If I had to pick just one pan out of my kitchen, it would have to be my cast iron skillet.  By mastering how to season it and maintain that seasoning, you will have a naturally non-stick surface. My pan is the very same one in the photo shown here. The cast iron skillet, for me, is truly the one multi-purpose pan to have in your kitchen.

Some reasons why

1) It’s heavy and retains heat. When it comes to making something like seared and tender fajitas, for example, nothing else will do. I even use it to stir fry. It does not heat evenly, be warned, but when it’s hot it stays hot!

2) It’s nonstick. Yes, a properly seasoned cast iron skillet is a good nonstick surface. No, you can’t fry eggs on it without oil like you can on modern non-stick coatings, but it comes pretty close on most things.

cast iron panini

3) It can go straight to the oven (just don’t get the ones with a wooden handle!)

4) It’s the best griddle ever. For the best, fluffiest pancakes, use a cast iron skillet (or a rectangular cast iron griddle)

5) It’s inexpensive and lasts almost forever. I really like the Lodge cast iron pans like this 12-inch skillet. They’re made in the USA and a great value.

6) Do you have two cast iron pans? Voila, instant panini press. Use the top cast iron pan to press the sandwich as it cooks in the bottom pan.

7) It looks cool!

8) It’s a healthy cooking surface. No worries about Teflon coatings scratching and flaking into your food. And yes, cooking in cast iron is a way to supplement your iron intake.

Now, some tips on how to season your pan and keep it that way. “Seasoning” a cast iron pan means filling the pores and metal surface with oil that gets baked in, creating a smooth shiny surface that is nonstick (see photo above).

When you first get your pan

Scrub it hard all over with a scouring pad or steel wool, under very hot water, to remove any residues, coatings, or dirt from the surface. Dry it immediately with a towel and then heat on the stovetop to ensure the pan is thoroughly dry. Cover the inside and outside with vegetable oil (like canola), and place it in the oven at 200-250 degrees for an hour.

Many manufacturers are now selling “pre-seasoned” pans. Mine were not pre-seasoned but experts tell me that you still want to season them (you can probably skip the scrubbing part).

Every time after use

A well seasoned cast iron pan should look “clean,” dark, and shiny after use. If a lot of food is stuck stubbornly to the surface, that’s your first indication that the pan was not seasoned well.

Cool the pan a bit, run under warm water and use your spatula or spoon to knock of any tiny bits of food. Scrub very conservatively and only with a sponge and little or no dishwashing soap—you don’t want to scrub off your seasoned surface. Cast iron pan manufacturers such as Lodge recommend no soap and never harsh detergents. A properly seasoned pan shouldn’t ever need anything more than a gentle wash with a Dobie pad or nylon sponge.

After use:

  1. Dry immediately and put over a burner until the water has evaporated from it.
  2. Drizzle a little vegetable oil on the inside and use a paper towel to rub it around.
  3. Continue to heat the pan over the burner for a minute or two.
  4. Shut the burner off, wipe off excess oil with a paper towel, and let the pan sit on top till cool.

If food sticks badly to your pan, you’ll have to get it off (scrub, soap) and then go through the reseasoning steps all over again.

Other things to keep in mind

  • Don’t store food in your cast iron pans. Foods can take on a metallic taste (this is not unsafe, it’s just iron) and also break down your seasoned surface.
  • Don’t let your pan sit around wet or dirty. It will rust. Always clean and dry it immediately.
  • Keep potholders handy. Those metal handles can get hot!
  • If you ever get a rust spot, just scrub it off with a bit of steel wool and re-season.
  • Never ever ever ever put it in the dishwasher! It will remove that baked-on oil patina you have worked to hard to create.

The art of washing a cast iron pan is sometimes up for debate. Some people soap/scrub them, some people do it the way I described, and some people just wipe them with a towel after cooking and hang them back up! Do what works for you!