There seems to be nothing you cannot do with cast-iron. With amazing heat-retention properties, natural nonstick surface quality, unbeatable value and long-term durability, cast-iron skillets offer so much in use, capability and longevity. Perfect for high-heat searing, stir-frying, egg dishes and a variety of versatile uses, these sturdy, trusty cooking tools can get you through any stovetop cooking need — and if well-maintained and cared for, they can last your family generations. It is no wonder cast-iron sales have skyrocketed from $103 million to $114 million between 2007 and 2011 and again from $114 million to nearly $170 million from 2011 to 2017. As opposed to its modest five percent domestic market sales in the 1980s, cast-iron cookware has grown in popularity and demand, becoming a dependable, beloved staple many Americans rely on today. To make sure your cast-iron skillets stay in superb shape, however, you need to maintain them properly so they will not lose their nonstick qualities and sheen over time. Proper maintenance means seasoning your pan to reinforce its surface. If you are looking for tips on how to season your cast-iron skillet so it will last you a lifetime — from how and when to clean a cast-iron pan to the best oils to season cast-iron — here is everything you need to know about cast-iron skillet treatment.
What "Seasoning" Your Cast-Iron Skillet Means
When you buy a durable, high-quality cast-iron pan for long-term use, it will come with a factory "seasoning" — or nonstick surface. The nonstick quality that is so convenient for your cooking endeavors is enabled by a non-porous, plastic-like layer of molecules bonded to the metal, and this layer is what is described as the seasoning. Slick, slippery and nonstick in nature, a seasoning layer is the result of the chemical process that occurs when cooking oil heats to its smoking point in a cast iron pan — the fatty acids in the oil oxidize and reposition themselves into a molecule layer that becomes trapped in the pan's surface and bonds to the cast-iron metal, making it slippery. The more you use oils to cook in your cast-iron skillet, the more often the process repeats itself and builds upon the slick surface of the seasoning, reinforcing the coating and making it even more nonstick and durable. Sometimes your cast-iron pan and its nonstick surface will wear down over time due to improper usage, poor maintenance or other factors, and this is when you need to "season" the skillet — mimicking the natural chemical process in which the cast iron oil builds a protective coating on the surface of the pan. Using your own oil and heating process, seasoning a skillet will restore its optimal cooking condition with a slick, smooth surface again.
How to Tell If Your Cast-Iron Pan Is Well-Seasoned
If you are not sure how to know whether your pan has a strong seasoning layer or is in need of maintenance, pay attention to both its appearance and its performance. A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet will have a dark, rich finish with a semi-glossy shine — it will not appear dull, dry or rusty or have any stained patches on the surface. Pans with well-seasoned surfaces also make cooking smooth and simple, ensuring your food does not stick or pick up rusty particles. You can also feel your cast-iron skillet to assess its condition. Being well-seasoned means it will not seem sticky, greasy or dry. An easy way to tell whether your skillet is well-seasoned is to perform the egg test on the surface. Over medium heat in your cast-iron pan, heat one tablespoon of cooking oil and crack an egg into the pan. In a skillet with satisfactory seasoning, your egg will not stick to the surface of the pan, and you will be able to slide it around even when it is thoroughly cooked.
When to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet
It can be difficult to know how often to season cast-iron skillets or if there are specific intervals for when you need to clean, strip or recondition the skillets. There are no technical rules or timeframes for when or how long to season a cast iron skillet, but the best bet for keeping your pan in its optimum shape is to perform everyday upkeep — that means regularly treating your cast iron skillet after cooking, thoroughly removing baked-on stains and food particles and adding a little oil whenever you use it. When you put a little extra work into maintaining your cookware, you will not need to seriously clean or season your cast-iron pan as often — after all, considerate care keeps materials in good shape for the long haul. However, while your pan is durable and will respond well to regular care, it can still wear out, and there are certain signs to tell you when your cast-iron skillet is in need of a seasoning. If your food sticks to your pan when you cook, you find baked-on rust stains appearing on the surface or the dishes you cook in your pan have a metallic edge to their taste, it is time to season the skillet again.
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How to Clean a Cast-Iron SkilletPart of how to prepare a cast iron skillet and maintain it is making sure you clean it properly, frequently and consistently. Here are the best cleaning methods to care for, maintain and keep a cast-iron pan in good shape:
- Clean After Every Use: Every time you cook on your pan, clean it out gently but thoroughly. When the skillet is still warm, use paper towels to carefully wipe out the interior and remove excess traces of oil and food. Under a hot stream of running water, rinse your pan while you scrub it with a nonabrasive scrub pad or nonmetal brush to eliminate any baked-on stains and food particles. Use a minimal amount of soap if necessary and rinse thoroughly when you are finished scrubbing.
- Lightly Oil After Cleaning: When the skillet is completely clean, dry it thoroughly using a paper towel or cloth, then place it back on the stove on medium-low heat until any remaining moisture evaporates from the surface. Pour about 1/2 teaspoon of cooking oil onto your clean, dry skillet and use a paper towel to spread the oil around, lightly coating the entire interior surface. Continue spreading and coating over low heat until the surface appears smooth and dark with no residual oil. Let your pan cool.
Cleaning your cast-iron skillet regularly should prevent it from falling into a poor condition, but if you need to scour it to remove especially difficult residue, rust or stains, follow these steps:
- Using very fine steel wool, gently rub the interior of the pan to dislodge any debris.
- Using a paper towel or cloth, wipe out the rust, food or dirt particles from your pan.
- Place the skillet on the stove over medium-low heat and add a heavy coating of cooking or vegetable oil to fill the surface of the pan. Continue heating for five minutes, then remove the pan from the heat or turn the burner off.
- Add a substantial amount of salt to the oil in the pan to create a semi-liquid paste, then scrub with a strong cloth or layered paper towels until the surface becomes smoother, slicker and darker. You may continue to repeat the oil heating and salt scrubbing process until the pan is as slick, dark and glossy as you desire.
- Thoroughly rinse your pan under hot water when you are finished, wipe dry with paper towels or a dry cloth and coat lightly with oil, wiping away excess residue.
How to Season a Cast Iron SkilletSeasoning a cast iron skillet is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your food cooks well and tastes great. When it is time to properly season your skillet to ensure it remains durable and builds a strong nonstick coating, you will need the following materials to spruce it up:
- Water and dish soap
- Stiff brush, sponge or plastic scrubber
- Paper towels or dry, clean cloths
- Cooking oil of your choice
If your pan is a bit blotchy, has some dry patches or seems slightly dull, it most likely only requires minor service to bring back its shine and slickness. Depending on the degree of repair required, the time you want to spend and the resources available, you can choose between these two methods for how to season an iron skillet:
1. Stovetop Repair
Place your skillet on the stove and warm it over medium-high heat. Take a paper towel wad or clean cloth and dip it in about two tablespoons of a high-quality cooking oil. Holding the paper towel or cloth with either tongs or your hand, wipe down the interior surface of the pan until the oil smokes and the remaining oil residue is gone. Reapply the oil and repeat this process three to five times, ensuring the oil smokes and is absorbed and allowing the pan to cool slightly between applications.
2. Oven RepairFor especially thorough re-seasoning, oven repair is a method that uses higher heat and deeper penetration for your pan. Follow these necessary steps for seasoning:
- Prepare: First, preheat your oven anywhere from 325 to 500 degrees, depending on how much repair you think your cast-iron skillet will need. Higher heats will only help the oils absorb more deeply and quickly into your pan.
- Wash: Under warm, running water, wash out your pan with a small amount of soap or salt and a stiff brush or sponge. It is important to remember that you should not normally wash cast iron with soap unless you follow the cleaning with a seasoning because acidic liquids can wear down the seasoning layer. In this case, you may use dish soap.
- Rinse: Rinse off your skillet, removing all traces of soap, dust and dirt, then thoroughly dry it off with paper towels or a dry, clean cloth.
- Add Oil: Pour a modest amount of cooking oil onto the surface of the skillet. You may use vegetable oil, shortening or whatever kind of oil you desire.
- Rub: Using a paper towel or cloth, spread the oil all around the interior of the pan, rubbing it in and making sure to cover the entire surface.
- Flip Over: When you have thoroughly coated the interior of the pan with oil, flip it over and continue to spread a thin coat of oil around the outside and bottom of the skillet until it is entirely covered in a layer of oil. This is an important part of seasoning a cast iron skillet that many people forget!
- Bake: Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any oil drips, then place your cast-iron pan upside-down on the center rack and allow to bake for one hour.
- Cool: After your skillet has finished baking, turn off the oven and allow the pan to completely cool before touching it. Remove it carefully from the oven with baking mitts and inspect your dark, smooth, shiny skillet. You may repeat this process as needed if you believe your pan still requires additional seasoning.
How to Remove Major Rust From Your Cast-Iron Pan
If you season your cast iron skillet regularly and do everything you can to keep it in optimal condition, you will most likely only need to occasionally maintain your cast-iron pan or touch up your seasoning with regular, minor repairs. Sometimes, however, a pan can become damaged, dull, sticky or rusty. If you find an old cast-iron pan in need of restoration or you can not remove the rust and baked-on stains from the pan you regularly use, you will need to perform a major repair by stripping the surface and re-seasoning the iron skillet. Here is how to give your worn-out pan an overhaul and breathe new life into a cast-iron skillet that seems stuck in its bad condition:
1. Stripping the SurfaceFor a skillet with especially extensive damage in terms of rust, stains, baked-on residue and dull patches, you will need to strip the surface before you can repair it — meaning you must remove its original seasoning layer. To do so, you will need to purchase Easy-Off Oven Cleaner, which you can find at almost any grocery or hardware store. Because the oven cleaner is a chemical, make sure to do your stripping outdoors, wear gloves to protect your hands and avoid spraying where the solution can touch your skin or face. Follow these steps to strip your skillet:
- Prepare: Working outside, place a block of concrete on the ground and cover it with a plastic, heavy-duty trash bag. Drape the bag over the concrete so it covers the block and the sides of the bag are easily accessible to grab and pull up around your skillet.
- Spray: On top of the plastic-covered concrete block, place your skillet upside down. Making sure you are wearing rubber gloves, thoroughly spray the entire surface of your pan with Easy-Off Oven Cleaner. Be careful not to expose your face or skin to the spray — keep your body angled back from the block as you coat the pan. Flip your skillet over to the opposite side and spray the entire interior, as well.
- Let Sit: Grasp the sides of the plastic trash bag and pull them up over the skillet, then tie the bag off, making sure it is closed tightly. Leave your sprayed skillet outside, wrapped in the plastic bag, for 24 hours.
- Scrub: After you have let your pan sit for one day, remove the plastic bag from the pan, ensuring you are wearing rubber gloves and not touching the Easy-Off Oven Cleaner residue. Still wearing the gloves, use steel wool and soap to scrub your skillet thoroughly in hot water until you have removed all cleaner residue. Rinse your pan thoroughly, scrub with steel wool and soapy water again and repeat until the pan is completely clean.
- Soak: Combine two cups of water with two cups of white wine vinegar and pour into your skillet, then let the solution stand in the pan for half an hour to one hour. The acidity of the vinegar will continue to wear away whatever is left of the pan's seasoning after its encounter with the oven cleaner.
- Rinse and Dry: After your pan has soaked sufficiently in your vinegar solution, drain the liquid and rinse your skillet thoroughly in warm water, then dry it off with paper towels or clean cloths. With a paper towel, immediately and quickly rub one to two tablespoons of oil over the entire surface of the skillet, including the outside and bottom. Make sure to apply the oil directly after discarding the vinegar and rinsing and drying your pan, or it will instantly begin to rust. After you have coated your pan with oil, use another paper towel to wipe off any excess, making sure the surface looks relatively dry.
- Bake: In an oven preheated to 500 degrees, bake your skillet for one hour, letting it cool completely when the baking is done. At this point, you may repeat the seasoning and baking process with additional coatings of oil to strengthen the seasoning, if you like.
If you do not have all the proper materials or you are looking for an easier way to strip your skillet to remove rust, running your cast-iron pan through your oven's self-clean process is another option for stripping in preparation to remove rust, although it may prove less thorough than stripping the skillet by hand.
Best Oils To Season Cast-Iron Skillets
If you're ready to season a skillet, you're probably what oil to season the cast iron pan with. Because seasoning your skillet requires using cooking oils to absorb into the pan and become part of its slick layer, you should know what oil is best for seasoning a cast iron skillet and whether you should avoiding other types.
Seasoning relies on the oxidization and polymerization of oils to bond with the metal and create a nonstick coating, and the more the fat is polyunsaturated, the better it will allow these chemical processes to take place. Therefore, we recommend you use polyunsaturated oils like grapeseed oil — which works best — while avoiding rich, fatty oils like bacon fat. Other useful, lower-cost oil choices for optimum seasoning include sunflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Tips for Maintaining Cast IronIn addition to the methods you use to clean, strip and season a cast-iron skillet, you should follow some basic rules for everyday care and keeping your pan in the best condition so you will need to season less frequently. Here are some simple tips for maintaining and treating your cast iron skillet:
- If you have small rust stains that do not seem too tough to remove, use a rust eraser rather than drawn-out stripping methods and scrub the stains off before re-seasoning the skillet. You can purchase a rust eraser at most wood-working shops, bike shops and hardware stores.
- When cleaning your pan after regular use, run it under water while still moderately warm and scrub with a stiff brush or plastic scrubber until the surface is free of stains or food particles. Using Kosher salt rather than dish soap is a great trick for scrubbing away baked-on stains.
- When baking in your cast-iron pan, do not preheat the pan before adding your cooking oil — instead, apply your cooking oil to the surface first and then slowly preheat the pan, starting on low heat and raising the temperature incrementally.
- Make sure you never marinate meat or other cooking materials in your cast-iron pan — acidic mixtures and liquids will damage the seasoning and strip the skillet of its protective nonstick layer.