Cooking-obsessed online forums are a mixed blessing. They may, on the one hand, be incredible tools, full of comprehensive knowledge on all kinds of subjects. But as you get to the nitty-gritty specifics, they can also expose just how little consensus there is even among experts. Only to see some swear that flaxseed oil is the best for seasoning, others throw down for Crisco or lard, and even others say canola is their go-to. I’ve spent hours poring over cast iron cookware sites. Equally varied are the oven temperatures they use, and some advocate convoluted methods that involve changing the oven temperature repeatedly during the seasoning process.
The thing is, we use our cast iron cookware to death here at Serious Eats, and, after checking numerous ways, we have found that much of the complicated cast iron laws are nothing more than superstition. Indeed, to keep our pans in tip-top nonstick shape, we don’t do something difficult. Here’s the quick version of what you need to know: Bring it through one simple round of seasoning when you get a new cast iron pan (I’ll explain how below), and just … use your pan. Yeah, it’s that easy, actually.
Understanding SeasoningA cast iron pan is a large hunk of iron shaped into the form of cookware, very simply. Iron is gunmetal grey on its own and is highly reactive, capable of rusting alone in humid air within minutes. Try to cook in a bare iron pan, and rusting will not only be a concern, but it will also stick to your cooking.
Seasoning has nothing to do with salt or spices, in this case. Instead, it defines a strong, protective coating produced on the cast iron by heating unbelievably thin layers of fat (like oil). As the fat is heated, in a process called polymerization, it bonds to the metal and to itself, as the fat converts into a plastic form. What you end up with after ample layers of seasoning have been added is not a greasy coating but a rough, blackened skin that covers the metal. It also has nonstick properties, fortunately for us cooks, that make even the most stick-prone foods (think: fried eggs) a pleasure when using cast iron.
How to Season a New Cast Iron Pan
You read through the summary of our cast iron skillet, and thought it was time to buy a new pan for yourself. Amazing call. Your new cast iron skillet will almost always come with a degree of pre-seasoning on it from the manufacturer, but you’ll usually want to add some more on top of that to make sure it’s fine. (If you have an antique skillet that’s not in perfect condition, you’ll want to check our cast iron repair guide, which provides directions for how to extract old seasoning and rust.) Once you’ve applied your own seasoning layers, just use the pan, and for years and years, you’ll be good to go.
Step 1: Wash and dry your pan
Between the moment it came off the production line and the moment it landed in your house, it’s impossible to tell precisely what happened to the skillet, so you’ll want to wash it until you start seasoning. With wet, soapy water, give the pan a good rinse, then dry it thoroughly. Any surface moisture can remain even after towel-drying, so your best option is to position the pan on a stovetop flame for a minute or two to drive off any remaining water.
Step 2: Rub All Over With Oil and Buff Well
So that your pan is clean and dry, rub it with cooking oil all over, inside and out, including the handle. We’re fans of unsaturated cooking fats, including vegetables, canola, and corn oil, here at Serious Eats, for seasoning our pots. We not only have them on hand at all times, but they perform better and are easier to spread than saturated fats, such as lard or shortening. There’s no reason to go out and get some extra seasoning oils! *
* For the record, we found that a quick layer of seasoning is produced by the often-suggested flaxseed oil, but it tends to flake off with use. We’re not suggesting it.
The trick here is to massage the oil all over, but then so vigorously buff it that the pan does not look even the slightest bit greasy anymore. During seasoning, even a tiny amount of excess oil on the pan will pool, creating small hardened droplets on the cooking surface, or if left unused for a few days, become sticky.
Step 3: In the oven, heat it
In a preheated 450 ° F oven, place the oiled pan and leave it there for 30 minutes. It could get a little smoky, so keep the kitchen well ventilated. The oil will polymerize at this time to form the first of many rough, plastic-like coatings that you will lay down.
The reason we’re using the oven here is that it produces an even heat that will set the oil all over the pan more efficiently. Hot and cold spots can be created by even the best stovetop burners, which can contribute to inconsistent initial seasoning.
Although it’s not necessary, I like to turn the pan upside down and put a baking sheet or piece of foil underneath, especially if you’ve buffed away all the excess oil. Since gravity would drag it out of the pan, it’s just extra protection against any excess oil that tries to go and pool.
Step 4: Repeat Times 3 to 4
Take the pan out until the half-hour is over. (Remember: it’s hot!) Now rub it all over with the oil once more, buffing it out as before. Then bring it back for a further 30-minute spell in the oven. All in all, three or four times, you’ll want to do this oiling-and-heating phase to create a strong initial layer of your own seasoning.
Just let the pan cool down until you are finished. It is ready for cooking now.
Sessions for Future Seasoning
Some individuals are under the assumption that cast iron is high-maintenance, involving the aforementioned seasoning procedure to hold the pans in outstanding working condition again and again. Uh, not so! From here on out, what you need to do is use your skillet. You’ll lay down more seasoning each time you cook with some sort of fat in it. You can also use your cast iron pan for acidic ingredients, including tomatoes and pan sauces, without concern, until you’ve got a strong layer of seasoning built up.
Don’t you need guidance worrying about things to do? Consider baking chicken, pan-searing steaks, sautéing onions, and boiling eggs. The seasoning of the pan will help also skillet breads like cornbread.
And that’s really the main takeaway here: a well-seasoned skillet made of cast iron is a well-used one. Spending more time using it in the kitchen, and less time reading arguments against it on online sites, is an ideal first move.