Cooking with Cast Iron – The Ultimate Guide
Camping isn’t camping without camp food! Cast Iron skillets are one of the most versatile camping cookware you can bring along with you but understanding their subtleties will make for a better meal and a longer lasting pan. Check out our guide on Cooking with Cast Iron.
Looking for the Best Guide to Cast Iron Cooking?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- 7 Cast Iron Myths
- How to season your cast iron correctly
- What not to cook in cast iron
- What to cook in cast iron
- When to throw away a cast iron skillet – pretty much never.
Known for their longevity and reliability, cast iron cookware is a favorite among many campfire cooks. Whether you want to make bacon and eggs or even a cake, cast iron pans offer a unique spin to regular cooking. Some people are introduced to cast iron through someone else, reading an article, or their research, while others are inherited and passed down generation to generation. Either way, cooks love cast iron because of the imparted flavor, the durability, and the longevity.
There are a lot of old wives’ tales and warning that can make it seem daunting to upkeep a cast iron skillet, but the truth is that keeping your cast iron pans rust free and well-seasoned can make them easy to maintain. We are here to help.
In this article, we will discuss myths about cast iron, seasoning techniques, skillet cooking tips, cleaning tricks, and the best and worst foods for your cast iron skillet. Before we get started, here is a list of a few do’s and don’ts for you to consider:
- Do learn how to season your cast iron properly.
- Do understand best tips for care to help your cast iron last for years to come.
- Do know that cast iron is very durable & can be repaired even if it appears completely rusted.
- Do realize that there are many foods you can make in a cast iron & many of the “rule” about what you can’t cook are myths.
- Don’t throw away your cast iron just because it is rusted, you can.
- Don’t scrub the seasoning layer with metal unless you are trying to get the pan back to its base layer.
- Don’t let your cast iron soak in water, it will rust.
Debunking Myths About Cast Iron
People who use cast iron pans are quickly impressed with their versatility; however, there are also several myths that make many people leery of using them. The people who don’t use cast iron because they are worried about taking care of them are missing out. Here are seven of the most common myths debunked.
Myth 1: Cast Iron is Impossible to Maintain
Some people believe that cast iron can crack, chip, or rust too quickly. They also think the care of a cast iron pan means pampering it and being gentle with it. Thankfully, this is a myth. Cast iron is tough. Some pans are even more than 75 years old because they are actually very durable.
Most pans are pre-seasoned which means the harder part of cast iron ownership has already been done for you. If it needs to be seasoned, it does take some work, but it is still not too difficult to handle.
Chipping the seasoning or the cast iron does not happen often. The coat of seasoning will stay on, even if you nestle your pans inside of each other. It is less likely to chip than non-stick pans.
So, the first myth, the belief that cast-iron pans are difficult to maintain and have to be treated gently is false. The truth is that cast iron is durable and, with conscious handling and storing, can last for many decades.
Myth 2: Cast Iron Heats Evenly
Cast iron pans are known for being great at making potatoes and steaks, which makes some people assume the pans heat evenly. That assumption is false. The thermal conductivity of a cast iron pan is only about a third of what material like aluminum is. What that means is that there are hot spots that form directly above the flame or hotspot, and other parts of the pan will remain cool.
The fact that cast iron doesn’t heat evenly can be a deterrent for some, but the most significant advantage to cast iron is that once it gets hot, it stays hot. Also, heating the whole pan is possible with only a small amount of prep. If you want your entire pan to be evenly heated, sit it on the burner for at least 10 minutes before using it, moving it every few minutes to make sure all parts are warm. Or, you can stick it in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes to guarantee even heat.
Myth 3: Well-Seasoned Cast Iron Pans are as Non-Stick as Teflon
The theory that a well-seasoned pan is as non-stick as Teflon is false. The truth is that a pan that is seasoned well and heated up correctly will be impressively non-stick, but that does not mean that food will never stick. Thankfully, sticking food is rare, but the reality is that you should be aware of the cast iron’s capabilities.
Myth 4: Never Wash a Cast Iron Pan with Soap
One of the most popular myths out there is that you should never ever wash your cast iron with soap. The theory is that cast-iron seasoning is made from oil and if you use soap, you will break down the oil.
The reality is that the seasoning on cast iron is polymerized oil, very different from the oil that soap washes away. In pans that have been seasoned suitably, the oil that you have rubbed on there and heated repeatedly has turned into a substance that is similar to plastic, and that material is fully bonded to your cast iron pan.
That plastic-like polymerized oil is not an oil and dish soap won’t hurt it. The one thing that can damage the seasoning during the dishwashing process is letting your pan soak in the sink. It’s better for your pan if you leave it on your stove until you are ready to wash, dry, and then re-season.
Myth 5: Metal Utensils are Bad for your Cast Iron
Some people believe metal utensils will scratch the seasoning on a pan, and therefore, people should only use nylon or wood utensils. This myth is incorrect. Cast iron pan seasoning is very resilient and is actually chemically bonded to your pan.
The reality is that you can use metal utensils on your cast iron skillets. If you see black stuff that chips from your pan when you are cooking, most of the time those flakes are food bits, especially if you don’t scrub your pans with soap.
Myth 6: Modern and Older Cast Iron is All the Same
A lot of people assume modern cast iron is the same as older cast iron because both of them are made from the cast iron metal. While it is true that the metal is the same, cast iron production has drastically changed and the older and newer cast iron pans are slightly different.
Previously, pans were made by casting them in molds that were sand-based, and then repeatedly polishing them until they were smooth. That process made cast iron pans have a soft, satin-like finish. The process changed around the 1950’s, with companies dropping the polishing phase, which means modern cast iron has a rougher texture.
While this is a myth, the reality is that both methods have only minor differences between each other. Correctly seasoned pans, whether old or new, will have a non-stick surface that will make cooking easy.
Myth 7: Cooking Acidic Foods Can Potentially Poison You
Some people hold the belief that acidic food reacts with the cast iron metal, causing that metal to seep into your food and make the flavor taste wrong, or even poison people slowly.
The truth is that the layer of seasoning protects your food from the cast iron metal. However, because it is impossible to make sure that every area of your cast iron pans is covered and your food is protected, it is recommended that people do not cook acidic food that requires the food to simmer for a long time. Short simmering will not harm your food, or you.
Now that we have debunked some of the most prominent myths surrounding cast iron pans, it’s time to talk about the logistics of caring for and cooking in cast iron. First, we are going to talk about seasoning techniques.
How to Season and Re-season Cast Iron
One of the best features about cast-iron pans is that they are almost entirely indestructible. Even if your pan is rusted, it can be repaired, and cast iron that is taken care of can last many lifetimes.
Whether your pan is new or old, it’s important to season it. New cast iron typically comes pre-treated, and old cast irons that are rusty can be restored by following the same seasoning process. If the pan is new to you, the seasoning process will be the same.
We have a four-step process for seasoning your cast iron cookware. If you have seasoned the pan before and you just want to add a maintenance layer, you will start with the third step in this process.
Step 1. Scrub Your Skillet Back to the Base Layer
The first thing you will want to do is get your cast iron back down to its base layer. For this step, you will need mild dish soap, steel wool, a sponge or non-metal scouring pad, and hot water. Using mild soap on the steel wool, you will scrub the whole pan, including the bottom, sides, and handle. The seasoning process requires you to season the entire pan, so it is essential to get the whole pan to the base layer. In extreme cases use vinegar or oven cleaner and leave to soak.
Once you are done scrubbing, you will rinse the whole pan with hot water. After it is rinsed, you will continue scrubbing but this time with the rough side of your sponge, or with a non-metal scouring pad.
Step 2. Dry Your Skillet Completely
It is critical to dry the skillet thoroughly. After you are done with the rinsing and scrubbing process, you can start by towel drying the skillet. Then, you can either heat your pan on the stovetop or put it in a hot oven to make sure it is completely dry. This process will ensure your pan is bone-dry, and it is the most vital step in this process.
Step 3. Coat Your Cast Iron Cookware in a Thin Coat of Oil
The current standard oil that most people use is flaxseed because it dries hardest, which creates a long-lasting seasoning that is nonstick. The only downfall to using flaxseed oil is that it is expensive. For people who don’t want to spend as much, canola oil is perfectly fine too.
For this step, you will pour a relatively small drop of oil in your pan and then spread the oil with a dish towel or paper towel, making sure you coat the entire pan, including the sides, bottom, and handle. After you’ve covered the whole pan, you will take a clean paper towel or side of your dish towel and wipe all excess oil off.
Cast-iron is a porous metal, and the oil fills the holes to create the nonstick surface you desire. You don’t need to worry about wiping off too much oil because the oil is in the holes, and, if you leave too much oil in your pan, it can be sticky.
Step 4. Bake Your Pan
After your pan is coated in oil, you will place it upside down in your oven, set the temperature at the highest it can go, and then let it stay in there for an hour. After an hour, you will keep your pan in there until it has cooled off completely.
This step is what breaks the oil down and allows it to bond with the cast iron. It is vital that you let it cook for at least an hour, and is set at your highest temperature so that the oil can break down.
Once your pan is seasoned, the fun begins, and you can start cooking with it.
Cooking Tips for Your Cast Iron
Cast iron skillets are easy to use and nonstick as long as you take care of it. Here are three tips for cooking with cast iron pans.
Tip 1: Always Preheat Your Cast Iron Cookware
It is essential to always preheat your cast iron before cooking with it. Cold food in cold cast-iron will make the food stick. Also, because cast-iron doesn’t disperse heat as well as other pans, heating the pan for five to ten minutes on medium heat will help the pan get warm all over.
Some people prefer sticking their pan in an oven for 10 minutes to allow the whole pan to get warm. Both the stove and the oven work well, and your method is your preference.
Tip 2: Let Your Food Sit
While it is very tempting to move your food around, flipping it regularly, when you are cooking with cast iron, it is better to let your food sit until you see a caramelized crust start to form. One way to know when your food is ready to flip is that it will be easy to flip. Cast iron will hold onto the food and then self-release when it’s time to flip it.
Tip 3: Start Cooking in Your Cast Iron and Finish Cooking in Your Oven (If you are cooking at home or with an RV)
This suggestion is not a necessity but is friendly advice. One of the best ways to cook with cast iron is to start your meal on the stovetop, allowing the food to get that caramelized crust from the exposure to high heat, and then to move the food into the oven so it can finish cooking with the radiant heat of your oven.
Once you are finished cooking, it’s time for cleanup.
Proper Cleaning Methods for Cast Iron
There are horror stories out there about people who struggled to get their cast iron dishes clean because of food sticking. Those stories are few and far between. People who use the following methods do not typically have issues with food sticking, and even if they do, it can be easily cleaned.
Here is what you need to do to properly clean your pan:
Step 1: Clean Before Pan is Cooled
If you wait until your pan is cooled before you wash it, you may deal with sticky food. Instead, if you clean it while it is still warm, the food will come off easier.
Step 2: Clean with Hot Water and Salt
One of the best methods for cleaning cast iron is to use the tough side of a sponge and to scrub it with hot water and a dash of salt. Salt helps remove food without damaging your seasoning layer. If the salt mixture isn’t working, it is okay to use a small amount of mild soap, and it will not do any damage.
Step 3: Make Sure Skillet is Completely Dry
Once you are finished scrubbing it, you will follow the step listed above for making sure your pan is completely dry. First, you will dry it with a towel, and then stick it back on the stovetop to help it get completely dry.
Step 4: Add a Layer of Oil
After your cast iron is completely dry but still warm, add a thin layer of oil to the inside of the pan and then heat it in the oven or on the stove until you see smoke. Bringing it to its smoking point is vital to avoid the oil turning putrid.
If you follow these steps each time you cook, your pan will last for many generations. Now that you know how to season, cook, and clean your cast iron cookware, here are some of the best foods to prepare in your pan.
Food That Cooks Well in Cast Iron
While there are many different foods that cook well in cast iron skillets, some of the best foods include fried eggs, hash browns and fried potatoes, meats that need a good sear, and stir-fry meals. People who love to camp will appreciate the efficiency of a cast iron pan for cooking over a fire (here is our guide on how to make a fire safely). Here is a list of five recipes for cooking at home or while camping.
- Apple Dutch Baby Pancake
- Southern Fried Chicken
- Pan Fried Catfish
- One Pot Beef Stroganoff
- Camping Skillet Cornbread
Food You Should Avoid Cooking with Cast Iron
Once you have fallen in love with cooking with cast iron, it can be easy to want to cook every single thing with cast iron; however, there are some foods that you should avoid because they don’t cook well in cast iron.
Here are a few of the foods you should avoid.
Fried eggs are good in a cast iron skillet but scrambled eggs often stick. Some of the other sticky foods to avoid, at least for the first few months of using a cast iron skillet are pancakes and fried rice. Once your pan is seasoned well, sticky food is usually okay.
Cast iron cookware is exceptional for browning a good steak, but the high heat makes flaky fish hard to flip and it can stick to the pan.
Food with Strong Flavor
Once your pan is very well seasoned, food with a strong and distinct flavor won’t be an issue. Because cast iron is so porous, if you cook a meal with a strong taste, like salmon, some of that flavor may get into the pores and add that flavor to other foods. This isn’t too big of an issue if you use separate cast iron pans for different types of food, but it is something to be aware of if you are planning to cook salmon one night and a dessert afterward.
Additional Tips and Final Thoughts
Cooking with cast iron can be fantastic. The durability and unique flavor of the food you cook with cast iron make it a beloved kitchen item for many people. If you take care of your cast iron cookware, it will last for many generations. Here are a few reminder tips to help you keep your cast iron working well for years to come.
- Don’t allow water to sit on your skillet at any point.
- When adding oil layers, make the layer as thin as possible.
- Heat your oil past the smoke point when you add a layer so it can bond with your skillet.
- Always preheat your cast iron before cooking with it.
- Flip your food as little as possible so that you can get your caramelized ring around your food.
- Don’t use steel wool or other metal scrubbers unless you are trying to get to the bare cast iron layer to re-season.
- Remember your cast iron is not delicate. If you get some rust or break down some seasoning, you can follow the steps above to strip it and re-season it.
Cooking with cast iron is fun, flavorful, and simple when you take a little bit of time to take care of your dish.
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