Like your favorite soft T-shirt and your ab muscles, the more you use a cast iron skillet, the better it gets, as long as you use it correctly. If you cook with your cast iron without seasoning it, the food will stick to its surface, rather than cooking to crispy, delicious caramelized perfection.
What Is Seasoning?
This isn't about using enough salt here. Seasoning is the shiny black patina that gives everything cooked in a cast iron skillet its bit of magic, and it’s easy to achieve. All you need to start the seasoning process on your own cast iron skillet at home is a fat, such as olive oil, and an oven.
Cast iron pans are wonderful tools in the kitchen, but they can be tricky to take care for. First and foremost, never, ever put a cast iron skillet in the dishwasher. You’ll have a rust disaster on your hands.
Cast iron rusts easily, and unless it’s maintained properly, it will quickly become a mess. Keeping the entire surface of the skillet dry and covered in oil, like olive oil, after each use is important, but first, it’s a good idea to start with a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
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Some cast iron skillets come pre-seasoned out of the package, but others require a bit of work before they're ready to use.
It’s science, really, When an oiled cast iron skillet is heated, polymers form, which bond to the iron and give the pan a glaze. That glaze, or seasoning, both protects the pan from rust and keeps foods from sticking to its surface. The surface of the cast iron has tiny pits, and as glaze bakes into the iron, those pits fill and provide a smooth, non-stick cooking surface, more like plastic than fat, with rust-proofing benefits.
There are two ways to build up that coveted seasoning on your pan: Cook with your pan regularly and season it in the oven for an added boost. Regular cooking with fat will add layers of seasoning coating to the cooking surface of the skillet. But, occasionally, the entire pan needs a little more love.
Seasoning Starts With a Clean Skillet
First, you need to start with a clean pan. Ideally, rinse the skillet in hot water immediately after using it and dry it with a cloth. Burned-on bits of food can be removed with a no-scratch scrubber and coarse salt. If the pan starts to rust or is still too sticky, scrub it thoroughly with dish soap and steel wool. After rinsing, immediately dry the skillet completely.
How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet With Olive Oil
Seasoning a cast iron skillet is simple, and you can do it like a pro in just a few steps.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use a paper towel to coat the entire surface of the pan, including the bottom and handle, in olive oil.
- Place the skillet in the heated oven and let bake for 1 hour.
- Remove the pan and let it cool.
- Use a paper towel to add another coat of olive oil and buff the pan to a sheen.
Seasoning With Olive Oil
A coating of any kind of oil or fat on the cast iron creates seasoning. Canola oil is the most popular oil used for seasoning cast iron, but vegetable oil, shortening, and corn and olive oil are also good options. The difference is the oil’s smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil starts to give off smoke. Canola oil has a relatively high smoke point of 400 degrees F, while extra virgin olive oil starts smoking at between 325 to 375 degrees, which means seasoning with olive oil will work. It just might be a bit more smoky than other oils.
Protect the Seasoning
In addition to washing a seasoned cast iron skillet by hand, and never in the dishwasher, leaving a cast iron pan to soak in water will also invite rust in a hurry. Cooking foods like tomatoes, which are high in acid, will also break down your hard-earned seasoning coating.
Just follow these few steps to care for your cast iron skillet, and it will repay the effort with years of delicious dishes.
Becky Bracken is a lifestyle, parenting and real estate journalist who has written for outlets including Realtor, Babble, SheKnows, CafeMom, Complex and more.