Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How To Season Cast Iron


All of my relatives had at least one cast iron skillet. The skillet was the color of unlit charcoal, with a slick, hard finish. It was either left on top of the stove or stored in the oven.

I never questioned my relatives about their cookware. I knew that the pans, like our food and our men, were "well seasoned"; as for the patina that Mama treasured so much I assumed the pans had been bought that way.


There are many ways to season cast iron, but the main formula seems to be vegetable oil plus heat plus time equals patina. It's basic kitchen chemistry. The multiple oilings, when combined with heat, fill in the microscopic "pits" in the cast iron. Over time, these pits harden, producing a smooth, black surface.

The oil creates a barrier, preventing oxygen from reaching the iron and causing rust. It also forms a virtually non stick surface. The more you use your pan, the more it will blacken. And cooking in cast iron is healthy--it's a sneaky source of dietary iron.


Cast iron has man virtues, but seasoning isn't one of them. It requires time, oil, and a hot oven. Store-bought pans come with instructions, but they skip over the important parts, like, it's not going to happen in a day. Be prepared to spend time with your new pan.

The seasoning is acquired slowly. You will have to "oil and bake" for many hours, when your time and schedule allow you to cook an empty pan. :-) You are serving up nothing; not only that, you will wonder how many centuries it will take before your pan acquires a rich, black patina.


How To Season A Cast-Iron Pan

Step 1: wash the pan in soapy water.
Be sure to use a scouring pad. This will remove the protective coating that inhibits rust. The is the one and ONLY time your skillet will touch soap.

Step 2: dry the pan. (I love easy steps.)

Step 3. Grease your pan.

This is not the time to be sloppy or fainthearted. Finicky souls use a pastry brush; earthy people prefer to grease with their fingers. Me, I use a scrunched up paper towel that's been doused in oil. I have also just poured oil directly into the pan, about 2 teaspoons, then swished it around with a paper napkin.

I take the paper towel and rub it all around the inside of the skillet. Cast iron is somewhat porous, and it will absorb the oil. Get into every crevice. The motto of seasoning cast iron is less is more--thin coats are best.

I don't oil the outside of the pan, but some people do.

Now is a good time to discuss oil. The type is debatable--some cooks use safflower, others prefer Crisco, or even lard. I have talked to people who won't use oil, claiming it leaves a residue. My mother has used olive oil. I've had the best results with peanut oil (it has no flavor and it's stable at high temperatures).


Don't use butter.

Remember to use small amounts or your skillet might develop sticky splotches. Some cooks believe that this gummy stage is the beginning of the curing process, but there's a difference in coats. A slightly tacky, amber sheen means you're making progress, but a sticky sediment means that you've used too much oil.


Step 4: Bake
Put the pan in a 275-degree oven for about five hours, periodically checking to see if you need another coat of oil. Think of it as a slow layering, the way an artist layers colors on a canvas.

Cooks also disagree about temperatures and baking times. I have tried everything. A small amount of smoking occurred at temperatures over 400 degrees however, in about three hours my pans were noticeably darker. Paul Prudhomme cures his new pans with low heat, about 225 degrees, leaving them to bake for hours.


The best pans, of course, come from relatives or garage sales, although you can still find them in antique malls.

After a couple of five-hour sessions, you'll begin to notice a metamorphosis. You'll know when you are making progress: Your pan will acquire a thin hard layer; it resembles shellac--shiny and transparent, the color of caramel flavoring, and faintly tacky.

I hate to tell you, but one or two hours of "curing" won't create a black, non-stick pan. Six hours won't do it, either. It takes about 10 sessions.

During the curing process, the oil hardens to a varnish-like finish. The pan loses its steel-gray color and turns progressively browner until it finally attains the famous black "crust."

I like the way an empty, slow-cooking pan smells--old fashioned and metallic,, the way water smells when it trickles from an iron pump. The aroma reminds me of meals past and present, a whole heritage of women who conjure food for their loved ones. If you don't like the aroma of baked iron, you can close off your kitchen, open a window, or burn a vanilla-bean candle.

Achieving patina takes the patience of a saint and the finesse of a landscape painter. Try to think of it as an adventure.
Step 5:
After the pan cools, wipe it down with the barest coat of oil. Do this every time you use the pan for the first year. A paper towel patted down over the skillet seems to inhibit rust in humid areas.
Of course, you can cheat and buy a new fangled cast iron pan--and you can buy them in adorable shapes

and in designer colors--plus, they don't require seasoning.





Caveats

This is what happens to a pan after washing it in soapy water.


** Never soak, never scour! A full sink of soapy water will undo years of care.

** Never wash in the dishwasher--it will rust the pan and remove the seasoning.

** Until your pan is well seasoned try not to cook sticky things--sometimes this causes setbacks.


**the acidity in tomatoes can have ghastly consequences in cast iron, unless you are using other ingredients, like in a stew or spaghetti sauce.

Care:

Large, coarse salt acts as a gentle abrasive, and helps keep your cast iron "bump" free.

**Clean with a little hot water and a nylon pad, sanding the surface gently.

**After cleaning, dry the pan thoroughly. For the first year, keep it lightly oiled. Store in a dry place. (I keep mine in the oven.) It will tend to collect dust and cat hairs.

**If scrubbing is needed, sprinkle sea or kosher salt into the skillet. Use a Tuffy pad to gently scour.

**For heinous messes, heat the pan, adding a bit of water. Use a Tuffy scrubber, and salt, if necessary. Dry, then set in a warm oven.



Remember that cast-iron cookery is part art, part science, but mostly it is an ancient culinary tool. Pat yourself on the back because you've been patient; you've fretted and coddled and oiled and baked. Remember that you aren't just cooking supper in your cast iron--you are continuing to season it. You are also creating an heirloom, a piece of culinary history to pass down through the generations.

32 comments:

  1. I grew up cooking on cast iron...it was the only thing my mom used. I didn't even know there was any other kind of pan! I've tried other frying pans but always go back to cast iron. I keep hoping some of my mom's cooking talent will transfer through the pan to me lol...so far...it isn't working!

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  2. DITTO!!! Nikkicrumpet...my Mama never used any thing but cast iron and it makes the best corn bread in the world YUMMY!! mine all look like your do Gollum.. the other day i told Susan if you wanted one already seasoned to go to antique store and they always have lots of them...that where I got my last one at its a Grinwold..the only thing i found is do not use them for frying french fries as it too much grease that gets on outside of them and like a crust build up and really hard to clean..unwise they are great!!and also they make a great weapon to use on the DH ha-ha !! hugs and smiles.

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  3. My mom bought a whole set of Le Crueset pans when I was little, don't remember how exactly but the seasoning of those pans got all messed up, and EVERYTHING would stick. Maybe they were pre-seasoned? Who knows, but your post makes me think it's worth a try. All I know is, aluminum is toxic so all "non-stick" cookware is best avoided. Sometimes if it aint broke don't fix it.....people have been cooking with cast iron for how long?
    Thanks for the informative post.

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  4. My mom bought a whole set of Le Crueset pans when I was little, don't remember how exactly but the seasoning of those pans got all messed up, and EVERYTHING would stick. Maybe they were pre-seasoned? Who knows, but your post makes me think it's worth a try. All I know is, aluminum is toxic so all "non-stick" cookware is best avoided. Sometimes if it aint broke don't fix it.....people have been cooking with cast iron for how long?
    Thanks for the informative post.

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  5. My mother, never used any thing but cast iron and she made the best fry chicken. I now have three beautiful cast iron skillets. My grandmother, my mom, and mother-in-law.I hope to pass them down to my granddaughter someday.
    Great post today Gollum....

    Pat H aka 9405018

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  6. My mother, never used any thing but cast iron and she made the best fry chicken. I now have three beautiful cast iron skillets. My grandmother, my mom, and mother-in-law.I hope to pass them down to my granddaughter someday.
    Great post today Gollum....

    Pat H aka 9405018

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  7. Our moms didn't have a lot of the new gadgets,yet we always remember how good the food was. There is nothing like our moms cooking.Most of our moms used cast iron.It is one of the best things you get from her.Kathy

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  8. Great post Gollum!
    I lucked out and got my mother's skillet. It's about 60yrs old and still has that wonderful patina.
    When it comes to Southern fried...it's the only way to go!!

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  9. I understand the seasoning part of owning cast iron but how soon are you able to actually use it during all this seasoning process?
    Thanks for another informative blog.

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  10. Dear Gollum,

    I purchased a set of white Le Crueset pots and pans at Macy's when it was still a Bamberger's store. There were never any instructions as to the proper cleaning etc. in the box. However, I do remember the salesclerk asking me if I minded taking the floor sample, since he was new there, it was busy because of the sale they were having, and he wasn't sure where they were in the stockroom. Since I worked in sales, I understood and agreed on the floor model. MY FAULT, but I was young back then and no Martha Stewart. :( Of course I always washed my pots and pans (in my NEW diswasher)never having had one in the past, and ruined my set over the years. After so long of a time, I still have that set, and am constantly trying to bring it back to it's original beauty. I know the best thing to do is to just give it up and buy a new set, but I don't 'give up' on things easily, so it still has a place in my pots & pans cabinet.

    Thanks for sharing today's great tips.

    'D'

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  11. Boy are you right about how we feel pride about a good seasoned pan. I was wise enough to ask my granny for one of hers! And that same day she taught me to make the worlds best cornbread! Granny has been gone for years and everyone gives me credit for the cornbread, but I know the truth. Thanks for the memory. vickydarnell

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  12. Wonderful post!!

    There is no other way for baking cornbread than a cast iron skillet. Gets just the right amount of crisp! I have a small cast iron pan with fish shaped "wells", I use for cornbread at the lake.

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  13. No self-respecting Southern girl is without her black skillet (and hopefully instructions on how to use it) but of course you don't have to be Southern to know the wonders of a black skillet. There ain't no other way to make cornbread except in that skillet in the oven!

    Judy

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  14. Hi Gollum,
    I just got back from a Maine Windjammer Cruise aboard the J & E Riggin. The chef (Annie) cooked everything (gourmet meals) on a woodstove onboard and used cast iron cookware to make many wonderful things, including a delicious frittata on our last day! I'm glad you posted this because I decided after that cruise that I would get myself a new fry pan (because I gave away my old cast iron pans years ago) and now I know just how to season it right! Thanks!
    Desiree

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  15. Gollum,

    Thanks for your input on my Lamp dilemma. :) I love #1 the best!

    I have my Mother's cast iron pans. (2 of them) Boy are they seasoned! I use them all of the time!

    xoxoxo
    Donna

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  16. Since you are not supposed to wash woks either, I have found that using the bamboo brush that came with my wok, works wonderfully well on my cast iron. That along with hot water, is about all you need for things that are stuck on the pan. For lighter cleaning, I too am a fan of salt, which gives you just the right amount of abrasion. I have had better result in seasoning garage sale finds using solid vegetable shortening. I also like to turn the pan upside down in the oven, with a cookie sheet below (to catch any drips). That will prevent any puddling, if you have been over zealous with your seasoning, whatever kind you use.
    Lodge, the only one still producing iron cookware in the U.S., makes a line called Lodge Logic, that comes already seasoned (they say).
    I love this topic Gollum. I spend a lot of my time in the kitchen, and I love my cast iron. Most of my pieces are over 30+ years old. I should have listed it yesterday as something I collect. Not trying to find a "good home" for these though. Hopefully, when I can no longer use them, someone will recognize them for the treasures that they are.

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  17. I have my mother's cast iron skillet. I treasure it! My sister and I practically cast lots for it when we were dividing Mom's things. If I remember correctly, that skillet cost me several pieces of Mom's jewelry... I WANTED the skillet. And, I can assure all the the "fans" reading today's blog that you haven't tasted dessert until you've made Gollum's Pineapple upsidedown cake. Yummmmmmmy But, you NEED the iron skillet. Thanks for the tutorial on seasoning Gollum! Makes me appreciate my treasure even more!
    Carol

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  18. I'm so glad you all liked the post. I can tell you that I learned about seasoning the hard way. lol And then I experimented a while like a mad cooking scientist.
    My individual cornbread stick pan still needs work.I have Le Creuset pieces, too, bought on sale over the years in several colors. I have non-stick All-Clad and Calphalon,and I'm so rough on them, the non-stick coating never lasts. I love the All Purpose pan with the little handles, but they never last long. (I mean, decades.)

    I love cooking with copper--especially if I'm sauteeing or making a sauce--but somehow cast iron infuses a certain flavor like nothing else.

    I know people who keep one skillet JUST for cornbread. Naz, after you wash off the protective coating, you can use it right away...just cook things like melted cheese sandwiches. Hold off on the sticky stuff in the beginning. Even after your pan achieves patina, you will need to coddle it for a while. During this period, if food sticks to the pan, just sprinkle in a bit of sea or kosher salt, swirl it around (no water) with a Tuffy pad, and then wipe clean with a paper towel. Finally, take a fresh paper towel, dip it in oil, and whisk it around the pan. Each time you use the pan for the first year, remember to oil it lightly before putting it away.

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  19. Thank you for the great cast-iron skillet blog. I have at least 6 skillets in mom's things & wanted to use the skillets but wasn't quite sure what I needed to do to restore them.

    She used an SOS steel wool pad to clean them when I was growing up. She also washed them in soapy water, guess they were WELL SEASONED!

    Have your tried the steel wool???

    Diane

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  20. Now Gollum please don't take offense but for some reason, I never thought of you as a cast iron skillet type of girl! With your gorgeous home I imagined the newest, shiniest pots and pans for you! It's funny how we come up with those assumptions and by now, I should retire them but they come so naturally!!!

    I love cast iron and use my old ones everyday. Of course the cornbread is so much better and cobblers are wonderful too- stews, stirfry,scrambled eggs....I don't think they would do jello molds too well! LOL

    :) mary

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  21. Look at you, you cast iron Smarty Pants.

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  22. Wow, after reading your posting, a seasoned pan must be worth it's weight in gold...it sounds like quite the endeavor to get one seasoned. I'll keep my eye out in the local antique stores, like Gloria suggested. Thanks for all the great information! Susan

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  23. Oh. Well. Such a fine article. Very informative. I just wished I had read it before I threw out my new iron skillet last month. I had followed someone else's less detailed seasoning instructions. My skillet got sticky and gross, and I was clueless. Lesson learned - check with Gollum!

    If you ever wrote a book of domestic wisdom, I certainly would buy it!

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  24. The cast iron motto is, "Never soak, never scour." Me, I wouldn't use a Brillo pad, or any soapy (or abrasive) pad. You are basically "sanding" off the debris. That's how I think of it.
    Susan, you should have no trouble finding a pan or three in your neck of the kudzu. If you fall in love with one, and it's a bit rusty, I can walk you through it. lol

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  25. I grew up with these too! I have one but I don't use it often because I found it hard not to use soap but now that I know the salt trick I may try using it again! Thanks!

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  26. I too grew up with Mother using a cast iron skillet that made just the best fried chicken ever.. I wish I would have had all these details when I got my first cast iron skillet about 35 years ago.. Since then we use it alot.. in fact I made gravy for the biscuits tonight using ours... they also make the best fried potatoes going... This was just so much fun...thanks for sharing another love of yours..hugs ~lynne~

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  27. I've always wanted that green apple or the bell pepper casserole from Le Creuset. ~ Robyn

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  28. I never knew you could make cornbread without a cast iron skillet!! Glad to know I'm treating mine right. laurie a/k/a bargainhunr

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  29. I have used my grandmother's pan for nearly forty years now, and am able to soak it in hot, soapy water without losing the seasoning. I guess nearly 80 years of use makes for one hell of a coating! Denise

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  30. Hi Gollum :)

    I'm very very afraid of cooking with cast iron. Can you believe it? ME. LOL

    I'll try it again and see if it works out this time :)

    hugs,
    rue

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  31. I have my grandma's skillets along with a few extra beauties I have collected. I remember watching her season it. Little did she know she was making it perfect for her grandaughter to use as a grown woman. I love them!
    Lisa & Alfie

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  32. ok....This may be a silly question, but what about germs on the pan?? I am a clean freak and use soap and water on everything for fear of germs left on or oil getting rancid and then getting bacteria... if you buy a used one how can you be sure it is cleaned properly before cooking something and when you wipe oil on it to store, can it get rancid or spoiled??? I want to try it...we have some antique shops here that have couple pans I saw..and the corn bread cooking on these sound intriging???!!! Marlene from Cambria

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There you are! I'm so glad you're here. Love, MLee xxoo

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