Help! I’m just about to throw out my old cast iron skillet because it’s just so hard to clean!

Lou asked Lauren:

Dear Lauren,

I read your column often and thought I’d finally ask a question that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. I have an old cast iron skillet and I use it but don’t know how to clean it properly. I find it hard to clean. I’ve heard the term “seasoned” when referring to cast iron but, again, I’m not clear as to what this means. Right now, my skillet is in pretty bad shape. It’s a bit rusty looking in spots and, after using it, I try to soak the pan in hot soapy water because food seems to stick to it (especially scrambled eggs!) Even after soaking, I still find the pan difficult to clean. Should I just throw away this pan?

Lauren says:

Dear Lou,
NO, please don’t throw your cast iron pan away! Although you might not know it, you have in your possession, one of the best types of pans around. However, if not cared for properly, cast iron is also one of the most temperamental materials to cook with.

OK, let’s talk about the best parts, first. The most positive feature of cast iron cookware is that it conducts heat incredibly well (evenly) and it’s also heat-retentive, so you can cook quicker, using a reduced amount of heat. And, if you care for this pan properly, eventually, you can bestow it to a child or grandchild, giving them a great way to conjure delicious memories of you. (Just make sure to include the instructions to care for the pan!)

Now, the bad news: Because pure (uncoated) cast iron cookware is one solid piece of iron, it must be “seasoned” a couple of times before using it and here’s why. Cast iron cookware, before being seasoned, is not only susceptible to rust after getting wet, but it’s also “reactive,” meaning it reacts poorly when used with certain types of food, namely acidic ingredients like tomatoes, vinegar, citrus or wine. These ingredients interact with the metal and give your food a metallic taste and, often, an odd (off) color. Cast iron also has absolutely no stick resistance before being seasoned.

However: Once a few easy steps are taken, the interior of cast iron cookware actually becomes both, non-reactive and nonstick (hence, the original nonstick cookware!) So, before we talk about cleaning a soiled cast iron pan, let’s first discuss how to season it properly.

To season your cast iron skillet: Before using skillet for the first time, wipe the entire surface (inside, outside, bottom and handle) generously with a flavorless vegetable oil or mild peanut oil. (The oil must be able to withstand high temperatures without smoking.) Place the skillet into a preheated 375° F oven and “bake the surface” for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and leave the pan in the oven for an additional hour. Remove the skillet and use a paper towel to remove any excess oil, allowing only a thin layer to remain. Your pan is now seasoned and ready to use. You’ll notice that, after a few seasoning sessions, the pan will take on a black color (compared to the brownish-greenish-grayish way it began). The interior of the pan will seem thicker due to the now “baked-on” seasoned finish. This is GOOD! Don’t attempt to remove this.

To clean your cast iron skillet: After each use, don’t wash your skillet; just give the interior a quick rinse and a thorough wiping with a damp sponge or kitchen towel. If any pieces of food stick to the pan, sprinkle the surface with coarse (kosher) salt and use a clean kitchen towel to rub away the food. Once clean, apply another thin layer of oil (again, to the entire surface) and wipe off any excess. Occasionally (after every three times you use it to cook), give the pan an additional “greased baking” at 375° F and, let it cool in a turned off oven, as originally described. If you do choose to ever wash your cast iron cookware, only use water so no soapy taste will linger. And, thoroughly dry every exposed spot and then bake as directed for seasoning the skillet.

To store your seasoned cast iron pan: Initially, when the pan is first being seasoned, you’ll notice that the surface has somewhat sticky feeling. This will lessen after a few seasoning sessions. If at all sticky, don’t store newly seasoned cast iron cookware out in the open since airborne debris (like dust and pet hairs) can cling to the pan.

Ok, now that you’re all seasoned, why not make my Crispy Skillet Cornbread, to give that gorgeous cast iron skillet a way to strut its stuff!

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