Seasoning a Cast Iron Pan

Posted: Tue, Apr 15
Filed under: tools, , , , .
Written by: Dave

a cook's best friendWith proper care, these inexpensive pans will become treasured heirlooms. And it really isn’t all that tricky to maintain them. The prime directive for these pans is, never, ever use soap to clean them. I know it probably sounds icky, but you should never use soap on a seasoned cast iron pan. The stuff that makes a cast iron pan seasoned is oil, and soap breaks down oil. So soap goes against everything you’re trying to accomplish here.

Ok, so the real first step is to buy a pan. If you want to streamline this process, you have two options — option one is to buy a used pan in an antique store, or on ebay. Chances are, you’ll end up paying about 3 times what you would spend for a new pan, but you’ll be getting the fine, aged, slick surface that someone’s grandma spent 20 or more years to create. (You might also luck out and find a deal at a yard sale.) Your other option is to go for a factory-installed pre-seasoning. Lodge puts out a whole line of pre-seasoned pans. They’re not perfect, but they’re a good start — saving you a few months on the long journey to seasoned bliss.

So here’s the process you probably want to start even with a pre-seasoned pan, but especially a new, unseasoned pan, or a pan that has been mishandled and shows signs of rust, or that has a layer of grody goop. Thoroughly wash your new pan, getting off any debris or gunk. (It’s actually ok to use soap here if your pan is really dirty.) Turn your oven on to 375°, and put a sheet pan on the lower rack. Put the pan in the cold but warming oven, and let it preheat and then bake for a while. At least half-an-hour, but an hour is better. Carefully remove the pan with pot-holders and move it to your stove top. Crack a window and turn on the exhaust fan, then pour a couple teaspoons of canola oil into the pan, and using a thick wad of paper towels, spread the oil all over the inside of the pan, and up over the edge, and even the outside, being extra careful not to burn yourself. (Seems stupid to do it on the outside of the pan, but one of the reasons for doing all this is to add a protective layer onto the metal and keep it from rusting on you.) Return the pan to the oven, upside down over the sheet pan, and repeat this process, a couple more times, as many as you can handle. Early in the life of the pan, you’ll end up with a thick, shiny layer of oil on the pan, sort of like urethane on wood. Eventually, with heating, this layer will cut back and form a matte black, slick finish. If your pan ever gets mistreated, rusty, or otherwise, repeat this process. (I inherited a huge cast iron frying pan from my grandmother, and it had a thick, spongy layer of black goo completely covering it. I lit up my charcoal grill and put the pan in there, lid on, and walked away. 3 hours later, the 80-year old pan emerged pristine and good as new, ready for its first layers of oil.)

So, once you’ve got this pan going, what next? Well, use it. It won’t be perfectly non-stick at this point, and will probably require a little more elbow grease to clean it, but you need to repeatedly heat it and cook the seasoning. These early days, it’s probably a bad idea to cook anything acidic, like chili, tomato sauce, or deglazing with balsamic. If you do, your food will end up tasting sort of nasty. It’ll have a distinct metallic taste. (In general, acidic foods in cast iron is never a great idea, but you can get away with it once in awhile, once the seasoning has matured.)

So now you’ve cooked with it. Now what? Ok, you want to rinse it with hot water and a stiff sink brush, or even a plastic scrubby sponge. No soap. Never soap. Also, never let the pan soak in water. Once you get most of the food off, you want to dry the pan. Do this by putting it back onto the stove over high heat. Whats left of the water will fizzle away. As the pan gets hotter and hotter, whats left of the fragments of food will burn away, too. I usually let the pan sit on the stove until I smell it. Then, turn the heat off, and apply a new layer of oil. For this, you can use the canola and paper towel method, but what I do is spray the pan with a canola oil non-aerosol spray. (Trader Joes sells the stuff for, like, $2.50 a can, which will last you for months.) Just a thin layer, and since the pan is hot, it’ll probably smoke a little. That’s ok. Let the pan sit on the stove and cool completely.

Remember that cast iron is pretty brittle. If you drop it, provided you don’t break a toe, the pan could shatter. (The unfortunate demise of my grandmother’s heirloom.) Also, these steps can be used on french steel pans, too, which are just as inexpensive as cast iron, but they don’t have the mass, so they’re not as good at providing even heating… much better for a fast sauté. (French Steel, sometimes known as “blue steel” pans can be purchased mail-order or through restaurant supply stores, and you can get a 10″ pan for about $20.)

These methods apply to any cast iron pan shape you can think of. I recommend the 10″ and the 15″ pre-seasoned pans, as well as the reversible griddle/grill pan. I don’t recommend a cast iron dutch oven, unless you can’t afford to get an enameled one, since you’ll probably want to use the dutch oven for those acidic foods I mentioned before, and it’s just not worth the risk of ruining the flavor with the strong flavor of metal.

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Comments so far ...

  • Hello,
    Thank you for such an informative post!  I didn’t realize how much was involved with seasoning my cast iron pans.  I thought once was enough especially as it was “pre-seasoned”.   Now I have a couple of questions first does it HAVE to be canola?  Also, the one time I used my pan the chicken stuck horribly.  No more using the pan.  Any helpful hints?

    BTW, Sweet Charity sent me your link!  How nice was that?!
    ~ingrid

    Ingrid — Wed, Sep 3 @ 10:34 pm


  • It doesn’t need to be canola, but canola is one of the better ones due to it’s high smoke point and relative purity, but clearly grandma didn’t have much of a choice. She probably just used whatever grease she was cooking with — bacon fat or chicken schmaltz will give the same slick, shiny surface over time. And the seasoning process does take time. It requires many oil applications and reheating before you’ll achieve the best surface. (That said, you’re not likely to get a completely non-stick finish like you’d get with modern materials like Teflon. We are talking about technology that your great-grandmother probably used, after all.) Thanks for commenting!

    Dave (Author)— Wed, Sep 3 @ 10:47 pm


  • I have a skillet that the seasoning botched on. Outside of the charcoal grill method, is there an easy way to start over or correct a patchy or bobbled seasoning?

    Martin — Sun, Oct 12 @ 9:03 am


  • You can probably do the same thing in your kitchen oven, but open a window, disconnect the smoke alarm, and turn on the exhaust fan, because it might get a little smoky. (If your oven has an automatic self-cleaning cycle, that’d do the trick, too.) I’ve read (but never tried) that you can use an oven cleaner to help remove extra gunk. But all this is too extreme, if what you’ve got is a thin, recent, but failed attempt at seasoning. In that case, I would try just washing it off with soap and water, and start again.

    Dave (Author)— Sun, Oct 12 @ 9:19 am


  • Thank-you for such a detailed and informative piece on seasoning.  I just picked up a cast iron pan along with a Teflon deep pan to replace another dying Teflon pan.

    One quick question though, with a new pan, how many oil/baking cycles would be sufficient?

    Cheers…Kent

    Kent — Fri, Jan 9 @ 6:35 pm


  • I guess the real answer is, “as many as it takes.” Start with one application, and see how it goes. If you notice the surface still looks sort of dry and patchy, go through the process another time. You should remember, though, that seasoning a pan is an ongoing process. Every time you use the pan, either with the grease you cook in it, or the application of oil after, you’re reinforcing it.

    Dave (Author)— Sat, Jan 10 @ 7:37 am


  • I have a couple of cast iron pans and a Dutch oven that I inherited, plus a few  I bought in hardware stores.  I’ve never found it complicated to season each of them: just coat the inside with a thin layer of oil, stick into a 200 degree oven, and let it do its thing overnight.  Wipe with a paper towel in the morning, and it’s good for several months, until I make spaghetti sauce or toss too many tomatoes into a dish, and then I just reseason the pan, again with a thin layer of oil and overnight in the oven.  I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had any serious buildup on my pans; I think I’d burn it all off in a VERY hot oven before I tried seasoning it.  Thanks for all your expertise on not-so-desireable-conditions.  Diane

    Diane Schnaars — Sat, Jan 31 @ 10:51 pm


  • My cast iron pan has a wooden handle.  I’d be leary about putting it in the oven to season.  Any other things work?

    Kathy

    Kathy — Mon, Feb 8 @ 7:01 pm


  • If you can’t remove the wooden handle, you can try seasoning the pan on the stovetop, heating it up until it’s smoking, letting it cool slightly, and then applying a thin layer of grease. Short of that, just use the pan. It may be sticky when you start out, but the more you use it, the more you build up the layer of seasoning, the better off you’ll be. Good luck!

    Dave (Author)— Tue, Feb 9 @ 12:09 am


  • Great comments about cast iron pans. I dislike the iron taste but now I know to stay away from acidic foods when cooking. I love the heat distribution I get from my cast iron pans. Thanks so much.

    Carol — Thu, May 26 @ 2:37 pm


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