Cooking with cast iron is, for many chefs, a labor of love. Some see it as rustic or traditional. Others love the sustainable way that cast iron cookware is made and used over time. Cast iron cookware offers various benefits. For starters, cast iron cookware can last many decades longer than various kinds of non-stick cookware. With cast iron, you also don’t have to worry about Teflon or other coatings flaking off and getting into the food. That’s important to chefs who may have health concerns over modern non-stick products. In addition, some professional chefs claim that cast iron cookware produces its own distinct results for a variety of foods, including:
- Ground beef or pork
- Garlic and onions
Whether you’re whipping up plates of huevos rancheros for breakfast, firing garlic and chilis for shrimp, or reverse searing a cut of meat, cast iron cookware is quite popular. But cast iron presents chefs with one major challenge: It cannot be thrown into the dishwasher at the end of a meal. To keep your cast iron cookware usable and long-lasting, you must know how to carefully maintain and care for it over time.
Cast Iron Initiation: Cleaning and Seasoning Cast Iron for the First Time
Many chefs who favor cast iron cookware recommend that you thoroughly clean your cast iron prior to your first use, and then re-season it over time. The idea that you should never use soap on cast iron can be a little bit misleading. Of course, most of us have been taught that taking soap to a cast iron surface is a mortal sin. But in some cases, it can actually make sense.
If you use soap the first time you clean your cast iron, you can then begin building your seasoning and use only hot water for each successive cleaning. When you use soap to do a deep clean, you’re basically stripping your cast iron of its seasoning, so you don’t want to use soap each time you clean your pan. After the first time you clean your cast iron, wipe it completely dry. You can even leave it in the oven or on the stovetop at a low heat to ensure all the moisture evaporates.
Then, let your cookware cool before adding the oil that's going to season your pan. Most chefs recommend using an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola oil, but you have lots of options. Some chefs use coconut oil, while others use shortening, butter, or ghee. In any case, a little goes a long way. Start by adding a small amount to your pan and use a cloth or paper towel to rub it all over the pan (yes, even the handle and bottom, too!). A little goes a long way, and your oil seasoning will build up over time if you properly season your pan after each use. You don’t have to drown your pan in it!
Storing Your Cast Iron Properly
Store your cast iron cookware in a place where it will be out of the way. Keep it in good shape for its next kitchen session by cleaning the cast iron right away. Make sure it’s dry when you put it away to avoid rust. You should avoid humidity or condensation, so don't store your cast iron cookware in a moist environment. Some chefs like to leave a paper towel in the pan to wick away any existing moisture and keep the cookware extra-dry.
Cooking and Cleaning Your Cast Iron for Repeated Use
When you're ready to use your cast iron again, you don’t have to worry about re-oiling the pan. Simply heat it up on your stove, grill, or in your oven, and you're off to the races. As you cook, avoid using sharp implements with your pan. Many chefs like to use wooden spatulas or utensils that provide a soft touch.
After you’re done frying or sautéing and a full meal was had by all, it's time to clean your cast iron. While you don’t want to clean the pan when it’s piping hot, it’s best to clean your cast iron when it's still slightly warm. Start by scraping out any large food bits.
Then, add some hot water to your pan and gently scrub away hard-on stains using a chainmail scrubbing pad. Some cooks prefer to use coarse salt and a cloth to scrub away food or stuck-on messes. What you don't want to do is use chemicals that will destroy your cooked-in seasoning. Once you’ve cleaned your pan, dry it thoroughly. Then re-season it with oil, and it’s ready to go for the next cooking session!
Cleaning a Cast Iron Grill
If you're a grill master who likes to present his or her fare “a la plancha,” there are many ways you can keep your cast iron surface clean for further use. While there are many commercial products available, white vinegar works on its own as a degreaser. You can also use vinegar with baking soda for a different texture. For a good deep clean, let this mixture dry before scrubbing it off the grill surface later.
Essential Safety Rule
While using brushes and other implements to clean your cast iron grill or pan, it's essential to prevent any stray wire strands or other materials from breaking off. These loose ends could get attached to your cookware and end up in someone's food. Being vigilant about your cleaning tools — particularly brushes — is, in many ways, the most important of all recommendations for dealing with cast iron grills and cookware. Replace brushes before they get so old that they’re virtually falling apart, and even with a newer brush, do a quick “finger-test” — run your hand over the brush to see if anything feels loose.
The above tips can help you to maintain your cast iron pans and other pieces safely and for a long time to come. The people at Chefs’ Toys are experts on how to run a busy kitchen. Our business is “for chefs, by chefs,” which means that our people have proven their skills in the kitchen. Ask us any questions about how to up your game in the restaurant business.