Cast iron pans: 10 common myths
Whether you’ve been using a cast iron skillet for years, or you’re in the research stage of buying your first one, you’ll have noticed people have a lot of opinions on how to treat them.
A quick google search will reveal all sorts of conflicting advice: secrets to ‘perfect’ seasoning, what oils are best, how to clean it, what you should and shouldn’t cook in it… who are you supposed to believe?
Cast iron isn’t a dark art. Not only is seasoning and maintenance very straightforward, these pans are tough as nails, and it's hard to ruin them. We wanted to address some of the common misconceptions surrounding cast iron, so that you can do more cooking and less googling.
The tips in this article apply to all our (non-enamelled) cast iron cookware, as well as our Solidteknics seamless iron range, which seasons and cooks just like cast iron whilst being significantly lighter.
Myth #1: “Seasoning equals flavour.”
When you see people talk about ‘seasoning’ their cast iron, they’re not referring to salt and pepper, and the process won’t impart any flavour into your food. It simply means building up layers of baked-on oil, which gives the pan non-stick properties and protects it from rust.
Even though seasoning your pan doesn’t directly apply flavour, this myth probably came about because seasoned cast iron does sear really effectively, which makes food taste better. Think extra crispy potatoes, golden chicken skin and a great crust on steaks.
Myth #2: “You can use x method to get perfect, shiny seasoning.”
First of all, forget the idea that you should strive for super-even, shiny black seasoning. Well-seasoned pans often look patchy and brown, and appearance is never a great indicator for how non-stick your pan is. And don’t fret over finding fancy flax or grapeseed oil - regular vegetable (rapeseed) oil will work well.
Seasoning basically just involves applying some kind of fat to the pan and heating it up to smoking point. This polymerises the oil, turning it into a hard, plastic-like layer - like on an old brown baking tray. As long as you’re building it up in super thin layers, you can’t go far wrong. The best way to develop your pan’s seasoning? Keep cooking on it.
We wrote an in-depth guide to seasoning our Solidteknics iron pans here - but you can use this method for seasoning any cast iron pan (unless it has a wooden handle, in which case season it on the hob only).
Myth #3: “Cast iron is a high-maintenance diva.”
The way people talk about cast iron, you’d think you need to delicately coddle it until you’ve got a heavily seasoned pan. Firstly, most new pans come lightly pre-seasoned, so a lot of the work is done for you. And secondly, once it’s baked on, that polymerised layer is actually very durable, and you can always top it up - unlike with Teflon!
The only thing to bear in mind with your cast iron is that it should avoid prolonged contact with moisture. That means not letting it soak in the sink, and ensuring you dry it out thoroughly before putting it away. This is to avoid rust spots (which aren’t the end of the world - we’ll get to that).
Myth #4: “You should never wash your cast iron with soap.”
This is one of the most common misconceptions about cast iron, and a bit of a turn-off if you’re concerned about germs. Again, seasoning is polymerised oil, and won’t wash away easily. A bit of soap is unlikely to get rid of your seasoning, so long as you’re not scrubbing with steel wool.
Even though it’s perfectly safe to wash a pan using just hot water, don’t hesitate to crack out the washing up liquid too - seasoning isn’t as delicate as you think. And the beauty of cast iron is that the seasoning is ever-renewable, so you can simply top it up if need be. Here’s a tip: if you’ve got stuck-on food and don’t want to scrub, boil some water in the dirty pan. It will help lift off the grime.
Myth #5: “Never cook acidic foods in your cast iron.”
This is another very pervasive misconception, though it does have some truth to it. The reason people avoid cooking acidic foods (such as tomatoes, fruit or wine) in cast iron is because the acid can react with the metal. Simmering these foods for long enough can damage the seasoning and impart a (harmless) metallic taste to your dish.
However, whilst slow-cooking a tomato sauce for hours in your pan is not advised, a little contact with acid isn’t going to hurt it. Deglazing your pan with wine, for instance, is unlikely to have any dire consequences. What’s more, the more well-seasoned your pan is, the more resilient it will be against acids. This is because the food comes into contact with the polymerised oil layer, instead of iron.
Myth #6: “Cast iron is good/bad for you.”
There are a lot of claims floating around over whether certain kinds of cookware are good or bad for your health. When it comes to cast iron, the theory is that cooking in it will impart small amounts of iron into your food. This would be good news for those with an iron deficiency, bad news if you’re in danger of over-supplementing.
However, studies have shown that the quantities of iron that food absorbs from cookware are pretty negligible, and unlikely to have an impact on health*. As it turns out, iron levels do increase more when slow-cooking acidic food (hence the metallic taste mentioned above), and increase less when using oil or seasoned iron, which act like barriers.
Iron consumption aside, what will actually make a bit of difference to your health is the amount of oil you use in your cooking. Compared to Teflon, cast iron pans require you to use a good amount of oil to avoid food sticking. This is something to bear in mind for your general diet, but it shouldn’t be a problem in moderation - and worth it for that amazing sear.
*Source: National Library of Medicine, 2020
Myth #7: “Seasoned iron gets as non-stick as Teflon.”
People sometimes like to say that their seasoned cast iron pan acts just like non-stick. Whilst seasoning does build up an easy-release surface that you can happily fry an egg on, Teflon’s properties mean that it actually repels other materials. In fact, new technologies had to be developed in order to get it to bond to metal.
With Teflon, you can crack an egg into a cold, unoiled non-stick pan and still slide it out when it’s cooked. Cast iron, on the other hand, needs to be preheated and oiled for it to work its best. Keep seasoning, use oil and preheat thoroughly, and you won’t need to worry about any sticking disasters. You simply can’t sear foods in a Teflon coated pan like you can in iron.
Myth #8: “Cast iron heats really evenly.”
Because cast iron is so famously good for searing, the implication is that it provides a high, even heat. However, cast iron is actually a poor conductor compared to other metals like aluminium or copper. It takes time to get hot, and for the heat to spread throughout the cooking surface. Before it’s fully preheated, hot spots will appear directly over the hob burner, while other parts of the pan remain relatively cool.
Cast iron pans reward patience. One of their big advantages is that they can hold a lot of heat: once cast iron gets hot, it stays hot. So if you’re searing steaks and want to really heat your cast iron evenly, you can preheat it for 10 minutes or so (moving the pan occasionally) and the heat will build and build. Alternatively, heat it in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
Cast iron’s other forte is in how it radiates a lot of heat. Not only does the pan cook the food that’s in direct contact with the metal, it’s also heating a lot of the food above that point. This is great for cooking food all the way through, such as chicken and potatoes.
Solidteknics wrought iron pans heat up faster than a cast iron equivalent, so you can save time in the kitchen while retaining those high-heat benefits.
Myth #9: “You need a gas hob to cook with cast iron.”
Whilst a lot of people assume their electric hobs wouldn’t work well for cast iron, we’ve found that they produce the same great results - they just take a little longer to heat up. If you’re the owner of an electric hob and considering an iron pan, go for it - but make sure you thoroughly preheat your pan.
And what about induction? To be compatible with induction hobs, pans have to contain iron (which makes them magnetic), so cast iron is perfect. Bear in mind, however, that cast iron can scratch glass worktops, so just avoid sliding them around.
Myth #10: “If it’s rusted, it’s ruined.”
Disaster! You’ve left your pan wet, and some significant rusting has appeared on it. Never fear - despite the way some people talk, rust isn’t the end of the world at all. Unless the pan is literally rusted through, it can be salvaged.
To get rid of rusting, scrub at it with a steel wool pad until the rust is gone. Then simply clean and dry the bare iron, and you have a blank canvas to reseason again. You can also do this with any rusty old cast iron pans you find second-hand. These pans are so durable, they’ll scrub up beautifully even after years of neglect.
Our top tips
Hopefully, you’re now feeling less confused about the old wives’ tales surrounding the not-so-mythical world of cast iron cooking. For some final, straightforward guidance, here are some simple tips to follow when using cast iron. Follow these rules, and your pan will never let you down.
Feeling ready to start cooking with iron? Check out our collection here, for the best in cast iron cookware - as tested by us.