You can use cast iron cookware to whip up some of the most delicious, gut-busting recipes no matter what part of the country you're from, even if you live in the big city. But an improperly cared for cast iron pan can be nothing but trouble.  Learn how to properly care for your kitchen's secret weapon, all things cast iron, and move a little bit closer to the Pioneer Woman (or man) inside you.

Because of its outstanding heat retention and its even cooking of food, cast iron is one of the most efficient cookwares available, and that's surprising when you consider that it has been around for hundreds of years. It weighs a LOT more than today's anodized aluminum cookware, but aluminum has been linked to dementia and alzheimer's[1], and many brands of deodorant are now manufactured without aluminum as a primary ingredient. Cast iron cookware can be produced relatively cheaply, and will easily last several lifetimes if cared for properly.BaconCredit: creative commons

You can use cast iron cookware for a variety of cooking methods, and because it can withstand high cooking temperatures it is perfect for frying or stews (I love frying fish in mine), and you can easily find many great recipes for cooking with your cast iron skillet around the web.  My personal favorite cookbook for savory down-home cooking is Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From my Frontier, from a working ranch just outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma[2].


Cooking, frontier-style

The Pioneer Woman Cooks; Food from My Frontier
Amazon Price: $20.00 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 8, 2014)
I am delighted every time I open this cookbook. Ree's writing style, with heaps of humor and incredulous amounts of flavor, provide more than just recipes; they add life to your cooking.

If you don't have this cookbook, you're missing out.

There are two types of cast iron, bare and enameled. Enameled cast iron eliminates the need to season the metal.  It can be more costly and cooks differently than bare cast iron. After bare cast iron has been seasoned it forms a non-stick surface making it perfect for eggs, cornbread (I've got one pan I only use for cornbread), and cakes. Cast iron does leach a small amount of iron into the food, but the amount is negligible and can be a nutritional benefit to those with iron deficiencies.

Bare cast iron cookware is easy to recognize because of its heft and dark black color (if rusted it will have a lighter brown color). It may or may not be stamped with the words "cast iron". Types of bare cast iron cookware include Dutch ovens, woks, griddles, and frying pans.

Cleaning And Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

• Rust. You often run into rust when buying old or used cast iron. This is not really a problem and can be solved with some elbow grease. You can use some salt (1 – 4 tbsp.) and some olive oil (same amount as salt) with a paper towel to scrub off the rust. Scrub the entire pan this way, inside and out, including the handle. If the rust is really bad take a piece of fine steel wool to it.  After getting the rust off wash pan with soap and water, rinse it well and let it dry. Now you're ready for seasoning the pan.

• Build up. There can be a black build up on the bottom of the pan that naturally occurs over time. If you have access to a wood stove or campfire you can stick the pan into the fire to burn it off. Leave it in the fire for about an hour. The pan may get red hot during this time so be very careful when taking out. Allow plenty of time to cool before handling.  Do not spray or pour water on the pan to speed up the cooling process, this will warp your pan permanently, and not in an artistic sense.

• Seasoning. Seasoned cast iron cookware will resist rust and create a nonstick surface perfect for cooking. The nonstick coating is created by polymerized oils and fats. The best oil for seasoning your cast iron cookware is Flaxseed because of its low-temperature polymerization, meaning it creates an impenetrable coating on the iron's surface at a lower heat than other oils.  

  1. Take off wooden handles if your cookware has it.
  2. You first need to grease the inside of your pan well. Old folks say that lard (animal fat) is best, but I use flaxseed oil because of its superior polymerizing qualities. It's not the cheapest, but it provides the absolute best coating for your cast iron, and rarely needs washing.  It's like organic teflon!
  3. Preheat oven to 500 F (or higher, if possible) and place pan upside down in venter of oven.  Leave in for 1 hour.  Turn the oven off, and leave the pan in to cool with the oven.
  4. It this is your first time properly seasoning the pan, repeat Step 3 four more times, for a total of five seasoning sessions.  This will help develop a durable, impenetrable non-stick coating for your pans, inside and out.  Cleanup is a breeze once you've done this.
  5. If you need to wash the cookware, make sure you thoroughly dry the pan by placing on the stove over a medium-high heat for several minutes to force evaporate all the moisture.  Remember, iron is highly susceptible to rusting, so it must be dried out thoroughly before storing.
  6. About once a month, depending on how often you cook with your skillet, re-season the pan once to keep a solid layer of non-stick protection applied.  Don't do the full seasoning process in Steps 1-4, just repeat Step 3 once for a lasting effect.

• Preserving Your Pans. Ordinary cleaning methods like washing with soap and water will remove the seasoning on bare cast iron cookware. If you ever wash with soap and water just place the pan over a medium-high burner for a few minutes to force evaporate the moisture.  Most cast-iron cooking methods leave behind plenty of oils and grease, and a simple wipe with a paper towel should sufficiently clean the pan.  You can, if you need to, use a paper towel with some salt and olive oil to scrub out any stickies left behind after cooking. 

Check out the entertaining video below to learn the best way to properly season your cast iron cookware.

How to Properly Season Cast Iron

Collecting Cast Iron Cookware

Like many other traditional cookware items, you may be sitting on a cast iron treasure and not even know it.  

Before you go rushing off to the next taping of Antiques Roadshow, you should know that cast iron is best used in the kitchen, not sold on TV.  Consider yourself warned.   A reasonably well-made piece of cast iron can last for generations and may even have a colorful history of its own.  As with many collectible items, you may be fearful of using your prized cast iron pan.  But using your cast iron skillet on a regular basis can actually add to its value. Cast Iron StampCredit: creative commons

Most companies stamp their names, logo, or city of manufacture on the bottom. Griswold and Wagner are the biggest names in cast iron cookware and their pieces are the most sought after by collectors. Griswold was purchased by Wagner and became Griswold and Wagner in 1957. Other popular companies include Lodge, Puritan, Piqua, Fanner, Columbus, Crusoe, Dixie, Excelsior, and Sidney.

Some things to look at when examining your cookware.

Note any kind of mark at all on the bottom of the pans, even if it is not the name of the company. Griswold used only the words "Erie" (as in Erie, Pennsylvania, the place of manufacture) on the bottom of their pans from 1865 – 1909, for example. Also look for size marking on the bottom or on the handle. Some companies didn't start making certain sizes until a certain date, and owning a particular size can increase its collectible value.

Examine the handles of your cookware. Wooden handles were used from 1885 until the turn of the century, but have been cracked or burnt from frequent use and heat transfer from the pan or skillet.

Look for a heat ring on the bottom of your cookware. This ring allows heat to circulate evenly. Pans before 1905 have rings on the outer edge of the skillet, while pans after 1905 have rings closer to the skillets center. Modern production methods have removed the need for heating rings, but they still add a touch of nostalgia and collectibility to the piece.

If your cookware has a matching lid, it was probably made in 1915 or later. Matching lids were not made specifically for skillets until then.

You can easily find newer cast iron cookware online through numerous stores and even through Amazon, but if you want to find older pieces check out eBay, flea markets, yard sales, and antique dealers.  

American Cast Iron by FeLion StudiosCredit: FeLion Studios

My personal favorites come are handmade in the shape of each of the United States in Wisconsin by FeLion Studios, and were honored by the Martha Stewart show as one of the show's "American Made Honorees 2012."  They're pricy, but make for a fantastic conversation starter around the campfire of dinner table.

Clean your cast iron with this, the 'boss' of scrubbers

KnappMade CM Scrubber - Chain Mail Cast Iron Pan Scrubber
Amazon Price: $19.98 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 8, 2014)
Before you season your pans, you need to clean them thoroughly. I use this scrubber to make sure every piece of bacon grease is removed. Then I season it using flaxseed oil for the best results.