Cast iron skillets are one of the most loved items in any kitchen. They are durable, hold heat incredibly well, are versatile and have the ability to be the best nonstick item in your cupboard. Need to make a cake or cornbread? Great, throw it in the oven and you won’t need to worry about the handle melting off. Want to sear a steak to perfection? Done. Going camping? Throw one in with the gear and you are set for every meal. When a good friend of mine was given a cast iron skillet from his mother, he asked me how to care for it and suggested a Basics 101 type post. I couldn’t agree more and was probably way too excited to do it. Do you see my love for cast iron coming through?
If you are looking to purchase a piece there are some things you should look for and some to avoid. You can go to any big box retailer and purchase a new piece. There is naked (also called raw) iron which is gray-black in color or there is enameled, which is typically white on the inside with a flashy color on the outside. I prefer naked, raw iron for skillets. My Dutch oven and griddle/grill pan is made by Lodge, which makes most of the stuff you see in stores. To get the best made skillets though you cannot go into a typical retailer.
To find the best cast iron hunt antique shops, grandma’s kitchen, yard sales and consignment stores. Brand also matters here as Griswold and Wagner are the most sought after because they are rare and were made incredibly well. My Wagner is actually a WagnerWare (still really good and old, but not as good of quality) that was handed down to me through 2 other generations at least. The Griswold I have is something my grandfather and I found while we were hunting through antique stores one day.
There are a few things to watch out for when buying a used skillet. You want to make sure there are no cracks and look for a machined finish. Modern cast iron companies no longer do a machine finish. Why? It is time consuming, which drives up cost. Who would want to spend $100 on a piece of cookware that will last generations when there is a new iPhone out…that will last maybe 2 years if you don’t drop and crack it 3 weeks after getting it? I will step off my soap box now. Instead these new cost-efficient skillets have bumps which you can see if you look carefully. You want to feel the inside and expect it to be as smooth as glass. If you already have a more modern skillet though, do not fret. You will still get amazing results but it will take more time. One of my favorite ways to get a good season build up is to cook bacon and sausage. Naturally they will not stick much because of the fat content. So make a few indulgent breakfasts (or dinners) and you will have a non-stick surface. It will not be as smooth as glass because of the bumps, but it will still do wonderfully.
One of the things many people are concerned about is how to care for cast iron. It really is easy but everyone has an opinion on how to wash them. Water, no water, soap, no soap, salt, oil…it goes on and on. I use a little of everything depending on what I cook. If I make fish I am definitely using soap and water, but only lightly wiping it with a soapy paper towel. I don’t want that fishy smell lingering. Anything else I typically rinse with hot water and dry, no soap. I then dry completely with paper towels and place a small amount of canola oil on a paper towel and thinly coat the inside. This helps protect the naked iron, especially if you live in a humid area. I also store them with a paper towel inside of it. If it needs scrubbing I use salt. Here is the deal with salt: you do not want to remove the season from your skillet. Scrubbing it to death with steel wool, scrub brushes, soap and the like slowly removes the layers of seasoning. What is this seasoning I am referring to? I like to think of it as years of love which happens to make the skillet non stick and better with age. Using coarse kosher salt does an awesome job scrubbing but adds too, instead of removes, those layers of love.