Maybe you remember your grandmother using a cast iron skillet or have friends who swear by theirs and use it for everything - from eggs and pancakes to steak and potatoes. However, you are hesitant to buy a cast-iron skillet because you aren't quite sure how to use it. It's true, uncoated cast iron does require some special care, but it may be easier than you think. And, cast iron has some great advantages over other types of materials, such as stainless steel and hard-anodized aluminum as we found when researching our updated skillets report.
For starters, cast iron is inexpensive and is often described as indestructible. Properly "seasoned" cast iron is appealing for its nonstick qualities without the chemicals found in Teflon and other applied coatings. (Some consumers are concerned about the health effects of these coatings, especially as they tend to flake off over time.) It's not uncommon for cast iron skillets to be handed down for generations because the nonstick patina, or shiny black surface, only improves over time.
Seasoning cast iron
Many skillets today are pre-seasoned and ready for use right out of the box. For example, the manufacturer of the Lodge Logic 12-Inch Skillet (*Est. $25) has already applied a coating of soy-based vegetable oil and baked it at high heat. Skillets that aren't pre-seasoned by the manufacturer require the buyer to season it before use. Whether pre-seasoned or not, all cast iron require periodic re-seasoning if food begins to stick.
Seasoning a skillet for the first time or re-seasoning it is a relatively simple process. According to Real Simple magazine, you apply a thin coating of vegetable oil, and then place the skillet in a 350-degree oven for an hour to help the oil penetrate the cast iron. Lodge Manufacturing also suggests using melted vegetable shortening. This video at Good Housekeeping magazine demonstrates the two-step seasoning process.
Cleaning cast iron
Even with proper seasoning, cast iron is more apt to rust than other types of skillets. The key to preventing rust from forming is to wash and dry the skillet soon after use. That means don't leave it in the sink soaking or on the counter to air-dry, In fact, soap shouldn't be used on a cast-iron skillet because it breaks down the seasoning and promotes the formation of rust. Lodge Manufacturing recommends bringing water to a boil in the skillet and scrubbing with a nylon brush to loosen baked on food. Should you discover some rust spots, remove them with steel wool and then re-season the skillet.
If this sounds like more trouble than it's worth, you can still benefit from the cooking properties of cast iron, namely excellent heat retention, with a skillet made of coated cast iron. For example, the Le Creuset 11.75-Inch Iron Handle Skillet (*Est. $150) has an enamel coating over the cast iron that doesn't require seasoning. To learn more about coated cast iron, check out our Dutch oven report.