Cast Iron 101: How to Use, Clean, and Love Your Cast Iron Cookware

Cast Iron Skillets

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How to Use, Clean, and Love Cast Iron Cookware

I’m in a committed relationship with my cast iron skillet. We’ve been together longer than my husband and I have. My skillet never lets me down, is incredibly versatile, and will grow old with me if I take care of her (not dissimilar from my husband). If you told me today that I could only have one item in my kitchen to cook with for the rest of my life, it would be my 10-inch cast iron skillet.

I haven’t been shy about my love of cast iron, and every time I write about my cast iron cookware, I get lots of requests for a primer on how to cook with cast iron. People are scared of it! And I’m here today to tell you that the water is fine. Come on in and fall in love with cast iron cookware.

Cast Iron Skillets

I think folks are intimidated by cooking with cast iron because they believe there are so many “rules” that you have to follow to keep from ruining your skillet. THIS IS COMPLETELY FALSE. There are things that you should avoid doing to keep your skillet in top shape, but the glorious thing about cast iron cookware is that it can come back from almost anything. Literally, people have found rusted cast iron skillets in landfills before, sandblasted them clean (seriously), seasoned them, and happily used them to make their eggs the next morning. Unless you use it for target practice, you are not going to ruin your skillet. I promise.

Anywho, I’m here to make you feel comfortable with cast iron. We’re going to cover both unenameled (the regular black skillets you are used to) and enameled cast iron (like the fancy colorful Dutch ovens you see).

If you don’t have time to (or don’t want to) read 5,000 words about skillets, then here is the long and short of it:

  • Cooking with cast iron rocks because you (eventually) get a chemical-free, non-stick surface on a über versatile piece of cookware. You can do everything you want to do in your kitchen with one (maybe two) pieces of cast iron.
  • Cleaning cast iron cookware takes all of 30 seconds, and if you take care of it, cast iron never needs to be “seasoned,” and will last for generations.
  • Heirloom quality cast iron cookware isn’t expensive. You can start with the piece I recommend (a 10-inch skillet from Lodge) for less than $20 new—and much cheaper if you find it at an antique store or flea market—and it’ll be around longer than you will.

One Pot Summertime Primavera

Alright. Now, for those of you who want the whole, nerdy write-up, let’s do this. Since this post ended up being so gosh darn long, I even have a table of contents for you. Click on a topic to jump to that part of the post.

Table of Contents

The Benefits of Cast Iron Cooking

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Before we talk about the how, I want to talk a little bit about the why. Why should you use cast iron when you like your current pots and pans perfectly fine? Everyone has different reasons they like the pots or pans they do, so let me talk a little bit about why I like cast iron.

Even heat: Once cast iron is warmed up, you have even heat throughout the entire skillet or pot. This is great for things you need to long simmer like soups or gravies—no scorched spots! That’s why so many awesome Dutch ovens are made from cast iron.

This is also really great for searing things like steaks or even just for cooking my childhood comfort food—tuna patties. Things in the middle of the pan cook the exact same way things on the outside of it do.

Mac and Cheese

The heat of cast iron is also different from, say, a stainless steel pan, because cast iron radiates heat like a mofo. You know when you go to cook a sunny-side up egg in your regular stainless skillet, and the top of the egg is still runny and goopy and the bottom is overcooked no matter how low the burner is? That doesn’t happen with well-heated cast iron. Cast iron radiates heat so well that there is a glorious bubble of hot air all around the food in a cast iron pan. Think of it like the original convection oven.

Über versatile: On the stove, in the oven, over the campfire, on the grill. Use it to make soup or cobbler or pizza or bread. If you want to go minimalist and buy just one piece of cookware for your kitchen, it should be cast iron. I actually think the most versatile piece is a 5-quart (non-enameled) cast iron Dutch oven. But it’s not light. Like, closing-in-on-20-pounds-not-light. So if hulking around a big, heavy Dutch oven isn’t your thing, the second most versatile piece is a 10-inch skillet—still heavy, but not back-breakingly so.

Heirloom quality: I know we’re in a consumerist society where we’re all about shiny and new things, but cast iron cookware is one of those few things in our lives that is so high quality, it’ll last for generations. That’s not an exaggeration. My parents cook daily on cast iron skillets that are FOUR GENERATIONS old. Those are the same skillets my great-grandmother cooked on, people. And other than having the über slippery nonstick surface I’ll talk about in a sec, they look exactly like a new skillet.

Cast Iron Skillets - Cast Iron Cookware

Nonstick (eventually): Okay, I’m gonna do some #realtalk here: even though the marketing says otherwise, most new cast iron cookware is not going to be nonstick, no matter how “pre-seasoned” it is. I’ll get into this more in a sec, but the surface of new cast iron is not smooth—it’s got tiny little nooks and crannies. As you cook more, those nooks get filled up with heat-altered fats and oils from your food that help create a slip ‘n’ slide smooth nonstick cooking surface. It doesn’t happen overnight. But when it does happen? Hold onto your hats! It’s the best nonstick coating you’ve ever cooked on without any nasty chemicals. The longer you cook on your skillet, the more nonstick it will get—and the less oil you can use when you cook in it. I’ll tell you more about how to build up your nonstick coating later.

Cast Iron Skillets - Cast Iron Cookware

Iron added to food: I have been anemic my entire life, and regularly cooking with cast iron is one way that many natural practitioners recommend helping to supplement iron. There have been studies that show that foods cooked in cast iron cookware show a 16% increase in iron content over those cooked in a non-iron skillet. That’s no small amount when you’re fighting iron deficiency and loathe taking iron supplements. (If you want to get all nerdy and read about the studies, more here and here).

Yummier food: Okay, so I can’t prove this with scientific research, but I think food cooked in cast iron is just dang yummier. And the older and more seasoned the skillet? The even yummier. Maybe it’s the decades worth of fats and seasonings in the skillet. Maybe it’s all in my head. Either way, it tastes better, and that’s always a good thing.

Cast Iron Cookware

The Negatives of Cast Iron Cooking

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So, I think the benefits of cooking with cast iron far outweigh the negatives, but I do want to chat through those a bit so you guys don’t think I’m selling you a bill of goods here.

Not always nonstick: We already covered this, but new skillets (even pre-seasoned ones) and old skillets that haven’t been taken care of won’t be nonstick. If you’re looking for a non-stick surface right out of the gate, cast iron cookware isn’t for you. I recommend getting a good quality ceramic-coated skillet if safe, non-stick is super important to you (I really like this one).

Can’t quickly change temperature: Because cast iron heats so evenly, once it is hot, it STAYS hot. You know how with a regular pot, if something starts boiling over, you can quickly turn down the heat and the bubbling stops? That’s not the case with cast iron. Until you are used to cooking with iron, adjust your temps in small increments.

Not dishwasher safe: We’ll talk more about this in a sec, but you should generally avoid putting your cast iron in the dishwasher (or using detergents at all when cleaning it). Cast iron is a bit fussy when it comes to cleaning, but I’ll show you my favorite, easy method that takes less than a minute. Once you get used to it, it honestly isn’t a big deal at all.

Cast Iron in Sink

Rusts easily: You don’t want standing water hanging out on your skillet—it’ll rust pretty quickly. Keep your skillet dry, and you’ll be golden (also, minor rust scrubs off pretty easily with coarse salt or steel wool—your skillet isn’t delicate).

Heavy: There is no getting around it: cast iron is mad heavy, yo. If you struggle with any sort of hand or arm pain or weakness, cast iron cookware might not be the right choice for you. On the flip side, if you want to bonk intruders on the head cartoon-style, cast iron is totally the right choice for you.

Cast Iron Skillets - Cast Iron Cookware

Some cooking limitations for uncoated cast iron: The standard black/unenameled cast iron skillet you are used to does have some cooking limitations. In general, you want to avoid cooking super acidic things it in frequently or for long periods of time until you have a really good seasoning on your cast iron. I wouldn’t make a tomato-based soup three times a week in a new cast iron piece. That’s why enameled cast iron exists. Same awesome even heat, but it’s able to cook acidic foods right off the bat.


What Cast Iron Cookware To Buy

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If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a well-loved, perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet handed down to you, then you’re gonna have to go out and purchase one. Before we talk about where to get it, let’s run through what to buy.

You’re probably going to start off with one of two cast iron pieces (or both): a 10-inch unenameled cast iron skillet and a five- to six-quart enameled Dutch oven. This combo is everything. Dear people getting married everywhere: stop registering for the KitchenAid stand mixer that you’ll use once a month, and instead register for a cast iron skillet and a cast iron Dutch oven that you will use every dang day for the rest of your life. And that’s coming from someone who loves her KitchenAid mixer. Trust me on this one.

Cast Iron Skillet and Dutch Oven

Between these two pieces of cookware, you can make a big batch of soup AND bake a loaf of crunchy bread. I mean, really, what more do you need in life?

Once you’ve gotten these two pieces and learned to love them, there are some other awesome cast iron pieces that you might like (I lurve my cast iron grill pan). And if you cook for a crowd often, you might want to upgrade to a ginormous cast iron skillet at some point. But honestly? Between the small skillet and the Dutch oven, you’ll be able to cover 99% of what you cook in your kitchen.

Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread

When it comes to what brand to buy, if you’re looking for an heirloom quality piece without breaking the bank, I highly recommend Lodge brand (they aren’t sponsoring this post, they don’t know I’m alive). I love Lodge because it’s super high quality, but it’s affordable. You can get the two pieces I talked about above for less than $100 total. And it’ll last you a lifetime (and more). They’ve been around for a century, and their pieces are made in the USA. There are more expensive brands of cast iron cookware, but as far as value goes? You can’t beat Lodge.

When you’re buying cast iron, weight is one of the biggest indicators of quality. If it feels like it’s lighter than it should be for a piece of iron that size, put it back on the shelf and pick up one that requires some muscles to hulk around. Another indicator: how the handles are attached. You’re looking for one piece of cast iron—not something where handles are added or screwed in. If you’re buying a piece to hand down to your great-grandkids, you don’t want a weak spot where a handle meets the pot.

Where to Buy It

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Normally, I’d say just hit up Amazon and nab one (and that’s fine if that’s easiest for you), but if you’re looking for the best value? Head to a yard sale, flea market, antique store, or thrift shop.

Because cast iron cookware has been so misunderstood for so long, they’ve become cast-offs that you can get so flippin’ cheap secondhand. You can find cast iron—sometimes that needs a little TLC—for pennies on the dollar. Someday remind me to tell you about how I found this exact $200 cast iron French oven at a thrift store in Canada for $10…

If secondhand isn’t your thing, you can get cast iron cookware almost anywhere now. Amazon, Target, Walmart, Cabella’s, my grocery store even sells it in the mini kitchenware aisle.

Two Kinds of Cast Iron Cookware: Enameled or Not

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I touched on this briefly above, but when talking cast iron, we’re talking about two general categories—enameled and unenameled (I don’t think that’s actually a word, but we’re going with it). Here’s the story on each:

Enameled Cast Iron Cookware

Cast Iron Skillet and Dutch Oven

I’d venture to say that most people who cook a lot have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven in their home (and if you don’t, you should!). I actually have, um, four. You only need one. Do as I say, not as I do.

If you don’t own one, enameled cast iron is basically a regular cast iron pot, but with a skin of smooth enamel and glaze over it. This gives you a lot of the cooking benefits of cast iron—even heat, ability to go in the oven or on the stove, etc.—without some of the fussier aspects.

Dublin Coddle

You can wash enameled cast iron just like you would any other pot or pan. You don’t ever have to worry about seasoning it or it rusting. And you can cook whatever you want in it.

Enameled cast iron is not non-stick however, and never will be. You’ll always need to use oil or other fat to cook in it.

Some folks have concerns over the chemicals used in the glazing and enamel itself, but I haven’t found anything other than anecdotal evidence pointing to issues with it. I will say that I have never had an enameled cast iron piece that the enamel didn’t eventually start chipping (even the über expensive ones). But, it’s entirely possible I’m just hard as hell on Dutch ovens.

Unenameled Cast Iron Cookware

Cast Iron Skillets

This is what your standard cast iron skillet is—no coating, just forged iron in the shape of a skillet. Uncoated cast iron is not smooth—it actually has tiny nooks and crannies, and some folks even consider it porous. So as you cook (especially if you cook more fatty foods, like bacon), the fat from these foods goes into these crannies and eventually creates its own, totally natural non-stick coating over the iron.

Because the coating you create is made from natural food fats, you want to avoid using a lot of anything on the skillet that breaks down grease (Dawn dish soap, I’m looking at you) to protect the nonstick coating you’ve worked so hard to create. You want your skillet to be a wee bit greasy, so much so, in fact, it’s recommended to wipe a little bit of oil to the surface of your skillet after every wash. More on that later.

Whole Wheat Pan Pizza

To season versus the seasoning

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Before we talk about how to build up your nonstick coating, I need to go into glossary mode for a bit. When talking about cast iron cookware, the word “season” is used in two different but related ways:

  • to season (verb) is a specific action you take to help protect your skillet by oiling it and baking it at a high temperature. i.e., “I bought this old skillet from a flea market, and I’m going to season it tonight.”
  • the seasoning (noun) is another name for the nonstick coating of polymerized fat on skillet that is built up over time. i.e., “This skillet has a great seasoning on it—I can cook eggs without a drop of oil!”

And neither of these seasonings have anything to do with salt, pepper, or other spices in the way people refer to seasonings in a recipe. Are you confused yet?

You might see people asking you to use a “well-seasoned” cast iron skillet in a recipe. That doesn’t mean you need to go through the act of seasoning your pan before cooking with it, it’s just saying you want to use a pan that has a good nonstick surface.

Worth noting, none of this semantic craziness applies to enameled cast iron. Phew. Okay, moving on!

Building up your seasoning (AKA: the nonstick coating)

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Most unenameled cast iron skillets you buy today come preseasoned, but that does not mean they are nonstick. Building up a nonstick coating (also known as “the seasoning”) comes over many months. And, if I’m being completely honest, you’re looking at years of regular cooking before you get a totally nonstick surface where you can cook eggs without a drop of oil. But you’ll get there, and it’ll be awesome. Best. Pancakes. Ever.

Every time you cook something with fat (or add fat to sauté or brown in), you’re adding to your nonstick coating because the surface of a cast iron skillet acts like a mini sponge and sucks up the fat. The heat of cooking then chemically-alters the fat into a crazy hard, crazy slick surface. If you cook a lot of fatty foods, like bacon, you’re going to get to the nonstick promised land faster than if you just sauté veggies in water all the time (yes, that’s a thing). Fat is good. Grease is good.

You can also speed up the nonstick process by seasoning your skillet repeatedly. More about how to season your skillet below.

What if some of my skillet is nonstick but other parts aren’t?

When you’re working on building up a nonstick coating on cast iron, it’s pretty common that some parts will be nonstick before others. Keep on keepin’ on! You’re doing great! This is because you probably drizzle the oil in the same spot every time. Or only put two pieces of bacon in every time. Or a drop of dishsoap got on that one spot one time. Keep working at it, and eventually you’ll have an even, nonstick cooking surface.

Exactly how to clean cast iron cookware

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One of the things that gives folks the most anxiety about cast iron is cleaning it! No anxiety needed. It’s really super simple. Just remember one thing: salt instead of soap.

Cleaning a cast iron skillet is different from how you’d clean anything else in your kitchen. It’s true, you can’t clean it in your dishwasher or in your normal sinkfull of soapy water because soap is designed to cut through grease, and we’re trying to keep the grease in our skillet.

But just because you skip the soap, that doesn’t mean cleaning cast iron is difficult! For not-so-stubborn stuff, you can just wash your skillet out using hot water and a non-abrasive dish brush, sponge, or dishcloth.

How to Clean Cast Iron

For gunkier cooking messes, follow these steps:

  1. While it’s still hot, place the skillet in your sink (use oven mitts, please!).
  2. Sprinkle on a heavy dose of coarse kosher salt. This works as a food exfoliator, without eating away at the nonstick coating you’ve worked so hard to create.
  3. Use a dish brush, sponge, or dishcloth to scrub away any muck or guck. Some folks also use a half of a potato (cut side down) to do this. I don’t like wasting perfectly good potatoes.
  4. Rinse thoroughly.
  5. Dry completely—either use a towel or put it back on the stove over heat (that’s my favorite method).
  6. Put a little bit of your favorite cooking oil on a paper towel, and oil the cooking surface before storing it away. Remember, your skillet isn’t delicate, so stacking is fine for storage.

Cleaning Enameled Cast Iron Cookware

If you have an enameled cast iron pot, no special treatment is needed when cleaning. You clean these just how you normally would clean pots or pans. Wash it in soapy water, put it in the dishwasher. The only thing you want to avoid is using steel wool (or super abrasive scrubby tools), so your enamel stays nice and solid.

Um, that’s gross and dirty. I want to use soap!

You do you, friend. You can use soap on your cast iron cookware if it weirds you out not to—you’ll just have a hard time ever getting the glorious non-stick coating that makes people love cast iron so much, and you’ll probably need to season your skillet regularly to protect it.

Soap isn’t the deadly, dangerous, cast iron-killing thing people make it out to be. If you want to use a little bit of soap, you won’t kill a well-seasoned pan, but to be on the safe side, I recommend against using soap regularly (especially if you’re still working on building a good seasoning).

Honestly, if you want to use soap regularly, and in large amounts, you’re better off investing in a good set of stainless steel pans (I love these OXO ones) instead of cast iron.

But before you do that, can I tell you that people have been cooking on cast iron pots and pans for hundreds of years without washing them in soap? And that if you stay on top of cleaning your pans right after cooking, hot water and abrasive salt gets everything awesomely spic-and-span without any lingering smells or chemical residue. Salt is a natural cleanser that has been used for centuries. CENTURIES, PEOPLE.

Cast Iron Salt

I’m gonna get all crunchy granola on you for a sec: we now live in a society that is incredibly topsy-turvy when it comes to what “clean” means. To us, clean means drowning our dishes in soaps that are packed with an insane amount of chemicals that are harmful to our bodies and the environment. And we’ve been taught that if we don’t use those soaps, things are “dirty.” I just don’t subscribe to that belief. I highly encourage you to think about what “clean” means to you. Does it mean artificial scents, lots of bubbles, and damaging chemicals? Or does it mean free of food particles and lingering smells? The latter is what it means to me. And I get there with some salt and hot water. End crunchy granola Cass.

What’s the deal with seasoning?

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This is maybe the #1 question I get about cast iron skillets—what is seasoning? How often do I need to do it? How do I do it? Well, are you ready for this? If you take care of your skillet and use it regularly, you should never need to season it. Ever. 

What is seasoning?

Seasoning a cast iron skillet is the act of baking a piece of cast iron cookware in oil to protect it and create (or begin to create) a nonstick cooking surface. This nonstick coating is made up of oils and fats that have been chemically altered by heat to form a type of armor around the skillet. Once upon a time, most cast iron skillets were sold unseasoned, and you had to do it yourself at home. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to find a skillet for sale that isn’t pre-seasoned.

The act of seasoning a skillet is just one way to achieve a seasoning on a piece of cast iron. You can also build up the coating on your skillet by using it regularly and taking good care of it (which is what I recommend).

When to season

Some people recommend a “light” seasoning occasionally, and that’s fine if you want to do that, but, if you take care of your skillet every time you use it and use it regularly, I don’t find that necessary at all. I think there are only really three instances where you’d need to season a skillet:

  1. You don’t use your skillet regularly. Cast iron cookware is made to be used frequently, so if you only pull it out once a year, you’ll probably need to reseason it when you use it.
  2. If it’s been majorly neglected and you had to go to town with steel wool or even a sandblaster to get rust off.
  3. If it has been subjected to a large amount of detergent or acid—anything that eats away at the seasoning. A little bit of dish soap isn’t going to require reasoning, but if someone didn’t know better and dropped your skillet into a sinkful of soapy water and then you forgot about it all night? You might think about reseasoning because your nice, protective coating has been compromised.

I think of seasoning as an emergency reset button. It’s not a regular maintenance thing in our house – we only do it when things get desperate.

How to season

If you do happen to need to season your skillet, it’s honestly SUPER SIMPLE. Here are the steps (all three of them):

How to Season Cast Iron

  1. Get your skillet clean. Use steel wool and remove any rust or flakes or anything nasty and gnarly. More on what to do for a really nasty skillet below.
  2. Oil it. Coat the whole darn thing (top, bottom, sides, handle, all of it!) in a thin, but solid, coat of whatever oil makes you happy—just as long as it has a smoke point of higher than 350°. Some good options are avocado oil and canola oil. I tend to use this baking oil blend that I really love.
  3. Bake it. Place it upside down (so oil doesn’t pool) on a sheet of aluminum foil in a 350° oven for an hour. Turn the oven off, and let the pan cool completely in the oven. Just don’t forget to take the pan out of the oven before you go to preheat it the next time.

That’s it. You can repeat the process a few times if you really need to build up a coating (like if you did have it sandblasted), but in most cases, one go ’round should be enough. Now you’re ready to cook with it. And just as long as you keep your skillet clean, dry, and oiled, you should never need to season it again.

What if my skillet is rusty?

Fear not, my friend! With the exception of a hole rusted through, a piece of cast iron cookware can come back from almost anything—even severe rust.

The vast majority of rust that shows up on a cast iron skillet that is used frequently is just surface rust leftover from cleaning, and can be easily scrubbed off with a little bit of coarse salt or a fine mesh steel wool. If you start to see raw cast iron while you are scrubbing (you can tell because it has a different coloring and sheen from the rest of the skillet), go ahead and reseason your entire skillet using the steps above to protect it. As your cast iron gets more and more seasoned, and the nonstick coating becomes more and more rock solid, you’ll see less of this surface rust. Newer cast iron is much more prone to rust.

Raw Cast Iron

If your rust is a lot more severe, your cast iron can still be saved. You can try using elbow grease at home by scrub, scrub, scrubbing with steel wool–although the one caveat here is that rust is like a disease, you have to get EVERY SINGLE BIT of it off or it’ll reinfect the whole skillet. An easier option is to call around to local machine shops or auto body shops and see if they’ll sandblast the piece for you. Then, you’ll need to immediately season the skillet again.

Cooking Considerations

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Let’s address some of the cooking truths and myths of cast iron cookware.

Different Kinds of Cooktops

Cast iron can be used on all kinds of cooktops: gas, electric, induction, glass/ceramic. All of them work with cast iron.

Skillet on Stove

There is a myth that you can’t use cast iron on glass cooktops because they can crack, and it seems this is mostly an issue with older glass cooktops. In fact, word on the street is that Lodge themselves use glass cooktops in their test kitchen! You just have to be a little more careful with it on glass.

Because of the rough bottom of unenameled cast iron, it does run the risk of scratching a cooktop if you shake or slide the pan. If your glass cooktop manual stays to not use cast iron, chances are, it’s because of a weight issue—glass is, uh, breakable—and with too much weight on top, glass cooktops have been known to crack. If you are gentle with your cast iron, you should be good, but make sure to read over your warranty before you use cast iron on a glass cooktop.

Utensils

You can use any kind of utensil (rubber, plastic, wooden, metal) on a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. The seasoning should be hard enough to take all the scrapes and scratches of even your roughest metal spatula. If you’re still working on building up a good nonstick coating, stick with softer utensils like rubber, plastic, or wood.

When using enameled cast iron, it’s best to avoid metal utensils completely to avoid scratching the enamel.

Foods to avoid

Just like with the utensils, if you have a good nonstick coating on your cast iron, you can cook just about anything in it. If you’re still working on building up your seasoning, avoid acidic foods likes tomatoes that can eat away at the coating. You don’t have to avoid anything when using enameled cast iron.

Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese

Phew. If you made it to the end of this post, you now know my entire wealth of knowledge on the topic of cast iron. I will say that cast iron is STEEPED in folklore, myth, and tradition (as are most things that have been around that long), so what I know and practice might be different from what your grandparents taught you. As with everything in life, figure out what works for you and your kitchen! And I’d love to hear any tips or tricks you’ve figured out to make cast iron work in your kitchen.

And now, for getting through all of that, you deserve a cookie. Thanks for reading!

Congrats to Lisa! She won the free cast iron cookware. Woohoo!

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.
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