I really enjoy my cast iron cookware. My pans are great for cooking everything outside of... well... eggs. Of course - the secret to all of this is in the seasoning.
In this post I'll talk about seasoning a cast iron pan. This process works whether you've just bought an unseasoned pan, you're re-seasoning a pan after cleaning, or you're restoring an older pan.
Usually when we talk about seasoning in cooking we mean adding herbs, salt, and pepper to change the taste of food! That's accurate... but not in this case.
Seasoning on a cast iron pan is the protective layer of grease and oil that builds up a nice patina on cast iron pans. Seasoning is literally layers of oil that have bonded chemically to the pan in a process called polymerization.
A well-seasoned pan is relatively non-stick and easy to clean after meals. The best seasoned cast iron pans can even handle my aforementioned eggs - hopefully I'll get there soon!
Before you start to season your pan, you'll need a few supplies. Put this list together then you can begin the process.
Your best vegetable oil options for seasoning a cast iron pan are flaxseed oil, canola oil, palm oil, and generic vegetable oil. Flaxseed oil is the king of these oils for quality polymerization, but the others will work decently as well.
I actually prefer to use a saturated fat. Butter, ghee, lard, and coconut oil – slightly melted – also work for this process.
Why use saturated fat? Saturated fat is much more stable at room temperature and less prone to become rancid. This doesn't matter if you get a good bake, but if you store your pans for a while and the polymerization isn't complete saturated fat is better.
Nowadays, most off-the-shelf cast iron pans come pre-seasoned. In theory, you should be able to take them right to stove or oven, and enjoy a level of non-stick you wouldn't get from raw cast-iron.
In our household, I prefer to season new pans anyway. For one, you don't know exactly which oil or mixture a manufacturer used. Also, other people have been handling and scraping the pan in the store.
All in all, I feel it's safest to put your new pan through the seasoning process even if it's pre-seasoned. It's also good practice!
Start by preheating your oven to 400 or 450 degrees fahrenheit. Just turn it on while you do the remainder of the steps.
We have a complete article on cleaning a cast iron pan – but in short, clean it completely now using dish soap and the scrubber.
You need to remove any food with the nylon scrubber (and possibly a wooden scraper) while running the pan under hot water. Use dish soap to help remove any stuck food.
Minor rust spots come out with paper towels and oil. For more serious spots, use coarse or kosher salt, paper towels, and water to rub them out. For the most severe spots you can use steel wool.
Dry the pan as well as you can using paper towels. Don't use your nice kitchen linens – cast iron loves to release black marks onto cloth or towels.
It's a good idea – albeit optional – to put your pan into the oven now for a few minutes. Do not let it get too hot – maybe 150 degrees or 200 degrees fahrenheit at maximum. You don't want to hurt yourself here; let it get warm and dry, but make sure you handle it safely (use an oven mitt).
You want it to be completely dry for the oil step. Additionally, heat will open up the iron molecules just a bit and allow oil to soak-in better.
Using whichever oil you chose, coat the pan lightly using paper towels as applicators. If your pan got a little too hot, soak the paper towel in oil and apply the oil using the grill tongs – don't try to do it by hand, you'll burn yourself!
You want to completely cover any exposed iron – the bottom, the sides, the handle, everything. The whole pan is susceptible to rust and the seasoning will help you fight it off.
Now, wipe off any excess oil with more paper towels. You don't want the pan dripping with oil... when you season the pan you're only looking for very thin layers to help with the polymerization.
Actually, before you put the pan in the oven, prepare a cookie sheet or aluminum foil catch the same size as the pan. You want to put this under the pan in case any extra oil drips off.
Once you do that, put the pan upside down in the oven. Align it over the catch or cookie sheet. Then walk away.
This is an easy one: leave the pan in the oven for 1 hour at 400 - 450 degrees fahrenheit.
There might be a bit of smoke, especially after around 10-15 minutes; be ready with your fan.
After an hour is up, turn off your oven (and leave the pan alone).
Allow the cast iron pan to cool to the touch – in my experience this can take 1.5 - 2 hours so be careful.
It's useful to repeat the process a couple times... especially when you're restoring an older pan or working with a new pan. Merely run through the steps again and don't clean the pan. Seriously, don't clean it – you want extra layers of seasoning, you don't want to start from scratch!
If you're simply maintaining your pan without signs of rust, feel free to return it to service now.
Whether you're restoring an heirloom cast iron pan, breaking in a new one, or maintaining your current pan, seasoning is very important.
Manually seasoning a pan using the above steps is one good way to season your pan. However, it's not the only way. As long as you cook in your pan often and don't go light on the oil, your cast iron cookware will build up some nice seasoning on their own.
Cooking acidic things such as vinegar dishes or acidic sauces can strip off some seasoning. Well seasoned pans can hold up to the acid... and even handle my dreaded eggs.
Treat your pans well and they'll last a long time. You'll be able to pass them down – and they won't even need to be seasoned manually!