How to season a cast iron pan:
Seasoning a cast iron pan is a simple and low-tech process that will make your cooking experience much easier in the long run with a small time investment in the short term. The purpose is to build an even non-stick surface in the pan.

When you first get a new cast iron pan (or any other cast iron cookware for that matter), or are ressurecting a long neglected one, follow these simple steps:

  1. If your pan is starting out in sorry shape (i.e. burnt on food or rusted) you must scour it down with steel wool and hot water before starting this process.
  2. Coat the pan (including the outside) with a thin layer of shortening or lard.
  3. Heat the oven to 250 degrees.
  4. Place the pan in the oven.
  5. Leave the pan in the oven for 15 or 20 mintues.
  6. Take the pan out and pour off any excess grease that may be in there.
  7. Put the pan back in the oven and let it cook for two hours.
  8. Take it out and let it cool.
Congratulations, you now own a seasoned pan. Now, let's talk about how to keep it in good shape.

Some people at this point will say the only way to keep the pan in good shape is to never use water on it again. If you are using this pan primarily for frying, this is great advice. In that case, when you are through frying stuff in it, heat it up with a little extra oil heat the pan until it starts to smoke a little bit, and using a paper towel or a rag or whatever, wipe/scrub it so as to remove any food bits that are in there. Then turn the heat off. This does several things. First, heating it gets any water that may be there to evaporate, tends to burn off volatile oils that would leave a flavor in the pan, and kills any nasty germs that are living there.

If you are going to be making curries or stews, or just can't face the idea of not washing the pan out of some Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, then the next best thing is to quickly remove any food from the pan, wash it with hot water but no soap, and then follow the directions above. Resist the temptation to scrub at the pan with steel wool because it can remove the finish you worked so hard to build when conditioning the pan, and then you'd have to do that all over agian. One other warning about steel wool: Tiny steel wool particles can get into the microscopic cracks in the pan and cause a metallic flavor to be imparted to any acidic foods you cook for a little while after you use it, so steel wool should be a last resort to be used only when all other scrubbing methods have been exhausted.

Some other nodes to look at for more context would be:

Regarding cast-iron pans, I have found that it is best to keep my iron pans only for cooking that will not reduce the finish, such as frying. The bane of cast-iron (apart from soap) is the tomato or anything acidic, so do not cook tomato sauce or tomato-based curries in it. I also find that milk products tend to reduce the finish.

I keep a separate stainless steel sauté pan for cooking things that are not cast-iron friendly.

The seasoning layer on a cast iron pan is a blend of the oil or grease used to season and ferric oxide. It is very black. Badly rusted pans will appear red; this is ferrous oxide and -- for our purposes -- bad.

I disagree about the cooking of tomato sauce in cast iron pans. Tomatoes are acidic, and perhaps if you have a very well-seasoned pan, you should keep it only for frying. But the acid helps to form the early seasoning on a pan. In any case, tomato sauce cooked in cast iron tastes better.

One way to start a pan is to simmer beans or peas in it. Like tomatoes, these will tend to blacken the pan. Use too much beans and not enough water; you'll be throwing these out.

It is very hard to find a new cast iron pan these days. I have gone to expensive gourmet cooking utensil stores, without success. Here in San Francisco, there is a very large such store down in the Ferry Building. They have a selection of what they imagine to be cast iron pans. They resemble the genuine article, but are cast inside and out. That is, they have not been machined flat on the inside. They are worthless for serious cooking. I suspect they are intended for blackening fish.

Long ago, I wasted much time on a pan bought at Safeway. It was machined, but not well, so the surface was uneven. No amount of work -- short of machine shop work -- will correct such a deficiency. Well, I was young and foolish.

The best place to find cast iron pans is at a junk or thrift shop. These pans may be in terrible shape, but they can always be reclaimed. Steel wool is sometimes not enough. Get a block of pumice at a beauty supply shop; use plenty of water and rinse often. Then use steel wool to eliminate any high spots that are left, and proceed to season.

Earlier writeups in this node discuss the normal seasoning process fairly well. Missing are two key ideas. First, work is involved. Soap is a popular cleaning tool because it helps to loosen dirt and crud. Without it, you will have to spend more time and energy scrubbing, at least until the pan is well seasoned. Second, the pan is not all done merely because you have completed the initial seasoning process. You must cook with it and care for it properly. The seasoning layer is built up gradually and this take time -- years, some say.

If you need to scrub a cast iron pan in the midst of the seasoning process, or when food has become too thoroughly stuck to be wiped out with a paper towel, the tool of choice is a green plastic scratchy pad. There is nothing at all wrong with using plain water, but be sure to heat the pan well and oil it while hot. Before you resort to scrubbing, though, always try the paper towel. There's nothing wrong with just wiping out bits of food and hanging the pan up.

There is no agreement on the proper oil for seasoning and use in a cast iron pan. The traditional agent is lard; my family has always used Crisco. My mother, always a maverick, oscillated between butter and margarine. I cook exclusively with olive oil, but this smokes at too low a temperature for initial seasoning.

Finally, use care when cooking. Although the seasoning layer is more robust than worthless Teflon, it is still soft compared to iron itself. If you scratch a groove in the seasoning, everything you cook will stick there until it fills in again.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Follow yclepts' advice to let the pan cool down before taking the lid off to vent the smoke. I didn't.

I live in an apartment, so I thought it would be a good idea to take the pan to the window to vent the smoke. Still hot, I took the pan with me and opened the window.

I knew the whole process probably would trigger the smoke detector, so I turned it off beforehand.

The entire arrangement proceeded to catch fire. Surprised, I dropped the pan, landing it on the window sill. To make matters worse, I forgot that opening that particular window will suck air into the apartment, not reverse.

So I'm standing there, in my characteristically messy apartment with stuff on the floor everywhere, with a cast iron pan full of burning vegetable oil billowing white smoke into my apartment, coughing profusely.

In a moment of quick thinking, I grabbed a fire extinguisher, strategically placed on the table next to the window, extinguished the fire, and opened the apartment door and proceeded to breathe.

A few minutes later, I returned, removed the pan, only to reveal this huge burn mark on the window sill.

So, ladies and gentlemen, when seasoning a cast iron pan using the method described by yclepts' -- make sure it's cooled down before the flash point of the oil before removing the lid!

Now the seasoning probably is completely ruined by the powder from the fire extinguisher, and I have to do it all over again.

Or, maybe I should just stick to Teflon. No, that wouldn't work. After all, nothing sticks to teflon. :-)

I can't speak on the subject of more common household pans and whatnot, but I do have quite a bit of experience with cast iron dutch ovens. It's a good idea to not only season these puppies when new, but at least once a year (at the beginning of the camping season is always a good time), or after any extended storage period. This will keep them in good form.

As far as cleaning, here's my method. Using a small amount of clean water and a soft plastic brillo pad, scrub any remaing food particles off the surface. Dump out the water, and voila, the food comes out with it. Repeat if necessary.

Once any surface residue is gone, take a paper towel and some Crisco or a similar "shortening" product, and give the inside of the "dutch" a light coating.

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