People take things for granted. Like, for example, knowing how to season, cook with, clean and store cast iron cookware. If you’re from the South, it seems these things are inherent to your upbringing and understanding of what goes on in a kitchen.
Growing up in Australia, I hadn’t seen a proper cast iron skillet (with beautiful seasoning) until my late twenties. And I had no idea there were so many rules for caring for this cookware. For example, you shouldn’t cook with tomatoes as the acid affects the seasoning. And lord help you if you ever put soap in your skillet to clean it – you’ve pretty much killed it.
A well-cared for cast iron skillet can be handed down through the generations. The natural non-stick surface that builds up is far healthier than teflon, and it’s said they even leach trace amount of iron into your food, which is actually good for you! But most of all, great cast iron is a delight to cook with, providing a fantastic searing surface for meats and easy stovetop to oven transfer.
I originally bought a few pieces of modern cast iron and then drove myself a little crazy with a seasoning mission. I read volumes of online articles, watched endless youtube videos and ended up confused by conflicting methods. Ultimately, I discovered there really was no shortcut or quick way to season, and one coat is going to wear off damn fast. So, here’s my method for seasoning, as developed by someone who had to learn everything from scratch. A Southern grandma would have come in real handy. My method is loosely based on this one, but far less OCD.
It’s worth noting that most recent cast iron has a far rougher surface compared to vintage pieces like Wagner and Griswold. I know people who have taken to milling down their Lodge pans to get the same glass smooth surface. I’m not entirely convinced a modern pan will ever have a smooth or non-stick a surface as the vintage pans, so you may want to bear that in mind. This seasoning method works for any cast iron pieces, modern or old.
1) Most modern cast iron cookware comes pre-seasoned these days, but don’t be fooled, this doesn’t mean it’s ready to go. Often the “oil” on the surface is industrial grease and those pots need a damn good clear. So, using steel wool and soap (this is the ONLY time you get to use either of those on your pans), scrub the skillet trying to reveal as much of the bare grey metal as you can. Dry the pans with a dishcloth.
2) Pour a small amount of flaxseed oil into the pan. I have tried seasoning with coconut oil, canola, crisco shortening etc. I did get a reasonable result with canola, but have seen the best results using flaxseed.
3) Using a dishcloth, wipe out ALL excess oil, leaving only a thin layer on the pan. For the first seasoning, put it on the outside of the pan too. You may even think you’ve wiped most of it off, but I promise there’s enough there.
4) Place the skillet in a cold oven, upside down. Many people tell you to put down foil to catch any drips, but in my experience if your layer is thin enough there won’t be any drips.
5) Turn the oven on to 250c/480f (pretty much as hot as it can go), and bake for 50 mins.
6) Using proper heat resistant gloves and being extremely careful of the searingly hot iron, take the pan out, pour in a tiny amount of oil and use the dishcloth to quickly distribute it around the cooking surface, again making sure it’s just a thin layer. Return to oven for a further 40 minutes (you’ve just managed to squeeze in two seasonings for the effort of one!)
7) This step is optional, but if you have time, you can repeat step 6 another 1-3 times to bolster your coating and speed up the seasoning process. If you don’t have time, go straight to the next step.
8) Turn the heat off, and allow to cool for at least two hours – do not open the oven during cooling.
And here’s the really sucky part that you probably don’t want to hear, but it makes all the difference. You’re going to have to give your skillet at least six coats of oil and baking to create a hardwearing non stick base.
Basically, new cast iron needs some intense TLC for the first year or so of it’s life. After the initial seasoning, you really just need to use the skillet lots and cook up a lot of greasy food to help reinforce the layer. Or in short – bacon is your skillet’s best friend. Roux is also a great way to build up seasoning, as is popcorn! In fact, I’ve not had to re-season my dutch oven once because I constantly make old fashioned popcorn in it.
During the first year, your skillet will likely need an additional seasoning every 2-3 months until it starts to build up. See, that’s what most people don’t tell you! That amazing black glass finish and non-stick surface doesn’t magically appear after one session in the oven. It takes effort, care and patience. You also need to use the proper cleaning and storing methods to ensure maximum lifespan.
If you find that the surface is sticky instead of clear and smooth, you either used too much oil, your oven wasn’t hot enough or you didn’t leave the pan in for long enough.
Whatchya waiting for? Get seasoning! And when you’re done you can use your skillet to try out this cornbread recipe!