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.


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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  1. Tallulah says

    I loved your article on cast iron pans and finally tossed my aluminum ones in favour of my cast iron fry pans. I also use enamel pots for things like tomato and pasta dishes. But I wonder if you have any suggestions on baking pans. I have just tossed what I believe were teflon coated baking pans, but I have some Ekko pans, and not sure if they are teflon or not. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

    • Betsy Jabs says

      I would recommend contacting the company to see what materials are used for their pans. We now use stoneware baking pans. They’re wonderful and develop a nice non-stick surface after being used several times. I kept my old aluminum cookie sheets for craft projects. 🙂

  2. Lisa says

    I found a 14 inch griddle at a garage sale about 25 years ago and use it all the time. When we had our camper at the lake I would transport it back and forth every weekend. It has been my best find!

  3. Sharon Vincello says

    Love this post! I am getting rid of all my non-stick pans and replacing everything with cast iron and stainless steel. I bought my large skillet at a garage sale for $5!!! I also recently bought one at the grocery store. It says that it’s only safe up to 400 degrees in the oven. Is that common for all cast iron???

    • Betsy Jabs says

      There are warnings on some cast iron because temps somewhere above 500 can start to burn off your seasoning, but the highest temps your home oven generates will not harm your cast iron in any other way. Is your new pan enamel coated? These are not supposed to be used above 400 degrees, but I think this is mostly because of the plastic knobs.

  4. Gypsy Jane says

    Cast iron pans can be used on the glass top ranges if they are flat-bottomed. If they are warped so they don’t sit right, they won’t distribute the heat right, which could damage the stovetop. This is true of other kinds of pans also. This is what I got from the instructions for the range I had.

  5. Michelle says

    My dad once came home with a yard sale cast iron skillet that he got for practically nothing because no one would buy it. The outside literally had a 1/4 ” or more crust of burned grease on the outside and around the top inside edge. My mom was horrified. When we went camping, Dad pulled that cruddy pan from the trunk, placed it in the fire ring, and built the campfire on top of the pan. The next night he built another fire. Sunday morning when we were packing up to leave, he went to the fire ring to clean it up and pulled that skillet from beneath the ashes. All of the burned on crust and crud was burned off. Once home he wire brushed it up a bit, oiled it, baked it, oiled, baked, many times to re-season it. It’s still in the cupboard at home. So don’t give up on a pan that looks like more work than you want to take on.
    Also, word to the wise from a lesson learned. I couldn’t wait to have one of the new glass top stoves. After it was installed I was reading the book and discovered I could no longer use my cast iron skillets on the range top. I kept them and use them in the oven only, but I hate that I can’t use them on top.

  6. Lauren says

    This is a great article, I love my cast iron and I use it for 99% of my cooking.
    The only thing that wasn’t addressed here is flavor retention. Frying fish and then making tacos might be okay, but cooking fish and then cooking eggs might give you some fishy eggs, lol.

    • Cheryl says

      Does anyone know what you can do to get rid of leftover flavor retention, as Lauren mentioned? I’d sure like to know as I am rather new to using cast iron cookware. Thanks!

      • Matt Jabs says

        Several ways:
        1. Boil an inch of water for five minutes, let cool, wipe out, re-oil and cook.
        2. Rinse with hot water, dump, pour on salt, wipe around, rinse out, let dry, re-oil and cook.

  7. Tacy says

    As soon as I’ve finished cooking in ny cast iron pan, I first use the stainless steel spatula to scrape anything big and chunky. Then if there’s a lot of oil I use a paper towel to get the excess. And lastly I pour some salt in the pan and rub it with a paper towel, brushing all the oil/food soaked salt into the sink (or another pan needing cleaning) and voila, it’s clean. And, it has a nice shiny nonstick coating!

  8. Carrie @ Natural Gumption says

    The salt scrub is amazing! Never do I need soap and water…..just salt, extra oil if needed and a plastic scraper that I got from a Pampered Chef party…..I’m always amazed at how my friends stare at me like I’ve flown over the cookoo’s nest only to find them doing it as well 🙂

  9. Nicole says

    I was raised with cast iron. My parents always cooked with it in the home as well as camping. Before I left home I had my own indoor set of pans and since I have been married I have purchased several dutch ovens. I enjoy more the cooking outdoors with my dutch ovens and all the things we are able to do in there just as well as in our oven at home. We have made biscuts, cobbler, cookies pizza and so on. I love your piece about cast iron so many people look at me so strange when they see my pans or I talk about cooking with cast iron. They are like “what is cast iron?” or “what are dutch ovens?” Thanks!

  10. Calypso says

    Course salt (a lot) will remove all the grime and grease and still keep the seasoning. So just coat the pan with tons of salt, whirl it around with a paper towel and watch the grease lift right off.. or I think the salt will absorb it. I do this sometimes and it gets my skillet nice and shiny!

  11. Becky Anderson says

    If the iron pan has a build up of hard stuff on the outside just build a fire, outside, and put the pan in the fire. Let it stay in the fire until the fire cools. The pan will be nice and smooth ready for seasoning. Happy cooking and thank you for all the great information!

  12. Deb says

    My family has used cast iron ever since I can remember. I grew up cooking with it. I am now in my 40’s and still do. I still have the cast iron that my parents had plus a new grill pan my sister bought me for my last birthday about a year ago. I also have a set of Chantal cookware, 2 woks, and 1 non stick Ming Tsai pan that were my sisters who passed away earlier this year. I use some of this as well for certain things. Hands down cast iron is some of the best cookware you will ever use. I never use soap to wash it, just plenty of hot water and scrubbing and keeping it well seasoned from different cooking methods and oils works just fine. Sometimes I don’t even wash it out after using it especially with oils and seasonings. I just leave it for the next use. It keeps nicely this way.

  13. Cheryl Eustice says

    By the way-since I first started using cast iron pans, I no longer have a problem of not getting enough iron in my diet.

  14. Cheryl Eustice says

    I love my cast iron! I use salt to scrub mine if it needs it. One of my frying pans belonged to my grandmother,she had it forever.I always dry mine on the stove and use a dab of olive oil before putting it away.I still remember peeling teflon pans from the sixities-YUK ! My grandfather always told me to reseason a cast iron pan by oiling it and bake in the oven for a couple of hours.My first set of pans were enamel.As newlyweds we woke up in the middle of the night to a pinging sound.It was the enamel popping off my very expensive pans.It’s been 38 years now of using cast iron and stainless steel.I finally listen to my grandparents. I hear stories of people getting rid of whole sets of cast iron pans because they think it is a bother,it rusts,too heavy,or not the lastest thing.Search yard sales,craiglist,etc Lemen’s has a amish catalog on line that sales cast iron and old type of utensils.I often check dollar stores for stainless steel utensils.

  15. Gypsy Jane says

    Another thing that is good for your cast iron is beeswax. Rub it onto a warm pan. Done repeatedly it will remove rust. Done before putting away, it will prevent rust.

  16. Twistedhillbilly says

    I have bought old rusty cast iron pans at thrift/antique stores and refurbed them into the best cookware there is.. My favorite is a made in USA 11″ skillet that I got for 3 bucks. I sandblasted it and seasoned it with bacon grease. I do wash it with mild liquid dish soap at the end of my dishwashing when most or all of the suds are gone. . It never takes any effort to get clean and dries on the stove in one minute. If you want the best french toast ever,, cook it on a cast iron skillet. Crisp edges and evenly cooked without anything put on the surface at all and you can’t put a value on not worring about scratching expenssive teflon cookware..I have also bought the corn-cob shaped cast iron cornbread molds on ebay for 7 bucks and sandbalsted & re-seasoned them.. It’s like trying cornbread for the first time… I have also found there is a HUGE DIFFERENCE from the old made in USA cast iron and the new made in china junk. Garage sales, Flea markets, ebay, craigslist, thrift stores are the best places to buy high quality made in USA cast iron.. If it’s real rusty,, a little elbow grease and some steel wool will give you the best cookware available..

  17. Dawn says

    Real, natural soap is what binds with the seasoning on the cast iron and causes problems. Detergents (i.e. Dawn, Joy, Ajax, etc) will not bind with the seasoning or damage the cast iron.
    To reseason a pan, you can place it in a fireplace or self cleaning oven to remove all of the crud, and then oil and heat to reseason it.

  18. LAURIE says

    I’ve never scorched anything in my cast iron pots but I have in stainless steel. Soak some water and vinegar overnight in the pan. The next day whatever was burnt will be floating. My kids thought that was daughter had thought we were going to have to toss the pan in garbage but the vinegar saved it.

  19. Pam says

    As always – Love your posts! read them & save them. I have my grandmothers cast iron skillets When I first got married, husband washed w/soap! Woops! had to teach that yankee boy how to use cast iron. 🙂 These have been lovingly seasoned for many many years and used often.

  20. dlagrand says

    I use cast iron for almost all cooking. While I agree that no soap is preferred, hubby washes the dishes and he uses soap-so we compromise. If you have a good seasoning and you religiously dry it over heat and then wipe with oil, it can stand a small amount of mild soap (we use one of the sponge wands with soap in the handle). Kosher salt (its coarser) and even sand works well too.

    A tip I didnt see mentioned is: everything sticks less if you heat your oil first, then dont turn whatever you are cooking until it has browned. This is especially true for fried potatoes – dont stir, wait until they are crispy on the bottom and slide a thin flexible metal spatula under to flip them. If you cook with butter – let the butter just start to brown before you put the food in and it will be virtually stick-free and the browning (malliard reaction) gives a wonderful taste (this is by far my favorite oil to use for eggs – and you only need about a teaspoon or less for two eggs if you brown it first)

    It is also easy to stir fry in cast iron WITH NO OIL AT AT ALL! Just start with your veggie that takes the longest to cook (for me this is usually carrots), cook a few minutes, then push those to the edge (I use a huge 15 inch pan for large batches!) and add your next veggie , continuing until all are done(squash is always the last to go in for me). Then sprinkle on a mix of soy sauce, lemon juice (or other citrus), spices, and water (the water is mostly going to evaporate). Stir quickly to loosen any stuck on bits, cover and let sit 5 minutes. This steams any veggies that werent quite done and loosens all the food residue on the pan, making it easy to just wipe clean when you are done.

    The right utensil is very important. I have found it hard lately to find the type of metal spatula that I like – a very thin, flexible metal with the leading edge straight instead of rounded (angled is ok if thats all you can find). I also prefer them to be all metal or have wooden handles rather than bulky ugly plastic ones. Thrift stores and yard sales are my favorite places to find these, but ocasionally I do find an all metal one in the store, and when I do, I will buy several and hoard them.

    • Ma Kettle says

      My husband is chinese & we spent our first decade together overseas; my CI wok was my favorite for everything from soups to nuts (literally). I think the variety of cooking methods (braising, boiling, steaming,stir-frying, deep-frying) was one of the reasons the CI stayed in such good shape. (Had to leave it behind b/c it weighed too much to pack : ( ! )

      • Ma Kettle says

        But my flat-bottom CI fry pan fits N American-style the stovetop better anyway & is still my favorite.