Last week I was in a thrift store and found a small cast iron pan for the swell price of $5. I cook with cast iron every day and am a huge fan of the unique properties that cast iron has. I decided to take the lad home and make it my own. Here’s what I learned!
What are the benefits of using cast iron?
- Cooking with cast iron is healthier in the long run than cooking with Teflon or other enameled pans. Iron is an essential dietary mineral. As you cook, pieces of your pans’ finish get into your food. Consuming iron is much safer, than consuming Teflon or other enamels. It’s actually good for you!
- Cast Iron can stand extreme heat without cracking, warping, or wearing out. The melting point of Iron is almost 3000ºF. That means you will never have to worry about overheating the metal or warping it. It also means you can use cast iron pans in your oven! You could start cooking a steak on the stovetop to get a nice sear and then transfer it to be evenly cooked in an oven without having to even move it out of the pan.
- Cast Iron pans hold heat longer and more evenly than other pans. You should always preheat your pans before cooking, but once they are hot, you don’t need to worry about the middle being hotter than the outsides as much as you would with other pans. Cast iron will also hold heat for a very long time. If your family is anything like mine growing up and you have to scramble to get all the kiddies and plates around the table for a while after the food has finished cooking, your cast iron pan will keep your food warm while you crack that whip over your kid’s heads.
This skillet was full of garbage. It was hard to believe that someone actually ate out of this it at one point. There was a thick layer of burned up oil all around the bottom edges and rust and gunk in the center of the pan. It looks like someone tried to season it with too much oil and had a bad time.
How do you restore a cast iron skillet
There are a lot of ways to clean up an abused cast iron skillet. The best way, in my opinion, requires a self-cleaning oven.
Put the skillet in the oven and start the cleaning process for at least 4 hours. The door will lock and the oven will heat up to 900ºF. Don’t worry, the cast iron can take the heat. The only thing that can’t take it is the carbonized gunk and oil that’s on the skillet which will burn into ash that you can easily dust off after it cools.
You should note that this is going to seriously heat up your house and will probably create an odd odor. If you want to avoid that, maybe try to find a way to heat it up in a high heat grill or try something else to restore your pan.
Another method is with a product called Easy Off. This method uses a powerful chemical to break up carbonized grease. All you do is spray it all over the skillet and then put it in a plastic bag overnight. A very little bit of wiping and scraping is usually required depending on how much gunk you are trying to remove.
Probably the most effective method is a process called Electrolysis. Which basically is like electrifying all the crud off the cast iron with the power and magic of science. This process is like hitting the reset button on your cast iron. It will completely remove all rust and grease without leaving any scrape marks or using harsh chemicals. If you have found an old Griswold or Wagner and want to restore it to perfect condition, this might be the process for you. But be advised, its a complex process and a byproduct of electrolysis is hydrogen gas which is very flammable and can be dangerous to breathe in.
I do not have a self-cleaning oven; I don’t really like the idea of using harsh chemicals on my cookware (or spending money to buy them) and currently do not feel the need to do an intense session of science. So, I used some organic biodegradable dish soap to soften up the oil and then let it soak in a 50/50 water and vinegar bath for an hour or so to help loosen up the caked-on oil. Then I scraped everything off with a metal spatula, a butter knife, and a wire scrubber. This method does require a LOT more elbow grease and time. It’s a good thing for this restoration I had plenty of both.
Get That Rust Off
You won’t need to do this if you went with the electrolysis or Easy-Off method. But, if you need to remove rust I have a very simple method that can get it off every time. Vinegar! Another bath in 50/50 water and vinegar should make removing most rust deposits pretty quick. Depending on how rusted the iron is, you may need to let it sit for a while.
- Soak it in the 50/50 vinegar bath for at least another hour.
- Take a wire brush or steel wool to scrub off all of the rust.
- Rinse off the particulates in the sink and dry it immediately.
- Let it heat up on the stove or in an oven at 200ºF for about 10 minutes to ensure that it is completely dry.
Finally, get your pan ready to season by rubbing a food-grade oil into it; I recommend starting the base layers with Crisco. Then, wipe all of the oil off with a paper towel. Iron oxidizes very fast so you will probably still see a little bit of darkness in the oil that you wipe off depending on how humid it is where you are. This is the final step to ensure that there is no rust on your pan before you season it. The oil will act as a barrier to water and rust. You will do this again in the next step when you season it. This is just to ensure that ALL of the rust has been completely removed from your pan.
Time to Season!
This is the most satisfying and easy part of restoring a cast iron pan.
First, you need to select the oil you are going to use to season your cast iron cookware. There are a lot of good options out there here are a few of the most popular:
- Flaxseed Oil (225ºF smoke point): although its a bit hard to find and moderately pricey, flaxseed oil is considered by many to be one of the best oils because it polymerized at very low temperatures. So low in fact, that it must be kept refrigerated in order to keep it from spoiling. Unfortunately, it also smokes and will burn at much lower temperatures. Despite that fact, I’ve heard some folks say it’s the closest thing you can get to a Teflon finish in a cast-iron skillet. There are some people who don’t like flaxseed oil though. When it polymerizes it gets extremely hard and has been known to flake and chip relatively easily which is a reason many people who frequently cook at very high temperatures choose to go other routes.
- Grapeseed Oil (420ºF smoke point): another oil with a very low polymerization temperature similar to flaxseed oil. Grapeseed oil is typically used by people who want a good finish but don’t want to use flaxseed oil. Grapeseed oil also has a much higher smoking point than flaxseed oil. Not only that but, it’s way cheaper and can be a lot easier to find. Some places even sell grapeseed oil at a lower price than olive oil.
- Canola Oil (475ºF smoke point): probably one of the more popular options because of its availability and low price. Depending on the mixture, most Canola oils smoke at about 425°F which makes it great for cooking at very high temperatures consistently. It’s still not the slickest seasoning that you can get but, Canola oil has also been argued to be one of the healthiest oils you can consume.
- Crisco Shortening (490ºF smoke point): Crisco is probably the most recommended oil for seasoning cast iron. It’s even cheaper than Canola oil and polymerizes at about 350°F which is a relatively low temperature. However, like Canola oil, it has a very high smoke point. This makes it sort of like the best of both worlds between Canola oil and flaxseed oil. Unfortunately, Crisco is also higher in saturated and trans fats making it less healthy to use regularly. I recommend using Crisco to develop a good base layer on your cast iron and then topping it with other healthier oil coatings later in the seasoning process.
Is oil bad for you?
A common argument against cast iron cooking is that the use of so much oil in everyday cooking can cause unwanted side effects like weight gain and heart problems.
The oils that I’m talking about are high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Eating oils like Crisco with high saturated or trans fats can lead to weight gain and heart problems. However, the opposite is true for oils that are high in poly and monounsaturated fats. So don’t be afraid to use a healthy amount of oil when you’re cooking with cast iron in order to keep your food from sticking.
To make an oil into a good seasoning all it needs to do is polymerize. Without getting too technical I’ll just describe polymerization as drying. Oil can “dry” at any temperature given enough time. This will give it that slick non-stick quality that we are looking for.
Once the oil reaches its smoking point, it starts to break down and release these things called “free radicals” which are actually very bad for you and have even been known to cause cancer.
The best way to season your pan is to get it right below the smoking point and then keep it there so that the oil can polymerize before releasing a lot of free radicals. It’s ok if your oil smokes a little bit, but as a general rule try to avoid it. Oil that is smoking does not polymerize as well.
How to season a cast iron skillet
Pretty much any food-grade oil can be used to season your cast iron. Just be aware of what the smoke point for the oils are and at what temperatures you typically cook with.
Now that you have your oil here’s what to do next:
- Rub that oil allllll over your cast iron. Everywhere. Get the handle; get in every little nook and cranny. This is important to ensure that your cast iron stays rust-free.
- Now wipe it all off with a paper towel or lint-free rag. I know, this seems counterintuitive. But, you want to have a rreeaaallly thin layer of oil so that it doesn’t pool or smoke.
- Set your oven to a temperature just below your oil’s smoke point. (usually between 400ºF-500ºF).
- Set your skillet in the oven face down. Let your cast iron cook for at least an hour. If you pull it out and it is sticky or tacky you may need to let it cook longer.
You will need to repeat this process at least 7-10 times (the more the merrier) in order to get a really good, black color on your skillet.
How to clean a cast iron skillet
Cleaning a cast-iron skillet can be tough if you use it incorrectly. Here’s a few tips.
When you cook with your skillet always be sure to preheat it first. This will make cooking and cleaning a lot easier afterward.
Frequently do a stovetop reseasoning to your skillet. First preheat it, then rub the inside of the pan with your selected oil and then wipe it all away. Heat your pan slowly right until it starts to smoke and then slightly decrease the temperature. (Once you know the right setting avoid allowing it to get to its smoke point.) Let it sit on heat for a few minutes until the oil is tack free and dried.
You can absolutely cook with tomato sauce, and metal spatulas and other abrasive materials. Your pan can take it. However, you may need to do a quick stovetop reseasoning when you’re done if you are particularly rough with it.
- Clean it by boiling some hot water in it and gently scrubbing leftover food out with some course grain salt or gently scrubbing with steel wool. Afterward, dry it thoroughly by letting it heat up on the stove.
- Do not use soap. Some people ignore this rule if there is something really stuck on their pan. This is fine to do every now and then but keep in mind you will probably need to do a stovetop reseasoning.
- Do not put this thing in your dishwasher. This is bad for your dishwasher and your pan. For heaven sakes please don’t.
Is Cast Iron better than Non stick?
There’s a lot of people out there that claim they can season their pan so perfectly that it’s better than Teflon.
I think I can safely call that out as a flat lie. There are probably very few cast-iron skillets that can even come close to the same quality as a non stick Teflon pan.
The truth is, if you don’t want food to stick in your cast-iron pan, you’re going to need to use a healthy amount of oil most of the time. You’re not going to be able to cook over-easy eggs in a cast-iron skillet without using at least a little bit of oil. (Don’t forget to preheat your skillet too!) Teflon pans give you the ability to cook almost anything with almost no oil although some things (like eggs) usually do require a little bit.
So is cooking with Teflon healthier if you can cook with less oil? Well, first of all, if you’re using the right kind of oil it should actually be good for you. So, not necessarily. Teflon is also dangerous to consume and if your Teflon pans look like mine, you’ve definitely eaten some Teflon finish before.
Not only that but if Teflon gets too hot, it releases toxic gases. In cheaper pans, sometimes only 200-300°F is too hot. That’s probably about a medium-high heat on most stoves. Some of the more expensive Teflon pans can get up to 500°F before they start burning the Teflon.
Just like the Teflon chips you’ve probably eaten, these gasses are carcinogenic and over time can really do some harm.
Teflon isn’t evil though. I still cook with it. Especially if I’m cooking something that is particularly sticky. If your Teflon pans aren’t getting darker or warping from being overheated too much, and you’re comfortable eating little bits of it every now and then, great.
The benefit of cast iron and other natural cookware is that they’re completely organic. If you keep your oil from reaching its smoke point and releasing those harmful free radicals, you will consume far less toxic material than you would with a Teflon skillet. In fact, iron is an important mineral that we need to be eating!
Not only that, but cast iron will last forever. Many collectors own skillets that are hundreds of years old. If you take proper care of it, your cast iron skillet will out-live you and your kids!
This skillet that I found is an old Lodge skillet that was probably made somewhere circa 1940. That makes it nearly 80 years old today! This is still relatively young for cast iron though. Some of the oldest ones were made in the 1800s!
Teflon on the other hand might last 5-7 or so years before it needs to be replaced. That’s not a bad chunk of time. Cast iron definitely has it beat for longevity though. You’ll buy a set once and then have a family heirloom that will last generations.
You’ve Got This
With proper care and maintenance, your pan will serve you well. It takes a little bit of practice, but don’t give up! Once you get the hang of it, cooking with cast iron is preferable to other methods. It’s healthier, It’s easy to clean, and you can use it for anything and everything. Happy cooking!!