I’ll be honest, I’m a little terrified of this post. There’s just something about seasoning cast iron that tends to provoke strong emotions. Hey, I get it—being entrusted with your great-grandmother’s #8 Griswold is a heavy burden to bear (although if you’re lucky enough to own a generations-old Griswold, you probably don’t need my help seasoning it).
Use only animal fat. Never use animal fat. Season with high heat. Never season with high heat. Only season in the darkness of the new moon, and be done ‘ere the cockerel crows three times. Even the most cursory search reveals hundreds of sites—all with their own pet theories, science, pseudoscience and, yes, quackery. So let me get this out of the way: this post isn’t meant to be the definitive guide to seasoning cast iron. This is just what works for me. I’m not saying my way is right and your way is wrong. Please don’t hurt me.
What is Seasoning and Why Bother?
Seasoning adds a thin layer of carbonized (cooked-on) fat to cast iron and carbon steel cookware. Done properly, it prevents corrosion and results in a surface that releases almost as cleanly as high-end nonstick. Give it just a little love and attention and season it regularly, and your cast iron cookware will outlast you. Most cast iron cookware sold today is pre-seasoned and ready to cook, but it can still benefit from another layer of seasoning.
The method outlined below strikes a balance between the “just fry stuff in it” crowd and the folks that recommend several days and an unreasonable amount of time spent around hot ovens.
Start with Clean Cast Iron
This should go without saying, but since we’re here—don’t do this with a dirty pan. Hot, soapy water will do the trick, but if you want to get fancy you can play around with salt-and-oil scrubs, cut potatoes, self-cleaning ovens and any number of methods you’ll find on the Internet. Whatever your method, dry the pan completely with a soft cloth before proceeding.
Preheat the Pan
Place the pan in a cool oven and set for 350-400 degrees. After five or 10 minutes, remove the now-warm pan and place on a heat-safe surface. This ensures that the pan is completely dry and helps the oil spread more evenly.
Add the … Fat
This is an area of rabid contention among cast-iron enthusiasts. Some use only bacon grease, others swear by expensive, hard-to-find oils (it’s so difficult to find good organic unicorn-horn oil these days), and some insist that using anything other than pure lard is sacrilege. It’s all a bit overwhelming and, frankly, unnecessary. I tend to use whatever I happen to have on hand, though I’d recommend something with a relatively high smoke point. So—and this is the only time you’ll hear this from me—stay away from butter. I usually just use vegetable oil or shortening. I’ve heard good things about flax oil, but it’s expensive and not something I keep stocked.
Whatever your fat, you want to apply an even coat to both the inside and the outside of the pan. Start with a small amount—you really don’t need much—and use a clean cloth to spread it around. After you’ve achieved a nice, uniform layer, wipe off as much as you can. It should look dry. It might look like you’ve rubbed everything off, but trust me; there’s still a thin layer.
Invert the pan, place it back into the preheated oven and allow to bake for around an hour. You can add a sheet pan or piece of aluminum foil to a lower rack to catch stray drips, but if you did a good job removing the excess oil this probably isn’t necessary. After an hour, turn off the oven and allow both pan and oven to cool completely (this will take several hours).
Repeat if Desired
You’re ready to cook after just one coat, but building up a few layers gives you a better foundation and will result in a surface that’s more nonstick. Just don’t try to shortcut your way to the end by adding more fat—you’ll end up with baked-on drips and an uneven finish.
That’s it. You’re now the proud owner of a seasoned pan. Cooking high-fat foods the first few times you take it for a spin will help build up additional layers of seasoning (in case you needed an excuse to cook bacon or fried chicken). Acidic foods can strip seasoning, so maybe use a different pan for pomodoro sauce, at least until you build up a few more layers.
Why Does it Work?
This is where those enthusiasts I mentioned earlier would start talking about polymerization and smoking points and chemical reactions (except for that guy who’s pretty sure it has something to do with the incantations he chants over the oven). The only explanation I’m going to offer is that I’m reasonably certain it’s not magic.
A Quick Word on Cleaning and Care
Here we go: hot water only for those first few washes. Clean until your rinse water runs clear and resist the urge to add soap. Once a durable layer of seasoning has been established, you can work in the occasional washing with a mild detergent. It’s really not necessary, though.
Whatever your cleaning method, make sure that your pan is completely dry before storing. I dry mine over low heat on the stovetop, then rub the interior with a light coat of oil to prevent rusting.
Too Much Hassle?
Lodge offers an entire line of pre-seasoned cast iron. It’s affordable and easy to care for, and I stand by my assertion that every cook should own at least one piece. They’ve also put together a great little video on restoring cast iron cookware that covers the seasoning process.
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