From seasoning to cooking – here’s how to use a cast iron pan and love it

In this age of non-stick, it’s easy to forget about our old friend, the cast iron pan. For perfectly grilled steaks and veggies or for adding char to your wraps, these pans are worth investing in. Read on for tips on seasoning the pan, which oils work best and what to use it for, and how to look after it or spruce up an old one so that it’ll last another 50 years. With this insight and know-how you too will learn to appreciate the beauty of cooking in a cast iron pan.

1. Seasoning

If you buy a cast iron pan these days, whether flat or griddled, it probably comes pre-seasoned. This is good for you, because now all you have to do is look after it (we’ll cover that shortly).

If, however, you are trying to breathe some new life into an old or rusty hand-me-down, listen up. You’re going to have to season the pan. What that means is that you’re going to create the first few of many layers that will make your trusty cast iron as non-stick as any modern coated pan.

How to season a cast iron pan

1. Firstly, scrub off any rusty or lumpy patches. Use a scrubbing brush, and really go at it to clean all the undesirable bits off the pan. This is the last time you’ll use soap and a scrubbing brush or sponge on your pan, so really make a good job of it.
2. Now, preheat your oven to 180°C (you can do this step when you’ll be using the oven to roast veggies or bake a cake).
3. Rinse, then dry your pan thoroughly. Using a brush or a wadded paper towel, wipe a thin layer of oil over the inside of your pan. You can use any oil, but choose one with a high smoke point as this oil forms the basis of your seasoning layer, and cast iron gets really hot.
4. Using a roasting tray with a grid, lay the pan upside down (the roasting tray will catch any stray drips) and bake the pan in the oven for an hour.
5. Turn off the heat, leave the pan inside to cool to room temperature along with the oven. You can repeat this process as many times as you like, as each layer helps to build the non-stick layer of the pan. You can also just do it once and allow the seasoning to build up as you cook. Either way works.

Good oils to use for seasoning cast iron pans

  • Peanut oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Almond oil
  • Flaxseed oil

2. Cooking

Cast iron is seen as the ‘hard-to-use pan’ in the kitchen, but in reality, it couldn’t be easier. There are just a few rules with cast iron, and once you know them, you’ll understand why those who cook in cast iron pans, love them.

  • Heat: heat the pan properly before you use it. That means putting it onto a low to mid-flame when you start prepping, and letting it heat while you chop onions and get your things together. Rotate the pan every few minutes to make sure the whole thing is heated, and when you come to actually cook, the whole cooking surface will have heated evenly and, this is important, will stay hot for ages and transfer that heat really well. If you try to cook in a cold pan, you’re quite likely to have food stick, because heating also helps to close the microscopic pores in the surface, preventing food from sticking.
  • Oil your food: whereas with other pans, like stainless steel or non-stick, you’ll squirt a little oil into the base of the pan before you cook, with cast iron (especially griddled cast iron), you’re much better off brushing oil onto your meat or veggies before you cook them. This helps to prevent oil from cascading into the grooves on the pan and making clean up such a pain. When you add your food to the pan, use tongs and a firm grip and drop and lift it a few times to create the initial sear, then pop it down and leave it.
  • If you are searing steak, don’t flip it constantly. Leave it to cook for the full cooking time on one side, then flip it. This caramelises the sugars in the meat, searing it and preventing it from sticking. If you lift it too quickly, you’ll break the searing process, resulting in a flabby steak and stuck on mess on your pan.

3. Cleaning and care

The key to maintaining your cast iron pan is cleaning it after cooking.

1. Firstly, never plunge a hot pan into cold water, or run it under a cold tap. The thermal shock can crack it, and it’s just not worth it.
2. Cook your food as instructed above, then remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.
3. If some bits of food have stuck onto the surface of your pan, pick them off the cold pan. It’s best not to use a scrubbing brush – rather use a combination of a little coarse salt and a cloth to get off any really stubborn food (this should indicate to you that your pan is inadequately seasoned, so you might want to try the seasoning step in the oven again and repeat it a few times before using the pan for cooking).
4. No stuck on food? Success! Once the pan is cold, run it under the tap (no need to use soap) and wipe it out with a damp cloth to remove any residual oil.
5. Leave to drain, then dry thoroughly and return it to the cupboard.

With a few simple tricks, you can be searing steak, crisping up chicken skin, griddling veggies and baking skillet brownies with the best of them. It’s one of those pans you’ll be passing down to the kids, along with the recipes it’s seen come and go. Yes, some kitchen tools take some getting to know – but just like people, those often form the best friendships.