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Cast iron pan smokes when preheating

Hi there, I know this is a newb question but when I preheat my cast iron skillet to get super-hot for searing, the pan will inevitably smoke as the seasoning begins to burn (or if it's not the "seasoning" per se, it's whatever residual oil is on the pan). This is normal right? I'm always wondering if I should be throwing my steaks on as soon as I see smoke, or if this is just part and parcel of cooking with cast iron.

Thanks

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  1. I don't consider it normal. The seasoning on my cast iron skillet is smooth, dry, and hard. It doesn't smoke when I heat it up. It sounds to me like you have oil residue in your pan which has not been turned into a proper seasoning.

    13 Replies
    1. re: GH1618

      OK so this is where I get confused. Pretty much everything I read says that when you're done using your pan, you clean it out, dry it well (in a hot oven or over the stove) and then wipe a thin layer of oil in the pan for storage. Sometimes you also see recommendations to wipe a thin layer of oil in the pan before you use it. Wouldn't this oil smoke next time you use the pan?

      Or another example. Forget about wiping a thin layer of oil before or after cooking...what about just residual oil from your previous meal? Let's say I make bacon, pour out the oil when I'm done, and clean up the rest with a paper towel. Obviously since I'm not using soap and water, there will still be a thin layer of bacon grease left in the pan, and I assume that would smoke up next time I heat the pan.

      Does this make sense?

      1. re: TBusidan

        Perfect sense IMHO.....You will find that any topic relating to cast iron is a hotly debated and contentious thing but like you I too coat my many cast iron pans and wok with a very thin coating of neutral oil which inevitably smokes when brought up to heat...thus "smoking hot"?
        I wouldn't worry unless the oil was too thickly applied or not buffed in so as to become rancid and mar the flavor of your preparation... trust your nose and common sense.

        1. re: TBusidan

          There is a lot of conflicting information out there on how to maintain cast iron, and there are many threads on the subject here. I don't want to get into an extended debate, since I have written on the subject already, so will merely summarize what I do:

          1. The initial seasoning, or restoration of seasoning, is done with shortening (Crisco), not oil, and baked on.

          2. After use, pan is usually washed out with only hot water and a scrubber-sponge, then put over a low flame for a short time. All surface oil is wiped out with a paper towel as pan warms. Pan is dried thoroughly with heat and put away dry.

          3. If pan is especially greasy because of cooking bacon or a hamburger, I add a drop or two of liquid dish soap to the pan when I fill it with hot water. After a minute or less, I rinse it out and scrub with hot water and continue as normal

          I don't want to argue about soap. Those who never put soap in an iron pan are entitled to their method. I don't store a pan with old bacon grease in it. If the seasoning needs a little restoration, I just wash the pan, dry it thoroughly in the oven, and do the shortening thing again. Usually, a tiny amount of soap just helps remove the grease and does no real harm to the seasoning.

          1. re: GH1618

            As I indicated cast iron is a contentious topic and there will be varied opinions.
            I season my cast iron like I season a new carbon steel wok.
            Fat back brought up to smoking temp on a charcoal grill and left to cool slowly, done correctly you'll only need to do this perhaps twice.
            Wash with warm water and a light scrubbing with coarse salt to eliminate any crusty bits during break in. Dribble of neutral oil buffed in to season and protect.
            Respectfully... if your cast iron does not smoke a little under searing tempts, it's not hot enough or the pan is not seasoned properly.

            1. re: Duppie

              OK.  My skillet does indeed smoke a little when brought to sufficient temperature while dry.  However, this is hotter than is necessary for browning meat.  The Maillard reaction starts at about 220 °F, while the smoke point is in the range 350 to 400 °F, depending on the fat used.

              Here are a couple of quotations on the subject of "smokin' hot":

              Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: "... the smoke point of the fat must not be exceeded if burnt flavors are to be avoided." (on frying meats)

              James Beard in The New James Beard: "Heat the oil and butter in a skillet or sauté pan until sizzling but not smoking." (from a recipe for tournedos)

              You can smoke up your kitchen if you like, but I think it's unnecessary to proper cooking of meat.  Until I find an instruction from Beard advising to bring a pan to "smokin' hot" to sear meat, I'm not doing it.  If the seasoning is smoking, it seems to me it is being damaged.

              1. re: GH1618

                So now your pan does smoke? I'm confused........ Thanks for your McGee and Beard references but I believe we all knew it should and would.
                Perhaps we have different opinions on smoke but I like to utilize a well seasoned pan properly and believe it was essentially the question the OP posed.
                Thanks for your input all the same.

                1. re: Duppie

                  Maybe we have different definition of smoke. The degree of smoking also depends on the temperature the pan is bought to. At the end, to answer the original poster: Yes, it is normal to see smoke off a seasoned pan at high temperature.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    I believe we're on the same page. The answers I posted was directed to the OP's question of the appearance of smoke when preheating his/her skillet to get "super hot" for searing.

                    1. re: Duppie

                      As much as I normally respect the opinions of Chem, I am not on the same page. My pan now smokes only when I heat it beyond what is necessary for proper cooking, which I did only as a test. Proper searing temperature is about 300 °F, below the smoke point.

                      I suspect that the love of smoke by some is a primal instinct developed long ago when humankind first learned to control fire.

                      1. re: GH1618

                        <I suspect that the love of smoke by some is a primal instinct developed long ago when humankind first learned to control fire.>

                        Heh heh heh.

                        < Proper searing temperature is about 300 °F>

                        But don't forget that a pan surface cools down very quickly the moment you put a thick steak on it (or whatever large amount of food). The food withdraws/sucks a lot of energy out of the pan. When a steak is tossed on a hot pan, you can hear that nice sizzling sound, but if you were to immediately flip the steak, it may not able to make that sound again because the pan has already been significantly cooled.

                        I suppose it depends on the power of your stove, but if I were to preheat the pan to just 300 oF, and I then threw in a steak, the cooking will be done at lower than 300 oF. So I have to preheat the pan to a higher temperature than whatever temperature I really want to cook for.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          True, that's an effect a cook needs to be aware of. Several sources I have found say searing is done between 300 and 500 °F, so if you don't mind the smoke, have at it.

                        2. re: GH1618

                          >Proper searing temperature is about 300 °F, below the smoke point.<

                          LOL this, too, is debateable. There are so many different ways to season, use and maintain CI.

                          I consider proper seasoning temps at about 400 F. I never put my CI away greasy, and always wash the grease off the pan after I cook something. Then put away dry and clean. I will grease the pan again, just before I cook in it.

                          My ci pans smoke too if I get them hot enough.

                          1. re: dixiegal

                            Is hot enough the point at which you know it's ready to sear or is "smoke too if I get them hot enough" considered too hot for searing for you?

        2. Hi, TBusidan:

          I think the key to answering your question is that you're preheating your skillet to get "super-hot" for searing. For me and the way I cook, "super-hot" means hotter than the seasoning can possibly stand, no matter what your method. Ever seen a resto grille with seasoning? I don't think so!

          If you are doing true high heat searing, you are probably best off getting yourself a second skillet. You can baby the one's seasoning for delicates like eggs, pancakes and the like, and abuse the sh#t out of the one you sear in. It'll look (and be) somewhat grody, but who cares? Why reseason something that will just be burnt away with the next steak?

          Frankly, at high-sear temperatures, you can expect some smoke anyway, just from the meat's fat and protein char.

          Have Fun,
          Aloha,
          Kaleo

          1. I throw down when I see smoke. And then when it comes back to smoking temp, I reduce the heat a little.

            1. <This is normal right? >

              Very normal. Maybe not tons of smoke, but you will see something coming off.

              1. Thanks for all the replies, lots of good information here. Just seeing that people disagree about some of this is helpful; it shows me that there's no "right" way and I'm doing it "wrong".

                When I preheat my CI pan for searing, it doesn't end up smoking up the entire house like when the steak actually hits the pan, but it's definitely not just wisps of smoke either. So I was curious how people handle this. I always see that you should apply a thin layer of oil to the pan before and after use. I always see that when oil is smoking, you've heated it too high. And I always see that cast iron is great for high heat searing. So I don't understand how these concepts fit together.

                3 Replies
                1. re: TBusidan

                  I believe Chem would be the one to answer accurately most of what you ask but a lot depends on the pan,how well it's seasoned,the different oils and their individual smoke points, tolerances of your heat source,type and style of cooking and as GH1618 so clearly illustrated... personal opinion.

                  1. re: TBusidan

                    <I always see that cast iron is great for high heat searing>

                    Mostly for three reasons. First, cast iron cookware can be heated to very high temperature without damaging it. Second, cast iron cookware are usually made very thick, so it has a lot of thermal capacity. This help maintain the cooking temperature. Third, a well seasoned cast iron cookware acts fairly nonstick so that food does not readily stick to it.

                    <I always see that you should apply a thin layer of oil to the pan before and after use. I always see that when oil is smoking, you've heated it too high.>

                    I see. I heat the empty cast iron skillet until a very faint of smoke coming off the pan. Then I add the cooking oil. The newly added oil bring the pan temperature down just a bit, so that it is not smoking. Now, I add my steak or tuna steak or whatever. Even if your cooking oil was slightly smoking. The moment you put in your steak, the temperature will drop again.

                    Like you said you really don't want your oil to be constantly smoking during the entire cooking process. I mean you can, but I prefer not to. At the end, everyone does it a bit different as you can tell.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Thanks, that makes sense. So when you see that very faint smoke, that's when you consider your pan preheated correct? I guess I was aiming for "glowing red iron HOT" lol. I've gone to steakhouses that tout their special grills that hit 1600 or some ridiculous number, but maybe I should adjust my expectations for a home stove-top steak :-)

                  2. This post is exactly what I am looking for. I can't seem to figure out how how to heat my cast iron for searing (both steak and tuna). I usually finish off with a coat of oil and heat it over the stove when it's cleaned. When I heat it up the next time, the oil does tend to smoke. However, I usually let it smoke for quite a while until the surface of the pan actually appears much drier than when initially put on the stove. How much smoking is an indication that the pan is hot enough? I think perhaps I am overheating my pan and thus this is why I often end up with burned on crusty bits.