on the size of group as to the amounts. You can add whatever you want in it, too. Some sausage, green chili, beans, bacon, whatever. Really good served in a tortilla, my hubby likes to just pour salsa over it.

Trash--start with potatoes and onions, add some polish sausage all cut up into bite sized bits, some squash, okra. Again, add whatever you want to make you happy. Yummy!!

We are going camping this weekend, I'll be fixing both at least once.

Lynn's picture

I use my cast irons every day. We have:

A big skillet
A medium skillet
A teeny skillet (aka the world's cutest skillet)
A Dutch Oven
A chicken fryer
A griddle
...and a cornbread corncob stick pan.

We threw out all our non-stick years ago. I hates em and I hates having to replace them every couple of years because the coating starts coming off into the food!!! (Unless you're my mom. My mom's pans never do that. Nothing of my parents' ever dares to break or get worn out. ;) )

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

kansasdeb's picture

All two of my cooking experiences with cast iron have been disasters. I am going to make a pot roast in a my new porcelain coated cast iron dutch oven. After browning the meat do I need to pre-heat the water I add to the pot? I don't want to crack the pot. Thanks for any info.

I have a cast iron skillet but both times I fried chicken and tried to make gravy the flour for the gravy burned as soon as I add it to the grease. I even let the skillet cool for a while and put my heat relatively low. I have an electric range which could be part of my problem. My grandmother always cooked with cast iron but on a gas range. She never burned anything that I can recall.

I have been using non-stick cookware since I started cooking in 1970 but I am determined to stop using teflon.

saralisse's picture

My dutch ovens are all cast iron, I haven't seen a porcelain coated one before.

Iron cook ware has plenty of thermal mass, so it stores a lot of heat. For burning the gravy flour, you probably should have let the skillet cool a while more, to do that, take the skillet off the heat entirely. If you leave the skillet on the electric burner, and just turn the heat down, it will take a very long time to cool skillet enough to add the flour. It's thermal mass hinders cast irons cooling on an on burner. Cast iron takes a little while to get used too, but once you learn it, you will never understand how you put up with the non stick stuff so long. It's all about remembering and managing the stored heat, once the skillet gets warm.

When I was 18, I won a set of nonstick cookware from a promotion at my then job. I used it for a couple of years, then decided I didn't like it, and started changing over to cast iron. I've been using cast iron cookware primarily for 20 years or so.

Jilsyt's picture

So, anyone correct me if I'm wrong (as we'll be house hunting again in a year or so when DH graduates) but I read that I can't use my cast iron on a glass top stove (could shatter it--my mom got one, it's in the manual), nor can I can my jams on a glass top stove (gets too hot for too long). I liked the idea of only one surface to wipe clean, but I'm not giving up cast iron OR canning for a stove!! Anyone successful with a glass top and using cast iron and canning? If not, it's OK, I'll buy a good gas range instead. Just wondering.

Andrea's picture

Hey JEnny, where did you get your dutch oven? I need something like that? Do you use it on the stovetop, in the oven, or both? I love that you put so many veggies in those "recipes"!

tabbie's picture

He mentioned not to cook acidic foods in cast iron. Does he mean tomatoes?

tabbie's picture

I do make recipes with tomato sauce in my cast iron. I had always heard you shouldn't cook tomatoes in an aluminum pan. I had heard this when I was growing up.

jennye's picture

Andrea, I got it at True Value here in town. I don't know about other hardware stores, but our local True Value has some furniture and other nice things, couples like to make selections there. It's Lodgeware. I think my DH paid $40 or $50 for it (it was my Mother's Day present). I bet you could find them and Bed, Bath and Beyond or some such store. Bigger Walmarts or maybe Target may have them, too.

I use it on the cooktop, in the oven, over a burner outdoors and I'm sure I could use it over the campfire if I really wanted to. It has a lid on it, and the whole thing is really pretty heavy. Paula Deen has a really good peach cobbler recipe with her dutch oven involving bisquick (on her website, and in her latest cookbook, PD and Friends I think is what its called). And the last time I cooked chicken fried steak in it was the best I ever had! I attempted fried chicken the other day and it was goooood too!!!

I cook with tomatoes in mine. Speghetti sauce, chili. I never heard otherwise.

Jilsyt's picture

I found my dutch oven at the local farm supply store. Ask employees if any have chips (doesn't hurt it, it's just not as pretty). On mine, it has a chip on the lid from shipping, and I only had to pay $12 (actually, my dad paid it and said it was my Christmas). It still works like a dream.
We also do tomatoes in ours, doesn't seem to be a problem.

Lynn's picture

I think it's because the tomatoes are acid and thus reactive with the iron, but that can actually be a good thing--making sure you have enough iron in your diet.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Anhata's picture

You're not supposed to use cast iron skillets with ridges on the bottom of the pan where it comes into contact with the burner. Also, the iron can discolor the glass, or scratch the glass. I have a glasstop and I use cast iron. All of my skillets are smooth bottomed and I don't care if it discolors the glass top. I don't like the glasstop anyway, it came with the house and I'm not impressed with it.

Sometimes the burners of glasstops can run so hot they crack the cast iron pans. You can buy "diffusers" to put on your burners to prevent this. I've found that cast iron heats so efficiently I have to cook at low temperatures or I burn off my seasoning.

I cook with tomatoes in my cast iron, too. I read this blurb a while ago when I was researching how to season my pans

Acidic items like tomato sauces will be darker from iron leaching out, but many people with iron deficiencies do this for extra iron in their diet.

Never store acidic products in cast iron. In fact, never ever use your cast iron pots for storing any foods.

from The Irreplaceable Cast Iron Skillet


Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable; with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats.

-- Woody Allen

kansasdeb's picture

Thank you for the input. I really appreciate it.

jennye's picture

I've heard that too. As hard as I am on stuff, I would stay away from glass top stoves. I'd be afraid of scratching it at the very least. This is something I've thought about alot, we are fixin' to remodel my kitchen (completely gut it! I'm very excited!!). It's only the original 1963 kitchen. LOL! Anyway, I have a 4 burner electric cooktop. The options seem to be the glass top or about the same as what I have (coils). Since losing electricity isn't a rare occurance out here, I'm putting in gas. And since I have a large family (4 kids and a husband. Plus family get togethers), I'm opting for a 5 burner stainless steel one. Gas is still really just one surface to clean, you just have to take the grates off the top. And it all comes clean with Easy-Off anyway.

Lynn's picture

But I hear you shouldn't. I ignore it. :)

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Zillah's picture

(OK, you might not call them hobs, you know what I mean, the bit you put your pans on :) ). One of the great things in our new flat is the 5 burner stainless steel gas hob. I LOVE IT!! We cooked on electric coils for two and a half years in a previous place and I would never go back. Gets my vote every time.


Bz's picture

I'm new at cooking witht iron, but was inspired by memories of grandma's pot roast & got a CI Dutch oven. Fabulous! everything turns out great. So I picked up a skillet and the first time I used it I learned about CI retaining heat. I set my hot from the burner pan on a trivet on the counter, served up, and went to return the pan to the stove. I couldn't find the trivet. coulda sworn it was here a minute ago...ahem. it was melted to the bottom of the pan like a marshmallow. Gee, my other pans never did that. As soon as the pan cooled, the gooey trivet peeled right off.

Rob Lewis's picture

For technical reasons, the best oil to use for seasoning cast iron is flaxseed oil (called "linseed oil" when painters use it, but be sure to use food-grade oil).

See here for all the details:

I haven't personally tried this method because all my cast iron is well seasoned. But if I ever need to redo it, or season a new pan, this is the way I'll go.

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