Tips for Cooking With Cast Iron

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Cast Iron Cooking

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.)

Cast Iron Cooking 2

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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About Betsy Jabs

Betsy holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Counseling, and for nearly a decade worked as an elementary counselor. In 2011 she left her counseling career to pursue healthy living. She loves using DIY Natural as a way to educate people to depend on themselves to nourish their bodies and live happier healthier lives. Connect with Betsy on Facebookand Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Anne says

    Hi there!! Thanks SO much for this wonderful website!! I found it by accident and now it is one of my favorites! I’m in my 50s and have used cast iron all my life. My kids used to laugh at me, but now they also use cast iron for most of their cooking needs. The one tip you forgot to add is that if your pan needs a really good cleaning, cover the bottom with plain water and then boil on the stove for 5 minutes. Pour the water down the sink and scrub pan with a plastic scrubber under running water. Put your pan on the stove to heat until all traces of moisture are gone and then add a very thin layer of oil to re-season. The season really isn’t gone, just cleaned. I learned this tip from my mother back in MN when we were kids and she was using cast iron.

  2. C-Marie says

    Another way to remove stuck on bits on the bottom of cast iron fry pans is to put enough water in the pan so as to cover bottom 1/2 inch deep and then turn on the burner until the water comes to a boil. Use the metal spatula to scrape the bottom just as one would do somas to use the bits/essence if one were making gravy. When all is loosened, pour out, rinse, wipe dry, dry over burner heat, oil, and that is it!

  3. Jan says

    I have heard people say before not to use soap to wash cast iron. I have always found that odd. I have used cast iron all my life, my mom has used it and my grandmother – I have some of their pans and some of my own. All of us have always used soap and water to clean them without any problems. I agree with LisaC above: hand wash, do not use a dishwasher.
    I have used mine on a glass top stove before and didn’t have a problem. It didn’t scratch it which is what I had heard is the problem. You may want to watch your heat. Glass tops turn off and on the burner so that the glass doesn’t crack. If your pan is too hot for too long you might see a similar issue.

    • Renee says

      My mother in law and her mom both soak their cast iron in hot soapy water like any other pan. I guess they have done enough frying in them over the years that it doesn’t seem to phase them. Now, I about cried when I saw what it did to my newly seasoned pan one night when she helped me do dishes. It’s definitely a practice that should be reserved for well seasoned pans. It was discouraging, but all it took was a bit more time and grease and I was back in business.

  4. Kathy says

    To get rid of rust, keep applying oil and wiping out the pan. Also, rust is iron, not really bad for you. Just looks ugly.

    I have a whole set of cast iron and love it. If it gets really smelly after cooking fish, I will put it in my dishwasher for a quick rinse cycle with no soap (not a wash cycle), to get rid of the smell and then dry it off immediately afterward. I use my cast iron for everything except tomato sauces. I can’t explain the exact reason,, I’ve read about it many times, maybe too acidic and the cast iron has a reaction with the food.

    • Jan says

      I cook tomato based sauces in mine. There is likely a reaction but it would be to add iron into your food which is good for your diet anyway. I avoid cooking tomato-based sauces in aluminum to avoid the chemical reaction of having extra aluminum! 🙂

  5. Robin @ Thank Your Body says

    Great tips! We switched over to cast iron a year or so ago. Wow, not sure what took us so long! I love the easy clean up, that they’ll last forever, and that I don’t need to worry about toxic stuff in my food!

  6. Barbara says

    I use salt to scrub bits and pieces left on the bottom of my skillets. Then I rinse thoroughly and dry on the stove. A quick swipe of oil leaves them ready for the next meal.

  7. Van says

    I recently saw a tip on Pinterest from a pinner for cleansing cast iron. Table salt. I had never heard of that before….so I used it on a small skillet that had some ‘stuck-on’ stuff. IT WORKED! I typically just rinse mine, use a paper towel to dry them and then add a drop of oil and coat the bottom and sides. Now…when something sticks (I really like my home-fries a bit ”crispy”….so, it’s my fault) I rinse with hot water, sprinkle a little bit of salt over the ‘stuck-on’ bits….and use an old library card to scrape it off. ( I think the salt acts as a ”safe” abrasive?) Then, I rinse again, re-oil and VOILA! it’s all good again. Yaay!

    • Jan says

      Salt is also good to use if you are having trouble seasoning your pan. Put a little salt in the oil and the seasoning sticks well.

      • Jayne says

        I also read that you can boil some water in the pan when the food is really stuck on. After boiling the water, I let it cool before cleaning. It works quite well, but you need to make sure you oil the pan well afterwards.

  8. marla says

    Thanks or sharing this. I have had several cast iron pieces for many years, but have only started using them regularly during the last few years. I have always been a bit scared of them, I guess. I have a pretty good set of stainless that are my regulars, but I asked my husband for an enamel coated dutch oven a few Christmases ago. I absolutely love it. I use all of my iron for frying (I do not do this often), cornbread, and large one-potters. I finally got my elderly mother-in-law to throw out all of her aluminum pots and convert to her daughter’s stainless (they live together). They still use their old cast iron for all of their frying and breakfast meals. Now that I know how to treat my cast iron, I will use them more often. And I will keep my eyes out for a deal on Craigslist or at a yard sale.

  9. Janis says

    This isn’t a how to use tip but after 43 years of marriage I an still using my grandma’s pancake griddle. It cooks great & brings back happy memories.

  10. Renee says

    Thanks for the article! I could have written the intro myself! We’ve been married 7 years and like you I am ashamed to think back to my wedding registry. My parents were thrilled to be regifted the Teflon pots and pans that they had bought us just a year or two prior. My first step was to stainless steel, then I started into the wonderful world of cast iron. I was just thinking out loud the other day to my husband that I would love to have an all cast iron set eventually (I’m well on my way with one 6 qt. enameled dutch oven, 2 different sized skillets, a griddle, and a grill pan). I have to fix separate meal items due to food allergies so I would need more than the average person both for cross contamination purposes, but also b/c I have to double up on a lot of things (separate pastas for meals, etc.).

    Any recommended brands for utensils? I am tired of my plastic spatulas and am wanting to get some metal replacements of some sort. I use bamboo for most everything, but they just don’t work for flipping pancakes or tortillas.

    • Cheryl says

      Stainless steel utensils work just fine for cast iron. No need to worry that you are going to scratch the surface because it’s not Teflon coated.
      A stainless steel spatula works great for flipping eggs or pancakes.

  11. Sustainable PF says

    The one thing I have found most difficult in cooking with cast iron is managing the heat of the pan while cooking. The pan usually takes longer to heat up but retains a lot of heat for a long time. Adjusting habits, and cook times, is challenging. Any suggestions on how to adjust from teflon or stainless steel to cast iron?

    • Betsy Jabs says

      It’s been a lot of trial and error. 🙂 The best suggestions I can give are to correctly season your pans (if they aren’t already) to avoid lots of stuck on food, and keep a close eye on food while it’s cooking since the cast iron gets so hot. I don’t walk away from the stove anymore like I used to when I had food cooking in Teflon cookware. 🙂

      • Ma Kettle says

        Really? I’m MORE likely to walk away (not long, LOL) from CI than yucky ol’ teflon: I can turn down the heat & clap a cover on & with any luck at all, any food stuck on the bottom steams off! I always scorch with the yucky teflon & can’t keep the finish on the pan (& out of our bodies) to save me.

  12. Chris says

    I have a solid glass cookstove. The salesman told me I shouldn’t use cast iron pots on there. Has anyone used them with success??

    • Anna says

      I have a glass cooktop that we inherited when we bought our house several years ago. Because it was already stained, I didn’t think anything of it and use my cast iron on it without any problems. I try not to slide my pans around, instead lifting and turning them so as not to create more scratches, but that’s it.

    • Corinna says

      I have had my glass cook top stove for seven years now and have used cast iron on it regularly and yes it can leave iron marks but they are easily removed with the cleaner that your stove top came with and as long as you are not dragging and sliding your cast iron around on the surface of the stove I’ve had very little problems. The smooth top glass surface seems to be more affected by sugar spills and burnt food then the cast iron I’ve used. Everyone I know, friends and family members, who has the glass tops tend to have theirs turn ugly after several years anyways and they’ve never ever used cast iron cookware.

  13. Leonie says

    I have some cast iron fry pans but I have a flat top stove the manuel said not to use cast iron on my stove because it will scratch the surface. Any thoughts on this?

    • Jayne says

      I have a flat top stove and the directions said the same thing. But, I use my cast iron pans without any trouble, and my stovetop surface is white. You just have to be careful not to slide the pans on the surface. Also, you will have to clean the stove burners more often. But, I find it pretty easy to clean with a good stovetop cleaner.

  14. Jodie Moore says

    Hi LisaC – good news to hear that rusty pans can be brought back to life..but how?? 🙂 I am nervous about using them unless I know the rust has completely gone…

    • Anna says

      they just need to be scrubbed and re-seasoned. Google the process if you’re not sure how. Mine were crazy rusty when I first got them, but haven’t had a problem since. And I’m sure others hold a different opinion, but I wouldn’t worry about ingesting a little rust–it’s just iron, which your body needs anyway. I’m not talking about cooking on straight rust, but if a little remains after you season your pan, don’t worry about it. It will disappear as you use it.

      • Renee says

        What about the bottom of the pan? I didn’t think much about it, but set my skillet on the vent burner for the oven and I guess the moisture and condensation did a number to it. Do you just season the bottom as well? I just cooked some bacon in mine and was thinking that I could just rub a little of the grease on it periodically?

        • Betsy Jabs says

          Yes, season the entire pan…inside and out. While the rust on the outside obviously won’t affect your cooking, the rust will rub off on other things and become a mess. Your pan will look great when the outside is seasoned too. Check out the link in the article for correctly seasoning a pan.

    • Trey says

      Mine were bad enough that I striped them and started over. It was the best thing I could’ve done – now it’s an everyday pan!

  15. Jen S. says

    I found coconut oil works incredible on CI pans. Best oil for me so far. Eggs slide right off with no stick. Love my CI pans!

  16. LisaC says

    I am 52 years old and am using cast iron skillets that my mom cooked in when I was a child. Have added to the collection through the years and will always use them! Rusted pans can be easily restored and put back on the path to great seasoning and years if use. And by all means, NEVER put cast iron in the dishwasher. A recipe for disaster!!

  17. Susan says

    I have the cast iron skillet my mother bought for 25 cents when she first got married in 1943. It is well loved and well used.

  18. Trey says

    I did a lot of research on seasoning before going with flax seed. My pans are fantastic. It’s healthier, but there is an added odor. I think it’s worth it.

    I’ve used the flax seed oil method of seasoning and use soap to clean my pan (when needed) with no problems. When I initially stripped the pan I had to use oven cleaner three times (over night in a trash bag). That’s when I realized that the no-soap issue was a bust. If it took that much effort to strip the pan, washing it once in a while with soap and water wasn’t going to hurt it. And it doesn’t if it is seasoned well. If you get rust, the pan needs to be seasoned better.

    The caution with soap is that you need to make sure it doesn’t leave a film on the pan so the seasoning sticks as it is supposed to (when you oil it down after washing).

    • Gail says

      Thanks for this tip. I don’t always wash my skillets but sometimes I feel like it just needs hot soapy water. I’ll try the flax seed oil.

      • Trey says

        YES, use soap! Seriously, if it’s seasoned well there is no reason to worry. :•)

        Flaxseed seasoning is the best! It was a long process (rub flaxseed oil, bake for an hour, rub with oil, bake, rub, bake…you get the idea – the more the better!), but I swear by it. I never have anything stick, and food slides right out. And just so you know, we don’t actually cook in flaxseed oil, we prefer coconut, but use the flaxseed to season.

        ***Flaxseed is the edible version of linseed oil, an ingredient oil paint and wood varnish. It is an excellent conditioner and creates a remarkably hard surface once dried. (veg oil seasonings are kind of sticky)

        ***Flaxseed contains omega-3 fatty acids. (YAY!)

    • Crunchy4Life says

      I wouldn’t recommend using a nasty chemical to clean the cast iron. I just place mine upside down on the grill for a few hours, check to see if it’s done. Then season, season, season.

  19. John Tiffin says

    Good data on using cast iron, been doing it for years but occasionally after cooking up a mess of fish or highly spiced beef, there is a residue odor left in the pan that carries over to the next use. Any suggestions for eliminating the slight reminder of the day before?

    • Anne says

      Put some water in the pan, about 1/2 inch, and boil for 5 minutes. Pour the water down the sink, scrub with a plastic scrubber, dry on the stove and lightly season with oil. Voila!! clean pan and no residual odor.

    • Crunchy4Life says

      Sprinkle baking soda on it, let it sit over night & take care of it in the morning. Great for stuck on stuff too.

  20. Jodie Moore says

    Hi there – great article thanks! My mother in law has given me a few cast iron pans and I am ashamed to say they’ve sat at the back of the cupboard gathering dust..and rust! Do you have any good tips on removing the rust? And can they be used once they’ve rusted? (assuming I can get it off..). Thank you!

    • Anne says

      Absolutely they can be used!! If your kids have a sandbox, borrow some of their sand and rub the pan inside and out with it and a little water. Put the pan on the stove to heat until all moisture is gone, then wipe the pan inside and out with oil and allow to cool. Use it and enjoy!!!