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Understanding Cookware: Can You Ruin a Cast Iron Pan?

June 10, 2020 6 min read

Understanding Cookware: Can You Ruin a Cast Iron Pan?

It's no wonder a cast iron pan is one of the most highly prized kitchen tools, often getting passed down through several generations in a family. A cast iron skillet set is a great investment, as cast iron is incredibly durable and a well cared for piece can last one hundred years or longer.

 Although cast iron is a very tough material, it can be intimidating to use if you are unsure how to care for or how to clean cast iron.

Can you ruin a cast iron skillet? The short answer is YES.

But there are easy ways to prevent that from happening. Let us help you figure out what troubling signs to look for, how to prevent them, and how to properly care for your cast iron to avoid any future issues.

How do I know if I ruined my cast iron pan?

If you're new to cast iron cookware and used to non-stick or stainless steel pans, you may not know how your cast iron should look and feel. A well-seasoned cast iron pan should be dark black, shiny, and smooth to the touch. Unseasoned cast iron has a rough look and feel until it is properly seasoned. Here are some sure signs of damage and misuse:

It's covered in rust.This is the most common issue with cast iron and unsurprisingly, the culprit is always moisture. Excessive water + cast iron = bad news. The good news is it is fixable and you should not get rid of your pan, but it does require some work to restore the cast iron to its original state.

It's cracked.You can crack cast iron by repeatedly heating it up and rinsing with cold water before it has cooled down properly. There have also been rare cases of cold cast iron cracking on electric burners that don't distribute heat evenly. This phenomenon is called thermal shock, and it happens to rock, glass, and other hard materials.

It has a hole.It's incredibly hard to make a hole in cast iron. This would be caused by major misuse, allowing rust to form and deepen. If the rust has created a hole that goes through the pan you should consider investing in a new piece.

It's warped.This is another issue that arises from cooking in a pan with extreme temperatures on electric stoves, which tend to heat the pan less evenly than a gas range. The uneven heat causes unevenness in the pan itself, which can make it difficult to use for cooking. This doesn't mean the death of a dish, but it can be very hard to reverse so it may be time to retire the pan.

It's dusty.If your cast iron has been collecting dust in a cupboard unused or looks like it is covered in black residue, it's absolutely not ruined. Take some coarse salt, mix in a bit of water and use a towel to rub the mixture around. Rinse afterward, and be sure to dry the pan fully with a clean, dry cloth in order to prevent rusting.

The seasoning got stripped.Although it is frustrating to lose the seasoning, the cookware is still fully usable. It will take some time and effort but you can absolutely re-season your pan.

The Don'ts(and Do's) of Cast Iron Skillet Care

  1. Don't submerge your cast iron cookware in water to soak. You will remove the seasoning and add too much moisture to the pan, which can lead to rusting. If you fill the sink with water to wash the dishes, do leave the cast iron out of the sink and use water sparingly.
  2. Don't overuse soap on your cast iron. It is a myth that you cannot use soap on your cast iron cookware. It won't remove the seasoning, but do keep soap to a minimum, rinse well, and of course towel dry very thoroughly - removing moisture is the #1 way to keep your cookware in good shape.
  3. Don't put your cast iron in dishwasher. Although it's tempting to save the time after dinner and toss your dishes into the dishwasher, don't toss in your cast iron. Spending 1 hour+ getting blasted by water is just about the worst thing that could happen to your iron pans. These beauties are hand wash only, as described above.
  4. Don't rinse your pan while it is still hot. This can cause your pan to crack or warp. Do heat your pan up slowly, and let it cool naturally to keep your cookware in top condition. It can be easier to get any extra stuck on food off of the pan if it is still warm, but NOT hot.
  5. Don't just use it only on the stovetop. Can cast iron go in the oven or on a grill? Absolutely, and it's a fantastic way to cook meat, veggies, or even bake pizza and bread. Do take advantage of the multipurpose use of your cast iron!
  6. Don't season your pan once and think it's done. Seasoning is a continual process that needs to be up-kept - the more you use your pan, the more often you do need to keep seasoning it.
  7. Don't put away your cast iron until it is fully dry and oiled. After you clean your cast iron, put a small amount of oil in the pan and heat it by oven or stovetop on low. Remove the pan from the heat, allow to cool, and use a towel to mop up any excess oil that didn't get cooked off.
  8. Don't be afraid to use salt to clean your pan. As we mentioned, salt is a great way to get rid of dust and other grime from your pan without removing your seasoning.

What can you not put on a cast iron skillet?

These basic care tips are an integral part of maintaining your cast iron. Cast iron pans are the most versatile cooking tool you will ever own with its ability to transfer from the stovetop to the oven with ease and cook a variety of different dishes. However, there are some foods that are best not to be cooked in your cast iron.

  • Tomato sauce/tomato-based dishes. Tomatoes are acidic in nature. When cast iron is exposed to acidic foods, it breaks down some of the metals in the pan. These trace metals get absorbed into the dish you are cooking, and while they are relatively harmless for your health they can give your food a metallic taste. The acid also breaks down the seasoning on your pan. If you have to add an acidic element to something you're cooking in your cast iron pan, keep it in the pan under 30 minutes and never, ever store your food in the pan afterward.
  • Wine-braised meats/vinegar/lemon-based dishes. These are also all acid-based and will break down the pan in the same way as tomato sauces.
  • Omelets. Eggs can stick to your pan, especially a brand new pan that has not been thoroughly seasoned yet. Your eggs will get ruined and you need to fight to get the egg residue off of the pan, which can harm some of the seasoning you have done. Eggs are best left to cast iron dishes that are seasoned until super smooth to the touch or other types of pans.
  • Delicate fish. Soft, flaky fish doesn't hold up well to the heat a cast iron skillet can emit. The fish will tend to fall to pieces and stick to the pan.
  • Dessert.You can cook dessert in cast iron but the pans tend to retain some of the flavors of the dishes you make. If you've just cooked a steak in your pan it can throw off the flavor of a delicious dessert pretty quickly. If you have multiple cast iron pans you can reserve one for sweet dishes and one for savory. Unless you'd like to eat a burger flavored fruit crisp.

What can you cook in cast iron?

There are plenty of delicious cast iron recipes online, and many foods really shine when using cast iron cookware. These are some of the foods that are best cooked in iron:

  • Fatty meats. High-fat dishes are not only delicious (hello, bacon!) but they cook evenly in cast iron and keep the seasoning of the pan strong.
  • Grilled sandwiches. The even, high heat you can achieve with a skillet makes a delicious, crispy grilled cheese.
  • Fried chicken/other foods. A cast iron skillet can withstand the high heat and is generally deep enough to fit a few inches of oil and whatever delicious food you're cooking in it!
  • One-pot dishes. With its easy transfer from stovetop to the oven it's easy to cook casseroles, mac and cheese, and roasted vegetables or meat in a variety of ways.

We hope you use some of these tips to enjoy cooking in your cast iron and keep it going strong for many years to come!



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