Learn everything you need to know about seasoning — i.e. one of the most crucial elements of a cast iron ownership.
How do you season a cast iron skillet? It's a question that many members of your family or friend group might not be able to answer. Perhaps it's because, to some, the cast iron skillet feels like an antique tool from the past. Of course, anyone who's cooked with one knows that cast iron cookware can be among the most valuable tools in your kitchen.
Seasoning is a crucial part of the experience and relationship with your cast iron skillet. If not done properly or at all, your skillet suffers — and you will too. (Raise your hand if you love it when your food sticks to the pan.) We sought the experts to help clarify the process and explain why seasoning your cast iron skillet is so important. Find out all you need to know below.
What Does 'Seasoning' Mean When It Comes to Cast Iron?
Seasoning happens in two ways. The first is through regular usage of your cast iron cookware. Over time, the cooking of food in fat creates a thin, black layer (through a process called oxidation) that becomes "a natural, easy-release cooking surface and helps prevent cast iron cookware from rusting," says Lodge Cast Iron.
At some point, you may notice that your food is sticking more to your skillet or that the that seasoned, non-stick layer has worn off. When that happens, you can employ the second method for seasoning your skillet. It's a process that mimics what happens when you cook, but without the food. For this version, described in detail below, all you need is your skillet, some oil, and your oven.
How to Season a Cast Iron Pan
What You'll Need:
- A cast-iron skillet
- Vegetable oil, canola oil, or melted shortening
- Steel wool (not always needed)
- Scrub brush
What to Do:
The steps below are recommended by the experts at Lodge as well as Lisa McManus, executive editor, ATK Reviews. Follow them and you'll be on your way to a well-seasoned skillet.
Step 1: Remove the Food
You need to start with a clean skillet in order to season it. So if you've just used it, let it cool a bit then rinse in warm water and wipe out any food scraps. (see "Tips" section below)
Step 2: Clean the Skillet
Grab your scrubbing brush and scrub the pan with warm, soapy water. For tough, stuck-on pieces, use steel wool. But only remove until the pan surfaces are level with no crusty bits sticking up, says McManus. Then rinse thoroughly.
Step 3: Dry It
Grab a clean paper towel and pat it until it's completely dry. Don't forget the handle, sides, and the bottom of the skillet.
Step 4: Add Some Oil
Use a clean paper towel to apply a very small amount of neutral cooking oil (such as vegetable, canola, or grapeseed) to the inside and outside of the cookware. Wipe away any excess with a dry paper towel.
Step 5: Heat the Skillet
Set the cookware on the top rack of your oven, upside down. Place a large baking sheet or aluminum foil on the bottom rack to catch any drips. Bake at 450-500 degrees F for one hour. Allow to cool in the oven. Remove and store.
Note that these steps may need to be repeated depending on how much help your skillet needs. McManus points out that your first attempt might not result in a perfectly seasoned pan. That's okay, she says, "It takes time and plenty of cooking and eating delicious food, to get it back."
And if you're concerned you haven't done it right, McManus says don't worry, "You can't mess it up — it's industrial strength cookware. Anything you don't like the look of, go back in with steel wool and give it a scrub, rinse, heat with oil, and start again."
- Using too much oil. McManus and Lodge both recommend applying only a small amount (less than the size of a dime, McManus says) of oil to the skillet during the seasoning process. That's because your skillet can only absorb so much of that oil and any excess will be left to pool on top. That oil becomes rancid and sticky, making your skillet hard to use the next time.
- Fearing soap. The experts agree that a little soap is fine for your cast iron cookware. Just make sure it's fully rinsed off before moving onto the oiling and heating part of the process.
- Not heating the pan after oiling. McManus says that the final heating step is crucial, so don't skip it. The oil needs to be heated so that it can bond to the pan and become a layer of seasoning.
When Is It Time to Re-season My Cast Iron?
Remember, you're seasoning your cast iron cookware every time you use it. But if you notice your food is sticking more often or that your patina is wearing off, it's time to re-season as instructed above. If you're looking for a timeline, Lodge recommends seasoning your cast iron cookware in the oven a few times a year. Doing so adds a thorough layer of seasoning onto the entire pan, strengthening the bond to the iron.
An important part of seasoning is the overall care of your skillet. That means every time you cook with it, you need to do a tiny bit of maintenance.
To prevent stubborn messes after you've cooked, McManus recommends rinsing your still-warm cast iron skillet under hot, steamy water (use a potholder to protect your hand). Choose hot water over cold since cast iron is susceptible to thermal shock, which can cause your skillet to crack or warp. Next, scrub the pan (with or without a small amount of soap) using a long-handled scrub brush and rinse well. Return the skillet to the still-warm burner to dry. By the time the meal is over, the skillet should be clean and dry.
If it looks overly dry, add a very small amount of vegetable oil and wipe it around with a paper towel, turn the burner back to medium to warm it, while wiping it a few more times with a paper towel. Once it's fully warm, probably one or two minutes later, switch off the burner and leave it there to cool gradually. Now it's all seasoned and ready for next time.
What about that brand-new cast iron skillet? Does it need to be seasoned before you use it? Most of the time, no. That's because most brands pre-season their cast iron cookware so that you can cook with it immediately. Always check the packaging to be sure.