Cast Iron 101- The Sustainable Skillet

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

Almost indestructible and the ultimate, most controversial stove top or bakeware. Passed down from generations and made to last. The cast iron skillet.



Ask anyone about the proper care for cast ironware and you'll get a different answer. I don't believe there's one set way of caring for it, nor do I believe there's one perfect way of seasoning. I do know that cast iron can take some abuse and live to tell the tale.


Now, I won't go as far as saying cast iron is completely indestructible, because that's not true. Radical temperature changes can cause a crack(such as from removing from an oven and rinsing with some cold water,) as well as weak spots from manufacturing(I'll touch on that in a moment) and wear from years of use(typically decades of use.)


Picking out Cast Iron

I 100% always buy Lodge. They make high-quality skillets from high-quality metals, not alloys that will ruin or melt from everyday use. I've used off-brands that have claimed to be cast iron, but have actually melted on my stovetop. I have never had any type of problem using Lodge, even when camping.


They've been around since 1896, so they know a thing or two about making cookware. They're made right here in Tennessee, and buying local is a huge plus for me. According to their website, since 1991 they've changed their manufacturing methods to a greener solution and are a member of the Tennessee Green Star Partnership.


They've also switched over to biodegradable packaging materials, and if you've ever been a lodge store, you know they use very little packaging, anyway. They are also leading many more green efforts, including planting trees on their campus, only releasing clean wastewater and recycling tons of cardboard, metals and plastic and more in 2020 alone.





Not to mention, investing in cast iron is petty much a lifelong investment, meaning you will (more than likely) never need to replace your cookware. Instead of getting two-three years out of non-stick, or a decade or so from stainless, cast iron can be around for a lifetime. It's also inexpensive, especially compared to some other stainless steel or non-stick options.


Did you know? With proper seasoning, a cast iron skillet will become non-stick.


Personally, I invested in a whole set of cast iron. I can and cook a lot of bulk meals at my home, so I have three skillets of different sizes and functions, plus a dutch oven. Cast iron is for every purpose, even making delicate sauces and melting cheese.


The Lodge 10" Skillet

I have had this very skillet for over five years now. I use it almost every day, from cooking eggs/bacon in the morning, to frying up some chicken breast for lunch, to an Alfredo dish in the evenings.



The Lodge 6" Skillet

I've probably had this little guy for about four years now. When I'm baking chicken, or bread, in my dutch oven, I like to set this over the oven vent, to make some slow-melted infused butter to pour over my dish when it's done.


Otherwise, I use it for small sides or sauces. It's also great for quick meals, like frying up an egg before bed. It's also great for when I'm in a hurry and need to cook something up separately, like a cup of rice for some chicken-fried rice.


I think this would be a perfect size and weight for backpacking, camping or a bug-out-bag. A purse-sized skillet for the go, if you will.



10" Wide Deep Skillet

I swear, this thing makes the best chili. I cannot make chili like it in any other pot. This is a one-stop pot. I fry up my beef, bacon and other meats, drop in my onions, minced garlic, chilis and tomatoes, then beans and chili sauce. I turn this down on low, cover it with a stolen dutch oven lid and let it simmer. It is so, so, so good.



The Dutch Oven

I actually have this one, but I put the one pictured in here, because I wish I'd bought that one. That's not to say I don't LOVE mine, but I just think this one is a little more functional because the lid actually converts into a skillet. I just didn't know these existed before buying mine.






On my list for Santa

This goes against my minimalist post, but I have always wanted these. I wanted to include them because I think they would be great for someone who entertains large crowds, or camps with a lot of people. I do neither(often,) we just love to eat.

Lodge 15" Skillet

For fajita night. And taco Tuesday. Might not be big enough. Kidding.





Lodge's 9-Quart Dutch Oven

For cooking the entire cow. Again, kidding.









A Pop of Color

If you're wanting the functionality of cast iron, but appreciate some color in your kitchen, check out Lodge's coated line.










Cooking with Cast Iron

I have yet to meet a meal I can't cook in my cast iron, including delicate sauces, chilis, bread, eggs and so much more. As long as the pan is seasoned right, it's basically all-purpose.


Cooking in cast iron isn't much different than anything else. I like to start with a little oil, or butter, or with leftover bacon grease. I've used all kinds of oils, from corn, vegetable, grapeseed, sunflower, olive, etc.


It does take cast iron a second to heat up, but once it's hot it will hold its heat. If I go back for seconds, my food(and the pan) is usually still warm.


I cook my food per the recipe, keeping in mind that the skillet won't cool off as quickly as others if I need to turn the heat down.


Once my food is done, I transfer to a serving bowl or use the skillet as its own rustic serving. Kind of like how they usually serve fajitas at restaurants.


When camping, I don't think you're suppose to place cast iron directly into a fire. Oops. My bad. A tripod or standing grill is generally recommended. It's a perfect pan for the camper, because, as I said before, it can take a little bit of a beating.


Cleaning Cast Iron

I hate hearing the phrase, "you'll ruin that pan." Cast iron can be scrubbed, abused and sanded, and a little dish soap won't harm it. The seasoning is a different story, and I'll get to that in a moment, but cast iron, itself, is tough.


Fun fact: This is a myth from the days of lye dish soap. Before the age of Dawn and regulations, STRONG, homemade lye soap was used to wash cast iron(and most everything for that matter.) This soap would strip cast iron to its bare bones, which is not ideal. Today's dish soap won't strip away a proper seasoning without some scrubbing.


How I clean my cast iron varies, depending on what I've cooked in it. Generally I wipe it out, run a little water with some light dish soap over it(soft side of the sponge,) rinse and place on an eye that's still warm to dry. It's important to be sure the skillet completely dries out to avoid rust spots.


If it's a little messy, like from sauces, I fill the pot about halfway with water and drop in about two-three drops of Dawn dish soap. I turn the eye on and let it heat up, keeping an eye out to be sure the soap doesn't bubble over the edges. Once it's simmered a few minutes, I turn the heat off, allow it to cool and stuck-on food or sauces will wipe right out with a sponge.


For extra hard stains and food, I follow the steps above but lightly use steel wool or the abrasive side of the sponge to scrub. Once the pan has dried, I add in a little bit of olive oil or bacon grease, then turn the eye on to allow the pan to get hot and the season to readhere. If it's still not as stick-free as I'd like, it may need a light re-seasoning.


Seasoning Cast Iron

Since I cook bacon just about every morning, I really only need to fully re-season about every four to six months. When I season, I completely strip the pan down, then re-season.


If I need to do a quick re-season, I'll throw some butter in and cook some bacon, or use a paper towel to wipe a light layer of grease or olive oil on the inside of the pan, then bake for around two hours at 400º upside down in the oven. Just know that bacon grease will get kind of smoky and I only use a light layer. Not enough to drip in the oven.


There is a such thing as over-seasoning. Most of the time, I re-season because my seasoning has gotten too thick and needs to be scrubbed off. Basically, every morning when I cook that bacon, I'm giving my pan a little re-season, that can cause a build-up of oils. Even though I clean it with a little dish soap, sometimes it's already heated up enough and created that layer, causing a buildup. This will also cause a pan to stick.


Let me give a quick explanation of the science behind a proper cast iron seasoning layer. Cast iron is porous, so think of the seasoning as a non-stick coating. It's important to heat a skillet hot enough and for long enough to melt whatever oil is being used(bacon grease, olive oil, etc.) to adhere into the pours and the pan. This creates the non-stick coating.




Sometimes, through over-seasoning and despite washing(it's difficult to wash off a proper seasoning with just soap and water, because it's adhered to the pan,) it needs to be re-seasoned. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it needs to be re-seasoned often since the seasoning has worn off. This will vary heavily on use and what's being cooked.


If a pan is over-seasoned, it will have a "sticky" feel. It may also begin to stick badly, despite a layer of visible seasoning. This is a sign it needs to be scrubbed down and re-seasoned.


If a pan looks "dry," and is sticking, it may need a layer of seasoning. Run your finger down the center of a cold pan. Is there a residue? Does it feel dry? It takes time to tell the difference, so if you're new to cast iron, don't give up. It takes some trial and error!


There's several ways of scrubbing the pan down. They are going to vary depending on how bad the build-up is or how dry the pan is. Before seasoning, even if the pan needs a new layer, I usually do this, anyway, to avoid build-up.


Minor Buildup/General Re-seasoning

Generally, re-seasoning is something I do 2-3 times per year, and it takes about an hour of my time each time. It's really not a big deal unless the pan gets major buildup, which I'll talk about in a minute.


It's really as simple as scrubbing down with some Dawn and steel wool, letting the pan dry on the stove top, then repeating the process once the pan is cool. I do this about 2-3 times before re-seasoning. The goal is to strip the seasoning off to avoid build-up, which is generally easy to do if it's not build-up.


Very bad build-up/Rust

I'll touch more on rust in just a moment, but if the pan has some very bad buildup, a residue or even some tough, baked on food, this is what I like to do. This can be a messy process, so put down some towels you don't mind staining, or do this outside.


I always start with giving a pan a good scrub down with warm water, steel wool and some Dawn dish soap. It won't hurt the pan, it will just begin to strip the seasoning, which is what you want. Scrub, scrub, scrub.


Hand-dry the pot then warm it up until it is bone-dry on the stove-top. Turn the eye off and allow it to completely cool, then remove. If the water removed a good bit of the buildup, repeat the process a few times. If not, it's time move onto the next step.


I have used some fine-grit sandpaper to scrub the pan down(if you go this route, wearing a respirator is a good idea.) Again, it's ok for the pan, not for the seasoning, which is what needs to be stripped. Once sanded, go over again with the steel wool, the repeat the washing process. Scrub, scrub, scrub, then dry on the stove top.


If it looks like the seasoning has been at least partially removed, that's good. If it's not gone, repeat the process. If the build-up is EXTRA stubborn, meaning this process barely removed it, add in some course grain salt when dry- sanding with the steel wool. That should do the trick.


Once upon a time, when I was a newbie to cast iron, I used thick vegetable oil to season, and re-seasoned my pot EVERY TIME I used it. Like I put it in the oven and allowed the seasoning to re-adhere every day. This is how I know to use salt, because I literally couldn't even sand the layers of seasoning off. Repeating this process with salt about four-five times really stripped that build-up off.


Seasoning

There's a million ways to re-season cast iron. Our grandparents did it with lard. I use olive oil or bacon grease. It's really preference and Lodge even sells cast iron seasoning, but it just depends on your use and what you like. Experiment and do some research, but I personally don't recommend using vegetable/canola oil. It's thick and adheres in a thick, sticky layer from the get-go, causing the perfect foundation for bad build-up.


After stripping the seasoning off, I pre-heat my oven to 400º. Again, the goal here is to heat the pan/oil up enough to melt and create a layer to fill in the porous surface. I pour a little olive oil on my rag, then wipe a light layer all over. Personally, I don't heavily season the outside of my pans, but I do a lighter layer than the inside.


Pop it in the oven, upside down, preferably over drip rack for about four hours. I like to let the oven and the pans completely cool before removing them. Since all ovens/oils/altitudes are different, the process may need to be repeated. If the pan seems oily, or like it has a build-up, it's possible that the oil didn't adhere well. Wipe it out, then pop it back in. Try a longer time or hotter oven(if possible.) There's no need to strip it down before repeating this process.


On the other hand, if the pan seems too dry, or like it wasn't seasoned. Repeat the process. Some pans need an extra layer.




Getting that Non-Stick Coat

My grandmother swears that by scrubbing the pan out with steel wool and course sea salt, then seasoning with olive oil, it will create the ultimate non-stick. I personally just use the seasoning method I shared above, and I flip eggs, even cheesy eggs with no stick.


Restoring Cast Iron/What if it rusts?

Do not throw away rusty cast iron. Rusty cast iron can be restored, even if it is covered in rust. As long as there are no holes and it's structurally sound.


The secret is by baking it. The process is the same for the very bad buildup/rust instructions above, except, before beginning that process, bake the pan in a very hot over(400º+) for four -six hours. Allow it to cool, scrub, scrub, scrub, sand, steel wool with course salt, then repeat if necessary. If you've made no process after about three times of this process, it may need extreme measures.


This cast iron will also more than likely need several layers of seasoning. Not always, but I do think bacon grease works the best for these cases. It gets a little smoky, but it gets the job done.


Decoration

Not only does cast iron have amazing cooking ability, it also creates a beautiful wall setting. Lodge has even came out with a Wildlife Series with scenes on the back for this purpose.







Thank you so much for visiting us here at Our Appalachian Homestead! Do you use cast iron? What are your favorite tips for seasoning yours?






This post contains affiliate links. This helps us keep this blog afloat. Thanks for understanding!


Resource: The Lodge Website: https://www.lodgecastiron.com/about-lodge/how-its-made#:~:text=manufacturer%20in%20the-,United%20States.,the%20mold%20holds%20its%20shape.

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