Huge mistakes you're making with your cast iron skillet

Congratulations! You're the proud owner of a cast iron skillet. Maybe you were recently married and received one as a wedding gift. Or recently divorced and received one as a divorce gift. Or you're a college grad and you received one instead of a boring old fountain pen. Or someone purchased you one as a housewarming present. Or you came across one at your local thrift store. Regardless, you have a cast iron pan and you are ready to party — and by "party" we mean that you are ready to make like the Colonel and fry up some chicken. Not so fast! Slow down there, Iron Chef. 

Your cast iron skillet may seem like a super tough, hardcore, durable kitchen workhorse, and it is, dear friend, it is. You can whip up all manner of delicious things in that cast iron skillet, and if you decide to live your life like a vintage cartoon it comes in awfully handy as a weapon. But there are also plenty of mistakes you can make with your trusty cast iron skillet, and before you go whipping up a paella you'll want to learn what those mistakes are so you know not to make them.

You're not seasoning your cast iron skillet

As soon as you get a new cast iron pan, you may be tempted to turn on the gas and plop your skillet on the cooktop — but first you need to season it. The majority of cast iron skillets you purchase won't automatically have a nonstick coating, and that's where seasoning it comes in. Even if your pan is pre-seasoned, it's still a good idea to season it again.

So why exactly do you season your cast iron skillet? Because cast iron is porous. Field Company explains it like this: "If you put cast iron under a microscope, you'll see that its surface is bumpy and porous, and those bumps and pores expand once the pan is heated. Seasoning, especially in the early life of a pan, bakes right into the iron, filling in those pores and smoothing everything out into an even surface. Over time, as layer after layer of seasoning builds up, the cooking surface eventually becomes pure seasoning, securely bonded to the iron underneath." Seasoning your cast iron means that it will develop a nice slick patina so your food won't stick to the pan and you'll be able to flip those eggs with ease.

You're seasoning your cast iron skillet in the oven

Most things you read will tell you it's best to season your cast iron skillet in the oven, adding a thin layer of oil to the pan before you set the oven on a high temperature and let your cast iron baby hang out in there for an hour. But that may not be the best way to go about things. Some cast iron aficionados think oven seasoning is ineffective and unnecessarily slow.

Issac Morton, founder of cookware company Smithey Ironware, told Gear Patrol, "In my opinion, when you're seasoning in the oven you're just protecting the skillet from rust and the elements. Other than cooking in it over and over again, what we call stovetop seasoning is the better method of seasoning." Morton goes on to say that by seasoning the skillet on the cooktop you are "able to apply a layer of seasoning on it that accelerates something like 10 years of seasoning process." 

To season on the stovetop, just apply a light coating of oil, then wipe away the excess with a paper towel. Crank up the heat, and once it starts to smoke and look dry, apply another scant coating of oil. Do this for 10 to 15 minutes. This method will produce a lot of smoke, so make sure you have proper ventilation. But if it brings you quicker to getting that nice hard nonstick surface, it seems like the cooktop is the way to go.

You're cooking all the things in your cast iron skillet

Nothing beats a delicious Bolognese sauce that simmers on the stove for hours while you add garlic and wine and tomato paste, but you should not cook food like this in your cast iron skillet until it's very well-seasoned. Dishes with high acidity like those containing tomato or citrus may take on a metallic taste if they are cooked in a cast iron skillet that isn't properly seasoned, and they can also strip off the seasoning you've worked so hard to cultivate. Bon Appétit even says deglazing with vinegar or wine can cause damage to the pan because of the acidity. Sure, adding some lemon zest to the chicken breasts you've been sautéing should be fine, but stewing tomatoes all day is a no-go.

Another tricky thing to cook in your cast iron skillet is fish. A lot of fish is too delicate for cast iron and will cook better in a non-stick pan. Even in a very well seasoned pan can, fish can be too difficult to flip or will fall apart too easily. One more reason to avoid fish is because cast iron can absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked in it. Unless you plan on having one pan for your savory dishes and pan for your sweets, you may not want to use your cast iron to cook fish and then bake up a Dutch Baby. No one wants a fishy pancake.

You're putting your cast iron skillet in the dishwasher

It's easy to drink a bottle of wine (okay, two) with dinner and not feel up to dealing with cleaning your cast iron skillet. We've all been there, and before you crawl into bed after singing the entirety of Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go's at top volume, don't you dare throw your cast iron skillet into the dishwasher. Letting your dog lick it is probably even a better cleaning method for it, because washing your cast iron skillet in the dishwasher is going to obliterate your seasoning and cause it to rust. 

According to Hunker, "The combination of the scrubbing action, warm water and detergent effectively remove the seasoning in the pan." If you absolutely can't deal with cleaning your cast iron pan after using it, at least wipe out any food debris with a paper towel and leave it on your cooktop or counter to finish cleaning in the morning after you've chugged some Gatorade and taken some Tylenol. If you have a stuck-on food mess, you can add a little bit of water and try simmering it on the stovetop to remove it.

You're not letting your cast iron skillet dry long enough

We know… Taking care of cast iron is a lot of work, but there's one more thing you have to be vigilant about: You can't put your skillet away with any moisture on it. Doing so is going to leave you with rust patches, and nobody wants that after working so hard at seasoning it. 

After using your pan and wiping it clean, you want to make sure absolutely no moisture remains, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by putting your clean pan back on the cooktop. Faith Durand at The Kitchn says, "Place the skillet over a medium flame and let it sit until very dry — about 5 minutes. Let it cool, wipe out one more time, then put it away." Make sure the cabinet you store your cast iron skillet in is also dry and free of humidity, and place paper towels between each pan to prevent scratching and rusting. Another option is to hang your cast iron pans on a pot rack, where they'll not only be decorative, but the air flow will keep them from rusting.

You're using your cast iron skillet to store leftovers

Your cast iron skillet is not Tupperware. You can't cover it with foil and shove your leftovers in the refrigerator in it. Not only will it mess with its seasoning and increase the potential for your cast iron skillet to rust, it may have other negative consequences as well. 

Storing food in a cast iron pan may lead to iron toxicity. According to Hunker, "This is caused by ingesting too much iron. The iron is caused by the moisture that sticks to the food. When the food is ingested, so is the iron. In small quantities that's not a problem. However, for those people who have difficulty metabolizing iron, or hemochromatosis, that excess iron leads to fatigue, joint and stomach pain as well as other symptoms." Hemochromatosis, or iron overload disease, is said to affect as many as 1 million Americans, so it's better to be safe than sorry. Bust out those Ziploc baggies and your trusty Tupperware, and stick your leftovers in those instead.

You're not preheating your cast iron skillet before using it

Before you start searing a steak in your cast iron, or cooking anything in it, you need to let it get hot. Not letting your cast iron skillet get hot before you start cooking in it causes your food to stick. Cast iron doesn't preheat evenly and it also takes a long time for it to get hot, but once it does it is excellent at retaining that heat.

You can preheat your skillet by placing it in your oven or by preheating it on the cooktop for about 10 minutes. Today advises, "Start the skillet over low heat, incrementally increasing that to whatever your desired cooking temperature is. Make sure you place the pan an inch or two off center and rotate it every couple of minutes, so it circles the heat source; this keeps the middle of the skillet from receiving all that direct heat and developing a hot spot." Another bonus to the stovetop preheating method is that by adding cooking fat while the pan is coming to temperature, you're helping to build up its seasoning.

You're scared of using soap on your cast iron skillet

There are plenty of sources that will tell you to never use soap on your cast iron pan because soap will remove the seasoning. The reality is that a well-seasoned cast iron pan has been oiled and heated repeatedly, and the seasoning is actually a polymerized oil that has bonded to the surface of the metal. A little soap can't hurt that. 

According to The Kitchn, "The oil combines with the porous surface of the pan when heated creating a surface harder and smoother than the pan itself. It would take a lot more than soap to remove the seasoning from a skillet." Field Company says that the whole myth about not using soap on your cast iron pans originated back when soaps were made with things like lye and other harsh compounds. Sure, you should never soak your cast iron skillet in soapy water for long periods of time, but if you have to use a little bit of soap to clean up some very gunked-on food it should be fine — just be sure to oil your cast iron after using soap as it can dry things out.

You're not using salt to scrub your cast iron skillet

Instead of using soap to clean your cast iron pan, you might want to try other less invasive methods first, and one of the best ways to clean your skillet is by using good old kosher salt. Bon Appétit recommends pouring a cup of kosher salt into your still-warm pan and using a kitchen towel to scrub it. When you're done, simply rinse the pan with hot water and dry it very well before storing it. HuffPost suggests using both salt and a cut potato to scrub your pan. And WideOpenEats uses both salt and a nifty chainmail scrubber to remove stuck on food. In one Reddit thread, Alton Brown is quoted as saying he uses salt plus a little bit of fat to scrub his pan down, and if Alton Brown co-signs on something, you know it must be true. Regardless of which method you use, salt is cheap, readily available, and isn't too abrasive to use on your precious cast iron skillet.

You're letting your cast iron skillet soak

Soaking cast iron is a big no-no. Sure, you'll find those brave souls out there who claim that they do it themselves or know someone who has soaked their cast iron skillet with no resulting problems, like this GardenWeb user who says, "My mother has always soaked her cast iron skillets. And washed them with soap and water, and even on occasion, scrubbed them with SOS. And they always seem to stay 'seasoned.' But hers are older than dirt and she has done years of frying in them…" According to the experts at Field Company, though, it's a risky move. "Soaking a pan with water overnight is a sure recipe for rust," they say, "but a brief rinse or few minutes' soak with warm water is fine." 

Maybe that mama's cast iron was so well-seasoned after decades of frying chicken that she could get away with it, but it's still better to err on the side of caution and leave the long soaks to your other pans, or for you after you've prepared a complicated dinner and want a bubble bath.

You're using the wrong cooking utensils on your cast iron skillet

It's hard to go wrong when it comes to the kitchen utensils you use on a cast iron skillet, and that's due to the fact that these pans are virtually indestructible. But some work better than others, depending on what you're cooking, and how well-seasoned your pan is. 

A metal spatula is great for flipping delicate items and it may also help with the condition of your pan. According to MannKitchen, "I use a metal spatula in my cast iron skillet every day. My main skillet has never been stripped and re-seasoned, and the cooking surface has been IMPROVED by using a metal spatula on it. This is because the right spatula will lower the high spots in the natural texture of cast iron (left by the sand mold it was cast in), resulting in a smoother cooking surface that no longer makes that rusty nail-on-a-chalkboard sound when you scrape it." 

Some suggest using gentler utensils on newly-seasoned cast iron. One Chowhound user advises, "I would either (a) use a very light hand with the metal utensils, or (b) use wood/bamboo/silicone utensils." It's a good idea to be gentle with your utensil choice until the seasoning has a chance to settle in.

For ease of use, reach for a silicone spatula. Elite Daily says that thanks to its flexible corners, you'll be able to navigate inside the pan no problem, plus it stands up to very high heat.

You thew out your cast iron skillet because it got rusty

Don't throw away that rusted old cast iron skillet that was gifted to you by your great uncle (it's the thought that counts, right?) or that you stumbled across at a yard sale, because you can totally bring it back to life. Don't forget, cast iron is made to last forever. It's the stuff that heirlooms are made of, and if you take care of it chances are your baby's baby's babies will still be using it long after you're gone. 

If you do have a rusted pan, you can save it with some steel wool and a lot of elbow grease. According to Taste of Home, you first want to scour it with the steel wool or a tough scrubber, a little water, and some soap. (Yes, you will remove the seasoning, but you will be adding more after all the rust is removed.) Once it's nice and clean, you want to rinse it, dry it very well, and start the reasoning process. Your cast iron skillet will be as good as new and you can get back to making all the pancakes you can eat in it.