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 procured most of my cast iron (I have around 4 skillets, a deep pan and a dutch oven) about a year ago and have been on a mission to season it ever since. 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.
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 metal as you can. Dry the pans with a dishcloth then place them in a warm oven for 5 mins to make sure they’re bone dry.
2) Pour a small amount of canola oil into the pan. I have tried seasoning with coconut oil, canola, crisco shortening etc. Canola is my favourite, and for my purposes there was no reason to invest in an expensive organic oil such as linseed.
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, and bake for one hour. Then turn the heat off, and allow to cool for at least two hours – do not open the oven during cooling.
6) Here’s the unavoidable part – you need to repeat steps 2-5 at least another five times. So that your skillet has at least 6 layers of coating. There’s no getting around this. I did one layer of seasoning and within a few uses the coating starts to wear. It happens.
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 (post on that coming soon!)
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.
Modern cast iron has a far rougher surface than its vintage counterparts, so while you will be able to achieve a glossy finish, it may not be as slick as restoring an antique pan which usually has a beautiful smooth finish. Motivation to scour eBay and thrift shops to find your own, perhaps? The really great old pans can sell for up to $400!
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!