I love my cast iron pans. Okay, so they are heavy and a bit of a pain to “season,” but they last forever, are oven safe, distribute heat evenly, and they have a non-stick surface that will outlive you. Seriously, you should be able to give your grand kids these pans.
Cast iron does need some maintenance. It needs seasoned, or cured. This is a process of baking oil into the pores of the cast iron to prevent it from rusting and also makes it non-stick. This process is restorable, so if you find an old, mistreated cast iron pan or you don’t take care of yours, there is still probably hope the pan can be re-seasoned and saved.
To season, you basically take a new or scrubbed and cleaned pan, and rub the surface with oil or shortening and bake it in a hot oven (somewhere in the 300-400 range), making sure to place the pan upside down with another pan or some foil underneath to catch any drips. Let the pan cool. With enough seasoning the pan will get that characteristic black sheen to it and will be very non-stick.
There are a few things you need to know to care for your cast iron.
Never place it in the dishwasher. Soaps and detergents break down the oils on the surface. Don’t tell the kitchen police, but I do wash my pans out briefly with soap and hot water on occasion, never soaking them though. I know others will disagree here and swear that soap should never touch cast iron. Restaurants must use some soap, I can’t imagine they are just wiping out their cast iron pans and reusing them. Maybe they are……maybe it’s better not to know.
If you have food stuck on, you can scrub your cast iron with a firm bristled plastic scrubber or kosher salt. If it gets rust spots you can use steel wool. Always take your washed pan and place it on a hot burner until it is completely dry, you can also throw it back in a warm or hot oven.
It is suggested that you season after every cleaning, but as long as you place your cleaned pan in a warm oven or hot burner (to remove any excess water) I find that older pans can go quite a few washings without actually seasoning them, but this isn’t the recommended approach
And although I am not sure why you would want to, I better mention that you can’t store food in cast iron. It will most likely ruin the finish and make the food taste metallic.
If you are going to acquire cast iron, especially if you have never owned it before, I suggest you go with the pre-seasoned pans. Lodge makes some reasonably priced pre-seasoned pans and they have been making cast iron pans for over 100 years. They are available in most department or home stores, I have even seen them in the outdoor/camping department.
I own several pieces of cast iron and two enameled cast iron dutch ovens. I must warn you, although the enameled pans are far easier to clean and don’t require seasoning, they chip, crack and stain; basically they have some major drawbacks. Considering the cost and longevity I would definitely just stick to plain old cast iron if I had to do it over again. My enameled pans are not going to last more than a couple years and cost about twice as much.
Cast iron pieces are seriously worth the small investment of time, money and effort that they require. So grab grandma’s heavy pan, dust it off and get cooking. I think once you try it you’ll be searching for more cast iron pieces to add to your collection.