Kitchen PSA: Cast Iron Care

We deviate slightly from this blog’s travel mission to deliver an essential message for home:

Cast-iron pans are cheap, sturdy, non-stick, and incredibly easy to care for.

I have to say it, because people seem to have the wrong idea about cast iron–that it’s somehow a finicky, fragile thing that needs special care. And this idea was broadcast nationwide last night in an episode of “Selected Shorts,” when someone read Marc Maron’s essay about his cast-iron pan.

In the essay, which was first published in Lucky Peach, Maron talks about buying a cast-iron pan at a yard sale and becoming obsessed with preserving the seasoning. He barely cooks in it (there’s your problem right there, bub), and instead spends all his time coating it with lard and so on. He eventually has a bit of a breakdown, strips the seasoning with oven cleaner, and starts fresh, and has more of a breakdown, and then I couldn’t really hear because I was shouting too much.

I know–the cast-iron pan is a metaphor for Maron’s psyche. It’s not really about how to care for a skillet; it’s about how to care for yourself. And it didn’t even bother me much when I first read it in Lucky Peach, because I figured LP readers knew the practicalities of cast-iron pan care already.

But now, here’s Marc Maron on a nationally syndicated radio show, essentially giving the whole country a quickie lesson in how to care for your cast-iron skillet.

Or HOW NOT TO. With all his fretting, he set back the cause of cast iron 20 years!

Dude, first: the whole thing about no soap? It’s no big deal. Cast iron that’s well seasoned–like the pan you bought from the hipster at the yard sale–can handle a little soap. The seasoning is not going to evaporate when touched with soap. (That’s why you needed to resort to oven cleaner–insanely toxic oven cleaner, on a thing you’ll eat out of?!–to strip it off.) When I’m doing the dishes, I usually wash our skillets last, with the regular kitchen sponge–sometimes it still has some soap in it, sometimes it doesn’t.

Actually, it’s water that’s not great for the skillet. Sometimes I let the skillet soak a little, if there is something crusty on it, but this, in the long run, will do in the seasoning and dull the pan. But once, for an hour, to loosen up some scrambled eggs, will not hurt the pan noticeably.

Post-washing: dry the pan immediately. Shake the excess water off, and then set the pan on a low burner to dry. (You could of course dry it with a towel, but then your towel would get a bit greasy.)

Next up, Marc Maron: the thing about coating the pan with oil and letting the oil bake on. Yes, that’s lovely, but you only have to season the pan when it’s messed up–like, when you get one from a yard sale, and it’s all dull and maybe a little rusty. Do the oil-coating treatment once or twice, cook a couple things, and then you’re good to go.

The best thing to do for your cast-iron skillet is to cook bacon in it. When you’re done cooking the bacon, wipe out the grease with a paper towel, with a little extra friction on the stuck-on bits, and your pan will look great. Next time you pre-heat it, the last bit of bacon fat will cook in to even more seasoning. If you don’t do bacon, do something else fatty. Eventually, the seasoning will naturally build up.

Peter and I own four cast-iron skillets and one Dutch oven. We have so many because they’re like puppies–you see a cute one at a store, and you just want to give it a loving home. Plus, hey, they’re useful–you can fry things, you can deep-fry things, and you can bake pies and biscuits in them. You can fry eggs in them. Truly they’re wondrous.

And I do love cast iron for the same reason Marc Maron says he does: this object has lasted potentially a hundred or more years. It’s a connection to tradition, the past, etc. The beauty of that is that these mothers are tough.

And, just as important, they can change. Sometimes your skillet looks beautiful and shiny, and your eggs practically flip themselves. Sometimes you cooked with too much wine (acid eats away at the seasoning), and your skillet gets dull. Sometimes you forget to turn the burner off after it’s dry, and your skillet gets smoking mad. But–and listen here, Marc Maron–the skillet is resilient. It can handle bad stuff, and eventually be fine again–even better. It doesn’t need babying–it just needs to keep going, to be cooked in, to be loved.


  1. Didi says:

    I super love my cast iron pan!!!! I really thought it was difficult to maintain, but it is easy and not as delicate as I thought.

    So versatile too! I pan fry, bake, roast, deep fry in it 🙂

    Oh and I think it is a good weapon…just in case.

    I’m still lusting over a dutch oven. I would love to get a Staub or Le Creuset, but they’re just so expensive. But I will most likely settle with a Lodge one….not as colorful or pretty, but I know it will work wonderfully

  2. Baji says:

    Appreciate the sage and calm advice. Have always been nervous about getting one bc , in part, the maintenance scared me. Other part? I’m not muscular enough to wield one.

  3. Zora says:

    Didi, I had not thought about the weapon aspect, but it’s totally true! Brilliant.

    Re: those enamel Dutch ovens, keep an eye out in thrift stores. That’s where I got mine. It has a little chipping of the enamel inside, but otherwise fine.

    Baji, I can assure you the maintenance is no biggie. The muscular part, funny you should mention it. Last year sometime, I pitched in to some Kickstarter thing for a nicey-nice cast-iron skillet because…I don’t know, it just seemed like a nicely designed one.

    Well. It finally showed up (after months of comically apologetic emails about delays in the production process; if they ever make a parody film of the crowdfunding era, this is great raw material), and I CANNOT LIFT THE THING. It weighs 8 pounds, 6 ounces. Our biggest other skillet weighs 4 pounds, 5 ounces.

    Typing that out, I feel really wimpy. I should be able to lift 10 pounds one-handed, right? But I can’t. On the plus side, the other skillets feel really light now.

    Anyway, the moral of the story is: Don’t buy a skillet until you know how much it weighs, and don’t trust Portland hipster dudes to design a skillet you can use. But I think you could probably handle a standard Lodge skillet….

  4. Zora says:

    Oh, BUT: it’s better to get an old skillet from a thrift store or a yard sale or something. The Lodge skillets are fine, but the surface of them is not particularly smooth, so even though they’re nice and pre-seasoned, they’re not that super-slick surface. Not that things get very stuck or anything–it’s just not as nice as it could be.

    They also have an slightly annoying seam around the handle, from the edge of the mold.

    I think if I only had a Lodge skillet, I wouldn’t complain, but since I have a few others, I know how nice and smooth they can be…

  5. Peter Moskos says:

    I *would* complain about Lodge. The seam is very annoying. But more important is that fact that they are too lazy or cheap to sand the cooking surface to super smooth means you never get a beautifully black smooth no-stick patina. (and they’re expensive).
    And “pre-seasoned” means absolutely nothing more than cooking bacon in it three times. For real now.

  6. Zora says:

    A good tip from Mitch Hellman, via Facebook:

    If you feel the need to get some bit of crud out of the pan and don’t want to subject it to scraping/soaking/gnawing by hungry rodents, sprinkle some kosher salt in the pan and rub it around the pan with a paper towel. It works especially well if the pan is still a little bit damp. It will also absorb extra grease that may be lingering in the pan and waiting for you to transfer it to one of your cloth towels.

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