Tell me about cast iron cookware

So, after hearing everyone from Alton Brown to Scylla sing the praises of steak seared in a cast iron skillet, I decided to give it a shot and bought a cheap cast iron skillet (not sure of the brand; it cost me about $14 at Target). I’m sure someone will be along shortly to scold me for buying a pre-seasoned skillet, but it was cheap and I was hungry.

Well, I’ve cooked two steaks so far with pretty good results; one was a bit too rare, one was a bit too well-done, but both were pretty damn tasty nonetheless. My question is, what now? What foods cook particularly well in cast iron? Are there any foods I should avoid cooking in cast iron?

Also, I’d like to make sure I maintain this thing properly. Below is a quick run-through of what I know about cast iron care, based on what I’ve read:
[li]Coat in oil over low to medium heat for about 90 seconds before cooking[/li][li]Clean while hot with water and a wire brush[/li][li]NEVER clean with soap[/li][/ul]
Have I got that right? Two questions jump out: First, will a wire brush damage the skillet or wear away the oil coating on it? Second, is there any risk of warping the pan by running water over it while it’s still hot? Is there anything else I should be aware of?

Thanks in advance.

Well, I am no cast iron expert, but I’ve never used a wire brush on my cookware. At most, I use a plastic scrubber or a plastic scraper make for stoneware. I can tell you to never, never, never put it in the dishwasher.

I’m sure the real experts will be along shortly.

All my cast iron stuff I just rinse under hot water and scrub with a plastic brush. I dry scrub them with paper towels until the towels are basically clean. I then paint them with oil and put them away for next time. If the pan is a one-piece with a cast handle you will be able to do really good baked omelettes/frittatas with it. I keep my one piece pan for egg recipes only because they pick up other flavours very readily.

I’m no expert but I recently bought a cast iron dutch oven for nutritional reasons (need more iron in the diet, can’t take supplements due to side effects). Some things I’ve gleaned:

  • Don’t use something like a wire brush, it will (as you suspect) damage the built-up coating.
  • First few things you cook should be higher fat, not something like soup or tomato-based foods (I guess that’s less of an issue with a skillet than with a dutch oven).
  • Bacon fat or solid shortening are supposed to be good for seasoning (or building up the seasoning on an existing pan). I cooked a pound of bacon in ours recently, precisely to help with building up that coating.
  • Some people never even put water in their pans, just swish with a damp cloth. I don’t go that far (i.e., I do put it in the sink and run water into it as needed, just dry thorougly afterward usually by heating on the stove for a minute or two).
  • They can crack if you put a hot pan into cold water. Let it cool first - doesn’t have to be room temp but it shouldn’t be hot either.

How to cook a steak in cast iron - This guy says exactly what I would, but better.

About cleaning an iron skillet, while the pan is still hot I rub it with about 1/2 c of kosher salt. Rub the salt around with paper towels until clean and discard. I rarely use water on iron.

As for what you can make; cornbread, man. Cornbread. But none of that weird-ass Yankee sugared stuff, that’s nasty.

I’ll second cornbread - heat the shortnin’ in the skillet on the stovetop, pour in your batter, then bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. That’s the only reason I have one.

Would a cast-iron skillet be good for pancakes?

The world’s best fried chicken or chicken fried steak is cooked in a cast-iron skillet. And of course cornbread.

I have to third cornbread, it is sooooo good in a cast iron pan. I like putting the pan in the oven to preheat and then pouring the batter in quickly, it makes a really good crust.

Oh and I think you’d consider me a Yankee, and sugaring my cornbread seems like a sin. (The one exception is if you have old cornmeal that you must use, in that case it may need some sugar to hide the unpleasant flavor of old corn. I don’t reccomend this, but I have done it in a pinch.) I guess I am from the Pacific Northwest, which may not qualify as true Yankee.

Cast iron was made for cornbread. Make sure you get the skillet nice and hot before you pour the batter in. That way it gets that wonderful crust on the bottom. My “go-to” utensil is a 14" chicken fryer. Nice deep sides, and heavy as sin. My principle use for it is the aforementioned cornbread and sausage/gravy for biscuits. As others have said, water, but never soap, and nothing harder than plastic for a scrubber. I re-season mine about once a year with bacon grease. It’s lasted me 30 years so far… :smiley:

IMHO, anything you want to have a decent crust on or make a pan gravy from does real well in cast iron. Steak, chops, biscuits & gravy, cornbread, all very yummy in the cast. The only thing I think you’re supposed to avoid is highly acidic foods like tomato sauces and the like.

Don’t worry about the cost (I got my 10" Lodge skillet for <$16) or that you got it pre-seasoned. It will last forever if you treat it right, and it sounds like you have a handle on that. I will agree with the “no wire brush” camp. Just rinse and scrub with a plastic-bristle brush (briefly), dry, and oil while it’s still warm.

Once your pan is very heavily seasoned, you’ll be able to get away with washing it gently with detergent occasionally, should the need arise. I have one that I use quite a lot - most of the time, it’s easy to clean just with water and a plastic brush, but once in a while it will get egg or something on it that needs a bit of help coming loose.

For burnt-on residues after cooking bacon or sausages, you can just take it off the heat, leave it to cool just a little and pour in a cupful or two of water (after removing the bacon of course) - it will sizzle and bubble and by the time you’ve finished eating the food, the residue will have dissolved into the water, making it quite easy to clean away.

Thanks for all of the replies so far. I hadn’t considered cornbread, but it definitely sounds worth trying. Anyone have a recipe?

I tried cleaning by rubbing with kosher salt as suggested by DeVena, and while that did get rid of whatever burnt bits were on the pan, rubbing a paper towel on the pan still leaves a grey mark on the paper towel. Is this to be expected, or have I somehow managed to make my skillet incredibly dirty after only two uses?

Basic cornbread:

Preheat oven to 425. Grease skillet with bacon grease or butter. Place in oven while preparing ingredients.

Sift together: .75 cup all-purpose flour, 2.5 tsps baking powder, .75 tsp salt. Add 1.25 cups corn meal.

In a separate bowl beat together 1 egg, 3 tblsps melted butter, 1 cup milk.

Pour liquid into dry. Combine with a few rapid strokes. Dump batter into sizzling skillet. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes.

Additions to the basic recipe can include: grated cheese, ortega chilis, onion flakes, pepper flakes, bacon bits, etc.

What’s wrong with Johnny Cake?

:: ducks ::

I second (third, fourth, or fifth) that the best use I have for my cast iron skillets is a pan seared steak. I have a 14 inch and two small skillets. One Christmas Eve I heated up my big skillet on high until I thought it was going to burst into flames, then threw the steak (inch thick ribeye) on for a minute and a half each side. Pulled the pan off the burner and then turned the steak continuously. At the same time that I started the steak, in one of the other skillets I sauteed a portobella mushroom in butter and red wine (using the usual rule - one drink for the mushroom, one drink for me). When the mushroom was done, so was the steak. Mind you I like my steak rare - knock the horns off, wipe the ass, and walk it through a warm kitchen.

Threw the mushroom on the steak. Got a glass of merlot. Watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Best. Steak. Ever.

I haven’t eaten steak at a restaurant in a long time because they can’t make it as good as that.

If you like fried sliced or hashed potatoes, cook them in cast iron. You’ll never cook them any other way after that.

An old cowboy friend cooks pizza in his cast iron skillet, over a campfire.

Washing it has already been covered, but don’t forget to put it back on the stove to heat until dry after washing. Cast iron has a lot of little crevices that you can’t dry with a towel.

I just wanted to chime in and say: isn’t it great when something so good is so cheap? People pay big bucks to replicate the effect of cast iron in anodized aluminum, when they could get the real thing for practically nothing. I buy my cast-iron at yard sales and the like, they are generally already seasoned from use, and never cost more than $5.

The other thing I should add is that you will need to revise your definition of “clean.” Leaving a few burnt bits in the pan is fine, scrubbing it till it gleams will only damage the season. The season is made of bits of oily stuff, and creates a non-stick finish with time.

Here’s a favorite cast-iron skillet recipe:

Tortilla Espanol
ingredients: potatoes, onions, scrambled eggs, black pepper, salt.
How much? Depends on the pan. I use my small skillet (9 or 10"?) with 2 medium potatoes, 1 small onion, and 4-6 eggs.

Slice the potatoes into 1/4" thick pieces and cook them with plenty of butter and the onions as if you were making hash browns.
When the potatoes are well cooked through (no longer “crunchy” – This can take up to 20 minutes.) and the onion browned, pour the scrambled eggs over them. If you’re lazy, used canned or pre-cooked potatoes.
Cook in the pan over medium heat without stirring until the sides seem like they are getting cooked and only the top looks runny, then pass under the broiler for 2-3 minutes.
Remove from oven, let cool slightly, run a knife around the sides and pry up the edges if you can. Invert onto plate or scoop out with a spatula.
Devour for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

America’s Test Kitchen says there’s nothing better to cook French toast in; I’d never considered it but gave it a try a few months ago, and it was some pretty damned fine French toast. Would have been better with older bread, though.

If you totally screw it up and end up with a really gross, nasty pan that you think can’t be saved, put it in your oven for a cycle on “oven cleaning” or in the coals of a fire, leave it until done, wipe the ash off and reseason. There’s no killing cast iron.

I love cooking with cast iron. My favorite pans are still my grandmother’s skillets.

As for cleaning…you can scrub out cast iron pretty thoroughly. Leaving little burned bits is nasty. I use hot water and a plastic scrubby thing. If it took some hard scrubbing, then just do a quick re-season:

  1. Wipe the excess water from the pan
  2. Put it on a stove burner at fairly high heat; this helps to really dry it out
  3. When the metal is very hot, brush it with a paper towel with a little vegetable oil on it. It’ll put a very light sheen on the metal.
  4. Turn off the burner and let the pan cool down before storing.

I occasionally wash my cast iron with dish soap. It doesn’t leave any noticable residue or flavor. (And yes, I’m extremely sensitive to weird flavors)

Cast iron is for the most part unkillable, but don’t plunge a hot pan into cold water, and don’t let it soak. Cracking and rust are the two things that could destroy your pan.

There’s nothing wrong with having gotten a pre-seasoned pan. Pretty sensible, really.

Here’s my favorite cast iron recipe:

Get a duck breast, about 1 pound.
Rinse it, make sure all the feather quills are out.
Lightly oil the pan and preheat to medium.
Score the skin in a crosshatch pattern, but don’t cut into the flesh beneath the skin.
Salt and pepper both sides.
Lay the breast skin side down in the pan. Leave it alone long enough for a lot of the fat to render out, and the skin to get brown and crispy.
Flip the duck, cook a while longer.
Now either
a) Remove from pan, or
b) If you don’t like rare duck, throw the pan into the oven and bake for a while.
Remove from pan, tent for 5 minutes under foil, then slice at an angle. Fan slices over couscous or risotto. Yummy.

Sorry I don’t have exact times for the recipe. Just keep in mind it’s a fairly slow cooking process, not a sear-and-flip sort of thing.