Seasoning Cast Iron: Do I Really Have To Do That?

There are certain labor-intensive recipe phrases that can make the most diligent cook roll her eyes. “Do I really have to do that?” we wonder. Leave your Do I Really Have To Do That? questions in the comments and they shall be answered, saving us all a lot of needless trouble.

Cast iron is really cool,” Lisa Fain, creator of the blogHomesick Texan and author of a cookbook by the same name told us, and we knew we had called the right person. “They’re heavy, and they do take a little bit of work but not that much. If you take care of them, they’re made to last.” We asked Fain for a rundown of the do’s and don’ts of keeping your cast iron in top form.

DO season your pan.
Do you really have to? “Yeah, absolutely,” said Fain, “Seasoning is very important.” Seasoning your cast iron “builds up a naturally nonstick surface that protects the iron from reacting to foods and rusting,” Fain explained. It’s like cowboy Teflon. And even if you buy a supposedly pre-seasoned pan, it’s worth doing again. “I’ve had people write me and say, ‘I got this skillet, and it’s already starting to rust.’ You still need to season even if it’s already been seasoned. That will just make it all the more durable on the surface.”

So how do you season it? 
Blogger Sheryl Canter found in an admirably exacting scientific experiment––tested and proven byAmerica’s Test Kitchen––what may be the “perfect” way to season a cast iron pan. It’s a procedure that requires precision, patience, and several hours to work correctly. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We prefer Fain’s method which is less fussy and still gets the job done. 

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. (“Higher and it starts smoking out your house,” warns Fain.) Line a big baking sheet with foil. Rub your skillet generously with oil. Some people like to use bacon fat or canola oil, but per Canter’s experiment, flaxseed oil is the most durable option. Turn the coated pan upside down on the baking sheet and bake for an hour. Turn off the oven, and let the pan sit undisturbed for 40-45 minutes, then remove. Wipe off any excess oil with a paper towel. “If you do it right the first time, it should be good to go,” says Fain, “especially if you keep up the maintenance.” (More on that in a minute.)

DON’T cook tomatoes in it or use it to boil water.
Boiling water will cause your cast iron to rust, and cooking with tomatoes can react with the iron giving your foods a metallic taste. The acidity in the tomatoes can also strip the seasoning from your pan if left for a long, slow simmer.

DO use it for just about anything else.
"I make just about everything in my cast iron skillet," said Fain, "everything from eggs to bread toenchiladas, all the stuff I cook.”

DON’T wash it.
"You shouldn’t use soap," advised Fain. "People say you can now, the way soap’s made. But I’m a purist." The best way to clean your pan after cooking is to rinse out any food with water, then use awire brush and coarse salt to scrub off any residue. “That provides enough friction for the food to get off of the skillet.”

DO maintain the seasoning.
After rubbing with coarse salt and a wire brush, there’s one more step. “Put it back on the stove and turn the heat on to high so all the little water droplets evaporate,” explained Fain. Turn off the heat, and while the pan is warm, rub the inside of the skillet with a paper towel that’s been dipped in vegetable oil. “Just a little bit of oil. You don’t want to have puddles. Just enough so it glistens. That helps keep the seasoning up.”

DO keep it for years and pass it on.
"All of my cast iron pieces have been given to me by my family. They were used by my grandma and my great grandma. They’re these things in my family for 100 years, and I’m still cooking with it. When you think about all the things that have been made in this one skillet, that’s just really awesome. It’s a very durable kitchen tool, whereas most nonstick pans––I think I’ve had one in my life––after a couple years the coating started chipping off and that was just kind of gross to me. That cheap nonstick skillet you got at the big box store, you’re not going to be passing that on to your child. It might not even last a couple years. It’s just kind of nice to have stuff that lasts in this society that’s sort of disposable.They’re made to last and they’re really beautiful if you take care of them."


Serves 8

Here’s a great way to cook a whole meal outdoors: Make cornbread in a cast-iron skillet on the grill, right alongside your meat.

2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey

Heat grill to low. Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet on grill to heat. In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg, and melted butter. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until combined.

Place oil and 1 tablespoon room-temperature butter in hot skillet; brush to coat bottom and side. Pour in batter. Grill, covered, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 12 minutes.

Combine honey with 4 tablespoons room-temperature butter. Brush mixture on cornbread. Let stand 5 minutes. Serve warm.