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5 Mistakes You Might Be Making With Your Cast Iron Skillet

5 Mistakes You Might Be Making With Your Cast Iron Skillet

Whether you’re a professional chef or a home cook, you probably have a favorite cast iron skillet that’s your go-to pan for everything from eggs on the stovetop to cornbread in the oven. Some skillets have even been in families for generations. The benefits of cooking in cast iron are many, but the primary one is temperature control. Because cast iron is heavy, it retains heat well, and at higher temperatures, it can sear and brown food, or heat it gently and keep things warm at lower temps. Despite all the benefits, there are some key mistakes people make when caring for their cast iron cookware that results in sticking food or rust. Are you guilty of any of these?

Mistake 1: You’re Not Using Enough Fat When Cooking

While it’s true that a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is a joy to cook with, it is never going to be quite as non-stick as a nonstick skillet, unless you use an ample amount of your preferred cooking fat. First, it’s important to always heat up the pan prior to adding any oil, butter, or fat. When cooking on cast iron, when it comes to fat, less is not always more. It’s better to err on the side of too much fat, and then simply drain any excess after cooking. Any southern cook will tell you that the morning after frying chicken is when the skillet is at its most perfect nonstick for breakfast, with the eggs sliding right off the pan. Your cast-iron skillet loves fat; it’s actually what the seasoning (the black color of the metal) on its surface is composed of—fat that’s been exposed to heat, leaving a smooth coating of carbon.

Mistake 2: You’re Not Cleaning It Properly

One of the most effective ways to clean a cast-iron skillet is to use a bit of water and a stiff brush, while the pan is still hot. Brush off any cooked-on food, which softens from the water, then rinse, and dry. Avoid metal brushes that can scratch through the seasoning and expose raw metal. The only time you should use metal scourers to clean a cast-iron pan is when there is a lot of food build-up on the outside of the skillet. Some cooks are proud of that build-up, but it’s really due to neglect from improper cleaning. For that, use a specialized cast iron cleaner, which is a square of woven round stainless steel “chainmail” scrubber for removing thick build-up on the outside of your skillet.

Can you use “soap”? Go with dish detergent. Soap tends to leave a residue, while dish detergents, composed of synthetic compounds, are “free-rinsing.” Using a mild dish detergent breaks some of the bonds in the fat on the pan’s surface, and strips away a bit of the seasoning, but tends to rinse off, and really won’t cause irreparable harm. Still, using detergent is not necessary.

Mistake 3: You’re Not Heat Drying

One of the biggest mistakes people make is not heat-drying their cast iron skillets. Letting them drip dry, or wiping them with a towel is not enough.  Just dry the pan on a burner set to low heat until all the water has evaporated (just don’t forget it’s on the stove!). This also sterilizes the surface. Leaving water in the skillet can lead to rust. And while rust isn’t the end of the world (if you catch it in time, you can clean it off with cooking oil and a cloth), you don’t want to leave the pan to rust to the point where you have to strip it and totally re-season.

Improper cleaning can strip the pan’s seasoning.

Mistake 4: You’re Not Maintaining The Surface

Taking the time to coat the pan with oil after heat drying is essential in maintaining the seasoning layer and keeping your skillet non-stick. To keep the surface working for you, rather than against you, it’s important to do the maintenance. Remember, cast iron loves fat, and keeping the surface clean, smooth, and well-oiled is like moisturizing your skin.

If you need to restore the surface, sometimes the best option is to heat the pan to very hot— in your self-cleaning oven or outside on the grill—and burn off all the build-up. This will remove the beneficial seasoning layers too, so you’ll need to re-season from scratch. To do this, let the pan cool until you can handle it, coat with oil, and bake it upside down in the center of a 400ºF oven for an hour. It helps to place some aluminum foil underneath to catch any drips. 

A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet can cook anything from eggs to cornbread, with a perfect non-stick surface.

Mistake 5: You’re Using It For The Wrong Foods

Cast iron is a reactive metal, and acids like vinegar, lemon juice, or wine will leach iron ions into your food. Cooks are divided on whether iron from a skillet has health benefits, but regardless of which camp you’re in, know that it will alter the flavor of foods. And while a well-maintained, well-seasoned skillet can usually handle some acidic foods, you should be careful of anything that strips off your seasoning. Boiling water in your skillet, for example, lifts much of the seasoning out of the pores in the metal and leaves it susceptible to rust. So if you plan on deglazing your pan with wine, just be sure you start cooking with a nice shiny heavily-seasoned skillet. The only foods that you should be dry-roasting in your skillet without adding that extra layer of fat, are things like nuts, and tortillas or flatbreads.

Cast iron is economical, versatile, and nearly indestructible. With some easy care and maintenance in cleaning and use, your skillet will last a lifetime so you can pass it along as a keepsake to the future generation of cooks in your family.

Happy Cooking!

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  • Jill McKenzie says:

    I inherited by grandmother’s #10 cast iron skillet but have not used it in many years. I’d like to start using it again but there is a tough, rough build up in some places. Is that okay or do I need to use some sort of tool to get it off? Also, back in the day, I scrubbed down to the metal in a few places. Is my cast iron skillet still okay to use – after I season it?

  • Samantha Whitson says:

    Excellent post Mr. Higgins! Always good to remind~ even us seasoned cooks~as to proper care & storage. I will never forget the time, as a 14 yr.old babysitter, that I washed the mom’s dishes as an extra help. She came home & started screaming at me for using soap in her cast iron skillet! Horrible woman, but I never forgot the no soap rule =)

  • Leticia says:

    My Mom and Grandma used to use cast iron. I use saladmaster cookware and even used to sell them. Cast iron was the only cookware we did not diss when presenting our cookware and said if anything that would be the only other option. The only drawback is that it can sometimes flavor your food and pulls iron. So if your looking for completely clean food the best would be saladmaster made from 7 layers of 316 L surgical stainless steel which is non porous. Now I need to now make tortillas from scratch and cast iron is the only thing you can use to make them come out traditional. So I just bought my first cast iron square double stovetop griddle. I could not find a round one. Flat on one side and made with lines for grilling on the other side. I love this article and all the comments and advice on how to care and clean it. I will start to add more cast iron and incorporate into my beloved cookware collection. Never ever will I use aluminum. I can’t wait to start buying more cast iron thanks to this article and the comments. Thank you!

  • Amanda says:

    What is a soap detergent? I have a cast iron pan and I think I’ve been cleaning it wrong.

  • Suzan Heming says:

    I have two cast iron skillets that are over 100 years old and were made by my grandfather who was a blacksmith. In all, I have 9 skillets, two biscuit pans, two loaf pans, a Dutch oven and a chicken fryer. I love my cast iron.

  • Scott says:

    For Hazel, or anyone with sticky pans, you just need to season them hotter and/or longer. You didn’t completely polymerize the oils/fats, which is why it’s sticky. Just go hotter and longer with your oven (450+ for 2 hours before allowing to cool) and that tackiness will go away

  • Sylvia says:

    Mr Higgins, you are the best writer by far. Thank you for your helpful advice!

  • John L Dunbar says:

    Correction I intended to ask if cast iron should be used on the new stove tops with hidden eyes

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi John, sure, they can be used on any surface. Depending on how nice you want to keep your cooktop, just watch for scratching.

  • Jessie says:

    Can you rese1vice your pan when you leave it on a burner to long and it turn blue?

  • Janie Mouser says:

    I have received three Emeril Pre-Seasoned cast iron skillets. Do the above recommendations for cleaning and seasoning apply to new pre-seasoned cast iron skillets? Thanks for the info!

  • DJYates says:

    My Swedish Finnish mother would gently wash her deeply seasoned skillets, heat them on the stove and give them a final rub down with a large wad of wax paper. She said that’s what her mother always did. Her skillets always had a gorgeous black sheen she was very proud of. Her mother was born in late 1800’s.

  • Chris B says:

    Hazel, it came out a sticky mess because you had to much oil, your oven wasn’t warm enough, or it wasn’t in long enough. I recommend sticking it in the oven on the clean cycle. Use steel wool to clean off, rinse, dry with heat, then reseason. I have used lard, vegetable oil, grapeseed oil, and canola oil in the past with varied results. 2 years ago I started using organic 100% flaxseed oil, what a difference! It takes longer to season, but it is a much stronger and smoother surface. Here is directions if you choose to use flaxseed oil.

  • John Hildebrand says:

    I have eleven cast iron pieces and have been cooking with them for over forty years, and at least four of these pieces are used everyday. Now, in my young days I did use lard to season and cook with but seldom do I use it today. Now I use a combination of high heat oils i.e. coconut oil, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, a combination of all and I apply this blend of oils with a silicone brush to a very hot pan. Washing: after the piece has cooled if necessary I will soak it in cold water than with a stiff natural brush scrub clean any stubborn particles I use an old plastic spatula to scrape clean, never anything metal. I wipe the piece dry than immediately place on the stove and until hot than apply my high heat oil combo to the piece let cool than store. Cooking: I alway preheat the piece until its hot than had the food and adjust heat immediately. All my pieces of cast iron are like nonstick.

  • Robert Rosario says:

    Never, ever use soap!! You use sea salt rinse and heat dry. Only significant issue I have with this article.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Robert, the author was clear to say not “soap” which can leave residue, but dish detergent, and he explains why. But also he says it’s not necessary.

  • Hazel says:

    I recently tried to season my skillet. I was taught by my mother to use lard, and had always done it her way. Then, I read that vegetable oil worked as well. When my skillet cooled, it had a baked-on mess. I have tried to get the stick off it, but nothing seems to work. Do you have any ideas for me. I miss my skillet.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hazel, was the vegetable oil pure or did it contain additives (like, did you use a spray Pam for instance?) That is usually the culprit of sticky.

  • Susan S. says:

    Solid fats are better at seasoning your cast irons. Oils will leave a build up & stale/old taste to transfer to foods.
    I was taught this at a very young age from my great gma & gma. They were very old school & therefore I followed into their steps.
    I have 100+ pieces of cast iron. I cook with almost nothing else!

  • Steve Shockley says:

    Soap won’t ruin anything as long as you dry pan over heat and re-season with a cap full of oil , I own 26 pieces of cast iron

  • Rich says:

    Thanks, I’ve had success with my cast iron, but some conflicting info doesn’t help. Frankly, this is the best, most straight-forward advice I’ve seen. Consistent with my successes. A chain scrubber is on my buy list and now I know to use salt with it.

  • Bill S. says:

    I took most of the cast iron cookware in my parents’ kitchen as my #1 request when they moved into assisted living. It’s a treasure. I feel my mom and dad’s hands each time I cook with these cherished old iron pans and Dutch ovens. Thanks for the article; I am convinced that lard or bacon grease (with the bits & chunks filtered out) is the finest resurfacing material for cast iron cookware. You can coat the entire new pan after a good scrubbing with a steel scouring pad to remove toxic oils left over from the mold used to shape the iron, then place in the oven at 350 to 375F for about 2 hours: tip is don’t be in a hurry.
    For a pan that only needs a surface repaired use a little less lard or grease and spread it evenly onto the cooking surface. Then place in the oven and light ‘er up. NEVER use soap to clean an iron pan or pot: it ruins the nonstick essence of why you own it! And NEVER place your cast iron in the dishwasher for the same reason. You can assure having a clean pan that’s sanitary by making an air wick for it. This is a must if you hope to keep the inner surface of pots and Dutch ovens stored with lids atop the opening from going rancid. Fold a regular paper towel evenly about 6 times lengthwise. Place the folded towel into a pan or pot you need to keep covered when in storage. The towel will use its capillary action to draw fresh air into the covered pan or pot while in storage. I read about this and now keep all my pots with lids fresh and ready to use. Frying or baking with a rancid pan will ruin your dinner for sure.

    Hope this helps our friends who also love cast iron cooking,

    Reno, NV

  • Maxine says:

    I wash mine with dish soap, dry completely, heat on stove, then add Pam. Let it heat enough til it smokes, then let cool slightly and wipe out excess.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Maxine, unfortunately, Pam contains other ingredients that aren’t good for the pan. You can find a spray mister for oil in most dollar stores and you can make your own!

  • Ray Lancaster says:

    I agree with most of the suggestions……don’t agree with using any kind of detergents…clean with hot water and skillet being hot/warm….use brush no metal…rinse then use salt to finish ….dry and wipe with a small amount of olive oil (what I use) and put away…..never had a problem….

  • Darrell L Cole says:

    I was a lucky guy, in that I inherited my grandmothers cast iron skillet 40 years ago. I have used it for a lot of my cooking over the years. I re-season my skillet about every 2 years and have NEVER had any problems with it. I was told that the amount of iron leached into foods was hardly negligible and that you’d get more iron from a tomato than you’d get from a cast iron skillet.

  • Charleigh Robillard says:

    I agree with everything except the use of soap or dish detergent. Water, salt, and oils are the only things that ever touch my skillets. All soaps, even 7th Generation and other pure types leave a film on the pans. Salt is a natural purifier which leaves no residue. After the water rinse, if you must use water for stuck on bits, toss in a heaping tsp of coarse salt and rub that around the pan with a piece of cloth (dish towel scraps, cotton rag etc). You can use salt and a chain mail scrubber, rather than water, as well.
    The salt will remove particles and absorb excess oil. Wipe that out with your cloth, lightly oil your pan and pop it back in a hot oven for 30 mins or so. You can wipe the exterior of the pan lightly with any surplus oil on your cloth. Both the interior and exterior should always be free of food build up. When your rags get too oily or dirty, compost them.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Thanks for your input Charleigh and for taking the time to comment. We do say “regardless, detergent is not necessary.”

  • vonnie rasmussen says:

    I love reading all the information on cast iron. I use it alot I found this very useful. Thank you.

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