Saturday, May 31, 2008

Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

I have been using my own cast iron for about twenty years. Before getting my own collection started I used my mom's skillet for many "food experiments". I am far from an expert but I will lay out some of my thoughts and some ways that do work.

I think seasoning should be thought of as a base. You initially season raw naked cast iron so that it won't rust. Once this is done I think you should concentrate on using the piece often. It is constant and steady use that will give you a glossy smooth finish that resists sticking.

People are looking for a way to season a piece of cast iron and have it all black and slick and non-stick in 30 minutes or an afternoon. I don't think this is reasonable. The preseasoned pieces that are offered by Lodge will save you a bunch of time but they are just giving you a head start.

1) Here is the method I use on smooth (antique) pieces:
  • Scrub piece with soap and very hot water.
  • Turn upside down and place into an oven set at 140 degrees for 30 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and coat with a very thin layer of Crisco or Lard.
  • Return to oven upside down and raise temp to 250 degrees for one hour.
  • After this I use the piece a lot.
Use doesn't have to mean frying everything you eat for the next 6 months. Here are 3 non-frying ways you can use a cast iron skillet that will improve it.
  • Use it as a roasting pan - roast chicken, vegetables, elk, - whatever you like.
  • bake biscuits, cornbread, small pizzas, scones - cast iron is phenomenal bakeware.
  • saute mushrooms, onions, shallots, peppers, celery - aromatics and root vegetables.
After a couple months of this the seasoning should be taking hold and you'll notice the piece getting slicker each time you use it. After 6 months you'll never want to part with it.

2) Rough finished cast iron will never get as slick as the older smooth pieces but they can be seasoned faster and they will be fairly nonstick. Some people advocate seasoning rough finished pieces (such as Camp Ovens and Fajita griddles) at 500 degrees.

This does work in applications where you aren't trying to maintain a glass smooth surface. Like with the method listed above you'll want to use very thin coats of lard or shortening. Place the coated piece (upside down) into the oven and crank the heat to 500 degrees for 1 hour. After 1 hour turn the oven off and allow the piece to cool to room temperature (several hours for big Camp Ovens).

*UPDATE* After more experimenting I still think this works well but I think you should first season the piece at 250 degrees. On two pieces I worked on recently the high temp seasoning flaked off in places once I started cooking with the DO. I've seen this before and I've concluded the high temp seasoning is a nice hard coating but it is on the brittle side. Lay down a couple layers of the 250 degree seasoning as a primer. This low temp still gets into the pores of the iron and it adheres better. After this you can crank up the heat to get a hard black coating.

3) Another option that works best for skillets is to season the piece like one seasons a wok. Get it good and hot on a burner (outdoors is best) and wipe the interior with an oil soaked wook of T-shirt or wadded up paper towels. Let the pan cool then heat it up again until literally smoking hot and wipe it down again. Repeat this process 4-5 times and you are on your way.

I've tried all kinds of oils and solid fats over the years. Lately I think I favor Crisco for the initial seasoning and a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil for the rest. Both have a relatively low smoke point and this is helpful when seasoning because you are trying to get the iron hot and the fat to polymerize onto the metal.

Conclusion: There is not just one way to season or "sweeten" cast iron. Consider the type of piece you are using and whether it is rough or smooth.

The worst method IMHO is the one prescribed by Lodge. 350 degrees is a lousy temperature for seasoning because it is hot enough to make the greased-up black iron sticky but not hot enough to burn the oil and begin the polymerization.

Stick with 250 as your initial temperature, then increase the heat to 450, then hotter if you can monitor everything. On smooth pieces you need to pay attention and do not crank the heat and walk away. At high temps the oil will congeal into dots and lumps in as little as 10 minutes.

For these pieces keep the high heat duration short and be ready to wipe them down with more Crisco or lard (or oil) frequently.

Please see this follow up article for another method that works well.

31 comments:

Rev. Biggles said...

OoOoO, render your own lard and try that. Holy crap! It's the happiest I've seen my cast irons in years.

Another few ways I use my pieces to add some happiness to is, browning rice in butter and making popcorn. Making popcorn requires it to be so damned hot, I think it's over 400 degrees, and really gets the ball rolling. Plus, popcorn with oil, made in a cast iron pan can't be beat.

Biggles

Greg said...

Those are really great ideas.

Another thing that works wonders is making a dark roux.

Mmmmmm Lard...Auuuggghhhhh..(Homer drool sound)

Rev. Biggles said...

Oh criminy, I haven't made a roux in too long. Oh man, was looking at a gumbo recipe the other day, probably from gumbopages.

I need breakfast.

Biggles

Jeannette said...

Thanks for these tips Greg. I am seasoning my 3 skillets (again). I remember loving my grandma's pans and want to love mine but have not ever had them seasoned properly and so they stayed in the cabinet.
I am wondering though, if my pans are rough or smooth. They are a little bumpy. Is this rough or smooth?

Greg said...

Hi Jeannette,

Rough or smooth? If they are a little bumpy and you are talking about the interior surface of the pan I'd call that pan rough. Compare it to any new Lodge pan you see in stores. If it looks similar it is rough in my book.

The old cast iron from the 1940s and older could be glasslike in it's surface finish. These are the ones I call smooth.

Good luck and enjoy the cast iron!

Anonymous said...

Ever try grinding the surfaces of newer pans to smooth them out?

Greg said...

Anon,

I did it on one Lodge from the 1990s. I wouldn't do it again because I like the older (pre 1960) ones anyway.

Fortunately the last few Lodges I've handled are smoother than the ones made in the 1990s.

I did have one of the last polished skillets Lodge produced but it was a far cry from what you can expect from a pre-WW2 Griswold/Wagner/Vollrath/Favorite/Wapak.

Send me some pics of your "smoothed up" pieces. There may be others out there that want to try it. My email link is under my profile page.

Anonymous said...

Which is better? Griswold? Wagner? Piqua? Favorite? What do you look for when buying?

Greg said...

Condition is more important than the name. The real primo stuff is all almost 70 years old or older.

Look for a flat bottom (no wobble if you have a ceramic stove top) and a smooth interior cooking surface. You don't want cracks anywhere. This will get you a useable piece. Obviously the more perfect the condition the higher the value BUT just about any fine old skillet (except a Griswold) will cost less than a new Chinese piece of junk endorsed by some celeb chef.

Griswolds grab top dollar but can be as nice as anything. I'm very fond of Favorite Piqua Wares with the smile logo. They sell for less and are great. A Wagner Ware will cost much less as they aren't as fancy but they make superb user skillets.

Wapak, Iron Mountain, Vollrath, Martin, Mi-Pet, etc. all made some really sweet iron.

Amber said...

First let me thank you for having such a great site. It is beyond informative and its fun to read!

My question is about seasoning...Do you also season the bottom and outer sides? When you do that how do you keep it from igniting,smoking or gumming up when using the Cast Iron on the stove?

Greg said...

Hi Amber - Thanks for reading the blog!

Yes you do season the outside and bottom but you only need to do this to prevent rust. You do not need to build up layers on the underside and outer walls.

The trick is using very thin coats of oil/lard/Crisco. You want the iron to barely look wet before heating the piece.

It is like painting. A lot of thin coats is better than a couple thick heavy coats.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in the process of "finishing" a fairly new Lodge 12" skillet. I've sripped off the old seasoning via the easy off in a bag technique and have sanded down the inside with a sander disc attached to my drill. Took about an hour but I wouldn't exactly call it a laborous task. I started with 40 grit, then 80, then 120. I'm going to season it tonight. I'll let you know how it turns out. Like you I appreaciate how thick new cast iron is for the heat retention but DO NOT like how rough the surface is. So I'm making an attempt to get the best of both world's. I'll keep you posted.

Jim

Mike said...

Hi Greg, Thank you for your very informative blog. I wonder if you could advise me on the seasoning of an antique #10 skillet (supposedly it's an unmarked Griswold). First when I bought it on Ebay, it came cleaned and pre-seasoned by the seller. I stripped the inside of the skillet with steel-wool to the bare metal, and re-seasoned it with lard and canola oil many times at 300 and then 500 degrees in the oven. Then I burned it on a stove-top, until it became black and stopped smoking. After that I re-seasoned it again at 300 degrees in the oven (It was before I found your advise about seasoning CI at 250). Anyway, for some reason after a couple of month of regular use, the top of the skillet still seems to be failing to season properly - it's surface is black matte and occasionally, when I wash it I smell raw iron and find black residue on the paper towels. By contrast, all other surfaces seem very nicely seasoned with a layer of semi-transparent glaze which is very nearly black. I follow all the rules - never use soap, only water and paper towels, occasionally - salt to clean it. I grease and re-heat after each use. Recently I tried to re-season it at 250 in the oven, but it did not help. The most damage seems to occur after I cook meatballs and chicken. Eggs and pancakes seem to have no bad effect on it. Should I avoid cooking meats for a while to allow it to acquire the right seasoning? Recently I started to use the Camp Chef Cast Iron Conditioner - could this be the problem? Any advice will be appreciated. Thank you, Mike

Greg said...

Hi Mike,

I've never used Camp Chef's seasoning paste so I can't comment on it.

Quite a few collectors who sell cast iron swear by Crisco or Pam spray due to the uniform color and shine these fats impart to the patina.

Are you over scrubbing with the paper towels?

Does/did the skillet have an orange tint to it? This can be rust (obviously) or worse is a type of scale that comes from serious overheating.

People who cleaned cast iron in a fire would get this type of scale.

Mike said...

Greg, - Thank you so much for your feedback! Based on your answer I realize now that I damaged it myself by overheating the skillet on a gas range stove. I did it thinking that black oxide was a good thing for the seasoning. The center spot of the skillet is the area that is not taking to seasoning. It has a graphite grey color. I suppose it's the scale that you mention. I will strip it with steel-wool / vinegar, and re-season it properly this time. Best regards, Mike

christopher said...

Greg,

I recently cleaned an erie (series 5) skillet with electrolysis, and as per the next step rinsed it in hot water and put it into a pre-heated oven...twice. first time at 170 (as low as the oven would go), and then, after re-electrolyzing, at 225. both times when i opened the oven after a half hour some rust had formed on the outside of the pan. pulling the pan from the oven after the second attempt, i continued the seasoning process and coated it with a thin film of coconut oil, and as i'm typing this it is in the oven at 250. i read from a few sources that the bare metal will begin rusting pretty quickly and that it's necessary to get it into the oven to dry so it doesn't rust. ok, great, but it seems to have begun to rust anyway. would you have any idea what step i'm missing here?

thanks,

christopher

Greg said...

christopher - A few ideas come to mind.

1) Another collector suggests using cold water for the final rinse.

2) Towel dry the skillet before putting it in the oven.

3) If the previous suggestions do not do the trick try smearing a thin coat of Crisco on it before putting it in the oven. The water will still evaporate but the Crisco should keep the rust from forming.

Are you using a gas oven? They produce water vapor at low temps.

Good luck!

christopher said...

thanks for the quick reply, greg!

yes, i did both the cold water, and the towel drying. i am using a gas oven.

i'll try all three this time around, following another brief electrolysis session. will keep you posted.

thanks again.

christopher

christopher said...

all good now! light coat of coconut oil & higher oven temp prevented rust. big thanks, greg.

christopher

Anonymous said...

Greg just got a piece from my mother which she got from her mother. It is about 100 years old and in great shape. I was woundering how to fine the brand name bacause there is no brand name on it just USA 10 at the bottom is a D

Greg said...

christopher - glad to hear it & I don't envy people who have to deal with rust.

Anon - send pictures (especially of the underside) and I'll try to figure it out.

Greg said...

Greg, first of all, thanks for all the information! Ran across your site while looking for information about cleaning and care and it's been really useful.

So recently I was given an old Wagner 10 that was in decent shape. It had been stored in a garage and accumulated some rust, so I decided the best approach would probably be to recondition and start the seasoning process over.

Your tips for cleaning and rust removal were great, but my question is in regards to the initial seasoning process. I baked at 250 with a coating of crisco for a good hour and a half, but this morning I noticed that the iron is sticky/tacky feeling.

If I'm understanding what I've read correctly, that probably means I didn't bake it long enough, right? What should I do at this point, will subsequent seasonings lessen the sticky feel? Or have I really messed up and need to just re-clean and start over?

Greg said...

Greg - Tacky is OK if everything is smooth. If it is glopped up in places and looks like hell I'd start over.

If everything looks good start increasing the heat or start using the pan a lot.

Christopher Mayhew said...

Hi Greg,

This is an excellent blog with a lot of fun information.

I currently have two Lodge skillets (10' & 12') that I use very frequently; however, it's quite difficult to keep the seasoning from flaking off. Recently, I've been using them to make Indian bread (Roti & Paratha - like tortillas), which require a rather high heat (Med-High), but I always heat the pan up on Med-Low before cooking. Afterwards, I've been rubbing on thin layers of Canola oil and just burning this on the the pan with high heat on the stove.

Now that my seasoning is always flaking off, would you recommend to strip and reseaon, or can I "salvage" the seasoning that is already on the pan without stripping it?

Regards,
Chris

jerrytheplater said...

Hi Greg

I have been enjoying your site. I have four older smooth CI frying pans of various makes in the oven at 250 right now after their soap and water wash and dry. They were Estate sale finds for $1-2 each. They all went through a heat treatment cycle at my work at 900 F to remove crud. Cycle has a 24 hour cool down so no thermal shock. I sanded them all today to bare metal. I will be using Olive Oil as these are going to be used in our Boy Scout troop and we have some scouts allergic to Soy and don't want to chance it with Crisco.

I only have time to heat them to 250 F upside down for and hour. I can't watch them so I am hoping they don't pool up on me.

Greg said...

Chris - Sorry about missing your question.

If you are sick of it flaking off I'd strip it and start over.

I'm thinking the constant high heat (and factory pre-seasoning ) have made the seasoning layer brittle. High heat seasoning usually works well on Lodges but every now and then you get one that needs some low and slow base layers to get the seasoning to stick.

Jerry - I've never had pooling at 250 and this is one reason it is popular among collectors.

Jerrytheplater said...

Greg

I did get some pooling up of the Olive Oil and was able to wipe it around to smooth it out about 30 minutes into the seasoning. They are all smooth now and waiting for a further seasoning.

Do you recommend multiple low temperature seasonings before cranking the heat up to 550F?

I am going to put together an electrolysis tank at work (We are electroplaters- I noticed a spare 10Volt, 100 Amp rectifier just waiting for me, I don't own a battery charger!!)

I need to see what kind of tank I am going to use-I have a large Lodge griddle that has gotten abused on a Scout campout and is very rusty. I have to get a tank to fit this one. I have my re-bar substitutes-steel bolts about 15" long and 3/8" diameter salvaged from the steel scrap bin.

Greg said...

Jerry - I think a couple of 250 degree sessions is enough and then move up to 450 for another couple of seasonings.

After this I'd use the piece as much as possible for a while.

The 550 degree temp really turns most cast iron nice and black but you really have to watch it. Even high temp oils (like peanut) will pool up in 5 minutes so you really need to stay close and wipe them down frequently.

jerrytheplater said...

Greg

I went through two 250F seasonings and all went fine. I baked them at 450F for a few hours today without adding any Olive Oil. They looked smooth and dark when they cooled down. I left them in the oven and turned it back up to 450F tonight after dinner. I checked them after fully heated prior to adding a thin layer of Olive Oil and discovered that there was a flash of red rust on the pans!!!! I decided to wipe it off and apply the oil anyway.

I did this with 4 pans at the same time. That was a big mistake as I got dried on puddled oil on three out of the four pans. It really did harden fast. I have a hard time imagining 550F. Plus it is easy to burn yourself when adding the oil to the hot pan.

I set off our fire detector today while seasoning.

I am planning to remove the baked on oil on the three pans. I am not sure which method I'll use. Any suggestions?

Jerry

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,
Here's an interesting seasoning technique using flax oil. Interested in your take on it is.
Thanks

http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/

Greg said...

I've read the post but I've never tried it so I can't report on it. I just don't have any cast iron waiting to be seasoned.

Others have used a similar method to the high heat technique I wrote about using Indian Walnut/Tung oil.

Someday I'll try it and write it up but I'm pretty happy with the results I've gotten from the methods described here.

I still suspect regular use beats any initial seasoning method.