Make the most of this durable, affordable, do-it-all pan with ideas for using it, recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, plus tips for cleaning and seasoning

Lauren Salkeld
December 06, 2019
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There's a reason that cast-iron skillets are passed from one generation to the next. Actually, there are several. Despite its affordability, cast-iron cookware is incredibly durable and, if cared for properly, will last for years. In fact, the more you use cast iron, the better it performs—cooking seasons the pan, creating a nearly nonstick surface. And, because it retains heat so well, cast iron offers one of the most efficient cooking surfaces around.

But, by far the most striking advantage of a cast-iron skillet is its versatility. While widely known as the perfect pan for searing steak and baking cornbread, that is just the beginning. Cast iron is ideal for a wide range of dishes—see our Healthy Recipes for Cast-Iron Skillets for lots of ideas—and shines both on the stovetop and in the oven. Not convinced? Read on for how to cook with and care for cast iron, plus which recipes to use and the few to avoid.

How to Care for a Cast-Iron Skillet

Cast-iron skillets are durable, but like all good things, they require maintenance, and caring for cast iron is all about protecting its seasoning, the naturally slick surface that food doesn't stick to. Wash cast iron by hand, ideally with a stiff brush and hot water, and fully dry it, either with a towel or by setting the pan over low heat. It's best to avoid soap, but mistakes happen and a few drops are unlikely to ruin your pan. Also steer clear of steel wool or anything that might scrape the pan's surface.

Most cast-iron skillets come seasoned, but if you need to season or reseason yours, the method is the same and requires just a few easy steps—see How to Clean and Season a Cast-Iron Skillet to learn how.

What Not to Cook in a Cast-Iron Skillet

Before we get into cast iron's versatility, there are few dishes you'll want to skip. Delicate fish like tilapia will flake and fall apart, though meatier fish like salmon holds up just fine. Acidic ingredients can damage the pan's seasoning, so avoid tomato sauces and deglazing with wine or vinegar. Many desserts can be baked in cast iron, but it takes on the flavor of what's cooked in it. To keep your cakes from tasting like last night's dinner, invest in a dedicated pan for sweets.

What to Cook in a Cast-Iron Skillet

Once it gets hot, cast iron stays hot, which is why it's such a great match for foods that require high heat, such as steak (pictured above) and pork chops. It's also suited to the quick, high-heat cooking needed for stir-fries and seared scallops, which also benefit from cast iron's stick-resistant surface.

Superior heat retention and a nearly nonstick surface make cast iron a good option for frittatas, including those that start on the stovetop and finish in the broiler. While nonstick pans often have plastic handles or coatings that won't survive broiling, cast iron can more than take the heat.

When roasting chicken or vegetables, a roasting pan might seem like a no-brainer, but—surprise, surprise—both are right at home in a cast-iron skillet, which takes up far less space in your oven or cabinet.

You probably know that cast iron is the secret to cornbread with a crunchy, buttery crust, but it's also perfect for pizza, as its ability to hold heat is similar to a pizza stone. It's also indispensable for giving Dutch baby-style pancakes, whether sweet (like this classic Apple Dutch Baby and this Easy Berry Puff) or savory (like this Red Onion & Goat Cheese Pancake), their signature puff.

Speaking of sweet, if you're not making crisps (like the Skillet Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp pictured above) and cobblers in a cast-iron skillet, you should. And be sure to take the skillet from oven to table for the perfect rustic presentation. Just remember to put a protective mat underneath—as you know, that pan stays hot!