Tool Tips Guide: Cast Iron Cookware

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Introduction: Tool Tips Guide: Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron cookware has been around for centuries and will most likely be around for more. Its versatility and even heat-distribution has made cast iron cookware a favorite of many cooks. Pots, pans and various other pieces can be purchased new from the store or found for a bargain at yard sales or flea markets and some is even passed down through generations as a family tradition.

And, with proper care and maintenance, an owner of a piece of cast iron can assure that it will last for a lifetime (or several).

In this instructable, I will show the steps and guidelines I follow to keep my cast iron collection in good condition and ready for anything.

Step 1: Your New Piece of Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware can be purchased from many different places. A person buying a piece of cast iron new from a store can be fairly certain that it is clean and nearly ready to use. However, buying a piece from a flea market may be somewhat different, since it is most likely used. Although it may be dirty-looking, chances are it can be rescued. Try to select a piece that looks to be in good condition, free of cracks and large patches of rust. Smell it and make sure that it hasn't come into contact with harmful chemicals or other liquids. As long as there isn't anything wrong with it that can't be fixed with a little elbow-grease, it is a good piece. Any piece of cast iron, new from the store or used, must be cleaned well before it is used for cooking.

There are several pieces of cookware that are made from cast iron, the most popular being pans, pots, dutch ovens, muffin pans, bread pans and griddles that are made to fit over the burner on a stove.

Step 2: Cleaning Cast Iron

All pieces of cast iron must be cleaned before using them in the kitchen. New pieces of cast iron (bare or "pre-seasoned") usually have a thin coating of wax on them to keep them from rusting on the store shelf. Pieces from yard sales or flea markets are most likely very dirty also.

For the first cleaning of a piece of cast iron, it is OK to be a little rough, but remember - never use soap or detergent on cast iron. Also, never put cast iron in a dishwasher. They must be cleaned by hand. The more often cast iron is used, the faster it will build up its own natural non-stick surface (called the "seasoning") and the easier cleaning will become. However, it should be scrubbed well on the first cleaning. The reason for not using soap is simple - on a microscopic level, cast iron is very rough with many crevices for soap to get into. It will stay in there and make food taste like soap. Instead, it is necessary to let it naturally build up the seasoning that will bond to and fill the crevices.

Cleaning is simple - use hot water. The hotter, the better. A sponge with a smooth side and a scouring side works well for this. For the first cleaning, scour it well to remove any wax, stale oil and other bits of built-up grime. Small spots of rust can be scoured until the rust washes away. Problem spots of rust can be rubbed off with a small piece of sandpaper or some type of rotary tool. But remember - bare spots of metal will be very likely to develop rust rapidly, so use care.

After the first cleaning, all other cleanings should be more gentle, with a soft cloth or sponge. Stuck-on bits of food can be left to soak for a few moments in a sink of plain water or scoured off, but remember - you will be scouring away the seasoning that you are trying to build up.

In this photo, I am cleaning a new bare cornbread sheet, a new pre-seasoned bean pot and an old, used pan.

Step 3: The Seasoning

After a piece of cast iron is cleaned for the first time, it is nearly ready for use in the kitchen. Some pieces come pre-seasoned with a seasoning already baked on. Other pieces come bare, which is the bare grey metal without any baked-on seasoning. Second-hand pieces that have been cleaned may have spots of bare metal where rust has been cleaned off. All cast iron is vulnerable to rust and it must be prevented.

Natural seasoning is created by the repeated use of pieces of cast iron. Fats, oils and other liquids from the food bonds to the microscopic crevices on the surface of the metal. This naturally prevents rust and creates a non-stick surface similar to the Teflon pans that are popular today.

Prior to using a piece of cast iron for the first time, it is helpful (although not necessary) to bake on a base-coat of seasoning. This first coat is very useful in "breaking-in" a new piece or just adding more seasoning to a second-hand piece.

Pre-heat an oven to about 350 degrees. Using a lint-free cloth or paper towel, wipe oil over the entire piece - not just the cooking surface, do the whole thing. Any cooking oil is OK - olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, peanut oil - any type will do. Use a very thin coat of oil. Too much will get gummy on the piece and cause smoke in the oven.

Place it upside down in the oven for 45 minutes and flip it over for the last 15. During this hour, it may smell a little funny, but that is OK. You might want to open a window. The result will be a good coat of baked-on oil that will help to build up the seasoning.

This only needs to be done once, but can be repeated every so often as it helps to solidify the seasoning.

After that is done, take it out of the oven and let it cool off and it is now ready for cooking!

***Please take care NOT to put pieces on cast iron into the oven that have wooden handles. This step is optional and is not safe if any part of the pan is combustible!***

Step 4: Cooking With Cast Iron

Cast iron is very versatile. It can be used on the stove for frying, to sautee, to simmer, etc. You can bake with it in the oven for cakes, cookies and breads, and even on a grill or over a campfire.

Remember that cast iron distributes heat fairly evenly - even to the handle! Don't grab a bare handle if you are cooking with the piece as it will be just as hot as the pan itself. Use a towel, a potholder, a mitten or a glove - anything to protect yourself from a nasty burn.

Metal cooking tools suck as a fork or spatula should not be used often on cast iron as it will scrape away the seasoning or expose the bare metal which could lead to rust. Instead, try to use wooden tools as much as possible. Plastic should be avoided as well, since it can melt easily. But, if using metal cannot be avoided, just remember that is has the ability to scrape and remove the seasoning.

Step 5: Cooking on the Stove

Cooking with cast iron on a stove is similar to using any other type of pot or pan. You can use it to simmer a sauce, cook a piece of meat or vegetables, boil water for pasta - the uses are nearly limitless. However, using a new piece may be a little tougher than using an older piece. Older pieces have more seasoning than newer ones which prevents food from sticking.

Generally, you can stick to recipes found online or your own creations. Any cast-iron cooking disaster can be cleaned off afterwards. A little oil or butter on the surface will reduce the risk of food (such as eggs) from sticking. Naturally greasy food like bacon won't need any help.

Food should never be left to sit in a cast iron pan for a long period of time. Acids from food like tomatoes can corrode the surface, and indeed anything can turn stale or rancid and give your cast iron a bad taste. Never put it into the fridge to hold food - transfer it to something else and clean your piece.

To clean it, rinse it in hot water and wipe off any excess oils or pieces of food with a soft rag or sponge. You can soak it for twenty minutes or so to help remove stuck-on bits, but rinsing it off while it is still fairly hot will help also. Just remember the golden rule - No Soap!

Step 6: Cooking in the Oven

Cast iron can be used for baking in an oven as well as on the stove. A cast iron bread pan, muffin pan or cookie sheet will work just as well as the same pans that are used on the stove top.

Cook your favorite breads, brownies, cakes and cookies in a pan or other piece.

To keep food from sticking, use a light coat of cooking spray, oil or even flour.

Pictured here is my favorite to bake - pizza!

Step 7: Cooking on a Fire

Pieces of cast iron can be used for camping and cooking over a fire as well. The most popular pieces to use for this is a dutch oven or a regular pan.

A pan can be placed over the hot coals of a campfire or right on top of them. Take care to use only a small amount of hot coals, since they will most likely create a higher cooking temperature than on a household stove.

A little piece of American history - Lewis & Clarke labeled their dutch oven as the most important tool that they brought along on their expedition into the Louisiana Purchase. And rightly so, too since a dutch oven is very versatile. It can be placed directly onto the hot coals of a campfire or hung above the flames much like a cauldron. The lids of many dutch ovens can be turned upside down and the slightly concave surface can be used like a pan.

Modern-day campers and backyard cooks need not build a fire either, since charcoal briquettes for a grill can be used to simulate hot coals and more accurately control the temperature.

When cooking is done, simply clean as best as possible.

Pictured here is typically how a dutch oven would be used with charcoal.

Step 8: Storage of Cast Iron

Cast iron should be stored clean in a place where there is not a great risk of moisture. Every cook may have a favorite pan or two, but some specialty pieces may not be used for long periods of time.

After cooking, clean the piece of cast iron like normal and allow it to dry completely. It is helpful to take a cloth and wipe on a very thin coat of cooking oil onto the cooking surface. This will help prevent rust - but be careful - too much oil can go stale and taste bad or get gummy. Use the smallest amount possible to lightly coat the cooking surface. Now it can be put away until the next time it is needed.

Any piece that is used regularly can be hung on a hook or placed in the cabinet or wherever the cook wants, but pieces that are used less as often should be stored a little more carefully. Clean them well and apply a very thin coat of oil to prevent rust. Store them in a plastic box or some other closed vessel that will keep moisture out. A bag of desiccant, such as Damp-Gone will assure that the box is dry inside. Pieces stacked on top of one another would benefit from having a rag or paper towel placed in between them. This will prevent them rubbing together and scratching. The box is now ready for storage in a cabinet, attic, garage, etc.

Pieces stored for long periods of time this way would benefit from a good rinse before they are used in the kitchen as well.

Step 9: Summary

I love cast iron cookware. It is versatile, durable and fun to use! Indeed, most any recipe can be made in cast iron.

Other cast iron fans can be found in many places on the internet, such as the International Dutch Oven Society, and other various forums and discussion boards. Recipes made especially for cast iron cooking can be found by using search engines like Google.

Cast iron cooking is a fun hobby and can be enjoyed by many people of many ages. Take the time to care for your pieces properly and you can be assured that they will be around for several generations.

Have fun and happy cooking!

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61 Comments

After 45 years of cooking with various pieces of cast iron cookware (being a little 70's hippy chick who bought "appalling old junk" (per my mother-in-law) like Wagner & Griswold pans at rummage sales) I wanted to see if there were any new suggestions for how to treat a really rusted, but great, rectangular fish-frying pan with feet I found at an antique store for my son-in-law who has developed a love of old cast iron. That's how I found this guide.

I had never even heard of or considered cleaning my pots & pans in a fire. I have to admit, however, that sometime in the 80's when we scored our very first self-cleaning oven, I never again labored much over cleaning old pans. I just put the iron ware, with whatever had build-up or other crud I couldn't scrub off, into the oven and set it on self-clean. Upset my husband, but he got used to the idea. And, I remember being lectured about the rules of not leaving the racks in the oven when it was set to clean, but my oven racks didn't seem to suffer much, either. I usually cancelled out the self-clean function after about an hour (or it would keep going for 3!) Pans would generally come out with a fine rust dust but all the crud was burned off & it was easy to scrub with steel wool, then season.

I've NEVER heard of using food quality mineral oil for seasoning before, though! Thanks for the great new seasoning idea. Will try it today.

Different cookware are required for Various dishes. Among them the most essential is required Stainless-steel Cookware. Great.Hope you will like it!

http://cookwarelab.com

I have been using Food Grade Mineral Oil for forty five or longer both sets of grandparents used this method. The reason they liked it was because after seasoning with it, the carbon caused by the seasoning process does not rub off, secondly it does not get the rancid smell if not used in a while. Last but not least it makes seasoning a lot easier. Way back then we would build a large Bon fire to clean everything in it. ( a lot of people state that you shouldn't do that because it will crack it or warp it.) and have been cleaning it that way all my life. By the way, I still have 25 pieces that I have had since before I turned 18. Never damaged any of them.

After putting them in the fire we would let them sit for twenty minutes. We would use a heavy wire hook to pull them out. While holding them with a heavy metal hook I would strike it with a small ball peen hammer and that would cause all OG the carbon build up as well as most of the rust. When the inside was clean we would brush the insides, then using a small cotton mop we would rub down the insides with mineral oil and watch it smoke, after it started to cool down we would reheat and mop until we got a clean smooth bottom. Now days I use the grill to heat them up and rub them down , heat , rub with mineral oil making it smoke up, then back to the grill and we repeated it 6-7 times and I've made grilled cheese sandwiches with cast iron and it don't stick because of the fine slick carbon build-up. If you do not like the mineral oil idea ( which is inert after it's been carbonized.) you should use a light virgin olive oil. It also is not bad about becoming rancid !

I'm assuming this is fahrenheit at 350 so for all the people needing celsius; 176.67ºC

This was an informative instuct, and more so with the comments. I love camping and cooking, and find that cast iron is great for blackened foods. It's not blackened if its not in CI. All the tips hear are great. My grandmother had an 8" CI pan that was used only for biscuits. She would just wipe it with a clean kitchen towel, and put it back in the oven. Biscuits would slide out, never sticking. I recently found a 10" pan at a thrift store for $5, and will use the info in this instruct and comments to keep it for a long time. Thanks. B-)

My mother-in-law always put her cleaned cast iron pan back on the fire for a few minutes after washing and drying to ensure it was totally dry. It has the most beautiful seasoning finish on it.

I've heard and read this about cast iron cleaning in many, many places, including the instruction leaflets or tags that come with new cast iron cookware. However, I don't feel comfortable using only hot water to get the film of grease off a pot or skillet. Hot water often doesn't do the trick, and the cookware feels slick and not very sanitary. and the admonitions about using detergent can, I think, make someone panic unnecessarily, thinking they've ruined their cast iron if they use a bit of detergent.

For the past 40+ years, I've washed my cast iron cookware in hot water with detergent. My Dutch oven and my most often-used skillet are now 37 years old, and my other skillets and saucepans close to 20 years old. They are not rusty, food doesn't stick, and I feel a lot better when I hang them up than I would if they still felt greasy from the last meal cooked in them.

I recognize that most people prefer to follow the rules for cleaning cast iron, but, for me, I intend to keep going by what I've seen with my own eyes for decades.

Do you have info on the best way to fully season cast iron that has wooden handles? I'd love to use them.

Hmmm. This gives me an idea for a cooking reality TV show about competing cooks who only use this type of cookware. We'll call it "Cast Iron Chef"!

You know, although I think this is the weirdest instructable I have ever read, I must commend you on your very well proportioned expose on the use and care of cast iron crockery.

I do believe that us mortals here on the a** end of Africa (read South Africa - which is a country if you didnt know) also use cast iron pots, yet with a devious twist that might just save you from whipping on a glove like a paediatric nurse every time you want to cook some pasta.

The trick is (i believe) to get/make a wooden handle. Usually I would not suggest this to just anybody, but as you seem so passionate about your cast iron cookware, I would suggest: "A wooden handle, in two halves, that fit over the handle created by the cast iron. When riveted together, the half moon cylinders of wood provide a sturdy and comfortable handle, easily replaced when burnt or otherwise damaged."

Have a good day...
JW.