A well seasoned and cared for cast iron skillet will last you forever. Sometimes skillets are past down through generations like family heirlooms. And other times you just get lucky at a yard sale or thrift store. However you come about your cast iron skillet, there are a few simple things you can do to keep it in good condition for the rest of your life.
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I use my cast iron skillet every day. It’s my favourite pan in the house. I’ve been told a few times that you should only use cast iron for certain purposes and that’s probably true, but it really is my favourite. So I end up using it for things as simple as a fried egg in the morning to searing a fancy steak for dinner.
The key to keeping your cast iron non stick and in good repair is “seasoning” it, and cleaning it properly. Some cast iron pans actually come with industrial seasoning on them (for example, my other cast iron from Le Creuset) and you don’t need to worry as much about those. I’ve never needed to re-season my Creuset pan, which is nice. I used to be under the impression that you should never use soap when cleaning a cast iron pan, but after the research I did for this article, I see I was wrong. If your seasoning is good and has been done properly then using hot water and a gentle soap won’t bother the pan at all.
A Little Research
Before I write any article that involves any kind of science I always double check my facts. Since I never want to give you guys bad information, I’m glad I double checked this! I learned a few very important things about the chemistry of seasoning a pan and why it works the way that it does.
In the end I came across a fascinating article by Sheryl Canter on her blog where she goes into great detail about the science behind seasoning cast iron. The first thing that I learned was that I’ve been using the wrong oil to season my skillet. The best oil to use is flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is what is considered a “drying oil”, this means when it comes in contact with certain things (heat and iron for example) it goes through a process known as Polymerization. This makes it dry very hard and very smooth.
Linseed oil, which is the non food grade version of flaxseed oil, is what artists would mix with pigment to create oil paints. And it’s what wood workers use to finish and seal their work. Both require a glossy, hard, and water proof finish. Exactly what we want on our cast iron skillet.
Why Flaxseed Oil?
The reason flaxseed oil is the best choice for cast iron seasoning is that it’s high in omega 3 fatty acids (specifically: Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA). Though plenty of other oils contain ALA, none have as much as flaxseed. For example, vegetable oil is roughly 10% ALA, where flaxseed is 57%. By heating to high heat AND being incontact with bare iron the ALA in the oil will release free radicals that then bind together to form a hard glossy, non stick surface.
Note: free radical release is not what you want in your cooking as they are carcinogenic, but in the seasoning process you A) aren’t cooking food, and B) the high heat will cause them to burn away by the end of the process and leave your pan safe to use.
You want to use a pure 100% flaxseed oil, and organic is better if you can find it. It’s not cheap but I promise you don’t use much, and it’s totally worth it. I got this bottle at my local health food store (check in the fridge. Flaxseed oil can go rancid when not kept in the fridge). But if you can’t find any locally, you can always get some online.
Alright so now we know which oil to use and why. On to the seasoning. This process takes time. so it’s a good idea to set aside a weekend where you know you’ll be around the house, and one where you won’t need the oven.
The first thing you want to do is strip the pan down to it’s bare iron. This is mostly important for second hand pans, and pans that haven’t had proper seasoning for their life so far. My pan had been not well seasoned and was in need of some love so I stripped it right down. (If you are feeling confident that your pan doesn’t need to be stripped then skip ahead.)
To strip my pan I used hot water, steel wool, and Barkeepers Friend. Barkeepers Friend is a cleaning powder that can cut through pretty much anything. It’s used for getting intense grime and rust off of pots, pans, and all kinds of stuff. You can buy it in a powder or liquid online.
Wet your pan under hot water, and wash it with soap if it has food debris on it. leaving it wet, sprinkle on the barkeepers friend powder and start scrubbing with the steel wool. Don’t scrub under water, just scrub hard until the now liquified powder is black. Rinse and repeat until your pan is silver. Yes, there’s actually iron under there. Oh, and elbow grease? Yeah you should get some extra of that cause you will need it! I did about 6 rounds of scrubbing before not much more of the black grease was coming off and I decided to stop. Sheryl Canter has a very intense way of stripping cast iron and if you have two days to spare and aren’t afraid of chemical burns you can check out her technique here.
Next, when your pan is clean and stripped (or if you’re simply re seasoning, just clean) then heat your oven to 200F (or as low as it will go. For me that 325) and dry the pan in the oven for about 20 minutes. Drying the pan is super important, and the heating process also helps open up the pores of the iron.
After it has dried, remove it from the oven. Pour about a tsp of flaxseed oil onto some paper towel and rub it all over the pan. You want to make sure you get into all the nooks and crannies, top and bottom, and handle. Now take a new piece of paper towel and wipe off all the oil. You don’t want to have any excess oil, or your finish will be sticky. So really dry it all up.
Put the pan back into the oven, upside down, and turn the oven up as high as it will go. For me that’s 500F. Let the oven heat up with the pan inside it, and when it beeps to tell you it’s up to temp, start a timer for 1 hour. After the hour is up, turn off the oven WITHOUT opening the door. Let the oven cool for 2 hours with the pan inside of it.
Then repeat the oiling, heating and cooling process 5 more times. Seriously. Remember I said choose a time when you’ll be home and won’t need the oven? It’s long process. After the first few rounds, the pan will be slightly darker, but will still have a matte finish. After the sixth round, your cast iron will be glossy, and dark black. So worth it.
Long term Care
Caring for your skillet after it’s seasoned properly is easy. You should probably only need to re season it once a year or so. Washing should be done soon after you use the pan, you don’t want to let it sit dirty for too long. And now that you have this perfect new seasoning, you can use warm water, a sponge, and a gentle soap to clean it. Drying your pan is actually more important than how you wash it. Leaving it wet could cause it to rust anywhere that has lost its seasoning or that you missed. Either dry it well with a tea towel, or toss it into your oven for 15 minutes at 325F.
I hang my cast iron skillet on a wall rack, and you will hear a lot of people say that you shouldn’t stack anything in your cast iron. But again, if your seasoning is good than you won’t need to worry about anything scratching it. If you are worried about scratches, then I would suggest either not stacking it, or lining it with a tea towel or piece of paper towel to protect it.
I hope this has helped you to learn a little bit more about seasoning your cast iron skillet. And If you don’t have one, I highly suggest you get one, they really are a wonderful addition to your kitchen repertoire. And if you’re looking for a fun recipe to cook in your newly seasoned cast iron skillet, why not check out my Skillet Cookie recipe!