For versatility and longevity, nothing in your kitchen beats cast iron. A twelve-inch cast iron skillet is the one you take in that deserted island situation where they only let you bring one pan. As long as you can keep from throwing it on the floor, it’ll last for literal decades (and many a skillet has been known to come out the victor in a cast-iron-versus-floor battle). Unlike years ago, almost all cast iron cookware you buy today comes to you conveniently pre-seasoned. But things happen. A well-meaning but uninformed houseguest runs your skillet through the dishwasher. Rust forms. You find a killer vintage cast iron skillet in the back of a thrift shop. For whatever reason, you need to season your black metal wonder. Here’s how to do it:
How to season a cast iron skillet
Ideally, the season on your skillet is the result of scads of meals cooked. Every time you add heat plus oil or fat (use lots early on in your cast iron relationship), you’re adding another layer of polymerized oil to your skillet. Eventually that skillet will become slicker than an iced-over pond and nothing — not even a scrambled egg hash — will stick to it.
But first you need a seasoned starting point.
Start with a clean and completely dry pan. If you just washed it, stick it on your stove’s burner on low to make sure it’s fully dry. Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Use a smooth cloth or a couple of paper towels to rub about a tablespoon of oil on the skillet (canola, flaxseed, and grapeseed oils are all good choices). Rub oil on the insides of the pan, the sides, the handle, the bottom.
Put your skillet face-down in the middle rack of your preheated oven. Wait about ten minutes. Carefully take the pan out and (even more carefully) wipe off any excess oil. Your goal is a very thin layer of oil. Too thick and you’ll get a gummy surface, which is bad. Stick it back in the oven like before.
Bake for an hour and don’t mess with it. At the end of the hour, turn off the heat to the oven. Leave the door shut and let the oven and skillet cool for another hour. Once it’s cool, store it.
Season it again?
You can repeat the process if you want. But really, the best way to get a good season on your cast iron is to use it. So make a grilled cheese. Saute some veggies. Roast some roots. Bake some cornbread. In the beginning, using a little extra oil when you cook is a great idea. Once you’ve got a good season, you can decrease your oil usage. Your aim is building up repeated thin layers on your skillet so you can attain supreme slickness.
Maintaining the seasoning on your cast iron skillet
Now that you’re building up a seasoned skillet, try not to mess it up. Each and every time you cook, ensure that you’re adding another layer of goodness by cleaning it right. Here’s how:
Step zero (if you’ve got stuck food):
Use a little water and a wooden spatula or a dish brush to dislodge anything that’s stuck to the surface. Dump out the water.
Return your skillet to medium heat. Add a tablespoon each of oil and salt. Scrub the salt around with paper towels. The towels will darken, as will the salt. Dump out the salt.
Optionally, you can use water and salt instead of oil and salt. You’ll need just enough water to cover the bottom of the skillet. Proceed as above.
To make sure your skillet is completely dry, with no moisture remaining, return the skillet to medium/low heat on your stove.
Rub on a thin layer of oil using a smooth cloth or paper towels and let your skillet cool.
Once it’s dry, wipe your skillet with a fresh cloth or towel to get off any excess oil. Stick it in your cupboard and think about what you’ll cook next.
If you do this every time you cook, you’ll get closer and closer to smooth, non-stick perfection.
A few cast iron tips to keep in mind
Cast iron is pretty forgiving. (Except when it comes to water. Water has a longstanding hatred of cast iron and if you think you can wait until later to dry your skillet, you’ll always be wrong and rust will win.) Keep this stuff in mind to keep your cast iron happy.
Preheating is key
Remember to preheat your skillet before cooking. Start with a lower flame then raise it up to get where you’re going. Preheating for at least five minutes protects your skillet and gives that polymer layer time to get magical.
Enemies of cast iron
Early in your cast iron’s life, try to avoid cooking a lot of acidic dishes. Acidic ingredients like tomato sauce, lemons, vinegar can break down the coating on your skillet. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but you’ll just need to reseason a bit.
Using too much oil when you season can lead to a seasoning that’s sticky. If you’ve got a sticky or gummy surface, that usually comes from built up layers of oil that are too thick. Best thing to do when this happens is to scrub it off and start over.
But the biggest enemy of cast iron? Rust. And it’s a completely preventable thing. Water should never, ever, even for a little bit, be left on your skillet. Soaking a cast iron skillet is also never advisable. Make sure your skillet is dry as a bone after you wash it by heating it on your burner.
But what if rust happens anyway? The great thing is, cast iron will forgive you. Get yourself some steel wool and scrub that rust off. Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, when you scrub off the rust, you’ll also be scrubbing off the lovely seasoning you’ve developed over the weeks and months. Once the rust is eradicated, you’ll need to follow the above steps and re-season it once you’re done.
What about soap?
There are many die hard cast iron followers that will scream at you if you use soap on your skillet. Others say, have at it. The fact is, cast iron can take it. Dish soap is generally mild enough that it’s not going to strip your seasoning off. Just be sure to never use anything abrasive like a powder scrub.
But if you’re comfortable foregoing suds, there’s really no need to ever use soap on your skillet. Many people never even add water when they clean their cast iron. Soap is for those who might feel a little nervous about germs. But really…
What about germs?
Aside from some strange sanitary-compromised circumstances that we can’t really think of right now, you’re honestly very safe. Most food-related bacteria — scary stuff like E. coli and salmonella — can’t survive anything hotter than 160°F. Even weird thermophilic bacteria (sometimes found in canned food) dies at around 250°F. You’ll remember that preheating your skillet is the right way to do it — that’ll get your cooking surface to about 300°F, even at low heat. All germs are going to be dead, dead, dead at that point. So throw that soap away! (Don’t do that. You still need to wash your hands and spatula).
A final fun fact about cast iron
Feeling a little run down or extra tired? Three million people in the US are on the anemic side. Anemia happens when your blood isn’t getting the iron it needs. So consider that the iron in a cast iron skillet is the same stuff that’s in your body. Cooking with it will release mini doses of the mineral into your food, no supplement needed. Besides, there’s just no better way to sear yourself a ribeye than with a nice, hot cast iron skillet.
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