Matt and I were laughing the other day about all the useless kitchen items we put on our wedding registry seven years ago, before we knew any better. Before we knew the health risks related to certain cookware. Before we realized we actually had to store it all.
We joked about covert trips to Bed Bath & Beyond to appeal to young couples doing wedding registries; we would urge them not to register for things like Teflon cookware, stacks of aluminum cookie sheets, a slew of plastic storage containers, and a crock full of plastic serving tools.
In the past few years we have discovered the wonderful joy of cooking with cast iron, along with all the health benefits associated with avoiding other modern cookwares. We drastically reduced the amount of cookware in our kitchen when we finally shed the expensive wedding set of Teflon pots and pans, and fully embraced a “cast iron cookware system” of sorts.
There are tricks to cooking with cast iron that don’t apply to other types of cookware. These tips helped us make cast iron a convenient part of our kitchen routines. Switching to cast iron takes getting used to, but the benefits are worth it. No questionable chemical coatings, and excellent performance make cast iron one of the best cookware options.
9 Tips for Cooking with Cast Iron
1. You don’t need a ton of pots and pans
When we moved earlier this year, we were determined to get rid of as much as possible. We paid special attention to which pots and pans we used most frequently. We had a hunch we could get rid of a few of these bulky kitchen items, freeing up space in the smaller kitchen we were moving into. Sure enough, there were 3 pieces of cast iron cookware we used for about 90% of our cooking. We got rid of all the rest (Teflon-coated…yuck!), and now use those 3 pans for most of our cooking, searing, sautéing, boiling, frying, and reheating needs. (We don’t own a microwave, so these pans are being used constantly.)
Our 3 cast iron pieces are all second-hand. We purchased the 10-inch skillet for $9 on Craigs List. Matt found the 5-quart dutch oven for $5 at an estate sale. We found an enamel-coated Le Creuset saucepan on eBay for $12 and it’s my favorite. Very retro, very charming, but the best part is the low-maintenance enamel coating. (The cost of these 3 second-hand pieces is a far cry from the $400 set of Teflon-coated Calphalon pots/pans on our wedding registry!)
Note: These tips apply mostly to regular cast iron, as it requires a little awareness for its care and use.
2. Use healthy fats liberally with cast iron.
Start with a seasoned pan. (Learn how to correctly season your cast iron here.) You are always working toward maintaining a non-stick surface on your cast iron. After seasoning, the best way to maintain a good season is to always use ample fat. Butter, lard, coconut oil, ghee, and olive oil all provide a great non-stick surface and are healthy fat options.
3. Use stainless steel, wood, or bamboo utensils.
Have you ever smelled a plastic spatula when using it with a hot pan? This can’t be good. Cast iron gets very hot, and you don’t want plastic chemicals leaching into your food, so don’t use them. Use only stainless steel, wood, or bamboo utensils. I love that I can go to town flipping pancakes with my stainless spatula without worrying about scratches or non-stick coatings.
4. Protect your hands.
Cast iron handles get hot, so be sure to protect your hands. Get into the habit of using a towel or pot holder when handling hot pans. You can also make (or purchase) handle covers to save your delicate hands. Another option is to look for cast iron pans with protective wooden (or others types of) handles built in.
5. Never wash cast iron with soap.
This one was really difficult for me when we first began using cast iron. I wanted to scrub and wash with suds. I thought it was disgusting to use a dish and not put it away sparkling clean. (I can thank years of convincing dish soap commercials for that.) Cast iron only needs to be wiped clean or rinsed. But keep the soap away, it will ruin all the hard work you’ve invested in seasoning your pans. We rarely even rinse them, we just keep cooking on them time after time; it makes for a great non-stick season.
6. Stuck-on food can be easily remedied.
If something sticks in your pan and makes a mess, you can scrape the remains. I normally use a little plastic scraper that came with my stoneware baking pans. For the occasional tough mess, you can fill with water (just enough to cover the stuck-on food) and let it sit while you’re eating. Food should come off easily if the pan is correctly seasoned.
7. Dry pans on the stovetop.
Remember, when it comes to cast iron: MOISTURE = RUST! Don’t worry about drying a wet pan with a towel, just place the pan back on a burner on low heat. Allow it to sit until all moisture evaporates from the inside, the outside, and even on handles. (As a bonus, this tip will save your kitchen towels from brown cast iron stains!) Allow pan to cool before handling again.
8. Always leave a little oil in your pan.
A light sheen in a cast iron pan is a good thing. It will improve the non-stick properties and prevent rust. After cleaning, drying, and allowing the pan to cool, coat the entire inside with a little coconut oil, ghee, or bacon grease. A tiny bit of fat goes a long way here.
9. Lift a few light weights before investing in cast iron.
Cast iron pans can be heavy! No joke. I have almost sprained a wrist or two trying to get my skillet cornbread out of the oven. (It’s definitely a two-handed job.)
Look for lighter-weight Griswold cast iron pans if you find other cast iron too heavy. This company isn’t in business anymore, but keep your eye on Craigs List or ebay. They’re collectibles now, so acquiring one of these antique, American-made gems might be difficult and/or pricey.
If your cast iron cookware is well taken care of it will last forever and can be passed down to the future generation of family hash slingers.
Now it’s your turn! If you have a few tips that make cast iron cooking a pleasure for you, share them with the community.