Cast iron cookware saw its heyday in America’s late 19th century and on into the middle of the 20th. High quality ore from Ohio and Pennsylvania was cast into skillets, dutch ovens, waffle irons, and a whole lot else. These pieces were finished by hand, their cooking surfaces were machined smooth and the iron’s rough cast texture was removed. This removal of metal also made for lighter pans that were easier to use, were faster to season, and more non-stick. This finishing process is a thing of the past, and is one of the main benefits for collecting and using vintage cast iron.
There are many ‘recipes’ for how to season a cast iron pan. Many of these recipes have been handed down from generation to generation. Our process, which we’ve tested extensively, yields excellent results provided you use the right oil, and don’t rush the process.
What you need:
Freshly cast iron pan cookware
It’s important that the pan be as cleaned down to the bare iron if possible. All prior seasoning should be removed with a lye solution, and any rust must be removed with vinegar, or electrolysis.
The choice of oil is very important. It’s necessary to choose an oil that will polymerize, harden, and adhere to the pan. Flaxseed oil is a common choice, but we’ve also gotten satisfactory results from shortening (Crisco).
Your home oven will heat the oil that’s been applied to the pan and cause it to harden and darken. This is the part of the process that can’t be rushed, it takes some time.
- Wash your pan in hot soapy water to remove any surface oils. Then heat in a 200 ºF oven until completely dry. The heat will also ‘open’ up the iron making it more accepting of the seasoning.
- Apply a thin coat of flaxseed oil to the hot pan. Coat it entirely. You’ll want to use an oven mitt since the pan will be pretty hot.
- Wipe away all of the remaining oil. There will still be a very thin coat on the pan, but it should not appear oily. Using too much oil will result in streaks and a sticky surface.
- Bake the pan upside down in a 500 ºF oven for 30 minutes. Then shut the oven off and let the pan cool inside. Heating the oil will cause it to create polymer chains, making for a dark, smooth surface.
- Repeat this seasoning process at least three times before cooking in the pan. The seasoning will continue to build as you use the pan, becoming darker and increasingly non-stick. The pan will also be easier to clean as the seasoning layer builds.
You should always heat cast iron with something in it, even if it’s only a bit of cooking oil. You can damage the seasoning by overheating it. Avoid cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes or citrus in the pan for long periods of time. They’ll react with the seasoning and the iron and impart an unpleasant flavor.
To clean, deglaze the pan with a bit of water while it is still hot. Let the pan cool and use your hands or a plastic scrub pad to remove any stubborn bits of food. A bit of kosher salt can also be used to soak up excess oil, and to act as a mild abrasive. Many folks advocate for not using any soap at all, but we’ve found a small amount of dish soap won’t harm a well seasoned pan. But do avoid using harsh abrasives and cleaning detergents. Wipe thoroughly dry, or heat on the stove top to dry, and store in a safe, dry place.
With proper seasoning (don’t rush it) and proper care a vintage cast iron pan will last for generations to come.