As a Kitchen Witch I view my cast iron pans with slightly more affection than the rest. Oh I love my stainless steel pasta pot and my ceramic dutch oven but the cast iron holds a special place in my heart. Maybe it's because they, all of them from the frying pans to the dutch oven, can go from the stovetop to the oven to the campfire. Maybe it's because I know that Iron carries protective energy and that makes me feel good about using it to prepare food for my family. Maybe it's because cooking with cast iron makes my think of hags bent over bubbling cauldrons singing "bubble bubble toil and trouble" and that makes me giggles. Or maybe it's because cooking with a big heavy cast iron pan reminds me of cooking helping grandma in the kitchen and how she loved her big heavy cast iron pans (My mother still has the very ones, they last forever and become heirlooms!).

Of course it doesn't hurt that cast iron is so easy to cook with. It is practically nonstick and distributes and holds heat evenly for perfect browning and cleans up wonderfully. Cast iron is one of the few things in this world that gets better with age. It doesn't wear out, but improves the more you use it. However, if you don't know how to use it properly, cast iron can be a giant pain in the butt! Stuck on food that won't clean up! Rust! And I've even seen them crack in two! (It wasn't me!) Like a living thing cast iron needs to be nurtured if you want it to cooperate.

Maybe that's why I like it so much, it's almost like pet! Maybe I should name them like I do my sourdough starters.

So, for all you Kitchen Witches who have not yet mastered the art of cast iron cooking, here are a few tips to make sure your experience is pleasant.

First and foremost, Lodge makes the best cast iron pans on the market. I have not seen better and I personally wouldn't buy from anyone else. And Bonus for me- they are an American company. Buy local for the environment and the economy! They aren't paying me to say this, and don't even know I'm saying it, but if you follow the product links below, I'll get a few pennies from Amazon.

Also get their cleaning brush and scraper. You'll be glad you did.

Seasoning Your New Pan, Griddle, Dutch Oven or whatever…

When you get your new cast iron pan, you need to season it. Even if it says "pre-seasoned", season it anyway. Wipe the inside and out with a damp cloth to get all the dust off and then dry it very very well with a dish towel.

Next, take some shortening and massage it into every surface of your pan. Yes, shortening, not olive oil or anything else. This is the only thing I use shortening for! If you're a vegetarian you can use vegetarian shortening, but otherwise buy the old fashioned stuff. Don't just wipe it on, massage it with your fingers. Get to know your pan intimately.

Next, place your pan in the oven at 300 degrees and let it cook for about an hour, then let it cool in the oven. You may want to place a bit of aluminum foil underneath to catch any oil that drips off.

Some people like to repeat this process 2-3 times. I find it works just as well to just do it once.

Once it has cooled, it's ready to go.

Cleaning Your Cast Iron

After each use, allow your pan to cool then use the scraper that came with your cleaning kit (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) and scrape away all the food particles.

Next, use the scrub brush that came with your cleaning kit and warm water to finish up the cleaning. Don't use really hot water or soap. This can wash off the seasoning.

Once your pan is clean, dry it immediately and thoroughly with a dish towel. Never let it air dry or soak as this encourages rust.

Cooking With Cast Iron

Always heat up your cast iron pan before putting anything into it. Even when baking bread I like to warm my cast iron pan by setting it on the back of the stove while the oven heats up before I put the bread dough in it, which I then set to rise, but with a frying pan this is even more important. Always heat it up slowly and wait till a drop of water sizzles before adding your food for cooking.

Do not put cold liquids into a hot cast iron pan. This can make it brittle and cause it to crack!

Storing Your Cast Iron

I like to coat my cast iron pan with a new layer of oil on the inside after each use. This isn't entirely necessary if you care for it properly but it's nice to give my favorite pan a massage and thank it for another amazing dinner.

Your pans should be stored in a dry place and not stacked directly on top of each other. If you must stack them, you can put a towel between them to allow the air to circulate. My grandmother stored her pans hanging over her stove. I store mine inside my oven.

Fixing Your Cast Iron

If your cast iron stops being nonstick, simply re-season it following the directions above.

If your cast iron pan gets rusty or crusty or if someone gives you such a pan thinking in their ignorance that it's worthless, wash it with soap and hot water and a scouring pad then dry it and give it a good once over. Use sand paper to smooth it and get rid of any rust spots, then wash it very thoroughly again. Finally, season it. You may wish to season it 2-3 times in this case, since it needs some extra love.

Never…

… put cold liquid in a hot cast iron pan or hot liquid in a cold cast iron pan. This can make it brittle and cause cracking.

… store acidic things in your cast iron pans. Better yet, don't use them to store anything, just use them for cooking. Acids can react with the metal, weakening it (and putting iron in your food. A good thing in small doses, not so good in larger doses.).

… wash your cast iron pan with soap, unless you're planning to re-season it anyway.

… let your cast iron pan soak or air dry. This can cause rusting.

… put food in your cast iron pan till after it has pre-heated or it'll stick. Not the end of the world, but harder to clean up.