Have a Question About Cast Iron? This Customer Service Agent Has Answered It

After two years and thousands of emails, I learned a lot about cast iron cookware.

Cast iron pans in various sizes

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Being a customer service agent often means dealing with some emotionally charged situations, especially if you’re helping someone use a product that they saved up money to buy. I was prepared for questions, shipping delays, and the occasional angry email when I started doing customer service for a cast-iron cookware company. But what I wasn’t prepared for was just how intense people can be about their skillets

There’s this inherent sense of nostalgia that always seems to be baked into cast iron. It churns up mental images of grandmothers making cornbread or thoughts of comforting food like fried chicken, and when you buy your first pan, it’s the kind of item you hope will become a family heirloom. This sense of attachment is one of the reasons that people love cast iron — in addition to its unparalleled ability to sear a steak. And when I say love, I mean it. There are entire Facebook pages dedicated to talking about this humble cooking instrument (they can get pretty heated), and the cast iron subreddit has 524,000 members. Because this cookware is so precious, when someone comes to you concerned about something they did to their pan, or confused about how to care for it, they can easily become distraught — a feeling that I was often on the receiving end of. 

Merlyn Miller

Cast iron is like a living thing.

— Merlyn Miller

In an effort to assuage any future crises some of you may be facing when it comes to cast iron, and to join the trenches of those fighting to combat the many (many) myths surrounding it, here are some of the most common questions I answered and learnings I can impart from working in cast iron customer service.

Your cast-iron skillet will not always look perfect

The number one issue I found people worrying about was the appearance of their pans. They often expected their brand new skillet to become evenly jet-black across the surface after just a few uses, but the reality is that cast iron is like a living thing. If you’re not familiar with how seasoning cast iron works, this naturally nonstick coating builds up every time you heat oil in your pan. The oil polymerizes, creating that dark black surface you associate with cast iron.

Merlyn Miller

You don’t need to whisper a spell over your pan and click your heels three times in order to wash it.

— Merlyn Miller

It takes dozens of uses for seasoning to develop on its surface, and that nonstick coating doesn’t build up in exactly the same way across the whole pan. There might be some discoloration or spottiness on your cookware as different parts of it become seasoned faster than others. And if oil is baked on to your skillet but not fully polymerized (meaning heated to the point where it's bonded to the metal), it might have a sticky spot that looks different from the rest of the pan. But eventually, once you’ve been frying, baking, and roasting in your cast iron for months, the entire piece will become coated in an even layer of that sweet sweet carbonized oil. The same thing goes for a skillet that loses its seasoning. Don’t panic. Those bare patches will become well-seasoned again in time, as long as you just keep on cooking.

Please don’t stress about how to clean your cast iron

As our executive features editor Kat Kinsman has pointed out, people can be pretty weird about cast iron. Almost everyone thinks they know the secret formula to caring for it, and if you don’t, then the sheer amount of methods you’ll find and unsolicited advice you’ll receive can feel overwhelming. Let me tell you the real secret: you don’t need to whisper a spell over your pan and click your heels three times in order to wash it. And the truth is there are many methods for cleaning cast iron that will work.

Merlyn Miller

And for the millionth time, yes you can use soap on cast iron.

— Merlyn Miller

Do you simply wipe your pan out with a paper towel after every use? Great. Or maybe you wash it with warm water and a little soap? Yeah that’s totally fine. (And for the millionth time, yes you can use soap on cast iron. Please stop buying into the misconception that this will ruin your pan.) As long as you’re not putting cast iron in the dishwasher or cleaning it with Bar Keepers Friend, and you make sure it’s fully dry after each use, everything will be OK. And truth be told, I’ve helped coach people back from the brink after they did run their pan through a dishwasher cycle. They’re still cooking in those same pieces of cast iron today. 

So if you’ve never cleaned a cast-iron skillet, Dutch oven, griddle or other appliance before, here’s my best piece of advice: only read a maximum of three articles about how to clean your cookware. Make sure they are from reputable sources (I recommend this one or this one), and pick the method that sounds best for you. Do not Google further, or ask strangers on Facebook for advice. You will know everything you need to about cleaning cast iron after reading for a mere 15 minutes.

You can cook whatever you want in it, I promise

As noted above, cooking with oil and heating up fat in your pan are key to seasoning your cast iron skillet. On the opposite end, cooking acidic ingredients or dishes will do the reverse, and can remove seasoning from your cookware. This fact seems to give people a lot of anxiety, and I often fielded questions about what you can or can’t cook in cast iron. But this doesn’t mean that you need to completely avoid making a tomato sauce or a white wine reduction in your skillet. 

Merlyn Miller

If you keep on cooking in it everything will turn out perfectly fine.

— Merlyn Miller

Here are my guidelines for cooking something acidic. The only time you’ll want to avoid simmering a lot of tart liquids is when you have a brand new pan, because this won’t help you build up new seasoning. If you’ve been using your cast iron for quite a while, and it’s developed plenty of good seasoning already, go for it. Your pan can withstand a little acid. And even if something you cook does remove seasoning and leave behind bare patches, that is okay. Just cook a few more oil-forward dishes like fried chicken or sauteed vegetables, and you’ll have stunning new layers of carbonization in no time.

If you ever find yourself about to write an email asking a customer service agent for assistance with your cast-iron skillet, I hope you remember two things. First, we are on your side. We are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the issue at hand, and all we want is help make your cast-iron dreams come true. And second, no matter how distressed you might feel over an issue with your beloved kitchen tool, if you keep on cooking in it everything will turn out perfectly fine.

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