It’s easy to be intimidated by kitchenware – especially on the topic of seasoning cast iron. But in reality, cast iron is easier to maintain than you might think!
In this article, I’ll be going over why seasoning matters, the science behind the process, how to season cast iron and maintain it, and the best oils for seasoning cast iron.
Let’s get started with some of the basics!
Cast Iron: The Basics
Cast iron is, fittingly enough, iron that has been cast into a mold and allowed to solidify. Unlike other kinds of iron, such as wrought iron, cast iron does not need to be worked with tools. It’s easy to manufacture due to its relatively low melting point – all you need to do is pour it into a mold.
Before Teflon became all the rage, cast iron had a chokehold on Europe since the 16th century for all these reasons.
What Kitchenware Is Made With Cast Iron?
Skillets and frying pans are by far some of the most popular (don’t understand the difference between frying pans and skillets? That’s okay, it’s thrown me through a loop before too!) but you’re likely to have spotted a few of those others before too.
What Cast Iron is Used For And Why
Cast iron’s popularity in the kitchen is not without reason.
This material has proven to make phenomenal kitchen tools – it’s naturally non-stick, notoriously durable, and even able to last generations! Provided it’s properly maintained, of course. Some even argue that cast iron equipment gets better with age – something that certainly cannot be said of Teflon.
Even with those points aside, cast iron cookware still has a whole cache full of benefits! It can withstand and maintain incredibly high temperatures where other kitchenware would burn, it’s excellent for slow-cooking stews and making dishes that require braising, and is a go-to for searing!
In addition to all this, most cast-iron equipment can be used both on the stove and in the oven.
The Cons Of Cast Iron Cookware
Despite its historical prevalence and survival to the present day, cast iron does have a few disadvantages.
For starters, cast iron tends to be much heavier than other kitchenware, and takes a little extra TLC to maintain. Equipment made with it needs to be seasoned every so often, and doing so requires a little elbow grease. If left unseasoned, cast iron is incredibly prone to rust.
It’s also not suitable for cooking acidic foods – a few roasted tomatoes are fine, but making tomato sauce in a cast iron pan is not recommended.
Lastly, cast iron cookware generally takes a good while longer to heat up.
Ultimately, while there are a few downsides, many find that the pros of using this tool make up for it. If you take good care of your cast iron equipment and keep it dry, it’s sure to last the rest of your life – and maybe even your kids’ lives too!
On The Topic Of Seasoning
When talking about cast iron, ‘seasoning’ refers to the process of sealing your cast iron – it’s similar to how you might apply special oils or varnishes to keep wood from rotting.
The process of seasoning cast iron generally involves a cleaning stage, various heating or drying stages, and oiling.
Is Seasoning Cast Iron Necessary?
In short… Yes, it is absolutely necessary to season your cast iron.
This is because iron is naturally porous (meaning it has tiny little holes). If you don’t season your cast iron but continue to cook with it, it will inevitably get rusty, sticky, and dirty – and that won’t make your food appetizing at ALL.
Seasoning keeps your pan clean, fresh, protected, and non-stick. A well-seasoned pan should be able to bake a cake, fry eggs, or sear a steak without any problems! If you find yourself scraping to remove food afterward, it might be time for some re-seasoning.
However, in my opinion, the best part of cast iron and seasoning is the money you can save. Forget buying a new Teflon pan every few months, grandma’s cast iron skillet will be with you for LIFE! Scraped Teflon is unfixable, but a sticky cast iron pan? Just give it a little deep clean and re-season to get back on the stove.
The Science Of Seasoning Cast Iron
The process of ‘seasoning’ cast iron has a scientific name; polymerization.
In the context of seasoning, polymerization occurs when an oil with suitable amounts of certain fats is heated at a temperature over its smoke point. This causes the oil on your pan to bond with the cast iron itself, forming a seal and filling in all of the metal’s pores.
If done correctly, your pan should be smooth and shiny with an almost glass-like quality to it. The oil should have hardened and become one with the pan. If you scroll down to the ‘How To Season With Cast Iron’ section below, the linked video will show you what seasoned cast iron should look like.
Best Way To Season Cast Iron: Oils
Seasoning And Smoke Points
‘Smoke points‘ or ‘smoking points’ simply refer to the temperature at which fats or oils start to burn and smoke rather than shimmer.
Some oils have a higher smoke point, meaning they only begin to smoke at a higher temperature – these sorts of oils are ideal for high-heat cooking, deep frying, and… seasoning your cast iron.
Cast iron needs to reach very high temperatures for the seasoning to actually take hold – temperatures that oils with low smoke points cannot withstand.
Best Oil For Seasoning A Cast Iron Pan, Grill Or Skillet – What’s Important?
When seasoning cast iron, there are three things to look for in your oil.
- The first (and most important) is a high smoke point.
- Secondly, a good balance of fats is necessary.
- A neutral flavor is best.
Now let me explain – certain fats work better in polymerization. Saturated fat in particular is the worst – this is why it’s important to use an oil that has the right balance of fats.
The neutral flavor aspect is just so that your food won’t take on any unwanted flavors from the seasoning.
What Is The Best Oil For Seasoning Cast Iron?
So, what oil is best for seasoning cast iron?
The best seasoning oil for cast iron is hands down flaxseed oil. It’s excellent for seasoning cast iron because it hits all the targets in what you want from a seasoning oil.
However, flaxseed can be a little pricey, so there are plenty of alternatives out there that will do!
The closest contender to flaxseed is grapeseed – it has a near-identical split between unsaturated fat and saturated fat and lines up with all of the other targets.
Aside from these two, you can really use any oil that fits the targets. They may not last as long, but they’ll certainly do the job.
I’ve made a table of different oils below that you can check out to see if they’re suitable for seasoning and cooking. There’s also an FAQ section that has further information on some of these oils.
What’s The Best Oil To Cook With On Cast Iron?
As cast iron requires high temperatures to heat up, cooking with low-smoke point oils and fats can be a tricky business. However, there are some workarounds! I’ve detailed them in the FAQ section, so be sure to check it out. I’ve also created a table with some commonly used oils so you can figure out which oil to use.
Oil Comparison Tables
All the oils marked as ‘suitable’ may need a little help in the cooking process – for example, butter is easy to burn so you might have to take some extra care or mix it with something else. You’ll notice that vegetable oil and canola oil are nowhere to be found – and this is intentional!
How To Season Cast Iron
As I’ve found that most people prefer to learn visually, I’ve linked a video below explaining in detail how to season cast iron. The second half of the video also shows you how to cook with it!
However, keep in mind that this video is fairly in-depth and shows you how to get the best results possible. If you find the process in the video to be too time-consuming, the YouTube channel Binging With Babish also has a video on kitchenware maintenance that has a simplified explanation for seasoning cast iron. It’s the first thing he covers, so there’s no need to skip ahead!
For your convenience, I’ve also left a transcription of the video below with all the steps and details outlined.
What You Will Need
- Steel wool
- Mild dish soap
- Hot water
- Non-abrasive pad or kitchen sponge
- Tea towel
- Warm stove or oven
- Your seasoning oil of choice
- Napkin or clean cloth for oiling
Gently but thoroughly scrub with some steel wool and mild dish soap to remove the previous seasoning and rust/debris. Do this until you get the cast iron down to its ‘base layer’. Make sure to scrub every part of the cast iron, even the handles, and base.
Rinse under warm/hot water to remove the soap and gently scrub with the rough side of a kitchen sponge or a nonabrasive cleaning pad.
After rinsing, dry off your cast iron with a clean tea towel. It doesn’t have to be bone dry at this stage.
Place the cast iron on your stove or in a warm oven and let the water boil away until the cast iron is COMPLETELY DRY. It’s important that there is no moisture for the next steps, otherwise, your pan will rust and the seasoning won’t have served its purpose.
Begin to season your cast iron by applying a generous amount of oil to the pan. If you’re unsure of which oil to use, check the section on oils, or the FAQs.
With a clean cloth or napkin, spread the oil all over your cookware until it is completely covered in a thin layer. Then, take the cleaner side of your napkin (or cloth!) and try to rub off as much of the oil you just put on as you can. Doing this properly will ensure that there is no excess oil left on the pan, so it won’t be sticky after heating.
Cook your… pan???
After you’re happy with the seasoning, place your cookware upside down in the oven and set it to the highest temperature it can go. Leave it for about an hour, and check in on it from time to time to make sure it’s okay.
Turn off your oven and let it cool in there until completely cooled – you might want to open a window or two as this step can get smokey. Never put cast iron in cold water to try and cool it down faster.
If after completely cooled, you find that your cast iron cookware is still a little brown and sticky, that means you either left too much oil on it or didn’t leave it to heat up for long enough. If this is the case, simply repeat this step.
Now that you’ve finished seasoning your pan, it should be dry to the touch with a hard, glassy-looking surface. If so, you’re all set to go!
FAQs Cast Iron Cooking And Maintenance
Ever wondered how often to season your cast iron? Or what the best oil is for cast iron cooking? So have most people, it turns out!
Take a look at these FAQs to find all the answers you’ve been looking for!
Do you put oil in a cast iron skillet when cooking?
You use a cast iron pan like you would any other – if you’re sautéing or frying, definitely drizzle some oil in there before cooking. Just keep in mind it might take longer to heat up (oil will be runny when ready).
What is the best cooking oil for a cast iron skillet?
Any oil with a high smoke point is suitable for cast iron cooking. Lower smoke point oils tend not to fare well, purely because cooking with cast iron requires such a high temperature. Grapeseed oil in particular is a favorite, but plenty of others work well too.
Is it ok to cook with olive oil in a cast iron skillet?
Firstly, it depends on what type of olive oil you’re planning to use. As stated, cast iron requires oils with high smoke points – the only eligible olive oils to use in this case are pure, refined, and pomace.
Can you put butter in a cast iron skillet?
While butter is not suitable to season cast iron, it’s totally fine to cook with in a skillet – provided you take a little extra care. Some precautions you can take include putting down a thin layer of oil before your butter, using ghee (clarified butter) or cooking at a lower temperature, though this is difficult with cast iron.
Can I cook with PAM in my cast iron skillet?
You should avoid using PAM where possible – it may contain canola oil, but the rest of the ingredients included can damage cast iron over time. NEVER season cast iron with PAM.
Can I season and cook with sesame oil?
Unrefined sesame oil is not the best to season with because of its strong taste. You can cook with it, just be sure to wash it off well.
Do you have to clean cast iron before seasoning?
Usually, yes. If your pan is in relatively good shape (no rust, no food, freshly cleaned, etc.) you might be able to skip this step, but most people will have to clean it again. Even if your pan is clean, putting in that extra work might make your seasoning taste better.
How often should you season cast iron?
Most people only need to season their cast iron 2-3 times a year. A good rule of thumb is to reseason when you start seeing dull spots, or when food starts sticking to the pan.
Seasoning Oils For Cast Iron – Will Any Do?
You might not have to be incredibly particular about seasoning oils, but you should certainly pay attention to them. Only oils with high smoke points are suitable for seasoning cast iron, and oils with low saturated fats and neutral flavors are best. Flaxseed is probably the best you can find, but avocado and grapeseed are also excellent.
As for cooking… most oils will do! They don’t need to have an outrageously high smoke point, but it’s still best to err on the side of caution as cast iron cooking requires high temperatures. Still, if you’d like to use butter or pure olive oil, there are some ways to get around that!
Overall, I hope that this article has helped you choose the right oil for your cast iron cookware. Now that there’s no need to ask yourself ‘what should I season my cast iron pan with‘, get out there and prep!