Easy vs "Easy"
February 26, 2010 5:14 AM   Subscribe

Are cast iron pans easy or "easy"?

I just threw away a frying pan with the teflon peeling off. I really hate throwing away so much good raw material merely because the surface has degraded, so I thought maybe I should use a traditional cast iron pan instead.

I've heard they are easy, all you do is blah blah blah. Whatever, the exact steps don't matter. My real question is: Is it really easy? And by "really easy" I mean is the pan in charge of me or am I in charge of the pan?

To me, ease of maintenance is less about the time spent or difficulty of performing the maintenance and more about the rigidity required. If I can go several months doing nothing, notice it needs doing, then put it off a few weeks more, I'll be pretty happy. If I have to adhere faithfully to a strict schedule I won't be able to handle it.
posted by DU to Food & Drink (78 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Basically every time you use it, you have to dry it thoroughly, and then 'treat' it with oil. So pretty strict, if you ask me. But well worth it, as well, since they last forever (and can be renewed, if not treated for years), but if you plan to use it regularly, it will require regular maintenance...
posted by Grither at 5:18 AM on February 26, 2010

I don't think they're easy. But then I used mine like a cretin and it's not very non-stick at all. It was a griddle, and I just couldn't get cooked food off it without resort to washing up liquid.

I've since bought a good quality set of hard anodized pans are they are the mutt's nuts - and easy to clean too. They might only last half a lifetime, rather than a whole lifetime but I can cope with that.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:21 AM on February 26, 2010

You also have to learn how to cook all over again. Cast iron acts very differently than teflon, and everything from how to cook an egg to how to pan-fry chicken you'll have to relearn.
posted by valkyryn at 5:22 AM on February 26, 2010

I would go with very easy.

As long as you're adding oil when you cook, all you need to do is use a rubber scraper (like this one Scraper) and running water to clean it. Get all the gunk off with the scraper and don't use any soap or the rough side of a sponge.

Finally, put the the pan on top of your stove and heat it up until it is completely dry. This will only take a couple minutes. After that, let it cool down and you can put it away. I like using cast iron because it means clean up involves a little scraping and heating on the stove. It doesn't even take up space in a drying rack.
posted by just.good.enough at 5:24 AM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've found just the cleaning to be a pain in the ass if you are cooking something greasy like hamburgers. They invented soap for a reason.
posted by smackfu at 5:33 AM on February 26, 2010

They're "easy," not easy.

If you want cookware that lasts and is easy, you'd want good quality sandwich stainless (ie allclad and the like). You don't have to do anything weird to it, it cleans up with soap and water or in the dishwasher.

You might still want some nonstick. Around here we've resigned ourselves to nonstick being disposable and learned to buy accordingly. There's something very annoying about throwing out the $100 THE NONSTICKITUDE LASTS FOREVER OMG!!!! pan that's five years old and now the stickiest thing in the universe that isn't annoying about pitching a $25 pan that's a year and a half old that you knew wouldn't last.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:35 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

And by "really easy" I mean is the pan in charge of me or am I in charge of the pan?

We have one and it's wonderful. It cooks things with a fantastic crust and I haven't had to do any real maintenance to it.

It is different to use then a stamped metal pan. It takes much longer to get hot and then it stays hot-- I tend to set the burner high to get it going, and then turn the flame back at some point because it gets crazy hot.

If it's properly seasoned (with a solid coating of black all over it), it's low maintenance. Eggs (which are a good measure of how "non-stick" a pan is) are no problem. We clean ours with a plastic scrubby and water-- no soap. We dry it in a rack.

I emphasize that it must be properly seasoned-- I don't have any tips on that I inherited mine from a dead relative and it came to me with a thick layer of carbon already all over it. But it's fantastic and somewhere between 70 and 80 years old, so I think they're a good investment.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:35 AM on February 26, 2010

Very easy for me, because I grew up with cast iron pans and after getting some for myself, I eased right back into the care routine I'd learned as a child, which I think can best be described as "benign neglect".

Impossible for my husband, who has barely washed a pan in his life but for some reason feels an uncontrollable urge to let cast iron soak in a sink full of soapy water overnight.
posted by padraigin at 5:37 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Easy, as just.good.enough notes.

I have a two cast-iron pans and rarely do anything to clean them. Mostly I just wipe them out. Occasionally I'll rinse them with water, but only if the particular dish was really messy. Otherwise, I add oil when I cool and have a non-stick surface.
posted by chiefthe at 5:38 AM on February 26, 2010

Very easy, but only on the other side of a learning curve. They're only nonstick while they are properly seasoned. They only stay seasoned if you AVOID USING SOAP when washing. I use hot water and a scotchbrite pad to remove stuck-on chunks of food, then wipe out with a paper towel. After the seasoning is established, you should rarely, if ever, have to add oil besides the fats you cook with. You can never leave them sitting in the sink full of water for hours.

Basically, maintenance of cast iron pans is like maintenance of sharp knives; there's not a lot of work to be done, but you have to treat them properly every time you use them or you can ruin the edge / seasoning very quickly. If you are careless then you will certainly be disappointed with either.
posted by jon1270 at 5:40 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mom let two not at all careful kids wash her castiron. Only rule was no soap. We left it sitting, didn't dry it right after and generally abused it. And occassionally it needed new oil.
posted by jb at 5:40 AM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: If you want cookware that lasts and is easy, you'd want good quality sandwich stainless (ie allclad and the like).

I've heard of this for pots, but pans? If there's a third option between throwing out NONSTICK 4EVA pans every couple years and "it's so easy, all you need is a degree in wash-and-dryology", I'd love to hear about it.
posted by DU at 5:45 AM on February 26, 2010

I think they're very easy, but it's also clear from the comments that some people can't get the hang of them, so I guess your mileage may vary.

I have a set of cast iron pans that ranges from four inches in diameter up to about 18 inches. My wife and I use them to cook everything from long meat braises to sauce to pizza. They go in oven, on the table, under the broiler, and of course on the stovetop. We cook the messiest shit in them, and they're always easy to clean. Most times they just need to be wiped out, occasionally with water. They're also easier to cook with, as they heat much more evenly and can be left unattended for longer periods of time. (It does take some adjustment to account for how much better they retain heat, they do not cool quickly if you've gotten them hotter than you'd like.) I also never reseason them as they don't need it. They all needed a bit of fiddly shit at the beginning, but that was literally years ago, and works out, at this point, to less than a minute of direct maintenance every year. They'll literally never ever wear out. If there's some sort of cooking disaster with one I could put it outside for a year, go back at it with some steel wool, and be using it within a couple of hours of scrubbing the birdshit off it.

I love cast iron skillets. I think they're the greatest all around cooking pot made, and that they give astounding value for money. My love is precisely because they are easy and something I never have to worry or think about.
posted by OmieWise at 5:45 AM on February 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

Heathen here. We never clean our cast-iron. It sits on the stove between uses with whatever grease or crust was left over from the last time. Whatever flavour was in the last dish marries into the next. Everything that comes out of those pans has magic flavour. Say what you want about how disgusting we must be for being so unhygenic, but when I sautee onions or do a stir-fry or cook a burger or sausages, or sear a salmon steak, or cook up some eggplant, the best tastes comes out of that pan. I'll take a metal spatula to it every month or so and scrape it down just on general principles.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:46 AM on February 26, 2010

If there's a third option between throwing out NONSTICK 4EVA pans every couple years and "it's so easy, all you need is a degree in wash-and-dryology", I'd love to hear about it.

IKEA sells non-stick pans on the cheap that you won't feel bad about tossing. I paid six bucks for a non-stick pot over six years ago and it's still in decent shape. It might not be if it were a skillet, but still they're cheap.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:50 AM on February 26, 2010

I'm going with "easy" not because of the care, because that doesn't have to be super fussy, but because I don't agree that they are good for all things. I love using mine for cooking pork chops, steaks, and fried chicken. I don't use them for eggs or simmering things in a sauce.
posted by cabingirl at 5:51 AM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: It sounds like there's no way I could get into a new cast iron pan bought from the store. I'm not going to carefully do some "proper" procedure every time, even for a few years at the beginning.

However, if I find a cheap blackened pan at a flea market or yard sale, it might be worth trying the never-wash technique.
posted by DU at 5:57 AM on February 26, 2010

Seconding seanmpuckett. You can get obsessive about washing it with water, drying it, and oiling it after every use, but seriously, once it's properly seasoned it's no maintenance. Not low maintenance - no maintenance. I'll wipe mine out with a paper towel if it's particularly greasy or crusty, but if I'm in a hurry or I just fried an egg and some potatoes, I don't bother. It sits on the stove or in the oven until I need it again. It's the best purchase I've ever made.
posted by Roommate at 6:02 AM on February 26, 2010

I've heard of this for pots, but pans?

Well, why not? It's stainless steel. You can use metal spatulas on it. You can wash it with detergent, scrub it with a metal scourer if you feel the need, and leave it to soak if that sounds too much like hard work. And then use a metal spatula again without damaging it. And you can cook tomato-based and other acidic things in it without drama. Can you tell that I like my stainless pan??
posted by Lebannen at 6:02 AM on February 26, 2010

People have different experiences, obviously, but I find them very easy. If you want to over-think your refried beans, the "Cooking Issues" blog over at the French Culinary Institute has an extensive cast-iron primer--the up shot is that it's very easy, you should "season" at quite high heat, and ordinary soaps are actually ok for cast iron.
They are cheap, too. Go to a hardware store and by a 9" lodge. Season it in a very hot oven as the link suggests, and then play with it. You can always go back to throwing away money on other stuff.
posted by Mngo at 6:05 AM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: Well, why not? It's stainless steel.

You misundertand. I wasn't doubting they'd be a great idea. I was doubting such a holy grail could possibly exist. A non-stick, no-"seasoning" frying pan that I can use metal spatulas in? Why do the teflon and cast iron ones even exist anymore in such a transcendentally awesome universe?
posted by DU at 6:07 AM on February 26, 2010

It sounds like there's no way I could get into a new cast iron pan bought from the store.

Yes, you can. Lodge pre-seasoned cast iron pans are cheap and awesome.
posted by sugarfish at 6:10 AM on February 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I have had great success with my cast iron after determining that it just isn't very good at moist or sticky kinds of foods. Steaks, grilled cheese, tortillas, pancakes? Wonderful. Braises and sauces and eggs? Not so good.

It won't become completely nonstick like teflon, but actually have a good stickiness to slippery ratio. You want a hamburger or a steak to stick initially to get a good sear on the surface, and then loosen up when it is time to turn it. If you are trying to cook eggs, you need to use bacon grease or butter.

Regular maintenance: nylon brush and hot water. And yes, a little soap (not detergent, but soap made of oil and lye) if it gets to smelling funny or gets a film of greasy weirdness. The only real "must" is that when you are done with it, you really need to make sure it is covered with a thin film of oil. At next cooking time, warm it up and wipe the old oil out if you desire. Or heat it up to 11 and smoking to do a quick reseason.

For a brand new one that hasn't been preseasoned, the conventional wisdom is to scrub it down completely, since the oil that's on it might be mineral oil. Coat it in lard/shortening, throw it in the oven, or on the grill, and heat it up until it is smoking. And let it go until it quits smoking. Let it cool down and recoat with oil and let it sit. After that, it should be good to go, pretty much forever.
posted by gjc at 6:12 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a two cast-iron pans and rarely do anything to clean them. Mostly I just wipe them out. Occasionally I'll rinse them with water, but only if the particular dish was really messy. Otherwise, I add oil when I cool and have a non-stick surface.

This is our care regimen for Griswold antiques that we use every day.
posted by fixedgear at 6:12 AM on February 26, 2010

I had and used a cast iron skillet for years. You get used to the hassle of cleaning it, which is about all the good I can say for it; I took Alton Brown's method of pouring some kosher salt into it (for the scratchiness) and rubbing it around with a paper towel. It worked, it was not difficult, but I got sick of wasting salt and paper towels and not being able to clean it more thoroughly. Putting water in it screws it up, I'm not sure why people are suggesting that... I had, on a few rare occasions, the need to use water and sometimes even soap because something had gone so horribly wrong that nothing else would work, but it removes any semblance of nonstick that may have been present.

On top of this, they're not very nonstick, even if you have and use them without incident for months -- nothing at all like teflon. (Which isn't a plug for teflon, I won't use the stuff.)

Stainless steel is way easier. Hardly anything is gonna stick horribly to it unless you suck at cooking, and you can put it in the dishwasher. If I want something not to stick I use fat, which I was using in the cast iron anyway. I can turn over-medium eggs without the yolk breaking so that's nonstick enough for me. Unless you're making crepes or something it should be fine -- in which case you'd want a teflon pan anyway, I wouldn't make crepes in cast iron.

Cast iron has other advantages, like getting and staying EXTREMELY hot, so some people like to do this "sear on the burner, move to the oven" dance with steaks. I did this for a while but the cast iron would be so hot that I'd have to be really fast even through two layers of oven mitts, and there was a lot more burning going on so the smoke was irritating. Then I started making steaks straight under the broiler instead with far better results -- better taste, better texture, smoke-free -- and I quit using cast iron ever.
posted by Nattie at 6:20 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised not to have read it yet, but in my experience the "easy" vs easy determination is a function of frequency of use. If you use a pan daily or even every couple of days, then it's an easy routine to get into. A lot of people (as mentioned above) just leave cast iron pans on the stove. If you use it less frequently, and it may be in a drawer for several weeks between uses, then it will seem more "easy" than easy. Some of the distinction is related to perception, some due to the fact that a stored pan can get dusty, or if something wet was placed in the same drawer, rusty in spots which can require a little work to deal with prior to use.

One other thing I haven't read is that one of the best friction agents is salt. When you're ready to clean your pan, dump some salt in it and take a paper towel (the classic version of this suggests newspaper) and use the gritty salt to remove residue. Cleaning is all about the interplay between water and heat and/or friction and/or detergents and you can pick any two to do the job - so you should never need soap (this is true of many things by the way).
posted by mikel at 6:23 AM on February 26, 2010

I've heard of this for pots, but pans?

Sure. Sometimes things stick. Then you throw it in the dishwasher on ATOMIC DEATH SCRUB and it comes out clean.

I was doubting such a holy grail could possibly exist. A non-stick, no-"seasoning" frying pan that I can use metal spatulas in?

Simple: stainless sandwich isn't nonstick. Put a little oil down right before cooking and sticking is unlikely*. But it happens sometimes. It just isn't a big deal.

And the other alternative is cheap nonstick that you know won't last.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:39 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I've got some cast iron that I use for high-heat applications like steak and hamburgers and cornbread, but everything else goes into stainless (except eggs, which go into hard-anodized non-stick pans). The only time anything sticks to the stainless is if I'm careless with the heat or use too little fat. Almost nothing sticks to the cast iron.

And even when something sticks--and this is as true of the stainless as of the cast iron--I hit it with cold water while it's still red-hot, and 90%+ of the stuck-on stuff comes right up. I don't remember the last time I had to do anything to the cast iron besides water, a quick wipe with a paper towel, and a layer of oil.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:46 AM on February 26, 2010

If my Griswold griddle has food crust stuck on it, I just heat it up and throw in 1/2 C of cold water and scrape it gently with a metal spatula. Then I wipe it dry and polish with a terry cloth rag. Done.
Griswold enthusiasts have a wonderful and informative web site. I remember seeing two photos there. One pan shown was cleaned only by water and wiping, the other was scrubbed with soap and scrubber. The microscopic close up of the surfaces will convince anyone to NOT use soap. The soaped one had mountain ranges.
posted by Pennyblack at 6:56 AM on February 26, 2010

Unless you're making crepes or something it should be fine -- in which case you'd want a teflon pan anyway, I wouldn't make crepes in cast iron.

I surprised myself by making thin crepe-style pancakes in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet last Tuesday, and they didn't stick at all with a thin misting of oil before pouring the batter. (The perfect pan for that job is thinner carbon steel, i.e. still not non-stick.)

If you're weaning yourself off nonstick and want a general purpose pan, then a good stainless steel saute pan is the way to go; if you want something that retains heat well for bacon and other "skillet" stuff where you're browning and cooking through, then cast iron; if you want a no-hassle egg pan, look for hard anodised aluminium.
posted by holgate at 6:58 AM on February 26, 2010

I vote for EASY, complete with flashing text and dancing unicorns. I've never bought cast iron that was fancier than Lodge, and all I do to take care of it is not use soap when washing it and not leaving it in the sink all night. That's all.

Do use metal utensils, because the scraping helps keep the pan shiny and nice. And do use it once in a while for frying bacon or hamburger -- those kinds of heavy meat fats seem to do nice things for the pans that olive oil never will.

I guess when they are new it helps to put a little oil in them after cleaning a few times, but I haven't done that in years. I use mine for eggs and braising and occasionally baking and sauces (including tomato) and anything else that will fit. I don't own any other kind of frying pan, and don't feel the need for another, either.

So yeah, EASY!!!!! it is -- someone else can write the greasemonkey script to animate the dancing unicorns.
posted by Forktine at 7:05 AM on February 26, 2010

I'm one of those people who never got on with cast iron pans.

That is, until I bought enamelled cast iron pans, which were really popular a hundred years ago and probably deserve greater popularity today.

They're made from the same heavy cast iron, but coated with enamel. So no rusting, no need to keep coated in oil. Clean up like a steel pan. Relatively non-stick, although it doesn't develop 'seasoning'. All the benefits that come with the weight and thermal conductivity of a normal cast iron pan. More expensive. But they work really well for me. They're not designed for super-high temperatures, so don't expect to be able to heat them till they glow red. But they'll still cook a steak to perfection.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:07 AM on February 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I went to cast iron a few years ago; after the first month or so I didn't bother with oiling or anything. I just make sure not to let it soak in water. You can let it sit all gross with food in it and clean it later if you need to (and salt and oil is a good scrub if necessary). When I feel like it's getting sticky because I took bad care of it, I make grilled cheese in it and then don't clean it and the butter seems to fix the problem. I think I paid $6 for it.

I do keep a cheap-o non-stick pan around for when I know I'll want to throw it in the dishwasher as soon as I'm done with it, since some days in my life are not conducive to hand-washing or leaving things on the counter!

And now I want grilled cheese worse than anything
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:17 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for enamelled cast iron -- the only downside is cost, plus you need to take care not to scratch the enamel or your pan WILL rust from the inside out. I have an enamelled cast iron dutch oven and absolutely LOVE it.

Cast iron is the best possible material for high-temperature cooking -- nothing gets as fabulously crusted from any other kind of pan. Unfortunately, my husband and I are cast-iron nimrods and can't seem to keep from destroying it -- that's why we still buy and use the regular nonstick frying pans (I cannot seem to cook an egg in a stainless steel frying pan without fusing it to the pan at a molecular level.)
posted by kataclysm at 7:19 AM on February 26, 2010

If you want it to be easy, it can be easy.

Get a pre-seasoned cast iron pan. Cover it with some bacon fat or oil and stick in the oven to season it some more; maybe repeat this once or twice a year if needed.

Use at least a bit of oil to cook. Use pot holders for the handle. When you're done cooking and the pan's cooled, wipe it down or clean it with a brush and water. This usually takes less than a minute. When you're lazy and leave it out, you might need to soak it a bit (and/or use salt as suggested above). Then dry it and you're done. (I guess you can add oil, but I haven't bothered.)

Just get a cast iron griddle and make some damn pancakes already.
posted by parudox at 7:24 AM on February 26, 2010

Cast iron is easy (and excellent) for meat, breads, braises, many veggies, and generally things that hold together well and you can cook at high heat. However, for things like eggs that break apart easily and need more gentle heat, "easy" needs some giant scare quotes.
posted by Schismatic at 7:29 AM on February 26, 2010

With the exception of a non-stick pan for eggs (I'm just not that good or patient, at least for scrambled), all my pans are stainless clad and I pretty much never wish for anything else*. There's a learning curve at first; things stick until they're ready to not stick, and the trick is learning to leave them alone to that point. If you do get crud in the bottom, the maneuver is the same as the best suggestions for cast iron: get it hot, hit it with a cup of water - basically deglazing the pan, and then for stainless run a flat-edge metal spatula over the bottom and up it comes. Watch any working-kitchen footage and you'll see stainless on all the cooktops and in the oven; there's nothing odd about clad stainless pans.

But I think a Lodge pre-seasoned 10" or 12" skillet is a great starter pan for cast iron - not so expensive or sentimental that you're going to be sad if it doesn't work out for you, plenty good enough to start with if it turns out you like it.

*Only a cast iron grill pan, which I will eventually acquire.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:32 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

i grew up in a house with a big ole cast iron skillet that stood the test of time as doled out by 5 young'uns who rotated turns doing the dishes. we never--i repeat, never--did anything the least big special to that skillet. which was a relief, because we also were charged with cleaning the copper-bottom revere ware my parents had gotten as a wedding gift & which my mother insisted look as good decades later as they did when she got them (and they did). those, my friend, are a pain in the ass.

the cast iron, though? i scoff at cast iron! and probably spit at, jumped on, and dropped a dozen or more times. my mother *might* have re-seasoned the skillet at some point in time, but for the most part, we used it to fry stuff up, let the pan cool down, wash it (sometimes by scrubbing the heck out of it with one of those green scratchy pad thingies), and then stuck it back in the oven, which is where we kept the big skillets & a large cooking pot or two.

one of my siblings probably has that skillet to this day. unless you leave it out in the rain for weeks on end, those things are practically indestructible.
posted by msconduct at 7:36 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how they could not be described as easy. You cook the stuff, and 95% of the time you just wipe it down with a paper towel or dish cloth and you're done. The trick is in actually using a proper amount of oil when you cook really sticky food.

5% of the time you have to run it under the water first or throw some hot water in and scrape stuff off. Then dry it off. It's only worth fussing with rubbing oil in if you're not going to use it again for a while.

People will tell you that you have to follow some fussy magic routine, but this is total bunk. Obsessive people will tell you that about everything in life, and there are a lot of obsessive people about cooking. It's even easier than nonstick because once you realize that there's rarely any need for washing, you stop doing it all the time.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:44 AM on February 26, 2010

A dumb question: will a cast iron pan rip up my smoothtop, glass-top stove?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:47 AM on February 26, 2010

Addendum: I just made scrambled eggs. I put about a tablespoon of oil in, and--this is the important part--waited for the pan and oil to actually get properly shimmering hot. Cooked the eggs. Turned the pan sideways and dumped them onto my toast. Literally not a flake of egg stuck to the pan. Gave it a little wipe out of superstition (it was already clean), and put it back on the range. Been doing that for years with the same pan.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:56 AM on February 26, 2010

Eggs are kind of an exception to lots of rules. They will absolutely stick to steel or iron if you add them cold. I have a small nonstick egg pan so that Ms. Vegetable can make eggs without worrying about it. Otherwise the iron wok is terribly easy; I stir fry and fry and just wipe it out. I don't worry about maintaining Wok Of The Ages level seasoning; I make soup in there sometimes and just oil it after.

I spend way more effort on my stainless than my cast iron, because the fancy stainless is about 50x more expensive ($200 allclad saucepan; that's mostly a status item. America's Test Kitchen claims that there exist very inexpensive functional sandwich stainless now) and also quite pretty if you keep it from scratching. Stainless steel is only kind of non-stick. Most stuff will come right out, and the residual will typically release with soap and water. I've gotten horrible burn out by adding water and letting it come to a slow simmer for a while and gently scraping with a wooden spoon. That and rubbing with towels and vinegar.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:57 AM on February 26, 2010

Another vote for super-easy. And for getting a used pan at a flea market or garage sale. Many of the new pans come with a pebbly sort of finish, and the old ones are well-worn and smooth. Cleanup is super-easy, and if you have a well-seasoned pan, it forgives all the OMG NEVER DO THIS stuff like occasionally sitting in water, etc.
posted by judith at 7:58 AM on February 26, 2010

I think we have 6 cast-iron skillets, dutch ovens, and griddles in our house. A few comments:

- We scour all our cast-iron with salt and paper towels to clean them. We always dry and oil them immediately after.
- They get easier to use with age.
- Having a really smooth surface is important—our youngest griddle has a slightly sandy surface that's hard to clean with salt. I would like to take that thing to a machine shop and have it ground smooth.
- There are some things we just won't cook on cast iron, like bacon, which requires a soapy cleanup. Since we cook mostly savory food in cast-iron, we wouldn't cook anything sweet in them, because there would probably be some residual flavor.
- We always cook eggs in cast iron. Cleanup is easy, but not as easy (in my experience) as no-stick.
- Cast-iron a different style of cooking and you get different results. Try making a quesadilla in a no-stick, and then try it with a cast-iron skillet. You don't get the nice crispy browning in a no-stick.
- A 14" cast-iron skillet is heavy.
posted by adamrice at 8:18 AM on February 26, 2010

I have a cast iron pan and love it, though I rarely use it for frying anything, I mostly use it in the oven where it's fantastic because it holds heat so well. I leave it in the oven while the oven is preheating and then add the food to the hot pan once the oven is hot. It actually makes fries (the McCain low-fat kind, no less) in the oven that are edible.

When it's hot I add some boiling water (I always have boiling water) to the pan and then come back and loosen all the residue with a scrubby brush when I'm ready to clean it. This really doesn't require any scrubbing, I'm just using the brush to push away already-loose crumbs of food. I let it dry on a hot stove. I don't think I've ever seasoned it. If I didn't add boiling water when the pan was hot, I go back and add some boiling water later. I've definitely thought about not washing it. It looks clean enough to just wipe down most of the time, but I couldn't bring myself to re-use the pan without washing. Now that I find others do it, maybe I will too.

But a question for the people throwing in cold water when the pan is hot: Aren't you risking cracking the pan with the sudden temperature change?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:23 AM on February 26, 2010

Here was a nice previous thread about working with cast iron pans.

In my own experience, if you have a cast iron pan, you have a pet that requires a certain amount of care. If you and those who will be in contact with your pet agree to take care of it (or leave the care to you), then it's not so bad. I wouldn't mind a cast iron pan, but I don't have time for a pet. Instead, I have some Calphalon hard anodized and teflon coated pans. When the teflon is shot, I return it to Calphalon and they send me a free replacement. I would hope that they recycle the pan material.
posted by plinth at 8:23 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna pretty much ditto Lyn Never's comment.

My question is, what are you cooking and does it really require non-stick teflon? Because unless it's, say, eggs, then stainless steel or enameled cast iron ought to do just fine, and in fact better.

If you're cooking a chicken breast, or a steak, or a hamburger - you don't need non-stick for that. Heat the pan, then add some oil, give the oil a minute to get good and hot, then add the meat. If it sticks at all, it will unstick when it's ready to turn over. When it's done cooking, yes there will probably be some bits of brown stuff "stuck" on the pan - but that's what you make sauce with! :) While the pan is still hot, pour in a little wine or stock (or both) - which will immediately start to sizzle and boil. Stir around, scraping the bottom and the brown stuff will dissolve into the liquid. Voila, you now have pan sauce. (Swirl in a little butter at the end and it's even better.) You can sorta do this in teflon pans, but the results aren't quite as tasty.

I keep two skillets - one stainless steel clad, and one teflon coated. The non stick one is mainly for eggs.

Finally - I don't think I've seen anyone mention it - but some people think that teflon pans give off scary dangerous fumes. I've read this is mainly only the case if you over heat them while empty, but still, it seems to me that less use of teflon is probably a good idea overall. (Also, the idea of buying cheap ones and tossing them out frequently seems to me appallingly wasteful. Spend some money for a good solid one - mine's one of the All Clad lines, was on sale around $80 - use it a little less and keep good care of it and it will last years. Calphalon even sells some with lifetime warranty - if the coating comes off, send it back for a new one.)
posted by dnash at 8:29 AM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: A trip to Amazon could have prevented this question. For some reason, I thought cast iron pans were really expensive, so I was doing research first. A 10" Lodge is like $15-$20. I can find out for myself if they are easy or "easy".
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on February 26, 2010

Yes. It is easy. I am super lazy and I have one. I take my time about getting around to cleaning it after I have it. Etc. The only thing that you have to do becomes (a) habit and (b) pleasure, so it doesn't feel like work. After you wash it without soap (seriously, the no-soap prohibition saves a step and becomes habit), you put it on a burner, turn on the gas, watch the water evaporate, and rub some oil on it. It takes about 2 minutes, and if you time it right, you'll still be doing other dishes at the same time. This is no harder than the first steps you take when cooking: turning on the heat, pouring a little oil, grabbing a paper towel, and smearing the oil around. It's fun to watch the water sizzle away, and then rubbing on the oil on changes its color to a deep purple-brown, so it is fun. Other maintenance, you might eventually want to do for even better non-stick properties, but it isn't really a problem if you skip it, in my experience.

All of this is much less hassle than Teflon-type pans, which you have to constantly worry about, monitor your (not metal!) utensil use, monitor the heat to keep the coating from evaporating, and then repurchase regularly. It is also less hassle to me than ceramic pans because those are less non-stick, at least for the things I cook, like eggs. It is competitive for me, in terms of non-worry, with the high-end stainless steel ones. It cooks really well, and it is bomb-proof.
posted by salvia at 8:50 AM on February 26, 2010

I've ruined a cast iron pan, so I think that they're "easy." However, if you want something like teflon, but stronger, look around at non-stick ceramic pans. Lately we've been buying Earth Chef pans as they're on sale and tossing out old teflon ones.

The oldest one that we have is only 1 year, so I can't really say much on whether it will truly stand the test of time, but so far we've used metal implements on it a few times, and the surface is still flawless. Baked on dried out cruft from cooking wipes off with water and mild elbow grease the next morning if we're lazy on the post-dinner clean up.
posted by nobeagle at 8:52 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, more closely reading the earlier comments, I'll second the fact that if you just need to heat up something that isn't too messy (tofu, say), you can just leave it -- you don't even have to clean it -- because all you did is add a little oil to the pan, which soaks in anyway.
posted by salvia at 8:54 AM on February 26, 2010

EASY: buy pre-seasoned. Cook mostly meat in it, mostly using the searing method (preheat the pan as hot as possible, put the meat in, don't fuck around with it, just leave it there until it's ready to turn over. Same thing on the other side.) When it's done wipe out any leftover bits with a paper towel; if necessary spray a bit of oil in and spread that round with a second paper towel, turn the heat back on under the empty pan for a few minutes until the oil dries out. Done. The pan never goes near the sink, and rarely goes in the cupboard either because you'll fall in love with it and use it constantly and anyway it's fucking heavy so you don't want to be carrying it around all the time.

"Easy": buy unseasoned and use it as is. Cook a lot of wet sauces and eggs and the like in it, at medium temperatures without preheating, and habitually stir your food around immediately after you put it in the pan: this will maximize stickiness and burn lots of hard to remove crud onto the pan. Scrub the hell out of it with soap and water and a scouring brush after you're done, which is a lot of work and will make it even worse for next time.

"Easy" (alternate): develop an elaborate and frequently-performed seasoning ritual that involves some combination of salt and oil and scrubbing and multiple layers of oil and baking the pan in the oven for hours and adding boiling water and waving magic chicken bones and etc.
posted by ook at 9:06 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have my Mom's cast iron pans, and just got a big cast iron pan at Goodwill. My old pans have been scrubbed with a wire scrubbie so often, they're very slick, and nothing sticks, except scrambled eggs. I use small amounts of dishwashing detergent if needed. I don't think I've ever re-seasoned any of them, and they're all a pleasure to use. Best way to re-season cast iron is to cook bacon or anything with lots of fat.

It's cast iron; it's not delicate. It's also slightly porous, so if you soak it with detergent, it will pick up some flavor; if you soak it with water, it may rust; don't do that. It will pick up curry flavors, but I don't mind if my grilled garlic bread has a bit of turmeric flavor. I've never fussed much about my cast iron pans, and they are in great shape.
posted by theora55 at 9:07 AM on February 26, 2010

Stainless steel works great for me with everything except for eggs. For eggs, I have a mid-range Teflon pan from Calphalon. When the Teflon wears out, I'll send it back to Calphalon.

I tried cast iron, and found it to be a pain in the ass. Maintenance was a pain, and things still stuck to it. Maybe the cheap Lodge skillet I bought was not a good representative of cast iron's potential.

I admit that I do slightly covet the Le Creuset enameled cast iron dutch ovens.
posted by paulg at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2010

Welcome to the ferrous holy war. I'm firmly in the "Easy? You're out of your mind!" camp, since anything that can't go in the dishwasher is too much trouble.

Also, the patina on cast iron is surprisingly delicate - I have my grandmother's skillet which probably dates from the 1930s, used to have a black waxy patina, and managed to eff it up after a couple of uses. (Hand washed, nylon scrubby pad, nothing extreme, just ordinary washing technique) Plus it's ridiculously heavy.

The only things I'll cook in cast iron are those that need extreme heat AND don't leave a vile crusty residue that will cause me great mental anguish when I can't scrub it out. Which pretty much leaves ... cornbread.

Stainless steel for the win, in my kitchen.
posted by Quietgal at 9:18 AM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a data point: I bought a Lodge pre-seasoned cast iron skillet a couple of months ago... January, actually. I LOVE that pan. I never knew that cast iron was so flipping easy to use!

When I brought it home, I washed it with liquid soap and a scrubby then cooked bacon in it. I let it sit on the stove with the bacon grease in it until I needed it the following day. At that time, I heated the fat, poured it out, wiped the pan with a paper towel and cooked eggs in it. Since then, all I've done to it is scrub out the bits of cheese/steak/etc. with a copper scrubby and water and then reheated the pan to burn the water off. Usually, I leave that task till right before I need it again, so once the water has evaporated, I splash some oil in it and cook whatever it is I'm doing.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 9:27 AM on February 26, 2010

Just don't cook anything acidic in cast iron because it removes the glaze. This means no tomato sauce, no sauces with wine, etc. On the other hand, I read somewhere years ago that cooking acidic food in cast iron is a good way to ensure that you get enough iron in your diet.

In any case, if you do cooks something that messes up the finish/glaze/crust, whatever you wanna call it, just clean it well, dry it, pour a little cooking oil in it and stick it in the oven on a very low temp for a while.
posted by mareli at 10:39 AM on February 26, 2010

After seasoning, I've only ever scrubbed mine under water for 15seconds using a regular dish brush and some kosher salt (I keep a big-hole pizza-parmesan-style shaker nearby). Then I dry it off and hang it up. Sometimes I dry it on the burner; rarely do I recoat it with oil. Not exactly the canonical-nerd method, but it's been great for me.

In terms of the pet metaphor, mine has been perfectly happy as a goldfish or stray cat who comes by the back door sometimes. It's no parrot or dog, that's for sure. There are cast iron pans that have survived over a century of abuse, take that fact to heart.

As for seasoning, don't be afraid. Just take an afternoon or something, it's not a big deal.

I cook everything but tomatoes and eggs in mine, which basically means "fry pan."
posted by rhizome at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2010

So no rusting, no need to keep coated in oil. Clean up like a steel pan.

They are easier to clean than cast iron, certainly, but somewhat delicate and prone to scratching.

I would never clean enameled cast iron (e.g. Le Creuset) the same way I clean stainless steel, using Barkeeper's Friend and elbow grease. The enamel would never hold up.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:09 AM on February 26, 2010

From my experience, yes, it does require more attention than teflon, and you have to be careful about what you decide to cook in it, some foods just don't work. Greasier the better. Veggies and meat do pretty well, anything with a white sauce, not so much.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2010

...Barkeeper's Friend and elbow grease

Oh definitely not. I was thinking more hot soapy water and a brush. I've never scratched the enamel - probably because I only use wooden utensils. I'd avoid anything metal. Still, they're a lot more durable than teflon.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:20 AM on February 26, 2010

Cast iron has a great reputation, but it's not an all-purpose pan like people sometimes suggest. Cast iron is amazing for some things, and terrible for others.

It heats much less evenly than a thick aluminum/stainless clad pan and changes temperature incredibly slowly (both due to the low thermal conductivity of cast iron compared to aluminum or copper). That makes it awful for things that require a delicate touch, even heat, micromanagement of temperature, etc. Scrambled eggs? Totally fine. An omelet? Not if you have any other alternatives. Even pancakes won't cook quite as evenly as you'd like. Sure, it's better than a $5 teflon pan, but it's much much much worse than a $40 food-service grade teflon pan for that sort of thing. And yeah, acidic foods can get weird.

What it's really good for is _holding_ heat. If you can get it evenly hot, like in a 500-700 degree oven, it'll really sear the hell out of stuff in ways that are otherwise unattainable to a home cook. It's the only way to do steak at home. The layer of seasoning won't start to burn off until 800 degrees and nothing really sticks to hot cast iron. Even if you overheat it, it's easy to re-season. I think Lodge recommends seasoning for an hour at 350 or 400 degrees. I've had much better luck using lard/crisco and seasoning at very high temps on the stovetop for more like 5 minutes. Or just cook a lot of bacon.

It's also amazing for cooking in the oven, since with the oven you're doing away with the uneven heating factor and that nice, black, nonstick, evenly heated surface really makes breads happy. Deep dish pizza, cornbread, soda bread, tarts, pies, etc all come out great.

It's also the best way to do any sort of high-temp fast cooking stir-fry at home...you heat it up empty, add oil, add a light load of veggies and it'll cook like it would in a wok over a monster commercial burner. Working in small batches is the key, letting the pan reheat in between. You use its reluctance to change temperature and ability to hold heat to balance out the fact that home stoves can't put out enough heat all at once.

The most cost effective thing would be to get an aluminum/teflon pan from a restaurant supply company (I've had good experiences with katom.com and a local brick and mortar place) AND a cast iron pan. Restaurant supply companies have nice quality stuff that doesn't have the expensive price tag associated with All-Clad, Mauviel, Viking, etc. My heavy 7-quart stainless/aluminum clad stock pot was $100 vs at least a couple hundred for All-Clad of similar quality. An all-aluminum 6.5 _gallon_ stock pot cost me something like $70. There's no magic to premium cookware. Almost all that matters is the sheer physical amount of aluminum in a pan.

Both stainless and teflon are "easy" if you get over the idea that they need to be washed. Unless things are actually caked on, just run a damp rag over it. Well-seasoned or teflon surfaces are so slick that they'll get plenty clean, and any germs will get killed the next time you heat it up. I never, ever use soap or a scrubby surface on either material. Teflon should last many years if treated gently (ie, not overheated, no metal utensils, no scrubbing, little soap).
posted by paanta at 11:20 AM on February 26, 2010

Just don't cook anything acidic in cast iron because it removes the glaze. This means no tomato sauce, no sauces with wine, etc.

This is only really true if you plan to simmer something acidic all day (like a slow-cooked tomato sauce) or heat it to massively high temps. Otherwise, there isn't the slightest chance you'll damage the seasoning, unless you're planning on making a concentrated hydrochloric acid sauce.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 12:57 PM on February 26, 2010

One thing I don't like about cast irons: I'm usually moving a lot of pots and pans around as I cook, and I found them annoyingly heavy.

I also hate scrubbing each time I cook, so cast iron gets a big thumbs down from this individual.
posted by thisperon at 1:21 PM on February 26, 2010

I love my cast iron pans.

I don't freak about the seasoning. If I have to scrub them I just oil them or something afterwards.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:15 PM on February 26, 2010

I have a set of cast iron pans a few months older than me, plus several Lodge cast iron pans purchased a year or two ago. None of my cast iron gets babied. All of these must nots/must dos that people are telling you are for optimal outcome. They are not requirements. You can treat cast iron like shit and the surface will release foods fine, just a bit less easily than for the folks who've fussed over theirs. Their omelet will slide out perfectly. Yours will first need a quick flick of a spatula under one or two corners. Do you care?

I loathe dishwashing, and am a lazy SOB about such things. There's no way cast iron would be in my home if it were the hassle people are describing here. They get so special rules in this household; in fact, they get more abuse than the stainless. Every now and then I let one rust out so badly (or gouge away its seasoning so severely) that it finally looks beyond recovery. A brief scrub with a paper towel and kosher salt gets rid of the rust chunks, if any. Then wet down a second paper towel with oil, wipe down the pan, leave in the oven a while, and voila it's good to go again. Try that with teflon.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 5:25 PM on February 26, 2010

I'm voting super-easy. After the thread plinth linked, I bought a big Lodge, and now I use that for everything. I let it cool off to slightly warmish, then wipe it out with a paper towel. Sometimes I re-oil it with another paper towel, sometimes not, depends what it looks like. Done. I have never had to scrape or wash it.

I didn't do much in the way of seasoning it, just wiped some cooking oil into it a few different times to keep it from rusting. The trick I learned from that other thread is, heat the pan dry for a couple of minutes before you cook in it. THEN, turn down the heat, throw in the butter just long enough to smear around, then BAM, the eggs. So non-stick I often don't need a spatula, they just slide around in the pan when I pick it up and jiggle it.
posted by ctmf at 7:46 PM on February 26, 2010

If you decide to try stainless steel, as some folks suggested, the trick is to make sure you're at the right temperature before you put the oil in -- if you are, the food doesn't stick.

This trick is awesome, and totally changed my perception of pan cooking. (You don't have to do the water trick every time, just until you figure out your pan.)
posted by jhc at 8:05 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Man, this is an epic thread I'm coming late to. My vote is "easy if you do it right" which doesn't add much to the above, but...

You can buy hard-surfaced non-stick pans these days. I have a Le Creuset one (cast iron with a hard non-stick inner surface, enamel outer surface) that's awesome, and there are some other brands available as aluminium/copper pans (much lighter for the limp-wristed cook) with the hard surface. In theory you shouldn't use metal tools in them - not because the tools will damage the surface, but because the surface will grind the corners off the tool and you can get metallic streaks on it! Totally indestructible stuff, very nice to cook with.
posted by polyglot at 8:56 PM on February 26, 2010

As long as you're adding oil when you cook, all you need to do is use a rubber scraper (like this one Scraper) and running water to clean it. Get all the gunk off with the scraper and don't use any soap or the rough side of a sponge.

Finally, put the the pan on top of your stove and heat it up until it is completely dry. This will only take a couple minutes. After that, let it cool down and you can put it away. I like using cast iron because it means clean up involves a little scraping and heating on the stove. It doesn't even take up space in a drying rack.

just.good.enough is perhaps being overcautious. I use the rough side of a sponge all the time. Soap is bad, because even a molecule of soap will impede seasoning (locally, of course). Also, I don't bother heating them until perfectly dry. The seasoning layer will easily repel the few droplets that a wipe leaves.

I've found just the cleaning to be a pain in the ass if you are cooking something greasy like hamburgers.

smackfu, that grease is the perfect seasoning agent. Simply wipe up the excess with a paper towel while hot, and put away when cool.

As you say, they invented soap for a reaoson, but cleaning pots was not that reason.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2010

Response by poster: First followup: A Lodge pre-seasoned pan is more "easy" than easy. My quesadilla-like concoction sticks like hell, but most other things clean more or less right out. Less easy than teflon, but if I'm relaxed about getting every crumb (which I am) I can leave a lot of it in there.

The quesadilla thing is a little strange, since I cook it on a bed of cheese. Wouldn't the grease from that lubricate the pan? Oh wait, the grease ends up on top, which if anything means the pan is LESS lubricated.

Anyway, I guess the pan is OK. Not life-changing for good or evil.
posted by DU at 9:17 AM on March 16, 2010

Response by poster: Second followup: Still less easy than teflon but as I said before I'm pretty relaxed about how clean I get it so scraping out the biggest chunks doesn't take up my whole life or anything. Also, getting a metal spatula I think it going to make this a lot easier too. A melamine one is 100x better than a bendy plastic one already.

I'd say the most annoying thing is that the handle gets hot. My other pans have a silicone-covered handle or just don't conduct for whatever reason.
posted by DU at 11:43 AM on March 24, 2010

Just get you an Ov-glove or something. That's what I have and use when I cook with it (or a regular potholder.) No biggie.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:48 AM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: Every little step adds up. Having to put on an oven mitt before I can scramble eggs is kinda dumb.

However, what I mainly use the pan for is for something I have to use the oven mitt for anyway, so it isn't a showstopper.
posted by DU at 12:15 PM on March 28, 2010

For me, the ease of Teflon is counterbalanced by the hassle of having to buy replacement Teflon pans. Let us know what you think in ten years. :)
posted by salvia at 2:20 PM on March 28, 2010

Having to put on an oven mitt before I can scramble eggs is kinda dumb.

I've got a set of little oven-mitt-type covers that slip over the handles on my cast iron. They stay on there unless the pan is in the oven. Something like this, but they certainly didn't cost $15.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:44 AM on March 29, 2010

Or do what I do, and what I see cooks in restaurants doing, and use the nearest kitchen towel to protect your hand. Far more convenient than an oven mitt, and you should already have one or two around the kitchen right now.
posted by Forktine at 6:18 AM on March 29, 2010

Response by poster: (Probably) final followup: It's basically easy now. The interesting thing is that the ease curve bends in the right direction. The cast iron pan is getting easier over time whereas a teflon pan gets harder over time.

But it might not be for everyone. Let me describe my actual situation and you can decide if it matches yours.

First of all, I think no matter who you are, a strong metal spatula is a must. You have to be able to actually scrape. Even the stiff plastic spatulas aren't good enough.

Second, I make a recipe (self-link) that is pretty greasy and leaves a fair amount of oil in the pan. And I put this recipe in the entire pan in a 425-450° oven.

Once I remove the food, I just stick the pan back in the cooling oven. That crustifies almost the entire thing. The biggest chunks scrape out lightly just before I reuse the pan, the smallest ones coat the pan to prevent it from sticking (it sticks a LOT less now...). The medium chunks mix with the food and give it a really yummy taste.

In the rare occassions I don't put the entire pan in the oven (say I'm frying taco meat or something), I just fire up the oven for 20 minutes (on a timer, so I don't have to monitor it) to crustify it. This likely uses way too much electricity, so I'm experimenting with that.

If you will be using your pan similarly AND don't mind not cleaning it much AND like little crusties in your food, this might be for you.
posted by DU at 6:39 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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