Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware
A cast iron skillet can be the best piece of non-stick cookware you own if it is seasoned properly. Learning how to season a cast iron skillet will help you get many years of service from your skillet. Whether it is a new cast iron skillet that you bought at the store, one that was passed down from your grandmother or one you picked up at a garage sell, proper cleaning and seasoning is all it takes to make it a usable piece of cookware.
Cast iron is a great material for cooking because it can have an excellent non-stick surface. A cast iron skillet will heat evenly while cooking. You won't have to worry about searing part of your food while the rest is still trying to heat.
Clean the Cast Iron Skillet
If you are working with a new piece or one which has been neglected, you want to clean the cast iron skillet well before starting to season it. A new cast iron skillet will be gray instead of black like you are used to seeing unless it has been pre-seasoned before you purchase it. Even though it appears clean, take time to wash it well with soap and very hot water to clean out the pores of the skillet. Don't be afraid to buy a used and rusty cast iron skillet. It can save you a lot of money and after your clean and season it again, it will be as good as new. A used cast iron skillet will probably already be seasoned, but you want to treat it as a new piece so that you know it is done right. Like a new skillet, you want to clean it well with hot water to removed as much crud and gunk as you can. There may be rust spots on used cast iron cookware. A good scrubbing with steel wool should take care of any rust.
While your initial cleaning should be done with soap and water, you want to avoid soap as much as possible after seasoning the piece. Soap will strip away the seasoning that you are trying to build up on your cast iron skillet. Don't be afraid to use soap when necessary. You won't do any damage to your skillet but you may lose a bit of the non-stick qualities until your skillet has a chance to build up its surface again. If it is necessary to use soap, be sure to rinse and dry the piece thoroughly as the soap can penetrate the pores of the skillet and unpleasantly flavor your food.
Heat your oven to 250 to 300 degrees. Spread some tin foil on a lower rack to catch any grease that drips from your cast iron skillet while seasoning. Coat the entire surface of your cast iron piece with lard, grease or oil. Vegetable oil is not the best choice, but it will still work if that is all you have. You want the coat of grease or fat to be even through the whole skillet. Wipe down the piece with a paper towel before placing in the oven.
Place the cast iron skillet in the oven upside down on an upper rack above the tin foil. After an hour of cooking the piece, turn the oven off and let it cool with the cast iron skillet still inside. Congratulations! You have just seasoned your cast iron skillet.
This process may need to be done more than once to get a good non-stick coating on the skillet. It does not need to be done all at one time. You can use your skillet and season it again as necessary. To season it further without starting over, you can wash it with really hot water and a nylon scrub brush. Do not use soap unless absolutely necessary at this point. Repeat the process of covering the skillet with grease and cooking it in the oven.
Cook High Fat and Greasy Foods
The first several times you use your cast iron skillet, you want to cook foods that have high fat content or foods cooked in oil. This will promote a better non-stick surface on your skillet. Bacon and sausage are good choices. Avoid tomato based sauces until your skillet has built up a good seasoned base. The acid in tomatoes and wines will strip the seasoning from the skillet.
Re-Seasoning a Cast Iron Skillet
You may find that over time your skillet seems to be well seasoned in some spots, but not in others. Or, you may have an area that lost its seasoning due to a certain food you cooked in it. This can cause spots in the skillet where food sticks while cooking.
To re-season a skillet you will want to clean it as thoroughly as you can. This is best done with very hot water, soap, scrub brush and possibly steel wool. You want to clean as much of the current seasoning off of the skillet as you need to get an even coat of seasoning throughout the piece. You probably won't get it all off, nor do you need to. Just try to get it as even as you can so that you end up with a smooth surface to build up your seasoning again.
Repeat the seasoning steps from above and you will be ready to use your cast iron skillet again.
When washing your cast iron skillet you want to dry it very well. Otherwise, it could rust. Some people recommend coating your cast iron in some type of oil or grease if it will be stored a long time before being used again. This will help prevent rust. If you decide to do this, avoid vegetable oil since it can become sticky and rancid after a while. This is not necessary as long as the piece is well seasoned and completely dry before storing.
Not all cast iron is as good as any other. Differences in thicknesses around the walls and bottom of a cast iron skillet can cause it to heat unevenly. High quality cast iron pieces will cost more.
Some oils will smoke more than others when used to season or cook in cast iron. Olive oil is one which smokes badly even at low heat. Vegetable oils break down over repeated use and there is some speculation that seasoning a cast iron skillet with them may be more harmful than normal over time. Coconut oil does not smoke and remains healthy over multiple heatings. Having said all that, using the grease from bacon is probably the best grease you can use for seasoning your cast iron skillet.
This should help you enjoy many years of non-stick use and evenly heated cooking from your cast iron skillet.