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Testing (debunking?) the flaxseed method for seasoning cast iron

As you know, the idea of using flaxseed oil to season a cast iron pan became known far and wide after Cook's Illustrated eagerly endorsed it. The article in question, published in the January 1, 2011 issue, was titled "The Ultimate Way To Season Cast Iron" and it specifically stated, "The flaxseed oil so effectively bonded to the skillets, forming a sheer, stick-resistant veneer, that even a run through our commercial dishwasher with a squirt of degreaser left them totally unscathed. But the vegetable oil-treated skillets showed rusty spots and patchiness when they emerged from the dishwasher, required reseasoning before use."

However, when we took the time to test this method, we came to considerably different results: enough for us to conclude there is *no* difference between seasoning a cast iron pan with flaxseed oil, and seasoning it with regular vegetable oil. Our test took place on the Facebook group "Cast Iron Cooking" at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cast-Ir... -- the photos of the tests can be seen at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?se...& ;type=1

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  1. I tried this out a little while ago myself. Like you, I found that the method as described by Sheryl Canter and CI didn't have the major benefits over other methods that it claimed to have.

    BUT ... I also found that flaxseed oil has a number of real advantages over other oils. The issue was just that Canter and CI failed to put those advantages to work.

    Namely, flaxseed oil does indeed form a nice hard polymer quite easily - more easily than other oils. So easily, and at such a low temperature that it is silly to wait hours for a single coat. Instead, very thin coats can be applied quite quickly and in rapid succession with flaxseed oil, creating an excellent seasoning that compares to years of regular use in very little time.

    Here is the post I made about it. Check it out.
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7854...
    It's been several months since I seasoned my pan, and the seasoning is still holding strong, indicating that the way I did it seems to be durable.

    9 Replies
    1. re: cowboyardee

      Thank you for confirming that our results were essentially the same as yours. I like your suggestion for seasoning a pan, and I'll try it with a 12-inch Griswold pan that I'll be receiving from an eBay seller today. Getting an initial seasoning onto the pan in 45 minutes sounds much more attractive than the several days it took to season those two pans previously.

      1. re: Modemac

        Let me know how it works for you.

        Also, make sure your kitchen is well ventilated.

      2. re: cowboyardee

        There is at least one thing that does not get said when testing Flax Seed oil (and, to a lesser degree, various vegetable oils) and that is the high amount of polyunsaturated fats that go rancid very quickly and will almost definitely go rancid after sitting in a 375-425 F oven for 45-75 minutes.

        Does this ever get talked about?

        1. re: DougRisk

          That's one reason why the recommended seasoning process for this method calls for a 500 degree oven. Because it's over the smoke point for the oil, it burns a layer of carbon onto the pan; this will prevent it from going rancid quickly.

          1. re: Modemac

            I am simply not smart enought o understand how these things work. My understand was basically:
            Fats with a high amount of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) go rancid quickly and almost definitely go rancid with almost any amount of moderate to high-heat cooking. And, on top of that, if that fat goes rancid, that does not mean that the taste will be off.

            1. re: DougRisk

              I'm not in a much different boat that you are in that I don't have any real expertise in the chemistry of fats. But here is my understanding -

              Rancidity is the oxidation of fats (there are other mechanisms of rancidity, but they don't apply here). You are right both that flaxseed oil oxidizes particularly easily and that heat can speed along this reaction.

              But when you season cast iron, the idea is to polymerize a thin layer of fat repeatedly onto the surface of the pan - that is, to use heat in excess of the fat's smoke point to chain together triglycerides into new molecules with new properties.

              I'm sure that oxidation does occur both before and probably during the polymerization reaction (it may even be an integral step of the reaction for all I know). The intended end result is to totally and repeatedly polymerize the fat into a new substance that doesn't behave like fat and doesn't go rancid. Whether some unpolymerized fat compounds still linger on the pan, I can't say, aside from the basic educated guess that I'd bet no reaction of that sort is 100% perfect and total in real world scenarios like seasoning a pan. But it's enough to really matter much, it seems.

          2. re: DougRisk

            I think the basic premise is that by that temperature (and more so by the 450-500 deg temps called for in this seasoning process) any flaxseed oil is polymerized to an extent that it cannot go rancid.

            When I tried out the method initially under Canter's instructions, I certainly didn't notice any rancid taste or smell. The problem was just that the seasoning was too slow to build and didn't form an especially great non-stick surface even after 7 coatings.

            1. re: DougRisk

              I think the polymerization process rearranges the chemistry of the oil, such that the fats get hooked-up as polymers and rancidity is not and issue.
              I wiped-on flax-seed oil to get a shiny oil coat and then wiped that off as vigorously as I could with a bar-towel to leave just a satin luster, just a very thin film that felt perhaps silky, but not oily (and certainly not drippy - if it's wet-looking at all, wipe it down more with an absorbent towel).
              When I began this venture, I grabbed a bottle of flax-seed oil I had lying around and did the thin-film-and-heat method. After a few days and not too much in the way of progress, I tasted the oil. and it was nasty-tasting-rancid-yuk. So taste it before you begin and hope to find a mild nutty flavor. I got a mouthful of bitter nastiness, go get new flax oil and refrigerate it.

            2. re: cowboyardee

              2013 update:

              I did eventually experience quite a bit of flaking with this pan. I can't say for sure whether this was due in part to my error, but others have experienced flaking with flaxseed oil as well. As such, I don't really recommend the method in my above post or flaxseed oil in general for seasoning anymore.

            3. I just received a heavily rusted skillet from a co worker that didnt want to take the time to fix it up. so following the advice on other topics here, i used vinegar for about an hour after taking the flaky stuff off. worked like a charm. I wish I researched that before I tried sanding it down for an entire afternoon trying to get rid of all the rust. oh well, I idigress. With the newly cleaned pan, I decided to try the flaxseed oil method, as we have had a bottle of it laying around in the fridge for a very long time, never getting used for anything. So I gave it the quick wipe of the paper towel to give it a nice thin coat of oil, and threw it into the oven. And I figured, hey, I also have this Ikea CI pan that I have been using for a while now, and it could use another layer of seasoning, so lets do that one at the same time. Boy oh boy was that a mistake. They both come out of the oven tacky. you could probably stand a ladle vertical in the pan and it would hold it up. So now I am in the process of stripping both pans again, and re-seasoning them both, this time, I am going to stick with my tried and true method of using Tenderflake. It is pure lard, and I had great sucess with it on my ikea pan before I decided to mess it up with flax oil.

              3 Replies
              1. re: colinlinton

                The flaxseed oil method of applying seasoning is more than simply oiling it and throwing it in the oven. I've followed the procedure twice. One time I had excellent results, and I am still using the pan and liking it. The second pan didn't work well.

                Before trying flaxseed, it might pay to find out the procedure CI recommends first.

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/757023 This is a thread I started in 2011 when I did this. I updated it, and every so often someone finds it and adds to it.

                1. re: colinlinton

                  I'm just learning about seasoning, and actually bought a factory second Lodge skillet to practice on.

                  I was captivated by the Cantor method, and it made a lot of sense. I did it the slow way, and so far the seasoning coat seems durable through a few uses, at least.

                  One of the cautions Cantor includes is that you must wipe the skillet nearly dry of oil, and that a "coat" of oil will end up tacky. That may be what you came up against.

                  I'll update with my results as warranted.

                  1. re: drtrech

                    I agree. It's important you wipe it nearly dry after coating.

                2. In my opinion, it really does not matter in the long run. Even if the flax seed oil method has a small advantage over normal cooking oil on day 1. This isn't going to last since you won't be cooking in flaxseed oil.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    I use the flaxseed oil method. After every few uses, I wipe it down with a super thin coat of flax seed oil and stick it in a hot oven for an hour.

                    It may not work for everyone, but it has worked beautifully for me.

                    1. re: Becca Porter

                      I see. This makes sense. As long as it is working for you, then it is all that matters. I hope your cast iron/carbon steel cookware have been serving you well.

                  2. Really am clueless about this flax seed method. Got reunited with CI a few years back when I found 3, totally crusty skillets at a yard sale for $1 each. I probably committed heresy when I used spray dollar store oven cleaner on them... but all the crud was gone. Then I got them really HOT on stove top and added a blob of good old bacon grease... like my grandmother always did. Wiped it all over (inside and out) and repeated several times.

                    Last piece I found (for a few $ at a thrift store) was a nice Griswold skillet. Weather was cool enough at the time to use self-clean cycle of oven. Only thing left of the minor crud on pan was ash.

                    Think the key to seasoning CI also has to do with USING it!! As often as possible!

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: kseiverd

                      I basically agree with you. However not everyone fries in bacon grease or lard. That was the reason I wanted to try flaxseed oil for seasoning.

                      I use my skillet for other things, and the seasoning the flax oil lays down really improved one of my skillet's surface.

                      I had one success and one fail. Since then the failed skillet developed a crack which kept growing. I put it in mixed recycling before I moved. I really hated to give it up, even though I knew its days were numbered. But I didn't want to pay for its weight when I knew it wouldn't be usable much longer.

                      I really need to find a nice big skillet in some junk store.

                      1. re: sueatmo

                        >I basically agree with you. However not everyone fries in bacon grease or lard. That was the reason I wanted to try flaxseed oil for seasoning.<

                        So you fry in flaxseed oil? I don't fry in bacon grease or lard either, but I season my pans with it.

                    2. I use a lot of CI cookware. When I break in a 'new' pan (an old one I've found somewhere & cleaned u) usually just rub it with whatever oil I have handy & put it in the oven for an hour. Then I cook bacon in it. it takes a few times to get a pan seasoned so you have to have a bit of patience. There's no better faster way to get a pan properly seasoned other than by using it.