My wife spotted the rust first. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the sink. Someone had left the cast-iron skillet — a potential family heirloom, mind you — in a puddle of dirty dish water. Someone had neglected it long enough that rust spots dotted the surface. Its lovingly seasoned sheen now looked dull, like the face of a faded starlet. Someone had a lot of explaining to do. OK, that someone was me. And I needed to fix it, pronto.
A quick Web search brought up a bushel of information — much of it contradictory. Never use soap! No, it’s OK to use some soap. Never boil water in it! No, boil water in it to loosen up caked-on bits. It’s unhealthy to cook with cast iron! No, it actually adds iron to your foods.
Here are five myths about using your cast-iron pan that need to be dispelled.
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1. Never, ever use soap: You’ve heard this one before, maybe from your nonna as she was handing down her precious pan on your wedding day. For the most part, you can ignore it. Unlike the harsh lye soap they used in the Little House on the Prairie, modern-day soap is gentle (it’s even soft on your hands!). If your pan is well-seasoned, a little soap and water won’t hurt it. I’ve always washed my cast iron skillet like any other dirty pan.
2. A new pan should always be seasoned: Actually, probably not. Most cast-iron pans that you buy today, like a Lodge Logic, will arrive pre-seasoned. Yes, the pan will take on a lovely patina with years of home cooking. But like a Mac, you can use it out of the box. Just remember to get it nice and hot before throwing on the food, and add a little oil or fat to prevent sticking.
3. Never use metal utensils: A lot of folks warn you to use wooden spoons so you won’t damage the surface. Not true. Light scraping while cooking polishes the iron, allowing the seasoning to adhere better to the pan. It’s actually good practice to promote this process. Within reason, of course. Don’t go at it with a jackhammer.
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4. Cast iron heats evenly: It’s true that a cast-iron skillet gets hotter and stays hotter than an aluminum pan of the same size, but the heat isn’t distributed evenly. With a small burner, the edges of the pan will be cooler than the center. For a truly hot pan, put it in a hot oven first. But because cast-iron skillets retain their heat longer, they’re great pans to bring from the oven to the table.
5. You should throw away a “ruined” cast-iron pan: Cast iron is basically indestructible. Your home oven will never get hot enough to melt it. If you somehow strip off the seasoning or, ahem, let it sit and rust, you can simply reseason it. Here’s how: Wash it thoroughly with soap and hot water, and a brush. Rinse and dry completely. Brush inside and out with vegetable oil. And place in a very, very hot oven, like 500 degrees, for an hour. Allow to cool and wipe clean.
Now, fry up some of this.