Don't Be Weird About Cast Iron
A couple years ago, after I was fairly certain the resident yellow jackets had retired for the season, I ventured into the nasty old chicken shed behind the house my husband and I had just bought. This structure had been a source of much contention between the long-divorced previous owners (she told him he could have it but she blocked the driveway on the day he was supposed to get haul it away—typical chicken shed drama). Its contents were no great prize: couple dozen cans of crusted-over paint that were now my responsibility to dispose of, a canning pot, a gas canister, a nest of crunchy rags, some damp bushel baskets, and two old cast-iron skillets caked in who knows how many years of sludge and rusted to hell and back. One of these had a bottom cracked past the point of salvage and I thanked it for its service before sending it off to its final resting place at the county dump. The other skillet—I dunno, she spoke to me. It took some patience and diligent scrubbing, but now I make my breakfast in that pan, named Thelma after my grandmother who could cook, just about every day. I recently found out that she was made by the Birmingham Stove & Range Company at some point between 1930 and 1960.
If this possibly 90-year-old cast-iron skillet could stand years, if not decades, of neglect in a muddy, wasp-infested, quite likely haunted shed and emerge as the workhorse of my kitchen, that should tell you about how much neglect a cast iron skillet can take and still be perfectly useful. People get so pedantic about cast iron, but they are truly forgiving pans. You are not going to bring about the apocalypse by dabbing a little soap on your cast-iron pan. Seriously, I checked. Not with a priest or anything but I can if you need me to. I called Mike Otterman, the CEO of Lodge—a company that has been making cast iron cooking gear since 1896 and sells 50 million pounds worth of cast iron products every year, include their 12-inch skillet that is the single best-selling item in the entire cookware industry—and he uses a little soap on his pans. Here's what he told me:
"I get asked two things every time I'm in an elevator with my Lodge shirt. 'Can I use soap? And 'How do I season?' And so my ritual—everybody has their own and I honestly enjoy cleaning up—I take it out of the oven, take the first picture. The other high moment is when I turn the light off in the kitchen and the skillet is gleaming on the range. It's like a baseball glove, you've got to keep well-oiled and protected. After dinner, I'll scrape it out in hot water. I will use soap and rub it down on the interior, particularly if I do salmon or something like that. Then I put it back on the burner on low, straighten up the rest of the kitchen. When it gets up to a nice warm temperature, I spray it with oil, turn off the burner, wipe it down with a paper towel, leave it on the burner until it cools and then I obviously never put it away. It looks better when I'm done cooking with it than I did when I started it."
I listened to the recording of this conversation multiple times (and yes, he did talk about seasoning—we'll get there) and at no point did he bring up jail time or eternal damnation for the supposed crime of using soap on cast iron. Hell, I occasionally use soap on my cast-iron pans and I have a masters degree in metalsmithing. If that's your personal family mythos and you want to perpetrate it behind your own closed doors lest your great-grandmother's ghost haunt your bacon, have at it. But it really bugs me when fetishism like this locks the gate against people's enjoyment.
Say or write the words "cast iron" aloud or on the internet or so much as post a picture of a skillet, and someone will swoop in and offer complicated and unsolicited advice about the steps you must to take to keep from destroying it and rending a hole in the fabric of the universe. If some fella (it's always a fella—sorry fellas) perceives even a mild flaw in your pan, he may feel compelled by fella-law to instruct you how to build an entirely unnecessary electrolysis tank in your home as penance when honestly, steel wool and patience will do. He may tell you that you need a blast furnace and 37 layers of grapeseed oil to achieve a seasoning that won't earn his scorn. (Otterman notes that Lodge factory-seasons with canola at 700°F but they tell consumers that "a high temperature or an oil with a high smoke point" will do, and says coconut or flaxseed oil are fine options.) It's lovely if you want to spend your time that way, but making it seem that complicated, being told you have to earn your right to use this object, just strips the joy along with the rust.
I guess I feel this way about a lot of things: music genres, superhero movies, sourdough, cooking with fire. Unless you are actively competing against other human beings for the physical possession of a rarified object, why not be an evangelist rather than a miser? It makes me physically sad when I hear someone say that they're too intimidated to cook with cast iron because they'd always heard it was so difficult. Malarkey!
To quote my esteemed colleague Margaret Eby's guide to cast-iron care, "It is very, very hard to irreparably mess up a cast iron skillet." That rhetoric has just been passed down and reinforced by the same kinds of people who upon you mentioning the enjoyment of a particular song feel compelled to quiz you on the depths of your fandom by demanding that you name deep album cuts and obscure B-sides. When I was a Goth teenage asshole I got mad at the people around me who called themselves Cure fans because they liked 'Lovesong,' but hadn't moped in the basement with me to 'The Funeral Party.' Ya know what I love now? Hearing 'Just Like Heaven' in the aisles of a big-ass grocery store and catching someone bobbing their head. Knowing a lot about something is a joy and that is not depleted by someone else's pleasure—if you're a grown-up. (You get a semi-dispensation until maybe your mid-20s and trying to codify your tastes and you may never use it on someone you're trying to date.)
READ MARGARET'S GUIDE: How to Clean Your Cast-Iron Skillet Without Breaking It
When I was trying to identify Thelma's make and model by visual cues, I turned to Twitter—which can occasionally get 'splainey and that's also when I whip out the MFA because I got this, bro, but is mostly just lovely on this front—and got some useful info there and also the advice that Reddit's cast-iron restoration subreddit is super helpful (it was) and that Facebook tended to be judgy and you know what? Pass on that. I'm the only one who cooks with Thelma (my husband could if he wanted to, but he prefers our red Le Creuset wedding skillet), so I don't give a flying ingot what anyone thinks of my seasoning job.
And when I asked Otterman about this phenomenon, he said, "When people are talking to you about your product, whether it's, 'Ooh, how do I use that? How do I clean it? How do I season it?' It just means that they care enough to get outside opinions. The people who have the knowledge feel like they're a leg up on everybody. There's a little bit of this notion that you have to be in-the-know to use cast iron."
And then the pandemic hit, everyone started cooking at home, and the cookware industry exploded, nearly doubling sales. Previously nervous or time-poor people tell Otterman, "Everybody kept talking about cast iron, I knew about Lodge, and I hadn't been quite ready to try it yet. But now, I've got plenty of time, so I went home and YouTubed it, and had a great first experience." He told me he figures, "People got so used to cooking on flavorless, convenience-based cookware and now that the world is changing, they actually care about what's in their food, what it's cooked on, and how it tastes."
I'm so excited for these new converts and I want to throw open the cast-iron gates and break the lock (I can't—it's made of cast iron) but I'm not the keeper. Nobody should be. Grab that skillet, shiny and new or chicken-shed dead, and cook your heart out. If you mess it up, so be it. Just scrub, re-season, and try again. It's a cast-iron skillet. You're not going to kill it.