My favorite cookware is cast iron because it is naturally non-stick. Unlike Teflon-like finishes, cast iron is non-toxic and it lasts forever, making it the healthiest and most economical choice for cookware. I am still using the same cast iron that I bought more than 30 years ago.
Cast iron is also available in a wide variety of pots and pans. I personally have four different sizes of skillets, a dutch oven, and a pizza pan.
It’s sad how many people never know the joys of cast iron cooking because they are scared off by the concept of seasoning. It can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. On its simplest level, seasoning just means oiling the pan. Yes, really. You put oil on the pan, which will bond with the metal, creating a surface that’s virtually non-stick.
Table of Contents
Why do you need to season cast iron?
You need to season cast iron to create a natural, non-stick surface that will prevent food from sticking and make it easier to clean. When you season cast iron, you’re essentially creating a layer of polymerized oil that forms a protective barrier between the cast iron and the food. This layer also helps to prevent rust and corrosion, which can damage the cast iron over time.
If you really want to know the science behind it to impress your dinner party guests, here goes. “Seasoning is a layer of carbonized oil,” according to cast iron manufacturer, Lodge. “When oil is heated in cast iron, it bonds with the metal through a process called polymerization, creating a layer of seasoning.”
Can you buy a pan that is pre-seasoned? Yes, you can! In fact, it is easier to find a new cast iron skillet that is pre-seasoned than one that is not. However, some people want to buy cast iron that has not been pre-seasoned if they have some serious food allergies, such as soy, which is the oil that is often used to pre-season cast iron.
I am also not a fan of the rough surface on some pre-seasoned pans, so I’d prefer to simply season my own so that I can have a smooth surface.
You might also need to season cast iron if you buy it second hand at an auction or yard sale. I bought my cast iron dutch oven at a farm auction.
How do you know if your second-hand cast iron needs to be seasoned? If it is not shiny, it needs to be seasoned. And if you are not sure, go through the process anyway. You can’t hurt it by going through this process. (It just might drip a little more oil, if it didn’t really need it.)
How to Season Your Cast Iron Step-by-Step
- Preheat your oven to 400°F (204°C).
- Clean the cast iron with warm water and mild dish soap. Rinse thoroughly and dry completely.
- Apply a thin layer of vegetable oil or lard to the entire surface of the cast iron, including the handle and bottom.
- Place the cast iron upside down on the middle rack of the preheated oven, with a sheet of aluminum foil or a baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any drips. If you don’t put the pan upside down, the excess oil will pool inside the pan and make a sticky mess.
- Bake for 1 hour, then turn off the oven and let the cast iron cool inside the oven.
- Repeat the process of applying oil and baking several times, until the surface of the cast iron is shiny and black.
- After each use, clean the cast iron with a stiff brush and hot water, then dry it completely and apply a thin layer of oil to the surface before storing it.
By seasoning your cast iron properly, you’ll create a non-stick surface that will improve with each use.
What oils work best for seasoning cast iron?
The best oils for seasoning your cast iron are those that are refined and have a high smoke point. Unrefined oils have not been deodorized, which means they still taste and smell like the plant from which they originated, such as peanut or sesame oil.
Although these oils are delicious for cooking, you probably don’t want everything in your skillet to taste like peanut or sesame oil. Both of these oils can be purchased as refined or unrefined, and unrefined also has a lower smoke point, so just be sure to use refined when seasoning your skillet. Other refined oils that work well for seasoning include safflower, soybean, corn, rice bran, sunflower, canola, and grape seed oil.
What about vegetable oil? That is simply a generic name for an oil blend that usually contains soybean, corn, canola, and other oils. I am not a fan of those oils because they are usually made from GMO grains.
Can you use soap in a cast iron pan?
Yes, you can use soap in a cast iron pan. Contrary to popular belief, using soap to clean a cast iron pan will not damage the seasoning or cause it to rust. In fact, using soap can help to remove any stubborn food particles and prevent the buildup of bacteria.
To clean a cast iron pan with soap, follow these steps:
- Rinse the pan with hot water to remove any loose debris.
- Apply a small amount of mild dish soap to the surface of the pan.
- Use a scrub brush or a piece of steel wool to scrub away any stubborn food particles.
- Rinse the pan thoroughly with hot water.
- Dry the pan completely with a clean towel or by placing it over low heat on the stovetop.
- Apply a thin layer of oil to the surface of the pan to re-season it.
It’s important to note that using harsh detergents or soaking the cast iron pan in water for an extended period of time can damage the seasoning and cause the pan to rust. So, be sure to clean the pan promptly after each use and avoid using abrasive cleaning tools or chemicals.
Can you remove seasoning from a cast iron pan?
A lot of people worry about removing the seasoning from a cast iron pan if they use metal utensils, which is also not a worry. Although it’s not impossible to remove the seasoning, it’s not going to happen by simply using metal utensils or soap water.
If you really want to remove the seasoning from a cast iron pan, here are a few methods you can use:
- Scrubbing with Salt: Use a damp cloth to wipe away any loose debris from the cast iron pan. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt onto the surface of the cast iron and use a scrub brush or a piece of steel wool to scrub away the seasoning. Rinse the pan thoroughly with hot water and dry it completely.
- Oven Cleaning: Preheat your oven to 500°F (260°C). Place the cast iron pan upside down on the top rack of the oven, with a sheet of aluminum foil or a baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any drips. Bake for 1 hour, then turn off the oven and let the pan cool inside the oven. The high heat will burn away the seasoning, leaving the pan with a clean surface.
- Self-Cleaning Oven: If you have a self-cleaning oven, you can place the cast iron pan upside down on the top rack of the oven and run the self-cleaning cycle. This will burn away the seasoning, leaving the pan with a clean surface.
After removing the seasoning, be sure to clean and re-season the cast iron pan before using it again.
Once your cast iron is seasoned, check out my secrets for cooking in cast iron.
This post was originally published on July 12, 2021.