18 Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Cast-Iron Pans

Treated right, cast-iron pans can last for generations to come.

December 20, 2016
eggs in cast iron
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Congratulations! If you are the lucky caretaker of a cast-iron skillet, frying pan, griddle, Dutch oven, or other piece of cast-iron cookware, you have what is arguably the most versatile and resilient cookware ever invented (add to your cast-iron collection with this gorgeous dutch oven from Rodale's). And this amazing stuff only gets better with age: My vintage cast-iron cookware has fed happy families for at least a century and shows no signs of wearing out.

Any cookware that is still in prime condition after a century of use and abuse must be pretty near indestructible. That said, there are some things that will make your pan less useful—avoid these mistakes so your cast iron stays usable for generations. 

(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally!—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health & Healing.)

cast iron pan
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Putting off cooking in it

Got a new pan that needs seasoning? If it sounds daunting, just give the pan a quick rinse with warm soapy water to get rid of any machine oil, slap it on the stove, and start sautéing and frying in it (whip up this delicious Chinese veggie stir-fry). The best way to keep your cast iron in good condition and make it even better is to cook in it. Whatever oils and fats you're cooking with will start the conditioning process. 

Related: How To Make Your Favorite Skillet Last Forever

cast iron pan
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Overdoing the seasoning

Seasoning is wonderful, but you can’t rush the process. Apply more than just the thinnest coat of oil or fat per session and you may end up with a tacky, goopy layer rather than a hard, shiny, brown-black finish. If you do get this goopy layer, you can certainly scrape it off and start again, but it's far easier to avoid creating it in the first place.

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cast iron pan
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Deciding it’s just too hard to cook in

If you have a ceramic or glass-top range, your cast-iron cookware is best suited for baking. But for any other type of stove, it's easy to learn to cook with cast iron—just keep experimenting, and soon you'll be a pro. (Try these 5 simple meals you can make in a cast-iron skillet.)

water on cast iron
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Not preheating your cast-iron skillet

The heat up process for cast iron is very uneven, resulting in hot spots and unevenly cooked food. To avoid this, always preheat your cast-iron pan on a medium-low setting for 5 to 10 minutes. To test if your skillet is ready to go, flick a few drops of water into it. The water should sizzle and dance. Once hot, cast iron holds heat superbly, releasing it evenly. 

butter melting
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Expecting it to be non-stick, especially at first

A new cast-iron skillet will never be quite as non-stick as a new Teflon pan. On the other hand, a year or a decade later, your cast iron still won't be chipped or scratched, nor will it release toxins into your food and air (read more about the dangers of Teflon). Add a tiny bit of oil or fat just before you put your food in, keep experimenting, and you will soon know how to make it work for you. And the longer you use your cast iron, the more non-stick the surface will become. 

 
 
pancakes
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Expecting a new pan to be as non-stick as grandma’s

Cookware cast since the 1950s comes with a slightly bumpy cooking surface, rather than one polished to a smooth shine. Vintage cookware has also been polished further by decades of scraping with the straight edge of metal spatulas. Seasoning the bumpy surface and cooking on it will improve the finish of a modern pan, but it is never going to be as smooth and non-stick as a well-used vintage one. 

spatula on dirty pan
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Avoiding metal spatulas

Please use them, especially ones with a straight front edge. Over time, the metal on metal will slowly polish the surface of the pan, making your cast iron more non-stick. 

cooking in cast iron
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Avoiding acid foods

You may want to use a different pan to simmer tomato sauce for hours and hours, but other than that, you can cook anything you want in cast iron. Just be sure to remove all leftovers promptly and clean, dry, and oil your pan right away. 

 
 
cooking eggs in cast iron
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Avoiding eggs

Lots of people say you can’t cook eggs in cast iron, but I always use my cast-iron pan for my fried or scrambled eggs and omelets (and here's why you should eat the whole damn egg!). Be sure to pre-heat the pan well and then add oil or fat right before putting the eggs in. Once in a while, scrambled eggs stick for me. No biggie: just scrape out and serve the eggs. Then, immediately hold the pan under running hot water and use a natural bristle brush to loosen the stuck-on egg. Once it's removed, dry the pan and give it a good oiling. 

cleaning cast iron pan
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Avoiding soap

Rinsing a hot pan under hot water immediately after taking the food out works for me 99 percent of the time. Occasionally I use soap, especially if there's a strong flavor involved. Short-term exposure to soap doesn’t hurt the seasoning—just make sure to rinse and dry the pot immediately. 

soap bubbles
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Soaking in the sink

Don't even think about soaking your cast iron! If dried, caked-on food is an issue, scrape out all you can with a metal spatula, fill the pan with water, bring it to a simmer on the stove, and then use running hot water and a stiff natural or plastic bristle brush to remove the last bits. If a pan gets soaked, don’t panic: Clean it out, dry it in the oven on low heat, and then oil it inside and out. 

 
 
dishwasher
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Running it through the dishwasher

No, no, no—never, ever put your cast-iron cookware in the dishwasher. The high heat, water, and corrosive detergent will play havoc with its seasoning. But if it happens, don’t despair (or hit the perp over the head with the pan), just dry it in the oven on low heat and then oil the pan inside and out. 

Related: How Cast-Iron Skillets Used To Be Made And Why That Makes Vintage Pans The Best

cleaning pan
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Scrubbing it with abrasives

Steel wool, steel coils, scouring powder, cleansers, or even the ubiquitous green pads may scratch your pan’s seasoning. Stick with glass-safe scrubbing pads instead, or a simple sponge. 

cast iron pan
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Putting it away wet

Wet iron rusts, so always make sure to dry cast iron carefully. Otherwise, the rust will eat into the seasoning layer if there are any gaps. If you rinse out your pan while it's still hot and turn it upside down on the stove, the heat from the metal burners will dry off the residual moisture. If the pan is cold, either heat it on a burner over a low flame or in the oven on low until it's completely dry.

Related: Why Your Doctor Wants You To Cook With Cast Iron

 
 
water
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Plunging it into cold water

It is possible, though not easy, to crack cast iron by dropping a super-heated pan into cold water (or a snowbank). If you overheat a pan, let it cool at room temperature or pour some very hot water into it (watch out for the steam). If you ignite a grease fire either put a snug lid on the pan to smother the flames, dump in dry baking soda, or use a kitchen fire extinguisher (check out these 9 other surprising uses for baking soda). This will save yourself, as well as the pan, since plunging it into water will spatter hot grease and/or create a cloud of potentially scalding steam.

oven
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Storing it in the oven...maybe

Baking cast iron at a high temperature is an effective way of removing seasoning mistakes. If you aren't good at remembering to remove items from inside the oven before preheating, the seasoning on your cast iron could take a hit. That being said, I have an old oven with a pilot light that generates just enough heat to keep things dry, so I tend to store my cast-iron cookware in the oven, especially during the humid summer months.

rough pans
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Putting up with a rough modern pan

While you can season and cook most things successfully on the pebbled surface of modern cast-iron skillet, you may yearn for at least one skillet that is smooth as silk for cooking eggs and other foods that tend to stick. If you're willing to invest a little elbow grease, you can polish away the pebbles by hand with emery paper in a couple of hours, or in considerably less time with an electric drill fitted with an abrasive polishing head called an Avanti Quick Pro (check this video to see how it's done). Be sure to use all tools safely! 

Related: How To Make An Antique Cast-Iron Pan Look Brand New

 
 
cast iron pan
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Babying it

Please don’t flip out if you or anyone else abuses your cast-iron cookware. Pans last forever and you can fix anything that happens to them (short of a crack). Relationships are more important and far harder to fix. Love your cast iron cookware, but love your family more.