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Why is there such an obsession with instant perfect seasoning on cast iron? It takes time and use!

jljohn Mar 20, 2012 09:38 AM

I write this post fully recognizing that I too have been guilty of this from time-to-time, but why is there such hand-wringing and agonizing about achieving perfect instantaneous seasoning on cast iron (CI)?

I am no cast iron historian, but I do know that many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents used CI for decades, and I know my ancestors (at least for a few generations) didn't sweat the seasoning process. I still remember learning about CI when I was a kid. Several folks--all of them decades older then me--told me the same exact thing on various occasions. "Wipe your new cast iron down with shortening, cook it in the oven for a few hours, and use it. It'll get better every time you use it. Oh, and don't use too much soap if possible, and grease it if you're not going to use it for a while."

So, for those of us who tend to be overly concerned about the perfection of such things as seasoning on our CI skillets, let's remember a couple of things. Seasoning cast iron really is a simple process, and the biggest ingredient is time. Don't look at it and worry about it every time you use the it. Just use it, clean it, dry it, put it away, and repeat. Someday (years from now), someone will look at your skillet and say 'Man, you have a great seasoning on that thing." Remember that one of the primary reasons 100 year old CI skillets has such a tremendous market is that they have decades of use built into them. If you really need a wonderfully seasoned pan soon, you have two options: buy an old one, or use yours every day, several times every day if possible. And if you'll allow me, I'll add one more. Your CI will take on a special importance to you because of the time and use. I have 3 CI skillets (8", 10" and 12"). My wife and I purchased the 8" skillet the week we got back from our honeymoon and have used it ever since. It is not the most used pan we own by any stretch, but because 13 years of married life are somehow cooked into that skillet, I would sooner part with one of my copper pans than that little skillet.

  1. cowboyardee Mar 20, 2012 09:49 AM

    The cookware section of CH is especially full of tinkers and analytic types who don't like waiting years or decades to have a great pan. Obsession is the wrong word - whether its knives or sharpening or copper pans or cast iron, discussing these things in depth is just what we do here.

    Meanwhile, read up. You might be surprised. I wrote up a method that produces a thick, black, glassy seasoning resembling a pan that's been in use for years. It takes about 45 minutes.

    1 Reply
    1. re: cowboyardee
      jljohn Mar 20, 2012 10:01 AM

      Hey cowboyardee,

      I don't mean to denigrate at all--in fact, I am generally an analytic type who likes to tinker with things and tries always to make them better and better. And I've read, and am intrigued by, your method. However, it seems to me that for every person on these forums who has success with near instant seasoning I read someone else who is 'sandpapering' their skillet down to bare metal after every seasoning attempt or meal prep. My thoughts are intended primarily to assure the sandpaper crowd and the worriers among us that the seasoning will develop if they give it time.

    2. Chemicalkinetics Mar 20, 2012 11:23 AM

      I give you two reasons.

      1) We are living in a faster pace society where people in general expect quick result. Everything is faster now. Email is faster than mail service...etc. The idea to buy a pan today and only get it work beautifully in a few years is too much of a stress for many people.

      2) Teflon nonstick. Telfon nonstick cookware are very cheap and very nonstick. They set a very high bar for the old cast iron and carbon steel pans. For many people, the seasoned cast iron rountine just does not look as attractive, and they want something they can use from day 1, like the Teflon pans.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Chemicalkinetics
        paulj Mar 20, 2012 11:41 AM

        Frequently people write: 'I just read something bad about Teflon, so I'm throwing out all my non-stick pans. What should I buy to replace them?' We recommend cast iron or carbon steel, and they expect Teflon like performance out of the box.

        My local restaurant supply store has a sign near the iron and steel pans - 'These will rust'

        1. re: paulj
          Chemicalkinetics Mar 20, 2012 11:51 AM

          "We recommend cast iron or carbon steel, and they expect Teflon like performance out of the box."

          Yeah, I think that very much describe the situation. Many people have an expectation of Telfon nonstick, which of course they will be greatly disappointed from a new carbon steel or cast iron cookware. So, the next thing they want is: how to I turn it into a Telfon-like cookware in one seasoning process.

      2. s
        slowshooter Mar 20, 2012 11:39 AM

        That's how I have been doing my cast iron for 30 years. I start with one round of seasoning in the oven as a base coat. Then heat the pan up on the stove on medium for a couple of minutes. Turn it down to simmer/low and rub crisco on the pan floor.

        These days I am much more anal about the temp at the center of the pan thanks to my infrared thermometer... I usually run the heat at an average temp of 370.

        The issue that many will have is that with a small burner or a large pan (say #8 and up) the seasoning will not cure all the way up the sides or edges of the pan floor, leaving them slightly sticky. So after I get a decent glossy black on the bottom - which takes about an hour at my house - I put one more coat over the entire pan and I toss it back into the oven for about 90 minutes at 400. The sides cure out and the bottom is like black ice.

        Experience has taught me that if I try to heat up a pan so the lip is hot enough to season, the center will be hot enough to strip the seasoning and I end up with bare metal right about where I would pour my pancake batter.

        From womb to tomb the process takes me about 4 hours. That's two rounds of oven seasoning bookending an hour of stove top work.


        3 Replies
        1. re: slowshooter
          cowboyardee Mar 20, 2012 11:47 AM

          You make very good points. One advantage I had while seasoning my pan was a very large diameter (and surprisingly powerful) ceramic/electric burner that extended to the edge of my pan. Even then, the outside ring was less hot than the center and didn't season as well - and as you noted, turning up the heat would risk making the center of the pan hot enough to burn off seasoning.

          All that said, I have an idea for a solution that I haven't yet tried out: heat the pan in a 500 degree oven. Once fully up to temp, take it out of the oven and place on a burner set to medium or low (the idea is only to keep it from cooling more than it has to when out of the oven) and quickly apply a thin layer of flaxseed oil, and then replace in the oven. Be sure to use mitts. My thinking is that flax seed oil burns off so quickly that even an oven could keep a pan hot enough to apply layer after [thin] layer of seasoning, letting each layer burn off for only a minute or two. If I ever try this, I'll update some of these threads, but as i said above, I'm lucky to have a very wide burner.

          1. re: cowboyardee
            rasputina Mar 22, 2012 08:43 AM

            Burner size makes no difference, there is no reason to season on the stove in the first place. The oven or any bbq grill with a lid works better.

            1. re: rasputina
              cowboyardee Mar 22, 2012 09:44 AM

              You sound as though you either didn't read or didn't understand the method I linked to above.

              A grill might indeed be useful though. Haven't tried it. Unevenness of heat might be a problem.

              Just in case, if you've actually tried rapidly applying layer after layer or flaxseed oil-based seasoning either in the oven or on the grill, then please write up your experience. But if you're just talking about traditional methods of seasoning (the kind that take an hour or more per coat) then that doesn't really apply to my posts on the matter.

              "Burner size makes no difference,"
              Given that I was working on the stove top, burner size makes all the difference in the world.

        2. s
          slowshooter Mar 20, 2012 11:59 AM

          Sounds like we both like to tinker. At one point I was considering using a sand bath to get temps consistent all the way up the sides. Then thought about modifying an old Farberware electric skillet to create a oil bath.

          Both would have given me consistent temps for hours from the floor to the rim.

          Eventually the investment vs return lines crossed and I just stuck with what was tried and true.

          1. j
            JeremyEG Mar 22, 2012 09:00 AM

            Interesting. I always seasoned my new cast iron pans following the manufacturers instructions but then I frequently used them almost as roasting pans for veggies or chicken or things like that. They are almost completely non-stick now and I do everything from potatoes to eggs to fish in them but in the beginning, I just tried to use them as often as possible and the seasoning just got better and better. I also love the idea of a piece of equipment getting more effective the longer you use it. Not too many things like that in life.

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