Maintaining a cast iron skillet takes a little bit more work than a typical non-stick pan, but if done right, can be just as easy to cook with and with less health risk from the chemical coatings that are used in non-stick cookware. The skillet will also last a life time whereas even the best non-stick cookware needs to be replaced when the coating gets scratched or wears off.
On the flip side, a poorly seasoned cast iron skillet can be one of the most frustrating things to cook with. Everything sticks to it and the porous iron makes it nearly impossible to clean once something sticks.
Here are the tricks I've found work best to enjoy your skillet instead of cursing at it or just having it take up space in your cupboard:
- Try to clean it with just paper towels. No water, no soap, no sponge with soap residue. A properly seasoned skillet actually has a layer of oil that has been building onto the surface of the iron over time forming a bond. Water and soap react with the oil to break that bond making the pan even more porous. It's okay if the pan has a bit of grease residue. That'll make it easier to cook with the next time (and more flavorful).
- For stubborn food that does stick to it, it is best to add water to the skillet to cover the stuck on food and heat it up to boiling. Let it cool until safe to handle, dump the water out and try to clean with paper towels. Hopefully the food should come off easier. If not, just scrape off using a metal butter knife but know that that area will likely have to be re-seasoned a couple times to keep things from sticking to it again.
- Let the pan dry completely in a quick fashion. Fortunately, I live in dry Colorado so the skillet can air dry before rust forms. If you live in a more humid climate, you may need to dry it with paper towels or set on the stove on medium low heat until dry.
- Then I simply put the pan away. This is what I do differently. Most seasoning instructions call for you to re-season before you put it away but I find it leaves a sticky residue that dust particles love to stick to. Then I end up having to wash it again before I cook with it. So why not just leave it "dry" so I can blow or wipe dust off when ready to cook with it again. Maybe if you live in a humid climate, you should oil the pan to keep it from rusting while it sits out, but that is the only reason I can think of.
- I then "re-season" right before I cook with it. I add 2-3 teaspoons of oil to the skillet and heat it up over medium high heat. When the oil starts to smoke and the pan is hot all over, I turn off the heat. I then spread the oil around the inner cooking area (including up the sides) using a wadded up paper towel. The oil should spread really easily with the skillet being hot.
- I then let the skillet cool until it can be handled with bare hands without burning. As the iron cools, the oil you applied gets soaked into the pours forming that nonstick coating you want.
- Your pan is now ready to cook with. I guarantee you will have much more luck with whatever you're cooking in it if you follow these steps.
- If a recipe calls for oil, you should continue to use it. Think of the oil used in seasoning as the non-stick coating. It shouldn't replace oil in the recipe itself.
- For oil choices, I keep both olive oil and organic non-GMO canola or vegetable oil in my pantry. The canola or vegetable oil is likely better for this purpose because the flavor is neutral and the oil can handle higher temperatures. However, I like the taste of olive oil in nearly everything and the bottle is always out on the counter. So that is my go-to oil for this. For extra flavor, you could also use pork or beef fat to season if you don't have personal issues with doing so. That's the way your grandmother probably did it.