Why Cast-Iron Skillets Rule
Versatile and indestructible, a cast-iron skillet goes from stove to oven to grill and table with ease. Get our tips and recipes and fall in love with this essential tool.
Photograph by Brittany Conerly
The holidays may long be over, but let’s face it — the weather outside is still frightful, and the fire respectively delightful. How better to channel cozy comfort than with a cast-iron skillet? Its homey hearth-cooking vibe and the long list of this pan's practical applications will make you fall in love with it.
Cast iron has stood the test of time for centuries, from Asia to America.
Like a wok, it gets better with use.
Cast iron can take the heat, withstanding temperatures of up to 700°F.
A seasoned cast-iron skillet (see more below) has a nonstick surface, so you can skip less-natural nonstick cookware.
Cast iron is nigh indestructible and hard to scratch, which means you can bring out your metal tools and give your silicone ones a break.
A cast-iron skillet is a multitasker extraordinaire, as it easily transitions from stovetop to oven or even grill and right to the table. It can stand in for bakeware thanks to tall sides. It also does duty as a chafing dish due to its high emissivity — that is, its ability to hold onto and radiate heat for extended periods.
Cooking in cast iron adds iron to your diet.
Sold? Great! So am I. On with the tutorial, then, and to the good food you’ll be making!
Jump ahead to:
Cast iron FAQs
As a super-fan of cast-iron skillets, I certainly want the experience of using them to pan out for you. Take into account the following information and tips and enjoy some old-school cooking and delicious food.
Right, but what is cast iron?
You might recognize cast iron as the material used for cauldrons of old — as well as for car parts, pipes, cannons, and more. Scientifically speaking, cast-iron is crude (aka pig) iron alloy melted in a blast furnace and containing 2–4% carbon at the end of the process. The resulting heavy, dense metal heats evenly and stays that way.
While cast-iron cookware comes in many forms — from Dutch ovens to panini presses — the skillet has earned its rightful reputation as a versatile kitchen workhorse. Cast-iron pans range from rustic and inexpensive to fancy, with colorful enamel coatings, but we're focusing here on the classic and more modest black pan.
What to cook in a cast-iron skillet
A cast-iron skillet accommodates a slew of cooking situations. It comes in handy when you're searing a steak over high heat to create a deep brown crust. It's also helpful if you want to melt down cheese over low heat for a dip, deep-fry at a consistent temp, or whip up a one-pan wonder.
In other words, this skillet is great for any type of food you want to get screaming hot, creamy, or crispy — or you want to keep warm. Think crunchy hashes and sizzling vegetables as well as seared meats, including those you finish in the oven, like skin-on bone-in chicken. Don’t forget baked goods like cornbread and yeast rolls or warm desserts such as brownie sundaes, cobblers, and cookie pies. Essentially, it’s a sturdy pan for a variety of uses.
What not to cook in a cast-iron skillet
For the less experienced, cooking delicate fish, eggs, and pancakes in cast iron can be intimidating. These foods can Velcro onto the pebbly cooking surface of your pan, turning your meal into a mess. However, these “sticking” points are due more to user error than to the food itself. If the pan is improperly seasoned (see below), not oiled enough, or relatively new, you’ll run into issues. If you aren’t patient enough to stand by for the heavy metal to warm up fully, or conversely, if you wait too long and let the cooking oil reach its smoke point, you may experience frustration.
You also don’t want to cook acidic foods like tomato sauce in cast iron for lengths of time. Not only will you break down the seasoned pan surface you worked so hard on, but you’ll also introduce a metallic taste. Because cast iron is somewhat porous, be aware that it can take on flavors, so you may need separate skillets for sweet and savory uses. Nobody wants a salmon-flavored chocolate chip cookie!
Seasoning and caring for your cast-iron skillet
OK, we’ve been talking a lot about seasoning — the process of giving a cast-iron skillet its slick surface. Let’s get into the specifics.
Why season a cast-iron skillet?
The simplest answers are to protect it and to make and keep it nonstick. Cast iron is porous and rough, which means it grabs onto oxygen and moisture in the air. That creates space for corrosion and rust. By adding a protective layer of bonded, oxidized fat molecules (aka seasoning), you seal off those gaps from the elements to avoid damaging a treasured piece of cookware.
How to season a cast-iron skillet
Maybe you've purchased a pre-seasoned pan, in which case you’re ready to start cooking. If not, the steps aren't difficult. According to cast-iron cookware-maker Lodge, you first want to make sure your skillet is bone-dry. Then, while the oven preheats to 450°-500°F, apply a thin even layer of cooking oil (vegetable oil or canola oil) to the whole pan, including the exterior. Bake it upside-down for an hour with aluminum foil beneath it to catch drips — et voila! You’re done once it's cooled.
How to care for and clean a cast-iron skillet
With the right maintenance, you’ll continue to reap the benefits of your cast-iron cookware for years, even generations to come. But — especially at first — you’ll have to baby it: Apply plenty of oil when cooking to season it to that semi-glossy patina, dry after use, and oil some more.
You must clean cast-iron skillets by hand, with no or minimal dish soap and no soaking. Treat it like the Wicked Witch of the West — extended contact with water is the biggest cause of f-rust-ration for this otherwise durable cookware.
Scrub off stuck-on food with kosher salt or a brush and use a sturdy wooden scraper to avoid damaging the surface if need be. Chainmail scrubbers are handy, too. For really bad residue, you can simmer the skillet on the stove with hot water, but only for a few minutes. Once the pan is clean, heat it on the stove to evaporate all the moisture.
Finally, pour a little cooking oil onto the hot surface and spread it gently with a paper towel to leave only a thin layer, as excess oil can result in stickiness.
How to restore a cast-iron skillet
People brag about their cast-iron garage sale finds. You can be among the lucky ones! A little elbow grease can restore cast-iron cookware to better-than-new condition if it suffers from merely cosmetic rust. Just scour the spots with fine steel wool until the raw cast iron is visible, then wash and scrub the pan in warm water with dish soap. For deep rust, a machine shop with a sandblaster can help you obliterate the eyesores in a jiffy. In either case, season the pan right away and treat it like a new cast-iron skillet, because that’s exactly what you’ll have on your hands.
15 recipe reasons to own a cast-iron skillet
You may be thinking, “This all sounds like a lot of work.” And it kind-of is. However, going back to our reasons to own a cast-iron skillet, the cost-benefit ratio skews heavily toward the plus side. So, let’s get cooking.
1. Sear a perfect steak
A major motivation to get a cast-iron skillet is the promise of steakhouse-quality meat. Cast iron browns steak with enthusiasm and keeps on cooking even after you've removed it from the heat. So, remember to stop cooking Easy Cast-iron Steak sooner than you normally would if you’re going to let it rest in the pan. When it comes to steak, every degree makes a difference.
2. Deliver that dramatic restaurant serve
Part of the attraction of cast-iron skillets is a sizzling serve, popularized by fajitas from the chain restaurant Chili’s. Queso and dips in cast-iron ramekins, mini Dutch ovens, and tiny skillets followed not long after (because cold melted cheese is sad melted cheese), but the cast-iron fajita pan is what started it all. Adapt this hot concept for home with this easy recipe for Skillet Chicken Fajitas.
3. Make batch breakfast effortlessly
Eggs are the ultimate litmus test for cast-iron skillet seasoning … and the quitting point for many a cast-iron newbie. If you’re nervous about getting eggs just right, try this delicious hack: Create a veggie hash as the bed, crack the eggs on top, and throw the whole thing into the oven. Soon, Baked Eggs in a Cast Iron Skillet will be on regular rotation.
4. Make a one-pan meal
Cooking ingredients in sequence for one-pan Cast-Iron Skillet Chicken and Vegetables Dinner, you brown skin-on chicken in the cast-iron skillet, brown cubed potatoes and then carrots in the rich drippings, and then layer the veggies and chicken back in the skillet to finish up in the oven.
5. Casserole up
Mashed potatoes form a lovely crust, adding texture and dimension to the ground beef and diced vegetable filling for this Shepherd’s Pie. The classic casserole bakes up especially beautifully in a cast-iron skillet, and the deep sides of the pan capture the juices.
6. Simplify a pot pie
A cast-iron shortcut makes this comforting Cast-Iron Chicken Pot Pie more accessible, eschewing the often problematic bottom crust, which tends to get soggy anyway. One-pan cooking means you get to hold on to the juices and flavors extracted from the butter-cooked vegetables and every molecule of thickener. Though the recipe starts with a whole chicken, you can skip straight to rotisserie chicken meat and purchased broth for a quicker meal. As for the crust, it’s good old store-bought puff pastry.
7. Swap for a wok
No wok? Take advantage of how searingly hot cast-iron cookware gets to master stir-fry. Regular pots and pans simply don’t heat up enough to capture anything close to wok hei, or “the breath of the wok,” whereas cast-iron skillet temps are uniquely able to hold on to every degree. When you make Skillet Beef and Broccoli, don’t forget to stir frequently to keep your veggies crisp.
8. Deep-dish your pizza
Cast-iron skillets are ideal for Deep Dish Chicago Style Pizza. Well-greased sides lend richness to the dough and cook it to an even gold. The sustained high heat of the pan helps bake the thick dough all the way through, building structure and heft to hold up the toppings.
9. Make fish fantastic
Blackened Catfish is often cooked in a hot cast-iron skillet to get the crust on the cajun spices just right, and in this recipe, butter browns to nutty perfection at the same time. Preheating the pan helps with cast-iron clean-up duties, as foods are far less likely to stick to a hot pan.
10. Play with food science
Similar to a crustless quiche, this day-to-night Broccoli Cheddar Frittata is a fun science project for families. The egg and vegetable mixture first cooks atop the stove in a cast-iron skillet before you stick it in the oven, where the air whisked into the eggs causes the frittata to pop up to the delight and amusement of junior chefs. (But be forewarned: The frittata will likely lose its poof as it stands.)
11. Use your noodle
Real Roman spaghetti carbonara can be tricky to make, and many novice — and even experienced — cooks will accidentally scramble the eggs on the stovetop, thereby ruining the sauce. This three-step Spaghetti Carbonara Skillet Pie spin-off eliminates that risk entirely while infusing the baked pasta with the flavors of pancetta and shallots, which first cook in the cast-iron pan.
12. Get (cream) saucy
Cast-iron pans are fantastic for saucy dishes like Skillet Creamy Chicken Mushroom Florentine. The cookware’s retained heat creates an excellent environment for browning the meat, and its texture holds on to the fond, aka the crusty bits so integral to a good sauce. Best of all, with a cast-iron skillet, you can use a wire whisk to get the sauce silky smooth (no worries about scratching, unlike with nonstick cookware).
13. Save yourself the scrubbing
Skip the nightmare of scouring crusted tomato sauce and cheese out of glass or ceramic bakeware when you make Cast-iron Eggplant Parmesan in a seasoned pan. While you don’t want to slow-simmer acidic ingredients in cast iron, they’re not off the table. Feel free to bake with tomato-based sauces, as in this recipe, but don’t forget to re-season your cast-iron pan after cooking.
14. Bake beautifully
With their deep sides and retained heat that promotes browning, cast-iron skillets are fantastic for baking, and cornbread is the impetus for many a cook to venture into cast-iron territory. Cornbread and Beef Skillet Pie combines the pan’s abilities to sear and to bake.
15. Glorify breakfast for dinner
Red Chilaquiles with Fried Eggs is a two-pan recipe, as the eggs cook separately. That means the food stays hot and is ready more quickly while you make breakfast (or brinner) for four. Preparing the base of this dish — the vibrant guajillo chili sauce — in a cast-iron skillet helps it stay hot longer and keep the chips warm, a bit crisp, and magical, which is important for chilaquiles.
More reasons to love your cast-iron skillet
If you were on the fence about whether you’d use a cast-iron pan or if maintaining it is worth the trouble, I hope these exciting recipes have pushed you firmly into the “buy one!” camp. Dishes like these are what won me over after I spent years swearing by anodized cookware. That’s not even counting the vegetable sides (I’m looking at you, roast potatoes, sweet chili Brussels sprouts, and carrots with garlic and honey) and baking possibilities (no-knead bread, spinach and artichoke biscuit bombs, flatbreads, and pan-sized snickerdoodle, oatmeal raisin, and chocolate chip cookies) open to me now that I’m the proud owner of three cast-iron pans.
There may be a learning curve, but hey — we spent all of 2020 learning new skills like baking. With a properly cared-for cast-iron skillet, I plan to roast, broil, and bake the cold winter days away and hope you’re inspired to join me.
Here are a few more articles and recipes to try out with your pan!