Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

So I’ve lit your fire for cast iron, and you’re wondering where to start?

Cast iron care and cookery is very simple and forgiving. That’s why I love it. It’s really all about one thing, the seasoning.

Cast iron “seasoning” is just a fancy term for a build up of oil on the surface of the iron. It’s the ultimate DIY non-stick coating that doesn’t flake off into your food and cause Alzheimers! In general, if you use and care for your pan right, this build up is maintained on it’s own. Which is what makes it all so brilliant.

I’m going to start with how to rescue an old cast iron skillet. If you already have pans and you just want to re-season them, or you are buying new ones, you can skip to the Seasoning section below.

How to Rescue an Old Cast Iron Skillet

If you read between the lines up there, you’ll have realized that “seasoning” is just old cooking oil from many past meals. That’s fine if it’s your meals, but what if you want to dig grandma’s old skillet out from the basement? Isn’t there something a little gross about cooking in someone else’s years old oily build up? Even I’m a little grossed out, and I have a high-level gross factor.

So if you’re scrounging an old skillet you’ll probably want to get all the dusty, crusty  old black seasoning off. I’ve heard of throwing pans into a good hot woodstove or campfire to burn ’em clean. Sounds like it would work fantastically, though I’ve never tried it. Second to that is just good old fashioned elbow grease. Scour the pan with a metal scrubbie, steel wool, or a wire brush. Attack any bumpy spots with the edge of a metal spatula. Buck the taboo and squirt dish soap on between scours (more on soap and cast iron later). Use lots of soap, it is oil after all, and unlike the rest of your life with your new skillet, this time you want to get that oil off.

When you’ve scraped and scoured to your liking, give it a good old regular wash and then set it on the stove on low heat. Set a timer for five minutes so you don’t forget about it! When it’s thoroughly dry, proceed to the seasoning below.

But what about an old rusty pan?

Cast iron is iron. Iron rusts when exposed to moisture. Thus if you are scavenging a pan from any place even moderately damp, you are likely to see some rust. Maybe a whole pan full of it. Fear not! Even a real rust bucket is salvageable! Just follow the same soap and scour method until all the rust is gone. Or, well, actually, if there is a very thin layer of rust dust that just doesn’t seem to wash off, don’t worry about that. The seasoning will absorb it.

To Every Pan There is a Season(ing)

Whether you bought your cast iron or dug it out from under an abandoned house and cleaned it up, before you start cooking you need to season it. This is an easy task, and one you can repeat any time you feel like giving your cast iron a little extra attention.

There are (as with everything it seems) lots of different ways to do this, and everybody swears by theirs. There’s the high temperature camp and the long, long camp. Whatever blows yer skirt up babe.

Basically the idea is just to get a thin coat of oil on your pan and heat it up so that the oil penetrates into every pore. I think the long, low method is easier. Brush or rub your pan with whatever kind of oil you have (extra virgin olive oil is a last choice because it burns at lower temperatures, canola is better, coconut oil best of all), make sure you also coat the outside of the pan, and the lid if it has one. Use a very light hand, or the extra oil will drip down onto your oven and make a big stink, it really only takes a few small drops. Then put your pan into a 300F oven for about an hour. You can stop there, or repeat the whole procedure a second time for an even better seasoning.

That’s it! Your pan is ready for cooking! The seasoning will get better with time, provided you cook and care for it properly. But that’s for the next post.

I do so love to keep you hanging.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn't even have beads of water on it.

11 thoughts on “Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

    1. Yeah, I know, but I guess it’s such a trace amount it doesn’t matter..? Just oxidized iron after all. But maybe I should have been more specific, I mean an ultra thin sheen of orange. I only mentioned it because when I’ve rescued real rust bucket pans, this last orange sheen just wouldn’t come off. But the pans were fine after seasoning.

  1. Oh man I love my cast iron pan – rescued from my mother’s house (where she let it sit in the corner of the dining room a rusty mess – shame on her!). I’m in the long low heat camp and speaking of camp…. whenever I bring my skillet camping with me (drive up camping not hike camping), I leave it on the grate above the fire with a coat of oil on it to season it even more. I swear the camp fire imparts that wonderful smoky flavor/aroma into the pan and makes it that much better!

  2. I went to our local tip shop yesterday with this post in mind, searching searching for a cast iron find. No luck!! (the ways of the tip universe – one never finds what they are looking for but always plenty of useful stuff they weren’t!).

    I will absorb your wisdom until one such find comes my way :) Soon I hope!!

  3. zomg(!) guess what i found today?!?!

    a seasoned and gorgeous 13 inch cast iron skillet FROM THE 20’S at my local booktrader/antique shop.

    we cooked a 6 egg veggie omelet on it this morning, nary a butter dollop or oil squirt in sight.

    that thing slid outta the pan like nobody’s business!

    i give you all the credit, cuz ever since part 1, i have been asking for a skillet kickdown…thanks, you!

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