Iron Skillet Seasoning & Modification




Posted in HomeCleaning

Introduction: Iron Skillet Seasoning & Modification

About: I'll try to fix or build anything.

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.

Why Season?

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.

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.

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    Some indicate you don't need to go far (too fine a grit) smoothing pans. While you may not have to, my experience, from much larger scale work, is, the more polished the surface, the better.

    I own a woodworking shop with several machined surfaces (e.g., table saw, band saw, over arm pin router) and they must be smooth to minimize friction, when pushing wood across the surfaces. The more smooth the surfaces, the easier the wood glides on the surfaces and the less likely you are to push too hard and get into trouble from kick backs.

    The original surfaces are fairly smooth, but you can still see the machining marks. The drag from these are usually reduced further by use of waxes. However, if, instead of waxes, one uses the spray on finishes, there is less build up. They still work good, but not as good as they would if the surface was smoother.

    I have a variable speed angle grinder I use with diamond embedded polishing pads for granite polishing work. Some are for wet work and others are used dry. I have several that are on the tail end of their life span. On a whim, I used some of my old four hundred through three thousand grit pads with oil and was able to, fairly quickly, bring my table top to a near mirror finish.

    When done, I noticed two things:

    1) A board tossed on the surface flew across the table, and glided across it even easier after a protective, anti-friction coating was applied; and

    2) The surface was slower to react to moisture.

    For these reasons, I suggest experimenting with at least one pan and taking it to a four or even six hundred grit smoothness. Then, after seasoning it, test it up against one of your other, slightly rougher pans.

    I find the oven method to work really well. The key is to coat the pan and leave it right side up for the first 15 minutes, then flip the pan for the last 45 minutes. You should only have to do this once. Cook with it to build up the coating more. Then again, my housemates would kill me if I did this on the stove top.

    I also like to use bacon grease. It seems to leave a very hard slick surface.

    I've been thinking about taking a die grinder to one of my newer lodge pans. The last one I spent about an hour scrubbing with emery cloth. It was shiny, but my hand was really sore.

    Cooking plantains daily will season your pans to a mirror finish. I'm not sure what it is about them, but they make a really smooth seasoning layer.

    1 reply

    Having done quite a bit of sand blasting on wood and glass, I have trouble believing this is the route to go. Though it would help, it would be, somewhat, like using acid and would take all the surface down. As such, sanding, grinding and milling seem the best route.

    Gotta recommend the flaxseed oil- just did it today and it outperforms lard, bacon, crisco, canola, and grapeseed by a good margin.

    I scrub my cast iron skillets with a long handled scrub brush and hot water while still hot. I place them back on the stove to dry and then give the hot pan a light coating of oil (any) before putting away.

    1 reply

    I do that that too these days. Angled scrubby brush and either put it under the faucet or dump water in it on the stove. Also I'll just use a paper towel clamped in tongs for light clean outs.

    Great piece. Before I found this I had polished it with the YouTube video "ETM: Sanding and Polishing Cast Iron cookware" instructions--similar to this one, but finishing with 320 grit. Then I tried Sheryl Canter's black rust and seasoning instructions. It worked, but when I fried eggs soon after seasoning they stuck (understandably) and more importantly, when I cleaned by soaking in water a minute or two and then scrubbing with a nylon scrubbie, the finish started coming right off down to grey iron. I then scrubbed with salt and oil (basically removed the finish from the bottom of the pan), and tried the stove top technique here, which I love. The finish looked the same as Sheryl's, but also came off when cleaning stuck eggs.

    Is my problem:

    1) 320 grit is too fine, I've created something too slick for flax seed oil to adhere to well,

    2) Cooking eggs first thing after seasoning is asking too much; I should cook 20 other dishes in it first before trying eggs,

    3) No one uses a nylon scrubbie on cast iron; you should instead do ___, or

    4) something else.

    1 reply

    I don't think a nylon scrubby would be too rough. I've heard people say to use non-metal brushes as well. I don't know that 320 is too fine, but I know that my own skillet will lose the coating sometimes, usually after a rough scrubbing. It could be the process needs to be done more for longer. Possibly store the skillet in the oven and leave it in there during baking and roasting to further cook on the coating. Slap a thin coat on before. For eggs and things that really stick, I use a new ceramic coated skillet. I'm really impressed with it so far. I only use my iron skillet for meats usually and for shallow frying.

    Oh, maybe you need more oil when doing eggs. I assume you're frying them.

    One thing for anyone planning to do this: wear a dust mask when sanding cast iron. There's nothing toxic in it, but the cast iron dust can be VERY irritating to the nose and throat of some people. After sanding mine to an almost mirror finish (flap wheel in 36, 60 and 120, rotary disk at 80, 120, 240 grit) I spent the rest of the evening coughing and sneezing ... quite unpleasant. After sanding I forced the surface to rust using vinegar, then boiled tea in the pan to induce a conversion coating. I've heard mixed reports of whether this is actually an Fe2O3 -> Fe3O4 (black oxide) conversion, or something else that includes the tannic acid from the tea. All I know is, it turns the iron black and it doesn't rust anymore (at least not as quickly as it did before treatment).

    you can also use lye. break out the goggles and gloves. it'll do the job.

    better than oven cleaner - electrolysis. look it up

    I have two older skillets, and one newer lodge Fajita skillet. The surfaces are night and day different between the older and newer items. I'll get the power tools out and see about smoothing out the newer fajita skillet and make it as useful as my working antiques.
    It's pretty recently that I taught myself to use cast iron cook ware. A suggestion to those who have tried it and given up, try it again! Resurface newer bumpy cast iron, season as instructed above and remember cooking is about 'judicious application of heat' (thanks Alton). I tended to cook too hot, finally I am learning that my gas range has more that two settings!

    1 reply

    Amen! . . . but I do like All Clad stainless too. Very light.

    After I bead blast mine, I clean it well, and season it outside in my gas grill. crank it up on high with the pan in it, after it stops smoking, then lube it up with crisco. then flip it over so its upside down. (you wont get thick spots) and cook it for another 15 min on high. then shut it off.

    I know of what you speak with the cast iron pans, skillets, & Dutch ovens not being finished with a milled flat smooth surface on the inside. I am now 61 when I was in my teens my mother had a cast iron skillet that had a machined inside surface. It was wonderful! Since that time I have never seen one like it. About a month ago, on my favorite site "EBARF", I found a unique cast iron skillet that was made as an electric skillet. The brand of the skillet is "Country Charm" mfg by The House of Webster in Rogers, Arkansas from about 1953 until 1997, which is no longer in business. Unfortunately they did not machine smooth the cooking surface, it is typical sand pitting which resembles the surface of the moon. I am going to take it to a local machine shop to have them turn machine flat the surface, like a disc or drum brake, inside if its not too expensive then season it. Any thoughts?

    1 reply

    If you can find a shop that will do that for you it would be a good idea. I'm not sure it would be cheap though if they use their mills or lathes. You might get off cheaper if they can do abrasive blasting on them in a cabinet. They could blast just the interior and leave the outside alone. I recently got a portable blaster and used it to knock the seasoning off of a skillet. If I'd have had an array of different sized blasting media I could have quickly smoothed the inside. If you have an air compressor you might try a small blaster like this:
    The trick would then be to find small quantities of media. Course, medium, and fine.

    Nicely done.

    I have an angle grinder (which is almost a necessity if you weld), but what grit flap disk did you start with?

    Once the flap disk is done, any reason why you didn't follow it up with a smaller grit?

    3 replies

    I think it was a 60 grit. There would be no reason that you couldn't step up to smoother grits, but the 60 was all if found at the store that day. You could certainly start with 60 then take it all the way up to something like a buffing wheel with polishing compound. That'd be friggin' sweet. As near a mirror finish as you could get with cast iron. Wouldn't last though. It'd need seasoning pronto or you'd have a very smooth rusty surface.

    Yes, got it.

    Sand the pan well, wash well to remove all the grit, and then cook bacon ASAP.

    I've been meaning to get out my orbital sander and having a go at a piece of imported cast iron, now I know to start with a flap disk. Thanks.

    Yep, that's pretty much it. I only found a 60 grit flap disc, but after a little netting around I see that you can get a coarser 40 grit and also 80 and 120. So you could do different levels of sanding and get it relatively smooth with a 120. From there an orbital sander might have to juice to smooth it out further. The orbital will take a long time though.