Introduction: Iron Skillet Seasoning & Modification
Updated, improved, and much, much more efficient and energy saving. Changes are in step 7.
I've long thought that the classic standard of American kitchens, the iron skillet needed a little work. Lodge makes great inexpensive skillets and other cast iron cookware, but my big gripe about their products is that they do not blast the interiors to make a smooth surface. I imagine that their stance is that, in the days of teflon and stainless, no one wants to pay more than about $25 on a heavy cast iron pot or pan. Though I can't imagine that bead blasting or some kind of milling would add that much more to the cost.
There are antique brands of cast iron pans out there that have smooth interiors. If you can find one, even one rusted to hell, buy and refurb it. You'll be very much amazed at how slick and nonstick these things are.
Some people say that they season their pans once a year, kind of like a spring cleaning thing. I do not. If its functioning well, I don't mess with it . . . well, usually not. This is modification and special new seasoning technique is the reason for my meddling with something that isn't broke.
Step 1: A New Season
A while back I was listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's show The Splendid Table on my local NPR station (89.3 WFPL). They began talking about seasoning cast iron and I had to try it (you know the feeling; you're an instructable-head too).
There is a lot of debate about what kind of oil to use when seasoning cast iron. Some people swear by lard, while others say that since pigs have been bred to be skinny genetic freaks their fat doesn't contain enough omega-3 fats to properly season a skillet. It's a debate that goes on and on. But I think this is the final answer.
It's an easy answer. The primary reason is to protect your investment. Seasoning creates a protective coating that stops your skillet from turning into a rusty mess. The second reason is that it it gives the pan a nonstick coating.
Yes, it's nonstick, but don't expect a slick as teflon coat. If you want that, buy a cheap teflon pan. But if you want something that will out last you and be infinitely more versatile than a teflon pan, then cast iron is the way to go.
What Is Seasoning?
Good question. Essentially, you could say that it's a burned on coat of oil. To get more specific though, beyond the smoke point of an oil the fat begins to break down and polymerize into a hard coat for your skillet or pan.
If you want more information please go to this lady's site. I believe it was her that I heard on NPR that day.
Step 2: The Oil
So what oil should you use?
Flaxseed oil is a high omega-3 oil with a low smoke point. It'll polymerize into a tough, tough coating that when combined with the smoothed down surface of the skillet will be slippery as a Slip-n-Slide.
Step 3: Ironing It Out
So you take your basic cast iron pan and give it a close look. Jumping Jeebus! Look at all of that texture! What does that texture mean? Added surface area. The more surface area your food comes into contact with, the more likely you'll have sticking when cooking. The goal here is to take away those tiny bumps and make a relatively smooth surface.
Do you need to do this? No. A well seasoned skillet will be pretty nonstick without smoothing . . . but this will be better.
(A funny note about surface area: Surface area is why kettle cooked chips have less fat than regular chips. Kettle cooked chips are thicker and therefore expose less surface area that fat could stick too. The same thing applies with french fries you'd get a McDonalds or any other crapfood place. They have more fat because they are smaller cuts, exposing more surface to fat. Bigger cut fries, like steak fry cut, are better for you . . . relatively).
Step 4: Clean It
First you have to start with a clean skillet. If it's already seasoned then you have to get some of that off. The very best way to unseason a cast iron pot or pan is to leave it in your oven on a self-cleaning cycle. Your pan will be perfectly free of everything that was on it. Your kitchen will be smoky as hell, but it'll be worth it. It's spring clean thing though, so at least the windows can be open.
If this isn't an option then oven cleaner is the way to go. Give the pan a good coat of oven cleaner and then put it into a garbage bag. Make sure that you press the bag against the inner surface to promote contact and good cleaning. Let it sit like that for an hour.
After an hour it won't be perfectly clean. You can rinse, dry, and repeat, or you can give it a little muscle with a scrubbing pad or some steel wool. I wasn't too worried out making this super clean because it would soon get it all stripped away most violently.
Step 5: Grinding
I tried using a 60 grit sand paper and an orbital sander. As you can see it worked okay . . . but you'd have to spend about five hours at it to get the surface very smooth. That's when I stepped it up with a flap disc for my grinder. After about ten minutes it was smoothed to my satisfaction. Note that unless you're blasting or milling you're not going to get a perfectly smooth surface. But it'll be hundreds of times better than it was.
Obviously you'll want to wash the skillet off with water after this. It'll be terribly dusty. Make sure to dry it well before proceeding.
Step 6: Lube It Up
Fold up a paper towel and grab it in a pair of tongs. You'll want another paper towel on hand to remove excess oil after you've spread it over every surface of the pan, inside and out.
You want a super thin layer. Remove as much as possible with the dry paper towel. Don't worry, it'll get coated.
Step 7: Fire It Up
Okay, the overstrike stuff is the original post. See below to read the changes. I left the original method for comparison. The new way is so very much better. The first four photos are of the original oven method. The following three are the new method.
Preheat your oven to 550 degrees. And put the skillet in upside down. This will allow the most heat to rise and contact the cooking surface. You'll want to leave it in the oven for 1 hour.
Okay . . . here's the nuts part. You have to do this five times (more if you're a B.A. Ninja). So that means your kitchen will get hot. Make sure it's a cool day or plan to spend most of it outdoors.
Let the pan heat for an hour. Remove it from the oven, re-coat it with oil, and then put it back in for another hour. Five times at least. Don't worry, it'll pay off in the end. Plus, I thoroughly believe that if you don't do something stupid, like wash your skillet with soap or put it into a dishwasher, you'll never have to do it again.
The oven method didn't last. I used this skillet once and then had the coating disappearing. So I remembered my new carbon steel wok and how you're supposed to season it on the stove top. This was the break though moment. There are things to take into consideration if you choose to season your skillet this way.
* First, you need a good hood above your cooktop, one that will whisk the smoke away efficiently . . . because, trust me, it'll get smoky. I have a gas cooktop (I used the high BTU burner for this) and good hood, but it was also cooler weather when I did this and I had all of the windows open. Just keep it in mind. A great way to avoid this would be the side burner on a grill or the burner to a large outdoor fryer/steamer. Actually, if you don't have a burner on your gas grill, just stick it on the grates. It'll be fine.
* Second, have everything ready at hand. Paper towels or a natural cotton rag for mopping the oil around the skillet and another for removing excess oil after that mopping.
* Third, this took me 15 to 20 minutes. Really. That quick. Such a big difference from the old method that took five to six hours. Five or six seared on coats of seasoning. And it has lasted a dozen uses without any sign of wearing away. The heat of the oven just can't compare to the direct heat of a cooktop.
Doing it right.
Preheat your skillet on the cooktop on high. If you have a high BTU burner, use that one (they're the biggest burners intended for boiling large amounts of water and whatnot). Let it sit and preheat for 5 to 10 minutes. Then apply the first coat of oil with the rag/paper towel and some tongs.
It'll smoke. Heck, it was probably smoking before you added the oil.
Apply the next coat when the previous is darkly baked on. I'll be pretty dark, even on the first coat. Much darker than the fourth photo below (which was after hours of doing this in the oven).
You can apply as many coats as you wish. I did six. And it is as slick and lovely as you could ever hope. This might not be as slick as teflon, but I don't think you'll notice much difference. It's slick and no stick.
Step 8: Take Care
If you're reading this, then you probably know how to care for a cast iron skillet, but just in case:
Never, ever us soap or any other kind of detergent on it. Ever.
Here's how I do it:
1. After I'm done cooking I either clean it immediately, or let it sit. If you've fried it in, then you could let it sit with that oil for days (I have). But if you made a soup or something, you're going to want to clean it immediately.
2. Dump out whatever is left in the pan, scrap it out with a spatula.
3. Turn on the heat and add a little coarse kosher salt (it's the grit that scrubs things off).
4. Fold up a paper towel and grab it with some tongs. Push the salt around, scrubbing up stuck on bits.
5. When done take it under the running faucet and let steam finish the job of cleaning. Dump out all of the salt and water.
6. Dry it, put it back on the stove to heat up and thoroughly dry. Then give a thin coat of oil before you store it away.
It sounds like a lot, those six steps, but really it takes 2 minutes at most.