Cast Iron Pans: Four Rules We’ve All Heard, Which Just Aren’t True

Cast Iron Pans: Four Rules We’ve All Heard, Which Just Aren’t True

At one time, I shared the not-uncommon nervousness that many feel for cast iron.

Those inclined to look nervously upon the pan are they, I believe, who find the idea appealing, yet have serious questions surrounding (a) the promise of failure and (b) the impracticality of cleaning the damn thing.

All that talk about seasoning. You hear the aficionados raving about how well cast iron works, so you try it once with miserable results, and then you find out it only works if it's "seasoned" properly, so you follow the directions and it still doesn't work because somehow you're doing it wrong I guess, which means your eggs are perpetually burning themselves to the bottom and that being the case, your pan will never be clean again.

"Wipe it out," they nod beatifically, and "Never use soap," they firmly add. Those people seem to possess the angelic ability simply to wipe away a sheet of crusty burned egg glue. They are not humans.

This is where I came from on the whole cast iron thing. I was the person who could never get the pan to cook anything without leaving behind a crusted mess, and as long as you're forbidden to use soap ("Or water!"), what are you supposed to do?

Well, let me just tell you this. They are wrong.

Let Us Now Dispel the Falsehoods

1. "Never use water to clean a cast iron pan. You will ruin it."

I recently heard this regurgitated on NPR Test Kitchen of all places. Come on, Test Kitchen! I use water on my pan all the time. Sure, if you were to soak your pan in the sink, scrub it up and set it dripping on the drying rack, then yes. Your pan would rust. (It wouldn't be ruined, but it would rust.) You do need to treat cast iron differently than your other pans; still, water and ruination are two different things.

2. "Never use soap on a cast iron pan. You will ruin it."

Okay, you don't need soap. That at least is true. If you're the kind of person who likes to sterilize everything, you will feel weird cooking with cast iron, because "clean" means something different for cast iron than it does for surgical implements. More about that later.

And yes, if you scrubbed the thing with soap all the time, every day, you'd erode your seasoning and the pan wouldn't perform well. But a little soap will not end all.

3. "All you ever have to do is wipe it out after cooking."

Just, no. Again, more on this later.

4. "To season your pan, rub it with oil and bake it. That is all you have to do."

Useless. Who came up with that one? Someone who didn't know anything about the science behind seasoning, that's who.

Now I don't want to overwhelm you, so I'm going to pause on this note. But keep your eyes peeled for two upcoming articles: what seasoning is and how to do it, and how to clean your pan once you've started cooking with it.

Your Homework

Go get a pan this week! When you do, remember: quality matters. Price does not.

The last time I was researching the brand history of cast iron insofar as it pertains to performance, I learned there were originally two big names in the business, Griswold and Wagner. These brands are not hard to find, first- or secondhand. The same pans can be bought at fancy kitchen boutiques and thrift stores, the difference being the price tag.

In fact, since the used pan will have already been seasoned to some extent, you could argue that the secondhand pans are actually more valuable, not less. So be cheap about this.

4 Comments on “Cast Iron Pans: Four Rules We’ve All Heard, Which Just Aren’t True

  1. I’ve always “marched to my own drummer”. I have a cast iron fry pan that belonged to my parents. I wipe it when I can and scrub it when I need to. I season it with a bit of oil on a low-med. temp on the stove top, then wipe away excess oil. Done, until next time.

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