Articles / How-to: Cast Iron

How-to: Cast Iron

Published June 1, 2024

Essential Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet Set. Photo courtesy Lodge

As most experienced cooks know, you can’t brown food unless you preheat your skillet, and I frequently transfer food from stove top to oven.

So cast iron is a logical choice, especially in skillets, unless you require gorgeous stainless to make a style point or you can afford copper — which is ideal for sautéing because its heat distribution is incomparable — and the time to care for it. The only disadvantages are that cast iron is heavy (look for skillets with handles on both sides) and it requires a bit of care to keep it seasoned and looking nice.

How cast iron is made

Cast iron pans are created by pouring molten iron into sand molds. After the metal solidifies, the sand crust is blasted off, and any rough edges are removed. This is pretty much the way cast iron has been made for centuries.

Benefits of cast iron

Chef’s Collection 10″ Skillet. Photo courtesy Lodge

Virtually nonstick: Well seasoned cast iron is nearly as nonstick as any manufactured nonstick surface and far more so than stainless, aluminum or even copper pans.

Well-priced: Cast iron is practically free compared with other high-quality pots and pans ($20, say, for a skillet). In addition, it lasts nearly forever: the huge skillet I bought around 1970 for $10 is still going strong.

Great heat distribution: Cast iron is an even distributor of heat, which you will instantly appreciate if switching from stainless steel or aluminum. And you can move it from stove top to oven without a thought.

How to buy cast iron

Lodge uses only “pig-iron ingot and scrap steel converted back into iron” to make its cookware, according to the company’s chief executive, Bob Kellermann. Anonymously made imported cast iron cookware, though often less expensive, offers no such guarantees. Cheaper cast iron pans have far more “hot spots.”

How to season cast iron

Photo: Getty Images

The biggest fear most people have about cast iron is the seasoning process. The metal is porous and rough, and until it gains a patina from use it is the opposite of nonstick. Lodge, in an attempt to make this a non-issue, has introduced a line of preseasoned cookware, which now makes up something like 80 percent of its sales.

Or, control the process yourself: seasoning is simple, and maintaining it is even simpler. To season a new pan wash it well and dry it. Preheat the oven to 350°F while you warm the pan gently over low heat on top of the stove. Using a brush or a paper towel, spread a tablespoon or so of a fresh neutral oil like corn or grape seed in the pan; the surface should be evenly covered, with no excess. Put the pan in the oven, bake it for about an hour and let it cool in the oven.

That’s it.

It’s helpful if the first few uses of the pan involve oil, like sautéeing or deep-frying. If you care for the pan properly, it will darken with use and become increasingly smooth, beautiful and easy to cook in.

How to care for cast iron

Photo courtesy Lodge

Once the pan is seasoned, routine washing can almost always be done with a scouring pad, not steel wool or anything else that will damage the seasoning (although the worst that can happen is that the pan will have to be reseasoned). Despite many recommendations to the contrary, a little mild soap won’t tear off the seasoning. Cast iron can rust of course, but never if you dry it after washing and keep it out of rain and floods. If rust does appear, scour it off with steel wool or sandpaper, and reseason.

Every so often I wash my cast iron skillet and put it over low heat. When the water begins to evaporate I wipe it dry and spread a little oil over its surface with a paper towel. I leave the skillet over the heat a few more minutes and wipe it out again.

Yes, this is maintenance, and most cookware is maintenance-free. But it seems a small price to pay for inexpensive, high-performing, safe, nonstick pans. When it comes to cookware, new is not necessarily better.

When to use cast iron

Photo: Getty Images

Use cast iron in the oven for roasting and baking, on the stove for sautéing, on the grill, or directly over a fire.

Cast iron really struts its stuff when you want to get a pan good and hot and keep it that way. For “grilling” a steak indoors, it can’t be beat. Ridged cast-iron “grill pans” are good for two reasons: They raise the meat slightly above the surface, which promotes browning by preventing escaping liquids from contacting the meat, and they leave grill marks, which are attractive if nothing else.

Cast iron is as good at browning as any other cookware, and its mass lets it hold a steady temperature so well that it is perfect for deep-or shallow-frying.

You can also use it to make skull mini cakes. Just saying.

When not to use cast iron

Braising in cast iron, especially with acidic ingredients like tomato or wine, may degrade the seasoning slightly. In extreme cases, you may have to reseason the pan; more likely, you’ll just have to treat it to a light coating of oil and a few minutes of warming.

What to make in your cast iron

No-Knead Bread

Photo: Jim Henkens

Since Jim Lahey and I first shared this innovation — the word “recipe” does not do the technique justice — in the New York Times in 2006, thousands of people have made it. For many, it was their first foray into bread baking, the one that showed that the process isn’t scary, although the end result is so good that experienced bakers too have tried and fallen in love with it. The Lodge 3 Quart Dutch Oven is our go-to for our No-Knead Bread recipe.

Red-Fried Fish

You can use any thin fillets of white fish, like flounder or fluke.

Photo: Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic

Letting the brussels sprouts cook undisturbed is the key to getting the sweet caramelization that will make a believer out of anyone.

Photo: Christopher Testani for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
Photo: Christopher Testani

Seared Steak

Cast iron is a terrific option when you want to get a pan good and hot and keep it that way. For “grilling” a steak indoors, it can’t be beat.

Photo: Getty Images