Primer: How To Season A Cast Iron Pan

There is a definitive difference between being “weathered” and “seasoned.” Both terms imply experience. Both are climatic terms, evoking endurance, survival through the trials of time and wear. But while “weathered” connotes a decline, conjuring the image of a creased, leather-skinned and sinewy former rock star to whom the years have not been kind, “seasoned” implies wisdom, resolution – character.

Cast-Iron cookware differs from stainless steel or anodized aluminum in its ability to accrue character, rather than damage over time, and to transmit that accumulated character into the food that you cook with it. Whether your cast-iron pan survives and thrives over time, or merely becomes “weathered” by years of misuse or abuse, is up to you. One cast iron pan can span your cooking life, and even past it. Learn how to season your cast iron pan so that it can serve you throughout your life, a stolid, reliable companion, with which you can become seasoned together.

Benefits Of Cast Iron

The Best Material In Cookware

In the case of cast iron cookware, the act of physically fortifying your pan for use is called “seasoning.” This kind of seasoning does not involve using spices. Instead, the process means introducing a layer of fat – usually from an oil product – into the cast iron, and instilling it deeply, creating a non-stick surface that’s better than Teflon.

With cast iron pans, you can forget non-stick sprays and superfluous oils. Properly seasoned, a cast iron skillet is as non-stick as the most anodized or Polytetrafluoroethylene-coated aluminum. Cast iron also saves you from the synthetic polymer fumes that can lead to Teflon flu (seriously, Polymer Fume Fever is for real). Properly seasoned, a cast iron skillet is as non stick as the most anodized or coated aluminum. Meanwhile, cast-iron has more salubrious secondhand effect: iron from the pan can actually seep into your food in small amounts, boosting your daily iron intake. Most importantly, a well-seasoned cast iron pan can fry an egg or a piece of bacon without it sticking so hard you need to use your spatula to pry it off, and without having to glut the pan with olive oil.

Cast iron is valued for its heat-retentive properties. That’s why the hip restaurants are starting to serve their dishes in lil’ cast iron skillets – it stays warm while you eat, giving your meal that Goldilocks calefaction that’s juuuust right. If you’re cooking at home, take the skillet off the stove and set at it on a pan coaster the center of the table. When guests reach for seconds, they’ll find your quiche is still composed of warm, tender egg, not cold and dead like Humpty Dumpty’s zombie flesh.

Like a nursery rhyme, cast iron pans will endure through the years, and can be passed down through the generations. A cast iron pan can be an heirloom for your future grandkids to fry up their daily governmental allotment of protein-pills. It’s such a durable material that engine blocks are crafted from cast iron. Unlike a car, the more use you put into a cast iron pan, the better it gets. Like a car, though, it does require care and maintenance.

Seasoning Your Cast Iron Pan

Protecting Your Investment

Seasoning cast iron perfectly should make food and pan as averse to sticking together as a group of teens in a horror movie. Without seasoning, cast iron is highly susceptible to rust. So how do you protect your pan? Most cast iron pans being sold today will come with a factory layer of pre-seasoning, which you’ll likely want to get rid of (we’ll discuss how to clean cast iron later on).

The first step to proper seasoning is choosing what fat you want to use. Usually that’s an oil, like vegetable, corn, canola, or peanut oil. Shortening or lard can work too, but as saturated fats, they can be thick and difficult to spread across and really soak into the pan. Which is important, because the next thing you’re going to do is buff. Buff like a vampire slayer. Buff that oil until it has steeped the iron so deeply that, unlike a 90s grunge band, not a pore goes unplugged.

TOP CHEF: 35 KITCHEN ESSENTIALS FOR THE HOME COOK

If you are taking steps to improve your kitchen with cast iron cookware, you had might as well upgrade its surroundings. Check out these essentials for the home cook.

A good way to tell that you’ve hit the proper level of saturation is that the pan has a shimmering glaze and there aren’t any pockets excess oil pooling in the corners. Excess oil can harden and become sticky if left to dry. The Internet is rife with recommendations on which oil to use, and every cookware site has an opinion. Flaxseed oil is touted by some as quick and easy, but it’s also reputed to flake off over time. Some swear by Crisco, while others say that lard is too hydrogenated and filled with preservatives and chemicals, leading to a cloudiness on the pan that is unappealing. A consensus recommendation is to not pick a fat with a low smoking point or an overpowering flavor of its own. Whatever you choose, polymerized oil is always essentially better than any synthetic polymer with which other non-stick pans are imbued. To avoid getting your hands greasy, a good way to buff your cast iron pan is to use tongs on a bunch of paper towels.

Next, you’ll want to dry the pan thoroughly in order to make sure any excess fat doesn’t pool. We recommend drying your pan with a paper towel, then popping itsa in the oven facing downward at a low temperature. Place a baking sheet in a cooling rack underneath, to catch the overflow and so avoid forming any oil stalagmites in your oven floor. As opposed to drying your pan out over a stove burner, which will provide relatively uneven heat, oven drying ensures that the oil will polymerize evenly over the whole pan. Dry for 30 minutes, then – and this is important – repeat. Rub that baby down once more with oil and get to buffing. Buff like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Buff like a young Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid. Polishlike a sausage. Lather, rinse – and repeat, two to three more times. When you’re seasoning a cast iron pan, feverishly burnishing by candlelight, try to remember that you’re doing the legwork not just for one meal, but hundreds. Potentially thousands. You’re buffing for your kids, and their kids after them. While you’re sweating it out with those bunched-up Bounties, imagine rubbing that fact in their ungrateful little faces for inspiration. Dry your pan one more time, checking and rechecking for oil that may have agglomerated. Let it cool, and store it in a dark place. Your pan is ready for use.

Cleaning Your Cast Iron Pan

Bust The Rust

So how do you clean your cast iron pan? The answer is: gently, as gently as you’d clean your face. Cast iron’s vulnerability to rust makes this especially important. Pretend that your pan is your little iron baby. You wouldn’t give your precious iron child a bath in dish soap and scrub it with steel wool. That’s cast-iron abuse. Someone call cast-iron protective surfaces. Avoid dish soap and rubbing metal on metal. Instead, use a sponge or scrub brush, and gently remove whatever grime you have incurred post haste after you’ve finished cooking, while the pan is still warm. So how do you clean your cast iron pan? The answer is: gently. Clean thoroughly, but not with the same reckless abandon with which you buffed it initially. For those more stubborn holdovers from your supper, you can use a solution of kosher salt and water to scrub out the residue. If that doesn’t work, fill the pan with some water and boil it until the remains have been fully exhumed. Another, more organic method of cleansing your cast iron is with a potato. Slice the potato in half (hamburger ways, not hot dog). Then, sprinkle salt over your pre-warmed pan, and scrub it with the open end of the potato in a circular motion. Rinse with water. No matter what, when you’re done washing, make sure to dry the skillet thoroughly. We recommend placing it back in the oven for a short time to ensure that it’s as dry as a bone, and therefore protected from rust. Once it’s bone dry, buff it one more time. Not just for old time’s sake, for the sake of your pan. Don’t let any oil pool and agglomerate around the edges, or you could cause damage. Store the pan in a dry place for future use.

A Pan To Span The Years

Switchin' Your Kitchen

Having a cast iron pan is certainly more responsibility than owning teflon, stainless steel or anodized aluminum cookware. But both Uncle Bens (the rice-guy and spidey’s uncle) would tell you that this responsibility yields great power. Cast Iron is more versatile, generally more healthy, and certainly more durable and long-lasting. It does require an extra bit of elbow grease to maintain those practical benefits. Cooking with and maintaining a cast iron pan is certainly laborious than throwing your teflon in the dishwasher. But you may find that by bringing cast iron into your kitchen, cooking will become a labor of love, that will endurethrough the years.

Cast iron cookware is making a comeback to the sphere of what’s a la mode. The sudden advent of an infinitude of recipe lists and instructional videos across the Internet has certainly played a huge role in cast-iron rising like dough back to the top of the cooking world. Whether it’s to bake a pie, fry a chicken, sear a steak, or to make a deep dish pizza like an old Chicagoan pizzaiolo, the cast iron pan is sizzling hot right now, and being snatched up in droves by a generation that has rediscovered home cooking. Will you make the switch?

Lodge Cast Iron Pan

Lodge is a trusted brand in the world of cast iron cookware. They provide economical and quality products. This is a journeyman cast iron pan – definitely a good pan with everything a chef needs – just not quite that upper tier of elite cast iron cookware.

Purchase: $40

Finex Cast Iron Pan

The Finex cast iron skillet is a marvel. With an ergonomic, fast-cooling handle, a patented multi-pour octagonal shape and lid, and a thick base to provide even, consistent heating, this is a cast iron connoisseur’s dream.

Purchase: $125+

Le Creuset

Built with enamel exterior to help your pan resist staining, dulling, and general deterioration, this Le Creuset is a tough pan, and a testament to French cooking products. Enamel also increases heat retention, and over time takes on a patina that aids with searing and frying.

Purchase: $185

Butter Pat Heather Pan

Crafted to resemble the cast iron pan that was owned by the founder’s grandmother, the Heather recreates the thin and smooth cast iron wares made by American foundries in the 1800s. Thin, lightweight, but formidable, the Heather has a classic appeal.

Purchase: $195

30 Best Kitchen Gadgets

There is a whole lot more out there than just cast iron pans. But don’t just take our word for it. Take a look at our roundup of what we think are some of the best kitchen gadgets.

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