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Cast iron cookware has been around for more than 2,000 years, and for many good reasons. If you treat it well and know how to care for it, it’ll last for generations.

Cleaning it properly and re-seasoning it when needed will allow your cast iron to develop a finish over time that is comparable to that of its more expensive non-stick counterparts that typically wear out sooner. Cast iron is forgiving. Even if you end up neglecting it and it develops some rust, it can be easily restored. 

Buying new cast iron cookware can be a bit expensive, but you can often find used pieces priced very reasonably at resale shops and garage sales. And if all that isn’t enough, cast iron adds some beneficial iron content to the food prepared in it.

Cleaning cast iron cookware

First, don’t put your cast iron in the dishwasher and let it stay there through the heated drying cycle. It may start to rust before you even have the chance to take it out. 

Please don’t allow it to soak in the sink or air dry, either. That also leads to rusting. Get used to the idea that you may not even need to use soap when cleaning cast iron after use.

When you’ve finished cooking, allow your cast iron to cool a bit, but wipe it out with a paper towel or cloth while it’s still warm. This helps to keep food debris from sticking as it cools. 

Next, rinse your cookware under hot water while scrubbing it with a plastic brush or scrubbing pad. Don’t use metal brushes or abrasive pads. If needed, use a little soap. Use the soap sparingly. 

Soap is designed to remove grease and oil, which is what seasons your cast iron. Rinse thoroughly after washing, then wipe it dry with a cloth or paper towel. 

If it isn’t completely dry, put it back on the stove and heat it to evaporate the residual moisture.

Once your cookware is thoroughly dry, use enough cooking oil (perhaps only about a teaspoon) to spread evenly across the interior surface with a towel or cloth. 

Do this while the piece is still warm, thereby allowing the oil to better penetrate the cookware’s surface pores and protect it from rust. Continue wiping it down until the oil is spread evenly and any excess is removed. 

You can use vegetable, corn, canola, soybean, or whatever cooking oil you typically use when completing this cleaning process. You can also use vegetable oil cooking spray to lightly coat the cooking surface. Your cast iron is now clean and ready for use again.

Seasoning cast iron skillets

When you heat oil or fat in cast iron to the point at which it begins to smoke, it seeps into the enlarged pores of the hot cooking surface. The repeated seepage of oils and fats into the cookware’s surface creates a smooth, shiny finish. This is known as seasoning. 

Cast Iron Cookware Can Last for Many Years when Cared For Properly
Frying pan or skillet with stone nonstick coating on white wooden table. Top view with copy space.

When cast iron is maintained properly and seasoned periodically, the non-stick quality of its surface can be compared to that of Teflon.

If you find a piece of cast iron at a garage sale or resale shop and it’s been neglected or if you’ve allowed some rust to form on your own cookware, you’ll need to re-season it to restore it and get it ready to use again. 

If you buy new cast iron, it will come seasoned to some limited degree from the factory, but more seasoning and proper care over time will improve its non-stick characteristics.

The seasoning process is simple. Put the piece on a burner at medium-high heat and let it get hot. Soak a paper towel in oil and, using tongs, use the towel to spread a thin layer of oil across the entire interior of the cookware while maintaining a hold on the handle, so it doesn’t get away from you. 

Continue to spread the oil around until it is smoking and there is no residual oil pooling visible. Shut off the heat and allow your cookware to cool a bit until the smoke has dissipated. 

Heat it up again and repeat the process twice more. Three rounds of seasoning should be sufficient to restore the cookware to usable status.

Reaping the benefits of taking care of your cast iron

A properly seasoned piece of cast iron spreads the heat evenly, eliminating hot and cold spots. The absence of cold spots allows you to cook at lower temperatures.

Cast iron is great for baking. There aren’t any plastic or wooden parts, so there’s nothing to melt or catch fire. The smooth, seasoned surface allows you to bake muffins, biscuits, and more without sticking. You can take your cast iron camping and use it over an open fire. And, of course, you can use it on the stovetop for frying and searing, too.

All you need to do is properly care for your cast iron cookware and pass your knowledge along. Your family could be using those skillets and pots for generations to come. It may only take a few dollars spent at a local resale shop to get the tradition started.