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Caring for Cast Iron

By Kim Robson:

Owning at least one cast iron pan is essential for any serious home cook. Cast iron adds flavor and trace amounts of iron to food cooked in it. You may have inherited one from your grandmother, or found them at garage sales. Even brand-new cast iron can be amazingly inexpensive. For it to work its magic, though, you need to “season” the pan.

What Is Seasoning?

Seasoning means cooking a thin layer of oil into the pan. The oil seeps into the surface pores of the iron, creating an unparalleled nonstick surface. Some pans come preseasoned; but if not, you will have the opportunity to do it yourself, and most likely season it better than the factory did. Here’s the traditional method:

  • First, if it’s an old pan, and there’s any rust or food particles stuck on, use coarse salt to scour it off, then rinse.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line the bottom of the oven with tin foil.
  • Next, wash the pan thoroughly with soap and warm water. This will be the only time you ever use soap on your pan.
  • Dry the pan thoroughly with paper towels.
  • Take a paper towel and rub a thin layer of vegetable oil (see below for recommendations on what type of oil to use) all over the inside and outside of the pan.
  • Place the pan upside-down on the top rack of the oven. Let the pan bake for one hour, then turn the oven off and leave the skillet inside to cool down.
  • Store uncovered in a dry place.
  • If the seasoning starts to look patchy, simply repeat the seasoning process.

Types of Oil to Use for Seasoning:

Rated from best to worst:

  • Flaxseed oil *read more on flaxseed below*
  • Sunflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Bacon fat

After Using a Cast Iron Pan

  • Rinse the skillet in plain water while it’s still warm. Remember, DON’T use soap, and DON’T put it into the dishwasher.
  • Use coarse salt to scour off any food particles. This will also remove any flavors or odors left in the pan.
  • Dry the skillet thoroughly with paper towels. Don’t use cloth towels unless you don’t care how they look afterward because the cast iron will stain them.
  • Rub a few drops of vegetable oil on the inside of the skillet with a paper towel to maintain its sheen and protect it from moisture in the air.
  • Store uncovered in a dry place.

Super Seasoning with Flaxseed Oil

That is the traditional way most people treat their cast iron pans. There’s another method for seasoning cast iron that creates a nonstick surface so durable that touch-ups are almost never needed. This method treats the pan with multiple coats of flaxseed oil between one-hour-long stints in the oven. While a far lengthier process, it’s still a mainly hands-off operation.

The flaxseed oil bonds to the pan, forming a sheer, slick veneer. Cook’s Illustrated magazine tested this method in their test kitchen, and even running the pans through a commercial dishwasher with a squirt of degreaser left the flaxseed-seasoned pans totally unscathed. But the vegetable oil-seasoned skillets showed rusty spots and patchiness when they emerged from the dishwasher, requiring reseasoning.

[insert “flaxseed oil vs vegetable oil” image here]

Why Does Flaxseed Oil Work So Much Better?

Because of science! Flaxseed oil is the food-grade equivalent of linseed oil, the substance used by artists to give oil paintings a hard, polished finish. It also contains six times more omega-3 fatty acids than vegetable oil. Over prolonged exposure to high heat, these fatty acids combine to form a strong, solid matrix that polymerizes to the pan’s surface.

Method for Flaxseed Seasoning:

  • Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Line the bottom of the oven with tin foil.
  • Warm an unseasoned (either brand-new or stripped of seasoning) pan for 15 minutes in the oven to open its pores.
  • Remove the pan from the oven and turn off the heat.
  • Place 1 tablespoon flaxseed oil in the pan and, using tongs, rub the oil into the surface with paper towels. Wipe off the excess oil with fresh paper towels, leaving a thin layer.
  • Place the oiled pan upside-down in the cool oven, then set the oven to its maximum baking temperature.
  • Once the oven reaches its maximum temperature, heat the pan for one hour.
  • Turn off the oven and leave the pan in the oven to cool for at least two hours.
  • Repeat the process five more times, or until the pan develops a dark, semi-matte surface.
  • Store uncovered in a dry place.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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