Cast Iron Cookware and Soap

So, I was reading the New York Times today, for the first time in a while, and noticed that Mark Bittman has taken to using old-fashioned, cast iron skillets to cook in.

And that made me happy. Because I grew up with cast iron skillets that have been passed down from hand to hand over generations, and I said to myself, “Now see–a Yankee chef has figured out what hillbilly stump-jumpers and Cantonese popos have known for years–cast iron is the best material for most general cooking vessels.”

And he lists all the reasons why we cast-iron lovers praise the pots.

It heats up evenly, and holds the heat forever. You can heat up a cast iron skillet, take it off the burner, take a walk with the dog around the block and come back and the pan will still be warm and cosy.

This means, that once you get the pan heated through, and have browned your food, you can add liquid, and then turn the burner or oven down to granny-low, cover the pan, and let ‘er rip for a long time without using as much gas or electricity as you would to maintain a snice slow braise with any other material.

You can saute, pan-fry, deep-fry, stir-fry, simmer, braise and broil in it without any issues.

It is nearly indestructible.

It is inexpensive.

And, in a pinch, it can be used as a makeshift weapon in the defense of your person, your kin and your homestead. If revenuers or Imperial eunuch tax-collectors come to your kitchen and start trouble, you can end it right quick by taking up that cast iron skillet or wok and giving them a good whump on the head.

Believe me, that will drop the intruder without too much fuss, though I cannot say that the process would be mess-free.

The bodies do get to be a chore to hide, after a time.

Anyway, I was right there in the amen-corner with Bittman, nodding my head and saying, “Halleluja! Preach on, Brother Bittman,” until I came to this little sentence: “Despite many recommendations to the contrary, a little mild soap won’t tear off the seasoning.”

I near-bout fell over when I read that, and I could feel all of my hillbilly ancestresses keening from their graves.

Because the queens of the cast iron skillets and pots safeguarded their equipment by never allowing a drop of soap to come near them, and instead simply rinsed the cookware while it was still hot–that is the key–and then plopped it back on the stove to dry, then rubbed a little lard into it to give it a nice shine while it was still nice and warm. And then they put it away, often by hanging it on a wall, until the next day when they used it cook breakfast.

But the thing is–he is essentially correct–a little mild soap– and those are the key words there-mild soap–now and again, will not hurt a good seasoning on a cast iron pan.

But the thing is–most people don’t use mild soap on their pots and pans. Most people use dishwashing liquid, which is not soap, nor particularly mild.

It is detergent, which does play havoc with the seasoning layer on cast iron.

So, here is the deal–if you take up using a cast iron skillet or wok–I bless you for it. Once you get into the habit of taking good care of it, and washing it in hot water with a scrubber (not steel wool) as soon as you plate up the food and while it is still warm–you will have no trouble at all with it. I promise you.

And you can follow Bittman’s advice on how to season and maintain your cast iron–because his directions are the same ones I would give you, except he doesn’t seem to stipulate that you wash your pans while hot, which means he may not have figured that out yet.

But, please, unless you really do have some mild soap, like some vegetable oil based hand soap–Dr. Bonner’s is great(yeah, I know the religious philosophizing on the website and the soap packages is a bit odd, but the soap is vegetable based and quite mild)–sitting next to your kitchen sink–don’t follow his advice about using soap.

Because if you are like most Americans and have the dishwashing liquid–it isn’t soap, it isn’t mild and it will definately mess up the seasoning on your cast iron.

18 Comments

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  1. Wow, great post, lots of vivid imagery. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that Palmolive isn’t “mild soap,” so I’m glad you got to me before I washed my pan in it.

    I have a cast iron wok that I almost never use. The bottom would get hot but the sides, not so much. I started preheating it in a hot oven but I wasn’t too thrilled about handling it at 500 degrees. And I also found it a pain to get the food out of the wok and onto a plate: not so easy to just pick up the cast iron wok and dump the food out as you can with a lighter vessel. Any tips?

    Comment by mzn — December 7, 2005 #

  2. I still haven’t forgiven a many-years-ago former roommate for scouring my Granny’s cast iron skillet with Ajax.

    All the cast iron in my kitchen now gets a handful of cornmeal (to soak out toe drippings), a quick swipe with a damp cloth, and a coat of lard.

    Comment by Kris — December 7, 2005 #

  3. You make a good point on the harshness of detergents-this never occured to me.

    I use coarse salt for stuck on bits on my skillet…a similar idea to the cornmeal.

    Re- Cast iron woks: I have a very nice, very thin cast iron wok, (thin cheapo enamel on outside, plain cast iron inside)- which is not at all heavy. I ordered it from the Wok Shop in SF and love it. It heats up very quickly.

    Comment by lindy — December 7, 2005 #

  4. MZN–yes, Palmolive is a detergent, and they will wear away at the seasoning on a skillet.

    If you have an American made cast iron wok (and I do have one of those among my several woks), it is really too heavy. It is great on a live fire outside–and it is perfect, honestly, for deep-frying, because the weight helps keep the wok steady on the burner and the thickness of the cast iron helps to maintain the heat of the oil, even after adding the ingredients to be fried.

    But for stir-frying–it isn’t so much good. Lindy–I have the same exact wok as you–from the same exact place! Tane sold it to me–it is from Canton, and it is the finest wok I have ever used. I adore it.

    MZN–I suggest just such a cast iron wok for you. Follow Tane’s advice to season it in the oven, then the first time you use it, deep fry some spring rolls in it and then, start stir frying in it. I have not had a problem with mine sticking since I bought it a year ago, and I use it–sometimes up to six times a week. The wok gets hot enough on my flat top electric stove to give the food “wok hay”–that is the scent of a wok that you get in Chinese restaurants. (I cannot wait to use it on my new stove tomorrow and see what happens!)

    So–do try one of them–as Lindy says, they are inexpensive, and ordering from http://www.wokshop.com is simple and easy, or you can call and order by phone if you want to ask Tane questions. She is a dear lady. Every time I in the Bay Area, I have to go visit her shop.

    Kris–coarse cornmeal or as Lindy uses, coarse salt–that is the way to clean cast iron if it gets gunky, or if it has too much drippings. It works beautifully, and doesn’t scour a bit of seasoning away.

    And yes–lard is best. I use peanut oil and lard in both my wok and my skillets.

    Comment by Barbara — December 7, 2005 #

  5. Amen! I love my cast-iron frypans. Had them for eight years and they cost the huge amount of £10 for the set. :-)
    One of my male friends is banned from ever doing the dishes in my house as he scrubbed my largest frypan clean with detergent not once, but THREE times. I finally learnt! (just a little slow there ;-)

    Comment by Christina — December 8, 2005 #

  6. The Wok shop and Tane are lovely. I actually picked out my wok while visiting SF, but then decided I couldn’t carry any more. (I already had a small but insanely heavy cast iron teapot to carry, among other things.)
    I was sorry I hadn’t bought it, and ordered it from home. Tane sent me a couple of bamboo whisks “to make up for having to pay postage.” All of her woks come with extensive and worthy instuctions on seasoning.

    Comment by lindy — December 8, 2005 #

  7. I have a very heavy cast-iron wok by Bodum of all places. It does take forever to heat up – I just leave it on the highest flame for the last ten minutes or so of prepping veggies. It’s not what I would have chosen, but my lovely spouse gave it to me as a Christmas present and he was so excited I didn’t have the heart to tell him it’s not *really* the right kind of wok for a stir fry. Still it works well enough.

    Re. the washing issue, it reminds me of my mother, who foolishly left her cast iron frying pan in the kitchen when she rented the house for three months. She came back to find it COVERED with rust – the renters had put it in the dishwasher!!! Luckily the well-seasoned one she had been using for the last 35 years had already been pinched by my big brother and this was a recent purchase and still at the beginning of the seasoning process…

    Well, luckily for my brother anyway! (the rat!)

    Comment by Meg — December 8, 2005 #

  8. Christina–I love that cast iron is so cheap. It is great.

    Used to be you could pick up antique cast iron in junkstores and flea markets here in the US, for next to nothing, clean it up, and have a great pan.

    Nowadays, people collect the stuff and the prices have skyrocketed on all of the old stuff, so no more scouting out oldies but goodies for me.

    Lindy–yeah, I love Tane. She is a great lady, so much fun to talk with. The first time I was in the shop, she teasingly offered me a job there because while she was on the phone with someone who wanted a thirty-inch wok (for no good reason that she could determine), I helped another tourist pick out a good carbon steel wok and explained the difference between spun steel and hand-hammered.

    She got off the phone and was like, “Good grief, woman, do you need a job?”

    Unfortunately, I was but a lowly tourist myself, so I couldn’t hold her to the offer, but I told her that if I lived in the Bay area, I’d work for her in a hot minute.

    Meg–that story about your Mom–that is so sad. But I have heard similar stories from so many people.

    They used it in the dishwasher, and then presumably cooked in it. Who wants to cook in a rusty pan? I bet their food tasted like blood and nails, the idiots.

    Comment by Barbara — December 8, 2005 #

  9. It seems as though writers find cast iron and write big articles about it every few years or so. I have one here from the SF Chronicle a while back. I’m one of those that have fry pans from about 3 generations back. They cover my walls, hang from a few racks and get stacked on the shelf next to the range (my 2 favorites). It’s like you’re using Elvis every time you pull one down, they’re that cool. I keep mine happy by using them as roasters for my 450 degree whole chicken for an hour routine, they cheer every time. Gravy tickles ‘em and makes them giggle. Kinda lost interest in my le creuset fry pans and my tin lined solid copper are too fussy for every day stuff.
    Any soap in a cast iron fry pan? Is he high? Sigh.

    Biggles

    Comment by Dr. Biggles — December 8, 2005 #

  10. ::grimaces and waggles hand back and forth:: I’m a cast iron user both american and asian type and I use dishliquid on occasion. If it’s really nailed on I fill the vessel (I have several) with water & a few drops of soap, bring it to a simmer, turn off, and let it cool to touchable. Then I scrub the heck out of it with a green scrubbie. Maybe this is where we differ… I then put it back on the stove and heat till its dry. Turn it off, hang it up. I never have a problem. Bear in mind, this is only occasional treatment. Typically I wash it hot as you do. Occasionally I rub it down with bacon fat. Truly, cast iron is incredibly durable. Speaking of woks, at Wal-Mart in NC I found a 16″ rolled carbon steel wok with a nice sturdy handle for $17. Great deal if you ask me!

    Comment by Jo — December 8, 2005 #

  11. Thanks for the tips. You make me want to go to SF very badly! I’m putting the Wok Shop on my list of places to go before I die :)

    Comment by mzn — December 8, 2005 #

  12. Hi Barbara,

    I am sitting here chuckling at this post. I was just telling my friend that I grew up using cast iron and he was too! I miss it and I am going to find some really soon!

    Only probalem is I have treated many non stick pans…ick…the same way I treated the cast iron and ruined many pans. what can I say…I go on auto pilot in the kitchen. I rub/clean those pans to roughly. I need my cast iron…and I see I need a WOK too. :)

    Comment by Tatyanna — March 13, 2006 #

  13. Everyone needs a wok, Tatyanna. It is an awful lot of fun to cook in one. ;-)

    A cast iron wok is the best….

    Comment by Barbara — March 14, 2006 #

  14. The clarification about mild soap was news to me.I cook with cast iron and so does my wife. I do the clean-up for both of us and never use anything but hot water and a plastic scrubber. Works beautifully and all our cast iron is totally non-stick. Howver, I am glad to learn this about the soap. Thanks.

    Comment by Doyle — June 5, 2009 #

  15. Had an ekderly gentleman ask me about a skillet he has that is 12 and 7/16.Said it has a smoke ring and some type of intials.Is this possible or was he just crazy?

    Comment by Kelloe — January 16, 2010 #

  16. I have a few american cast skillets, 2 from my mother and 1 from my mother-in-law. How & what they cook in them were very similar & also how they cared for them as well. Too much tomatowy stuff in them will harm your patina, save the acidic type cooking for the stainless cookware that you may have their not reactive like your Grannys cast iron skillet, other than that cast iron cookware is an hard act to follow, amd with added health benefits from it which no other type of cookware can bragg about. Now if your not woking like the Iron Chefs on tv then the weight of Amer. cast iron won’t bother you plus you’ll love the stabilty that it gives on the stovetop which comes from it’s weight.Always heat up your pan before you start, then pour in your oil,give it a minute or two heat up and start to cook, like the good book says: you won’t have no hang-ups with a pan that you’ve already heated-up !!! and if you do or they just get too greasy, a little dish liquid on a sponge with a nylon scrub on the opposite side will take care of any sticky food problems that you might encounter,make sure that you put it back on the stovetop,turn on the burner to dry it back out, I’ve used this method with my American made cast iron wok for well over 10yrs. with no problems and no food sticks in it amd nobody but nobody washes my cast iron cookware BUT ME and after RAISING THE ROOF a few times even my wife has learn to just leave them dirty until I get to them. Believe me when I tell you when it comes to cooking no cookware browns,braises,frys or stir frys the way that good cast olde cast iron does.But when it comes to steaming or cooking acidic foods with a lot of tomato sauce THEN take it to some other type of cookware. THIS IS THE REAL TRUTH of the matter and I’ve been exposed to cast iron cookware for well over 50yrs. and I’m not above stealing anybodys cast iron pan if I see that they have little reguard for it either, especially if it belonged to their Grandma.

    Comment by G. Williams — August 28, 2010 #

  17. Oh thanks for sharing. Now I know that it doesn’t need to be cozy in cleaning up the cast iron. It looks like you just let it rest after using it and put lard to maintain the gloss.

    It is just right to pass from generation to generation.

    Comment by Armil@cast iron pots — November 19, 2010 #

  18. [...] Tigers & Strawberries » Cast Iron Cookware and Soap 7 Dec 2005. It works beautifully, and doesn't scour a bit of seasoning away.. Any soap in a cast iron fry pan? Is he high? Sigh. Biggles Tigers & Strawberries » Cast Iron Cookware and Soap [...]

    Pingback by Cast frying image iron pan — December 4, 2010 #

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