Cast iron cookware is a favorite of many, especially people who appreciate things that last. It’s the pan of choice when you’re searing a steak or making a one-pan meal, but it’s not the go-to pan for every occasion.
Cast iron is incredibly durable, but it has to be properly seasoned to seal the surface and keep food from sticking. Seasoning your pan also helps prevent your cast iron from rusting.
There’s some controversy about the porosity of cast iron pans, but anyone who has cooked with cast iron knows that it develops a relationship with the food cooked in it.
The food and the cast iron interact, and certain types of food just don’t go well with this type of cookware.
Smelly Foods Like Fish
Whether or not cast iron is porous, its surface is rough, and flavors get trapped no matter how well you clean your pan. Smelly foods like fish, stinky cheeses, and garlic can make your cast iron pan smell weird the next few times you use it.
Flaky fish can also easily fall apart in a cast iron pan.
Cast iron holds onto the strong flavors of some types of food, imparting them into your next dish. If you mostly use your cast iron pan for cooking savory dishes and searing steaks, you probably won’t mind if it has a slight garlic flavor. You may not even notice, especially if you add a lot of garlic to your meals.
It’s a different story when a cast iron pan used to cook fish gives your steak a fishy flavor. Some cooks prefer to dedicate a cast iron pan just for cooking fish and avoid using it for anything else.
Sticky Foods Like Eggs and Desserts
A properly seasoned cast iron pan that is well cared for is a completely different cooking surface than a brand new cast iron pan or one that has just been restored.
It’s possible to cook fried eggs in a seasoned cast iron pan, but it’s not the best pan for the job.
Other sticky foods like desserts, including brownies and cakes, can make a mess out of your cast iron pan. On the other hand, cast iron is a great choice for baking cornbread.
Acidic Foods Like Tomatoes
Acidic foods can react with the metal in your pan, making your meals taste metallic.
That’s why many people recommend avoiding cooking foods like tomatoes, marinaras, and marinated meats in cast iron.
How do acidic foods affect cast iron pans? The acid in foods with a low pH, like tomatoes, vinegar, and wine, breaks apart the molecules in the metal.
The longer your acidic food is in the pan, the more metal molecules get into your food.
That doesn’t mean you can’t cook acidic foods in cast iron. However, adding a few cherry tomatoes to your one-pan dinner, especially if you’re using a well-seasoned pan, is much different than simmering a pot of spaghetti sauce.
If you decide to use your cast iron for some slightly acidic foods, clean it immediately after use. If you make a mistake, you can always clean and reseason your pan to restore it.
Foods That Turn Color Like Vegetables
Have you ever cooked a pan of fried potatoes in cast iron and had them turn gray or black on you?
That happens because of the carbon deposits on cast iron pans, especially ones that aren’t properly seasoned. However, vegetables can be roasted in a properly seasoned cast iron pan.
Cast iron is perfect for achieving the Maillard reaction, which is when the sugars and amino acids combine to give foods a browned color and roasted flavor.
At any rate, the strange coloring of vegetables cooked in cast iron won’t hurt you, but most people find it less than appealing. So, when frying up eggplant or cooking a batch of caramelized onions, reach for a different type of cookware.
Cleaning Your Cast Iron
Fortunately, if you cook any of these foods in your cast iron pan and things turn nasty, you don’t have to throw out your good cast iron pan.
Properly seasoned cast iron is easy to clean, but there are some misconceptions about what is seasoning and what isn’t.
The caked-on gunk on some cast iron pans is not seasoning, it’s burnt on food. Seasoning is polymerized oil that coats your cast iron pan, sealing the surface and protecting it from moisture and rust.
Here are some household products to clean cast iron that won’t harm your seasoning. If your seasoning does get damaged, simply reseason your pan.
Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is technically another type of salt. It’s a common household cleaning product used to clean cast iron.
Put a layer of baking soda on the bottom of your pan and use a scouring pad to remove caked-on carbon layers. Add a little water, scrub some more, and rinse.
If your pan is extremely gross, boil it with water, add a pinch of baking soda, and let it soak for a bit. Then, scrub and dry it before reseasoning your pan.
The abrasive nature of salt makes it the perfect cleaning product for cast iron. You can use any type of salt, but Kosher salt works well because of the larger particles.
To clean cast iron with a salt scrub, pour a heaping tablespoon into your pan and use a paper towel to rub the surface thoroughly. When it’s clean, remove the salt and wipe the pan down with some vegetable oil.
There are a lot of myths out there about cast iron, and contrary to some, you can use dish soap to clean your pans.
You shouldn’t allow cast iron to soak for long periods, however.
Use a small amount of dish soap and scrub it right away.
If you abuse your cast iron, you’ll probably end up with a rusty pan, which can discolor your food and make it taste weird. Vinegar is one of the best cleaning agents in your pantry, and it works wonders on cast iron to get rid of rust.
Mix a little vinegar with water to rinse your cast iron pan after it’s clean, and it will shine like new.
Cast iron isn’t meant to be the only pan in your collection. Many other types of cookware are better for cooking certain types of food, like fried fish and over easy eggs.
Treating your cast iron right and not expecting it to work for every dish will keep it in the best condition, and it will remain your favorite pan for most of your meals.
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