On our homestead, we love old fashioned cooking with cast iron cookware. Properly seasoned cast iron cookware works very well. It distributes and holds heat better than other pans, and clean up faster afterward. The key to successful cast iron cooking is making sure that the implement is properly “seasoned.” A seasoned cast iron skillet has a baked on patina of oils that create a non-stick surface for cooking.
Seasoning cast iron is easy. Here’s how:
Preheat your oven to 325° F. Or, light a bed of charcoal on a closeable barbecue or other outdoor grill.
If your cast iron cookware is new, you might be able to simply wash it in warm soapy water and promptly towel dry. New cast iron usually comes coated with anti-corrosive wax. If this is the case, put it in the oven or grill and burn off the coating for about 10 minutes or more. This and the seasoning process can get smoky, which is why we prefer to do it on an outside grill or campfire instead.
Generously coat cookware with vegetable shortening. Bake in oven for 1 hour. You can use cooking oils instead of shortening, but that risks making the pan sticky.
Remove skillet from oven and rub again to redistribute oil. Place in the oven and bake again for another hour. Remove from oven. Wipe excess oil off with paper towels, then allow to cool before storing. Store in a cool, dry place, with paper towels below and on top of skillet to protect seasoned surface.
You can tell if a pan is well seasoned by its look: it should appear shiny when clean and dry.
That’s all there is to it!
You might consider frying fattier meals in the pan the first few uses to improve your new seasoning.
Never wash cast iron cookware as you would other pots and pans. Instead, scrape away any waste food as well as possible, then wipe clean and dry with a rag or paper towel. If it’s really dirty, use a very small amount of soapy water, swipe it out, then dry well immediately. We often set it on a warm (not hot) wood stove to evaporate. When it’s cool, store it with a paper towel over it to keep it from gathering dust.
Never scrub the pan! Think of the seasoning as Teflon—don’t scrape it, gouge it, or let it get too hot. It won’t poison you, like artificial non-stick surfaces might, you just risk metallic-tasting food, and will need to re-season the pan.
We try to plan ahead a little bit when cooking with cast iron. If we brown some meat, or fry up some sausage for a pizza in the evening, we’ll cover the used pan and set it aside till morning. The next day, the skillet’s already well oiled, ready to keep those eggs from sticking, and adding some wonderful flavor to it as well! Like much of our homestead life, it requires mindfulness—which we find an excellent way to address all aspects of life.
Before cooking, check your pan’s appearance. If it appears dull, be ready to add oil for cooking. If it’s shiny, it should be fine.
Some people enhance the non-stick quality of their cast iron cookware by sewing up a little “bean bag” of coarse or rock salt in cotton cloth. Before cooking, rub this bag around the cooking surface; I don’t know exactly why, but it improves the non-stick surface.
One of the best features of cast iron cookware is its heat-holding qualities. This is probably the main thing about cooking with cast iron that needs to be adjusted to. That big ol’ hunk of metal will be cold to begin with, and needs to be warmed up ahead of cooking for best results. Once it’s hot, though, it will stay hot longer than one might think!
Because of these qualities, we generally use lower heat than we would with more modern pans.
When we begin to prepare a meal, we warm the pan on the stove or wood stove top. By the time we need it, the pan will be heated through, ready to cook evenly on the whole cooking surface. That’s a point to bear in mind: you won’t find “cool spots” on a cast iron skillet as you will on an aluminum fry pan. The heat radiates through the whole pan, and stays, so don’t plan on setting cooked food in a cooler area of the pan until ready.
Another key point is to remember that, because the pan holds the heat, your food will continue to cook after removing the pan from the heat source. This means that if the food is done, you can’t set it aside in the pan to stay warm till it’s needed—it will continue to cook! This led to the “crisp” variation of our garlic pasta sauce earlier this year. (Remember: there are no failed dishes, just rename them!) I’ve learned to warm a Pyrex bowl or similar container on the back of the stove, so that I can transfer finished meal components to it for warm holding.
Keep your oven mitts handy! Even heat redistribution extends to the handles of your cookware. The handle will be hot!