Your Cast Iron Isn't as Delicate as You Think It Is
There's a dirty little secret that those of us who work in professional kitchens (and your grandmothers) all know.
Cast iron cookware is — contrary to popular belief — not a delicate, fragile thing that must be handled with utmost care in order to prevent its utter and complete destruction.
But, wait... What about soap? What about acidic ingredients? What about boasting that you've never, ever washed your cast iron? What about the seasoning? Rest easy. I'm about to give you the real story on cast iron, and I promise to take all of the worry out of it.
First off, cast iron is… iron. It is virtually indestructible. I have cast iron that belonged to my Mother. I have cast iron not only from my mother-in-law, but from my GRANDMOTHER-in-law! These are not young pans. One of them is at least 100 years old. Some of the other cast iron I have, and use constantly, was purchased, covered in rust, from yard sales and junk shops. I'm only telling you this to remind you you — can't kill cast iron.
Seasoning Cast Iron
So, how to get started. There are many ways to season cast iron. And yes, I think even the "pre-seasoned" pans need it. My favorite method is to wash the cast iron in hot soapy water, scrubbing vigorously, dry it completely (inside and out), wipe it with a very small amount of vegetable oil (again, inside and out), and wipe out all of the oil you can. This is the most important thing to remember in the process; you should have wiped out the oil so completely that the pan appears not to have been oiled in the first place. If you don't, you will encounter the dreaded "sticky" cast iron. Once the oil is wiped away, place the cast iron in a 450-degree F oven for 30 minutes. Carefully take it out and repeat (oiling, wiping, and baking), 3 or 4 times. Now you are done, it is seasoned.
What does seasoning actually mean? In simplest terms, that tiny bit of hot oil "polymerizes;" in other words, it forms a thin plastic-like coating which fills in the cast iron's irregularities, sealing it as well. And each re-seasoning adds to that coating, eventually resulting in a truly remarkable non-stick surface.
Caring for Cast Iron
Now comes the controversial part: caring for your seasoned cast iron. And this is where 90% of the warnings you've heard can be tossed out. Wash your pan — yes, wash it. With soap if it needs it. Scrubbing with the rougher side of a sponge if it needs that to remove food particles. Don't use steel wool, and do dry it completely. Then, put another tiny bit of oil in and rub it all over, wipe it away, and put it over a burner for a few minutes. Done.
Hardly any more work than any of your other pans. And the more often you use it and clean/dry/oil it in the way described, the more non-stick it becomes. I put a sheet of paper towel between cast iron pans if I'm going to stack them, but otherwise, I store them as I store all of my pans.
Now, what if something is REALLY stuck to your pan? I soak the pan in just water (submerging it completely) for a while, and then proceed as above. The thing to remember is that unless you scrub really hard with something truly abrasive, you have to work awfully hard to ruin the surface you're building up. And rust will only occur if you let it sit around wet.
What About Acidic Ingredients in Cast Iron?
Another controversial "truism" is that you shouldn't ever cook anything acidic in cast iron. I will admit, I don't use cast iron when I'm simmering wine or tomato-filled dishes for hours. But, if I need to quickly deglaze a pan sauce with wine… no problem. Just keep in mind that you aren't really cooking directly on the cast iron. You are cooking on the polymerized, plastic-like layer — so a quick exposure to something acidic will be no problem at all.
Enjoy Your Cast Iron
All of that said, the only thing I'm really trying to say is relax, your cast iron is a workhorse. The care really is minimal. And if something happens, such as a helpful friend who soaks it overnight in soap and then uses steel wool on it, it's not the end of the world. Just scour and start over. While I believe cast iron is precious, it need not be treated so delicately. There isn't a pan in your kitchen that can sear meat as well, or cook hash browns as well, or bake cornbread as well — don't hesitate to use it just because you're worried about messing it up. Believe it or not, once you attain that mirror-like non-stick surface, it will become your go to pan for eggs, the most notoriously stuck-to-the-pan ingredient there is.
Enjoy your cast iron: use it, wash it, barely oil it. It will last so long that your grandchildren could eventually inherit it — gratefully.