Cast iron is one of the best surfaces to cook on, but taking care of it is a whole ‘nother story. It’s not as simple as just washing it in soapy water like all of your other pans, and everyone has different ideas about how it should be done. It seems intimidating at first, but once you learn the basics, you’ll be making the best steaks, homemade pizza, and fried chicken of your life.
But before you start cooking the best food you’ve ever had, let’s go over some of the most important things you need to know about seasoning, cleaning, and maintaining your cast iron cookware.
#1. The Seasoning Is Super Important
The hard, black layer that gives cast iron its shiny finish is called the seasoning, or patina. As food scientist Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, the patina is formed by the oxidization of fats, which causes them to “bond to each other…to form a dense, hard, dry layer.” The metal is super porous, so the fats fill in the pores and seal the surface.
The seasoning prevents the pan from rusting and makes it nonstick. You definitely don’t want to try using cast iron without seasoning—the porous surface makes it very sticky. Even if a pan says it’s pre-season.
Not All Oils Are Created Equal
You can technically use almost any oil to season your cast iron cookware.Bacon grease and coconut oil both work perfectly fine, but some oils result in a better patina than others. Sheryl Canter researched the chemistry behind seasoning cast iron and found that flax seed oil provides the best possible nonstick surface.
As Canter explains, flax seed oil is a drying oil, which means that it can form a hard film through polymerization. Drying oils maximize the polymerization of the fats, and flax seed oil is the only edible drying oil, so it creates the best patina.
The downside to flax seed oil is that it’s expensive and can be difficult to find if you don’t live near a health store. If you can’t find it or don’t want to spend that much, the next best thing to use is vegetable oil or shortening.
Why Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil has a high smoke point: This means I can really pack it on when I’m seasoning the pan without worrying about my home being filled with foul smelling smoke to get the perfect, smooth bottom needed for non-stick cast iron.
Coconut Oil Has Good Fats: People are always concerned that iron is going to leach into your food – which, if you have a properly seasoned pan, isn’t really going to have any detrimental effect on your health. But the seasoning can leech into your food, and those fats (which have a high heat-resistance) are really beneficial.
Coconut Oil is antibacterial: You can use coconut oil to cure candida overgrowth, and it keeps your pan from being overloaded with bacteria, which may be a concern if you said “ew” to the fact that I won’t use dish soap on my cast iron.
So How Do You Do Season It?
What you’ll need:
cast iron pan
coconut oil (cold or room temperature)
dry cloth/sponge/paper towel
Heat your oven to 325°.
Spoon out your coconut oil, drop it in your pan and smooth over the cooking surface with your fingers (I like to chill it before smearing it around). The heat from your fingers will help melt the coconut oil a little bit so you get a really thorough coating. Make sure you get all of the inside of the pan (pay particular attention to the walls!). You can season the bottom if you want too, some people swear by it, but I never do.
Put your frying pan open side down on top of a cookie sheet (optional, but it catches some of the dripies if you put too much oil in the pan) and put that in the center of your oven.
Bake for an hour and a half or two hours.
Turn off your oven and leave the door closed. When your pan has cooled to the point you can touch it barehanded, pull it out!
If you want to be extra thorough, repeat this process a few times. I feel like 3 is a solid number for getting a good, shiny and thick season on a pan.
Seasoning Can Be an All-Day Job
The process of seasoning cast iron cookware consists of coating it with oil, heating it in the oven, letting it cool, and repeating. It’s up to you how many times you repeat, but the more you do it, the better your patina will turn out. Each time, the layer of oil gets a little thicker and a little shinier.
It’s important to use a very light coat of oil. Seasoning a pan with too much oil will cause it to be sticky, and then you’ll just have to start over. Place the pan upside down on the center rack in your oven with a baking sheet or foil underneath to catch any drippings.