Cast-iron skillets deserve all the hype they get, but it took me a while to realize that. Before I had one, I didn't really get the appeal. They seemed finicky, complicated, and heavy. I'd heard you shouldn't wash them, and that grossed me out. Sure, they were supposed to sear meat, vegetables, and more, to perfection, but I always figured you could do essentially the same thing with any old non-stick skillet.
As it turns out, you can't. I left my cast-iron skillet back in Brooklyn over a year ago to travel, and it's been the kitchen tool I've missed most. Before I left I'd finally invested in one after some urging from my mom, and I quickly found that cast-iron is just as amazing as everyone says. Cast-iron heats and cooks your food evenly, you can use it in the oven or on the stove, and, if it's properly seasoned, it works just as well (if not better) than a cheap, non-stick skillet.
However, unlike any old cheap, non-stick skillet, cast-iron does require a bit more attention and care. There are special ways to cook with, clean, and store it, and if you know what you're doing, it can last your whole life. Here's everything you need to know.
It's not an expensive investment.
In fact, Lodge—the brand that many chefs swear by—sells a 10-inch skillet for just $ 25 (you can buy it here).
Before you start cooking with it, you have to make sure your cast-iron skillet is seasoned.
When I say seasoning, I don't mean the kind you add to your food. A seasoned cast-iron skillet is one that's had fat baked into it at a high temperature. It makes it look nice and shiny and creates a coating that's naturally non-stick. Most pans come pre-seasoned, but it's not hard to do it yourself, and it doesn't hurt to add a bit more seasoning to the pan before you start using it.
To season it, all you need to do is wipe the whole thing down with a thin layer of a neutral oil, like canola or vegetable, until the pan no longer looks greasy. Then, set it in an oven upside-down so the oil doesn't pool and let it bake at 500 degrees F for about an hour. When it's cooled off, wipe it down with another layer of oil before you store it—that way it's less likely to get rusty.
If your skillet does get rusty down the line, that doesn't mean it's ruined.
The nice thing about cast-iron is that it's literally iron, so it's hard to permanently mess up. If it ends up getting rusty (usually because it wasn't properly dried) you can absolutely save it. What you'll need to do is scrub the whole thing down with soap, water, and steel wool until the rusty bits are entirely removed, dry it completely, and then season it the same way described above.
Never cook anything very smelly or acidic.
Acidic ingredients, like tomatoes or vinegar or even wine, will react with the iron in a way that creates a metallic flavor. It's not dangerous, but it doesn't taste very good, so save any deglazing or bolognese-ing for another pan.
Fish is another no-no. Cast-iron absorbs the smells and flavors of other things you cook in it, so if you cook something smelly like fish, the next few dishes you make in it will probably also smell and taste like fish. Even less smelly ingredients will leave a flavor behind, and it's often suggested that you buy two cast-iron skillets—one for sweet things, one for savory things—so that you never accidentally end up with a skillet cookie that tastes like steak.
You should cook meat, fry things, and bake desserts in a cast-iron skillet.
Speaking of cookie skillets—you know, the ones you're always seeing in food videos on Facebook? Yeah, you should definitely be making those with your cast-iron skillet, along with Dutch babies, corn bread, brownies, and more. That's not all: Since cast-iron can handle extremely high temperatures, it can also withstand deep frying. And, of course, cast-iron is the best thing to cook steak, chicken, or other meat in. What I like to do is sear my steak on the stove until it's nicely browned on all sides, then transfer it to the oven to let it finish cooking. It works like a charm every time!
Don't be impatient when you're cooking meat.
When you do cook something like steak or chicken in a cast-iron skillet, you'll know that it's ready to flip when it naturally unsticks from the pan. If you try to move it and it's sticking, that doesn't mean your pan isn't properly seasoned—it means the meat isn't finished browning.
You can (and should) wash it, but be gentle.
Unless you're trying to get rid of rust, there is no reason you should you use anything rough like steel-wool on a cast-iron skillet. It'll strip the seasoning and create more work for you. Instead, you can gently wash it with the soft side of a sponge, warm water, and a bit of soap until it's clean (yes, you can use soap, it's a myth that you can't). If you're having trouble removing crusty bits, add coarse salt and warm water to the pan and scrub it gently with a towel or sponge. There's also this excellent $ 15 tool called The Ringer that uses chainmail technology to scrub the pan clean without wrecking the seasoning, if you don't mind spending a little (you can get it here).
After you clean it, dry it thoroughly and rub it down in oil before you put it away.
Wipe it down with a paper towel until it's completely dry, or set it over a low flame until all the water has evaporated. If you leave it wet at all, it may end up rusting. Then, before you put it away, rub it down with another thin layer of oil.
Put your pan to work with these exciting, easy recipes.
Skillet Chicken Thighs With Cabbage and Quinoa
This hearty, healthy chicken dinner is just the beginning of your adventures in one-pan meals. Get the recipe here.
Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie from Bon Appétit
Make this for a party if you want to become the most popular person in the world. Get the recipe here.
Chickpea and Brussels Sprouts Frittata
Yes, you can make breakfast in it, too! Get the recipe here.