How to Season or Re-Season a Cast Iron Skillet
Caring for Cast Iron
A cast iron skillet is one of the most versatile tools you can have in the kitchen. If taken care of properly, it will last a lot longer than you will. And unlike you or me, it will achieve a nearly perfect non-stick surface. Want the crispiest fried chicken ever? A gorgeous crackly crust on cornbread? Even temperatures for deep frying? The perfect crust on a steak? Cast iron is your friend.
There are some rules, though. Cast iron doesn’t like three things: high-acid foods (like citrus or vinegar), soap, and water. Keep these things in mind and you’ll have some of the best cookware in the world.
So caring for cast iron that has already been ‘seasoned’ (it already has a black, sort of shiny surface that’s nearly non-stick), just do the following:
Don’t cook high-acid foods in cast iron. Chicken piccata is best done in something else. You can use small amounts of acids like wine or orange juice, but keep it small.
You have to wash it by hand: Never put cast iron in the dishwasher! To clean it, you can use soap if you must, but mostly you’ll just use hot water and a sponge. Use a stiff brush to remove stuck-on bits. Instead of soap, you can simply rub it with a couple tablespoons of salt. Rinse it well and dry it immediately and thoroughly. Remember: Water will rust your cast iron!
On occasion, especially if you either rarely use it or if you use it a lot, rub the interior with a thin film of oil, throw it in a oven at 350°F, and let it sit for an hour. This helps season the surface.
That’s it— give it a little care and it will give a lot back to you.
After cleaning, some people heat the pan on the stovetop help it dry completely.
While the water is evaporating, use a paper towel to smooth a tiny bit of olive oil all over the inner surface of the pan.
Rescuing a Rusty Cast Iron Pan
Sometimes, you have a skillet or other piece of cookware that wasn’t cared for correctly. These rescue pieces can be hidden gold, but you have to know how to bring them back to their potential. I had one recently that was brought to me for medical attention. Here’s how I nursed it back to glory.
Note: You can do the same for a new skillet, you just will be removing the protective coating the manufacturer applies to protect a ‘pre-seasoned’ skillet from oxidizing if it comes into contact with moisture.
This is what an abused piece of cast iron looks like. Rusty, and there were lots of places where the carbon seasoning had cracked and was actually flaking off the skillet. Since I didn’t want carbon dust in my food, I had to do something.
- There’s really only one good way to do this: Scrub it well, then break out the steel wool. Normally, steel wool is the enemy of a cast iron skillet because it does so much damage to a seasoned surface. But that’s what you want here: Scrub down to the shiny metal.
- Once you’re down past all the rust and carbon gunk (yes, gunk is a technical term), you’re ready to treat that old skillet in the same way you’d treat a new one. Preheat your oven to 350°F, break out some paper towels and a little vegetable oil, and you’re ready to go. Coat the surface with the oil and bake the pan for an hour.
Seasoning Cast Iron
Setting the seasoning on a skillet is the same whether you’re restoring one or have a new one:
- Pour a little vegetable oil into the skillet (vegetable oil sets a better, harder finish than animal fats) and rub it thoroughly around the interior. If your skillet came ‘pre-seasoned,’ there will be a protective coating applied by the manufacturer. You want to rub this off. If you have an old skillet, the Lord only knows what all you’re wiping off at this point.
- Continue reapplying oil as needed, and wiping down until you no longer see gunk on your towel. At this point your ready for the oven.
- Bake your skillet for an hour at 350°F. Remove it from the oven, and once it’s cool enough to handle, repeat the oil-and-paper towel routine. If your towel comes away clean, you’re done. If you’re still pulling off icky stuff, then repeat the bake and oil process until it is clean.
- Once the towel comes clean, you have a seasoned surface.
The best way to preserve cast iron is to use it! If you’re cleaning it properly and avoiding certain ingredients, the more you use it, the better and more non-stick the surface will get. It will eventually look gorgeous: shiny and black. You’ll also fall in love and find you want to care for it. Nice how that happens.