How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cast Iron Skillet

How to care for a cast iron skillet: It's easier than you think!Several years ago I purchased a cast iron skillet. I liked the idea of its non-stick properties without being coated with Teflon, its ability to brown, and that it transfers iron to the food that’s cooked in it. However, after purchasing it, I started feeling like I was saddled with a Gremlin. Instead of rules like no water, don’t expose it to bright light, and don’t feed it after midnight, with the cast iron skillet there were many conflicting theories.

On any website devoted to cast iron upkeep, people disagreed over whether or not soap could be used on the skillets, if they should instead be “washed” with salt or a scrub brush, what types of oil to use on it, and how to remove caked on food.  People had different ideas about if it was ever okay to cook highly acidic things in the cast iron like foods glazed with barbecue sauce, marinated in lemon juice, or deglazed with wine… It was pretty overwhelming.

I did my best with the skillet by avoiding soap and cleaning it instead by boiling water in it to remove any remaining bits of food. After boiling, I oiled the skillet all over, and then put it back on the stove to cook off the oil… It started to feel like every meal was full of boomerang chores before I could put the cast iron skillet back in the cupboard. It became more trouble than it was worth, it started to rust, and after a while it was forgotten at the far reaches of the cupboard. Eventually, I sold it for a couple of bucks at a garage sale, more than happy to be rid of it.

So with that in the back of my mind, I was hesitant about getting a cast iron grill pan. I liked the idea of getting beautiful grill marks and smoky grill flavor without having to leave the kitchen, especially during cold winter months. I also wanted to be able to grill smaller or more delicate things that might fall through outdoor grill grates. However, I had no interest in a cooking device that was also a project.

Use a cast iron grill pan for easy, no fuss grilled tofu!One day this winter, though, thoughts of smoky grilled tofu got the better of me. I picked up a new pre-seasoned cast iron grill pan at Target for about $16 and a sturdy scrub brush. This time around instead of treating the pan like a chore, I refused to baby it. After an initial thorough scrubbing with soap and the aforementioned scrub brush, I was ready to use it. I oiled the grill area with organic canola oil. And when I was done using it, I scrubbed it with the brush and soap again, dried it thoroughly with a kitchen towel, and put it away. Occasionally I’ll oil the pan all over with a thin coating of canola oil or melted coconut oil, but most of the time I simply make sure that it’s fully dry before putting it in the cupboard.

Unlike the first time around when I easily became disenchanted with the cast iron, this time it has revolutionized my cooking. I love being able to score those gorgeous grill marks effortlessly. Even better, the smoky char flavor that I adore so much is even more prominent with the cast iron than it is with our outdoor gas grill.  It adds a lot of flavor without even adding seasonings.

Plus, it has made packing lunches a breeze. A few times a week when I’m making lunches in the morning, I’ll heat the grill pan, lightly oil a couple slabs of tofu, and grill on both sides for a few minutes. As I’m cooking, I’ll season the tofu with splashes of tamari, or once I’m done I’ll add a few generous dashes of Slap Ya Mama seasoning. After I’m finished, I put the tofu into a resealable container along with a wedge of lime, orange, or lemon to squeeze on just before eating. I pack the tofu along with a salad or steamed vegetables.

The grilled tofu is shown above with garlicky sautéed collard greens and Upton’s seitan bacon.  It’s also great in a sandwich or glazed with 30 second BBQ sauce.

Indoor grilling is a breeze with a cast iron skilletThe cast iron grill pan has been super handy for grilling vegetables for fajitas, eggplant for baba ganoush, seitan sausages, or buns and veggie burgers.  (I can even grill softer veggie burgers that feel precarious on an outdoor grill.)  Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems with rusting this time around.

Here are a few more handy tips:

  1. Cast iron works best being heated on the stove to a medium high heat before adding any food to it.  For enviable grill marks, the key is not to be afraid of getting the pan hot.
  2. Always remember to use metal utensils on it. No one wants to eat melted plastic from plastic spatulas.
  3. Don’t just pour oil into the grill pan, because it won’t reach the tops of the elevated grill area that the food actually touches. Plus, it doesn’t allow as nice of browning. I usually wipe the oil on with a cloth before heating the pan, but of course, you could use a grill brush instead.
  4. For perfect grill marks, don’t move the food until it comes off the pan easily. Once a slab of tofu, for example, is fully ready, it will loosen from the pan without losing any tofu-bits behind. It will come off like removing a sticker from cellophane.
  5. Once you’re finished cooking, allow the grill pan to come to room temperature on its own.  Putting a hot skillet in cold water can damage it.
  6. No matter how much it tries to convince you, never ever feed it after midnight. Oh, wait. Wrong list.

Update: Check out this mouthwatering and easy recipe for Grilled Tofu Satay & Bok Choy that you can make on your cast iron grill pan or outdoor grill!

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

16 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cast Iron Skillet

  1. this is so interesting to me! i was not aware of cast iron skillet rules. i use mine practically every day, and after i take the food off of it, i immediately put it in the sink and clean it with hot water and dish soap. i found that the left over food comes off really easily when it is still hot and does not have the chance to harden and come to room temperature. i guess i’m doing it all wrong, but it totally works for me and i love that it’s not a hassle at all. like you said, i would never use it if it was a constant chore.

    • Good for you! If doing it “wrong” works, then by all means, do it! When I tried to do everything right, my cast iron ended up rusted. I might as well do it the wrong way, and see if I have better luck!

    • Thanks, Pamm! After my initial trepidation, I’m glad that I took the plunge and tried again with cast iron. It’s been a fun addition to my cooking tools.

  2. Your first experience with cast iron is EXACTLY like mine and the reason that there is zero cast iron in my kitchen. Maybe it’s time to give it another go!

  3. I love my round cast iron griddle, and my small frying pan, but I’ve been wanting a grill pan for a long time. My main concern is the amount of smoke it would create — does it fill the kitchen and set off the smoke alarm? I’m jealous of the grill marks you’ve achieved, and I may have to give in to yet another kitchen possession that needs cabinet space. Now, about the brush. It’s not metal, is it? There’s apparently a problem with some metal grill brushes leaving barely visible metal strands on the grill. The strands get cooked into food and swallowed, causing a dangerous medical emergency. What kind of brush did you get, and does it work really well?

    • I don’t get any smoke at all. None. The only issue I’ve had is if I add Slap Ya Mama seasoning while I’m cooking. There’s a lot of pepper in it, and when it heats, the kitchen smells like I’ve filled it with pepper spray, causing anyone within nose-shot to start coughing. But from the pan itself, there haven’t been any problems.

      The brush bristles are silicone, I believe. It’s just a simple sturdy kitchen scrub brush, not the kind that you’d think of using on an outdoor grill. There’s a link to the specific one that I use in the post above. I got it for about five bucks at Target. It works well enough, but I think any sturdy scrub brush would work equally well. That metal strand issue sounds terrible! I’m glad to avoid that!

  4. Good for you! Don’t baby it. We’ve used the same two cast iron skillets for everything for over 5 years now. We wash them after use, dry them immediately, and put them back on the stove where they live. Every now and then we’ll re-season. If we’re feeling feisty!

    • “If we’re feeling feisty!” That’s cute! The world needs more feistiness. :)

      I’m glad to hear that the low fuss method works for you too. I figure, people have been using cast iron for a long, long time now. And for most of that time Google wasn’t around to let us know that we were doing it all wrong. Yet, the cast iron survived anyway!

  5. I totally am the same way with my cast iron grill pan! I bought a skillet last year and I use it fairly regularly, but I feel like I still haven’t gotten that perfect non-stick seasoned layer yet, which makes me afraid to use my grill pan. Maybe I’ll try it again. My pan has a griddle side to it too, I really want to use it for pancakes >< Thanks for the post! Makes me feel less alone in my fear of mucking up my pan haha

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