Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seasoning Cast Iron -- An eBook Review

I have a lot of cast iron pans.

The five frying pans are the ones I use in the kitchen most often; I also have a griddle, a fajitas pan, and a variety of cast iron pots and Dutch ovens I use in my demonstration cooking.

Caring for them is a bit of work but also a joy as I love to cook in them.  I learn more about them every time I use them.

One big kettle was purchased for nearly nothing because it was very rusty and ugly.  However some time spent scrubbing it with white vinegar and a wire brush cleaned it up well and made it completely useable.  Since then, its maintenance has been minimal.

We all know that cast iron does best when it is seasoned.  So how do you season it well?  I've always cleaned the pan and rubbed it with a bit of cooking oil once it was dry.  I used to dry it quickly on the stove, but this lead to rust issues.  Now I let it air dry and that works for me.

I knew that sometimes you want to remove the old seasoning, especially if you buy a used pan and want to clean it up before using it yourself.  The two good options are baking it in a self-cleaning oven cycle (Two for one!  A clean pan and a clean oven!) or burying the pan in a bonfire and digging it back out once it is cool.

Sometimes my seasoning attempts resulted in a gummy coating that smelled funny if the pan wasn't used for a while.  Something needs to change here.

So I found this eBook, Seasoning Cast Iron by L. R. LaBella.
ISBN 978-1-4658-8895-2
It is free although sometimes you have to search around to find out who is currently publishing it.  Today I found it here:

It is short and to-the-point, with pictures that show exactly what you need to do.

The key is to have flaxseed oil, purchased in health food stores, because "What we're after is a hard, slick, durable finish.  The best way to get that is with a 'drying oil'.  The only edible drying oil is flaxseed."  The author notes that "Other oils can be used, but the finish won't be as durable."

I had to look around in my local store because the flaxseed oil was not stored on the same shelves as the other oils.  They kept it in a refrigerated area to keep it from going rancid too quickly.  After I bought it, I stored it in the refrigerator, too.

Mr. LaBella's steps are this (some steps paraphrased; some are quoted):

1.  Strip the pan to bare metal.  This is not needed if your pan is new.

My Note:  Bare metal means it looks gray instead of black or brown.  

2.  "Put a bit of oil into the pan.  A teaspoonful will be more than enough.  Rub it into the pan, inside and out including the handle.  I use a paper towel."

3.  "Use another paper towel and wipe out as much oil as you can.  You want a shiny pan, with no puddles of oil. ... thin coats are much better than thick ones."

4.  Bake it at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 - 90 minutes; expect some smoking.

5.  Let the pan cool for about 10 minutes.  "Put in another dab of oil, rub it around as before, wipe it off as before, and bake it as before."

6.  "For a really good, durable finish", do five coats.

He also points out that "You still need to use a bit of oil or butter when cooking.  The pan's cooking qualities will keep improving as you use it and the seasoning continues to develop."

To clean your pans after this seasoning process, "you can use soap (not detergent) and a brush or Dobie pad (nylon mesh over a sponge) to clean the pan. ... If a quick soak doesn't loosen something burnt on, use salt mixed with a bit of oil as the abrasive."  I use one of those nylon scrapers that comes with stoneware cooking items and that works well.

He then recommends you towel dry the pan and heat it for a few seconds to evaporate any remaining moisture.  He found that air drying leads to rust.

Then he says to "oil the pan very lightly with cooking oil, wiping out excess oil as before."

He gives the pan a flaxseed oil seasoning coat once a year, just one.


I tried this with all five of my frying pans.  They all had been through the self-cleaning cycle of my oven, then washed and scrubbed with the wire brush and scouring powder.  I won't say they were down to just bare metal everywhere, but there was definitely less seasoning on them than before they were baked.  The inside bottoms looked gray.

Bare metal where it is gray
I used a paper towel to distribute the oil; keep refolding it so one side doesn't get so worn that it leaves behind bits of towel on the pan.  Two towels were good for five pans; I put oil in the two biggest and spread it around to all of the pans.

IMPORTANT:  Baking oil at 450 degrees F can get a little smelly, so do this task on a day when you can open up the windows and let fresh air in!  I had my stovetop fan running at the highest speed while the pans were in the oven, too.  At the end of the day, air in the house was still pretty "seasoned" with a cooked oil smell.   This is not for sissies!

I did 60 minutes per coat; when I had to leave right after a cycle was done, I turned off the oven and left the pans to cool in it.  When I was able to stay after a cycle, I pulled the pans out, let them cool but left the oven on, then started the process over again.

IMPORTANT:  The pans coming out of the oven are HOT!  Use a tough hot pad to protect your hand and arm and know before you pick them up where the pans are to be set on the counter -- have a trivet ready. 

When the pans have cooled for 10 minutes, as instructed, they are still pretty warm so use protection.  I stopped putting oil on the handles when this happened so not to soil my hot pads.

After one coat
The Verdict

Success!  The process works well.  I could tell that the oil was polymerizing because between each coat because the pan went from shiny to matte and the new application of oil didn't really want to stick to the previous layer.

At the end, each pan was dark brown or blackish.  The seasoning was dry.  One pan looked like I had made the coats thicker than the others but it doesn't seem like a problem.

Five coats.  Brown, not rusty.
I tested one pan by cooking eggs (using a little butter) and they didn't stick.  Also they cleaned up easily.

The downside is the smell of baked oil from five fry pans getting coated five times over the length of an entire day.  Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it was only one or two pans or just one coat.  Knowing this inspires me to maintain the seasoning properly so I don't have to do it again.  I'm not sure I would do this for my other cast iron pans -- maybe just the inside and rims and maybe just a few coats.

One issue I've had with my Dutch ovens is that the seasoning melts off when I make a stew.  Perhaps flaxseed oil won't do that.  If I continue with the process or have any other observations in the future, I'll post updates.

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