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Cast Iron Basics
Contributed by:  Jason Zielonka
So ..... you've just scored your first set of cast iron cookware.  Here's some helpful hints from a "seasoned" user!


First, be certain your cast iron pans are clean and rust-free. If you have "inherited" or otherwise obtained older pans, it may be necessary to clean the pots of any debris and scour off any rust. Use the standard process (scouring pad, cleaner with the appropriate degree of abrasiveness ... from Barkeeper's Friend ... to SoftScrub ... to Ajax/Comet). Dry the cookware immediately (towels or on low heat on the stove), then ... on to seasoning (yes, that's the correct term).

Season the pans and the lids (Assuming you don't have glass lids or wood handles ... just all cast iron ...). To season (this is the method suggested by Wagner and cast into the bottom of all their pans, so you can't lose it or forget it), preheat your oven to 350, then heat the pan on a burner on low so it's fairly warm, use a paper towel to spread a fat(see below) all over the pan (yes, inside AND out), then put in the oven for at least one hour (I usually leave it in 2-3 hrs). I put mine in upside down, with a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom so any excess will drip out and cleanup isn't a mess.

Which fat? The classic is lard or bacon fat; but more common today is a good vegetable oil or Crisco. I use canola oil, bought in gallon containers so it's economical. You'd like a heating point of greater than 350 degrees, so corn or safflower will do. I'd use corn or the "vegetable oil" mix as an alternative to canola. I wouldn't use peanut oil, even though it has the highest heat point because it has a fairly strong taste, which some very delicate palates may be able to notice.

There are other methods (e.g., fill pan with 1-2 inches of oil and make 10 batches of French fries ... by the end, the inside of your pan will be seasoned), but this is the easiest and most general.

Won't bore you with the chemistry, but you are carbonizing (not oxidizing)the long chains in the oil and creating a non-stick, sealed surface. Because you're carbonizing, there is no "oil" to become rancid and since you're not oxidizing, you won't have "burned stuff" to come off and ruin flavors ...'nuff said.

When the pans are cool, put 'em on the stovetop, warm them up (opens the pores in the iron), add enough oil to cover the bottom and wipe (paper towel) around. Cool, store ... you're done.

NEVER clean with soap or detergents (or at least not for the first 5 years, till you've built up a really good surface). I clean using the method Madeleine Kaman suggests, which is to heat the pan, add coarse salt (i.e., Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt or equivalent) then enough oil to make a slurry ... use a paper towel ...the salt acts as an abrasive, the oil creates the lubrication and continues to season the pan, and everything that's in the pan is abraded off ... the surface continues to build. When you rinse, the salt dissolves in the water,the oil is happy ... back on the burner to dry ... you're done.

For removing cooked on food, here's a Madeleine Kaman tip which has saved lots of pots (copper, stainless, aluminum, cast iron)in restaurants around the world: add 1 tsp. of baking soda per quart of water. Add as many quarts of baking soda/water as needed to cover the burned on food and bring to a simmering boil. Leave on "for a while", i.e., 1-2 hours, just making sure the water level remains about where you had it ... the burned on stuff, even if it looks terrible, will come right off with minimal cleaning.

If you ever need to start over, you can remove the seasoning authentically (put the pan in the embers of a campfire or fireplace ... shovel embers into the pan, so the entire pan is covered/buried in embers) or "farb"ishly (put the pan in your oven, set for clean cycle -- will hit 500-600 degrees and burn off everything, go to sleep). Either way, next day you have a virgin pan. Start over ....

Enjoy the pans. Done right, they are truly non-stick, they cook beautifully, and they have real history to them ...


Once the pan is seasoned, some folks say the layer of carbonization protects the iron and you can cook acidified materials. Just clean the pan out well afterwards (hot water, or salt and oil/shortening/lard/etc., no dishwashing liquid or other soap). I've done that (tomato based pasta sauces; poaching fish in a court bouillon) and it works well with no damage to the food, no damage to the pan and its coating. Others, who are more purists than I am, would say "don't do it ... use a pan of some other material to handle acidic foods ...". It's your choice, but if you're going to cook acidified food in your cast iron pan, I'd make certain you have a good seasoning layer in place first ...

Re acidic foods (apples, tomatoes, etc., or poaching in vinegar based fluids, yogurt if you're cooking non-CW Indian-type recipes, etc.), if the iron is exposed to the food, you will get a discoloration and in some cases the food will taste "off". You can be nonchalant and say "another advantage of cast iron cooking ... I get my daily dose of iron ...", but that's not the best way to take care of your daily iron need.

Good advice about cooking temperature: cast iron takes a while to heat up, but retains heat forever ... don't go above medium.

Copyright 1999 Jason Zielonka, last update 10/25/99