Introduction

The cast iron skillet is a must have for any home cook. If you’ve ever struggled to get a fantastic brown crust on your meat, or had problems with pans losing their heat when you fry, then this is the pan for you.

A cast iron skillet really excels in a number of ways

  • Heat retention in a cast iron pan is fantastic. Although it takes a while for a cast iron pan to come to temperature (perhaps 5 – 10 minutes) once it gets there it will hold the heat for a long time. That means that when you add your meat, or vegetables, to the pan the temperature won’t drop as far and as fast as with a steel or aluminium pan. That means better searing, browning and frying and quicker cooking.
  • Durability is unbeatable. These pans are seriously made to last and you’re really going to struggle to damage one. If you drop it, I’d be more worried about your flooring than the pan! One risk with cast iron is that it can rust, but even if this happens (and it’s unlikely if you take care of the pan) then you can repair them easily at home. To avoid rusting be sure to dry your pan thoroughly after each use.
  • The oven is no problem for a cast iron pan. They can withstand temperatures way beyond other pans, so you could even use them to cook on a campfire if you wanted to.
  • A natural non-stick layer will form on the pan with time. This non-stick layer is often called the “seasoning”. It might not be quite as non-stick as Teflon, but you’re going to be able to cook an omelette or fried egg in one of these pans without fear. Just be sure to follow the steps below to add the initial seasoning to your pan before you first use it.
  • Cleaning is not as difficult as you may have been led to believe. It’s just a case of washing with soapy water after each use, and then applying a quick seasoning. It doesn’t take long and it’s really easy. However, you cannot wash your cast iron in the dishwasher!

Some Downsides

As with all tools, the cast iron pan isn’t going to be able to do everything brilliantly, and there are some things you should bear in mind.

  • Cooking acidic foods is a no go. Things like tomato sauces will react with the iron in the pan to give an unpleasant metallic taste. The seasoning should act as a barrier between the iron and the food, but even with the most well seasoned pan there may be areas of contact, so this is best avoided. Having said that, for quick processes like de-glazing your pan with wine, don’t worry about it. Just don’t cook anything acidic for a longer period.
  • Uneven heating can be a problem with cast iron. It has nowhere near the thermal conductivity of aluminium or copper so hot spots will form while the pan is heating, particularly above the flames on a gas stove. However, you can get around this by moving the pan as it heats, or by pre-heating in the oven. Once you’ve got the pan hot, the ability for cast iron to hold that heat will blow you away. So, try not to worry about this, just keep it in mind.

Looking After Your Pan

There are a lot of myths floating around on the internet about how difficult it can be to properly look after a cast iron pan. However, most of this is absolute rubbish. Cast iron pans are nearly indestructible and if you do damage one, they can be easily repaired. However, there are some simple things that you need to do to make sure your pan is working as well as it can be. In particular, you need to season your pan before you use it.

Seasoning

When you first buy your pan, if you look very closely the surface will be bumpy and uneven. This is true even if you buy a pre-seasoned pan. This bumpy surface allows food to stick to it, particularly if you don’t get your pan hot enough. In extreme cases, your food will actually bond chemically with the pans surface. In order to make your pan non-stick, you will need to add a layer of “seasoning” to make the surface perfectly smooth.

When you heat fats (such as oil) in contact with metal (from the pan) and oxygen (from the air) they will polymerise. This means that the smaller molecules in the fat join together to form longer strands. In practice, this means that the structure of the fat changes and it will form a solid substance that will coat the pan in a fine layer. This fine layer of polymerised fats is what we will use to create a layer of non-stick. This process is called “seasoning”.

The more often fats are heated in the pan, the more layers of seasoning will build up and the more non-stick the pan will become. With a few weeks use you should be able to build up a great non-stick layer. However, you probably want to use your pan right now! So, there are some steps you should take to build up some initial layers:

  • Clean the pan with soap and hot water to remove any dust and dirt that might be in the pan. If your pan is in particularly bad condition, you may want to use an abrasive substance, such as salt, to scour the pan before washing. Once you’ve washed the pan be sure to dry it carefully. Do not do this step in the dishwasher!
  • Rub your pan with an unsaturated fat, such as vegetable oil. An unsaturated fat will create a better result vs using something like bacon fat as it will be more reactive. I find it’s best to use an unflavoured oil as it won’t affect the flavours in your cooking. You don’t need a thick layer, just enough to cover the pan.
  • Heat your pan using the highest heat you can on your oven (usually around 230°C). You’ll need to do this until the pan is smoking hot and looks distinctly darker in colour than when you started. This will take around 30 minutes. Using the oven is better than the hob as it will heat the pan more evenly. Optionally, if you place the pan in the oven upside down over a roasting tin this will allow the excess oil to fall into the roasting tin and give a more even application.
  • Cool your pan back to room temperature by leaving it on a heat proof surface (such as your hob or trivet). Do not be tempted to cool the pan by plunging it into cold water as this can cause damage to the pan.
  • Repeat the process up to four times to build up a really good initial layer of seasoning. When you clean the pan after the first round of seasoning, be sure not to use anything abrasive as this can remove the seasoning that you have just added!

Taking Care of Your Seasoning

Once you’ve spent all of that time building up a good seasoning on your pan, you’ll want to make sure that you maintain it to keep the pan non-stick. Luckily, this isn’t as difficult as you might have previously been led to believe. It’s just a matter of being careful.

Each time you use your cast iron, just follow these simple steps and you’ll keep it in top condition for years.

  • Clean your pan by hand in soapy water every time you use it. You might be surprised to hear that you can use soap to do this, but it’s not going to harm the seasoning. Although soap is great at removing oils/fats, the fats in our seasoning have been polymerised, so they’re not going anywhere. You’ll also be able to use the synthetic scourer on a kitchen sponge for particularly bad gunk, but don’t use anything more abrasive than this.
  • Re-season after cleaning. Simply add a small amount of vegetable oil back into the cleaned pan and rub it into the surface using a kitchen towel until you can bearly see it. Now, put your pan back on the hob and heat it until it begins smoking. Then let the pan come back down to room temperature gradually (do not submerge it in water to speed this up). Heating the pan will remove any residual water (which can lead to rust) and will apply the new layer of seasoning. Once cooled, you can wipe off any residual oil.

That’s it! It’s really simple.

Buying your Pan

When buying your first pan, I think it’s pretty simple.

  • Buy something new – you don’t want to have to deal with restoring a vintage pan on top of learning to cook with it.
  • Don’t spend too much money – £25 to £50 will get you a great pan. Cast iron is pretty cheap to manufacture, so don’t worry that a low price is going to get you an inferior product.
  • Go with a known brand – some non-reputable manufacturers can add materials other than iron to their pans to reduce the cost, but if you go with a brand you know and trust then this won’t be an issue. I’d personally recommend something from Lodge.

Conclusion

A cast iron pan is a cheap and versatile tool, which with proper care should last a lifetime. You’re sure to get better results when browning and frying and even roasting if you use it in the oven. It’s fantastic heat retention is the main attraction and this will make cooking with it an absolute joy. Just be sure to look after the seasoning to keep the non-stick working its absolute best.

If you’ve got any tips about buying or looking after your cast iron then please leave them in the comments below!


3 Comments

Valerie Jackson · July 30, 2018 at 4:15 pm

Great article. Love my cast iron pans, but have you tried carbon steel? I recently got one, and am thrilled with its performance! Same durability, but the non-stick surface that develops with seasoning is even better in my experience so far. And they’re a bit lighter (although also more expensive).

    Richard James · July 30, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Hi. I’ve not personally tried them, but I understand they make great frying pans. Do you find they keep the heat for as long as cast iron? The ones I’ve seen tend to look a bit thinner, so I’d expect them to keep the heat less well.

      Valerie Jackson · August 1, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but the one I have is about 1/8″ thick, and so far seems to retain heat very well. Thinner than cast iron, but thicker than most non-stick pans. The brand I bought is Matfer Bourgeat. One thing I really like is that the handle stays cool on the stovetop, as opposed to cast iron, which gets too hot to hold.

      I’ll be writing a blog post about it once I’ve used it a bit more. So far, after a good seasoning, nothing sticks!

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