Old-Tyme Flavor

Now that Teflon-coated pans are officially suspect, it’s about time we professed our love for the original nonstick cookware—cast iron. Sometimes it’s in, sometimes it’s out, but to us it’s always a great tool. These heavy, durable pans are inexpensive and conduct heat evenly and dependably. They can go from stovetop to oven, are totally nonstick, and will last forever with the right care. You just need to know how to season and clean your pan correctly.

How to Season

Cast iron in its natural state is not nonstick. It gets that way through a process called seasoning. These days, cast iron cookware is sold preseasoned, so you can start using it immediately. But you’ll still need to re-season it from time to time, by oiling and baking it, which gives cast iron its signature shiny black patina. If the bottom of the pan starts looking crusty, rusty, or uneven, it’s time to re-season. Ditto if you burn something in it badly and have to really scour it to get it clean, or if you neglect to dry it and it rusts, or if you buy a used piece of cast iron you want to rehabilitate.

Here’s how.

  1. Heat the oven to 350ºF, and position the oven rack in the top third of the oven.
  2. Open your windows—there’s going to be some smoke.
  3. Rub a thin layer of shortening (like Crisco) or oil—bacon grease works great, too—all over the inner bottom and sides of the pan with a paper towel.
  4. Place your pan upside down on the top oven rack with a rimmed baking sheet or a roasting pan underneath to catch the drippings.
  5. Bake the pan this way for 1 hour. Then turn off the oven and allow it to cool with the pan inside.

When the pan is correctly seasoned, the cooking surface should be smooth and shiny. (CHOW’s test-kitchen pan came out a little sticky, but once we used it to cook, the surface became smooth and shiny, the way it’s supposed to be.) It helps if the first few things you cook with your newly seasoned pan involve oil—try frying or sautéing something.

Word of caution:
Don’t cook tomatoes or other highly acidic foods in cast iron, as that will destroy the pan’s finish.

How to Clean

To maintain the finish on your cast iron pan, you must abide by the following rules:

  • When you’re finished cooking, scrape out your pan with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula while it’s still hot, and wipe it down with a little oil on a rag or paper towel to preserve the finish. Cottonseed oil works well.
  • If gentle scraping doesn’t suffice, a little mild, well-diluted soap and a soft sponge or stiff nylon brush are OK, but don’t scrub the pan. Avoid using soap or harsh abrasives on it—and don’t use scouring pads or steel wool. If necessary, you can soak it. After cleaning the pan, put it upside down in a 150°F oven until it is bone dry to prevent rust.
  • Don’t ever put your pan in water while it’s still smoking hot—it could crack.
  • After washing your pan, dry it well with a clean, dry dishtowel so that it won’t rust.
  • If your pan needs re-seasoning, first use a nylon scouring pad or kosher salt and hot water to clean it. Dry it well and follow the seasoning directions as outlined above.

The Deal with the Oils

It always seems weird to us that you’re not supposed to clean your pan with soap, even if it’s greasy. It might seem weird to you, too. But rest assured: You’re not going to get sick from rotten food or rancid oil that’s still on your pan. Why? Because even if there were potentially harmful bacteria living on it, the pan gets hot enough on the stove or in the oven to kill the germs.

Traditional Southern cooks sometimes have one skillet for cooking cornbread, another for fried fish, and another for fried chicken, to keep the flavors separate. But as Mark Kelly, spokesman for cast iron manufacturer Lodge, says, “In American culture, a lot of people are into the ‘purity’ of things. But you never get 100 percent purity, no matter what you do.” Many fans of cast iron cooking see the little bit of extra flavor infused in your dish from past meals as a big selling point of cast iron. We use the same cast iron skillet for Chilaquiles, which contain onion, garlic, and chiles, as we do for our Upside-Down Banana-Coffee Tart, and discern no clashing tastes (check out the recipes at the top of the page for more options). If you cook fish in your pan, you can rub kosher salt on the surface to get it extra-clean.