The Complete Guide to Buying, Cleaning & Seasoning Cast Iron Pans

Breakfast in the pan I've had almost longer than anything else.
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I don't know about you, but for me my cast iron skillet is one of my best friends. I picked it up for ten bucks at a flea market in Hadley, Massachusetts while I was at school, and it's been with me ever since. It's not high maintenance or complicated — it's actually the easiest pan to care for, so long as you know what to do. If you're thinking of getting one, or have one and want to know how to take care of it, check out my complete guide to cast iron.

Cast irons are so great because they are so versatile. In one pan, I have a nonstick skillet, pizza stone, dutch oven, griddle, and even a cookie sheet. Plus I can take it camping and leave it tossing around in my trunk for a few weeks and it's still perfect (though anything fragile in the trunk may be dented).

Here are my reasons to get a cast iron pan:

  • Although they heat more slowly, they heat and cook much more evenly than thinner pans.
  • Their self-created nonstick surface — called their "seasoning" — is great for eggs, pancakes, and basically everything.
  • Multipurpose: skillet, pizza stone, dutch oven, griddle, campfire pan, cookie sheet...
  • Goes straight from stove to oven and back again.
  • Nearly indestructible. Other nonstick pans deteriorate over time, and their coatings are possibly toxic.
  • Unlike other nonstick cookware, you can use metal utensils with cast iron.
  • Cheap. A well-seasoned secondhand cast iron can easily match an expensive luxury skillet.
  • Easy to clean.
  • Lasts forever. Your cast irons will definitely outlive your grandchildren.

If you need another reason, here's a short video about cast iron pans inspired by the movie Tangled.

Reasons not to get one:

You don't like different foods touching on your plate, or are grossed out by the idea of not using soap. Cast iron is porous and over time the metal slowly absorbs oil and other food particles, creating the sought-after non-stick sheen. Some people say this lends food cooked in cast iron a subtle meld of flavors as the thyme in your breakfast eggs lingers into tomato sauce at dinner, but truthfully I've never noticed.

Another con is that it's heavy. If you have trouble lifting or want to be able to toss a pan around the stove with a flick of your wrist, try something else.

How to clean:

For day-to-day cleaning, rinse out your pan with water and lightly scrub out anything stuck. After washing, put the pan back on the stove to dry. Leaving cast iron wet for long periods is the only easy way to harm it, since iron can rust*.

If you have super stuck-on food, try scrubbing your cast iron with salt. Salt works as a light abrasive that simultaneously seasons the pan. Don't use heavy abrasive scrubbers/brushes, and never ever use soap. Both will clean the pan, which in this case is a problem since they'll clean the seasoning out of the pan. Bye-bye non-stick!

*If your pan rusts, use steel wool to remove the rust and then re-season the pan.

How to season:

The only time you ever want to soap-and-scrub clean your cast iron pan is right when you get it — if and only if it's used. Since you don't know exactly where a used cast iron has been or what's been cooked in it, you'll want to thoroughly scrub it down and re-season it from scratch*. To season it, thickly coat the inside of the pan with oil and toss it in a 350-400°F oven for an hour or so. This bakes the oil into the metal, a kind of jump-start on the buildup you get from cooking in it. If your pan ever starts feeling a bit sticky, feel free to season it again.

*I've heard of people using oven cleaner to strip their pans, and my recommendation is don't. Oven cleaner is toxic, your pan is porous, and you'll end up eating oven cleaner.

Although many people think this is an egg pan, it's actually made for aebleskivers, delicious (and easy) Scandinavian pancakes filled with jam.
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Tips on buying a vintage cast iron pan:

  • Buy American-made pans. Griswold, Wagner, and Erie are the three brands to look for at flea markets and tag sales. Flip the pan over; if it says "made in Taiwan" or anything other than one of those three names, you don't want it.

  • The numbers on the handle are sizes. I find 6 to be great for single portions and grilled cheese, 8 for everything else. Here's a chart of exact size number to actual dimensions.

  • Ask vendors where their pans came from. If it's an autoshop, stay away. Their grandmother or an estate sale kitchen? Great. If they don't know, use your best judgement. I give you permission to closely inspect (smell!) the pan and reject it if anything's too funky.

If you don't like the idea of used cookware, or don't want to season your own pan, Lodge makes pre-seasoned pans. For higher-end cast iron, including enameled pots (think Le Creuset), check out our post on How to Shop for Cast Iron Cookware.

(Image credits: Emil Evans)

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