Seasoning Cast Iron

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Photo by Joe Lingeman

The day of the Super Bowl, I was preparing to make my favorite sweet potato peanut soup, and I’d found a really simple, delicious-looking chickpea flatbread recipe to pair with it. Whipping together the ingredients, I noticed the recipe suggested using a cast iron pan in the oven to bake the flatbread. I’d been thinking about buying one to stock our kitchen, so I sent my husband to Target to officially begin our cast iron journey.

I’m embarrassed to say that while I consider myself a competent home cook, I didn’t own a cast iron pan until that day. It’s not that I didn’t want to cook with cast iron—many of my friends rave about the versatility and durability. Honestly, I avoided it because I was intimidated. Unfamiliar terms like “seasoning” and the fear of rusting kept me in my comfort zone, cooking my bacon and eggs with cheap non-stick pans my grandma got us for Christmas.

I quickly noticed the benefits of cast iron outweighed any potential disadvantages. But since I bought my cast iron in a hurry, without doing any research, I made a few silly mistakes along the way. If you’re similarly green to the world of cast iron, here are a few things I wish I knew before I brought my pan home.
Cast Iron is Easier to Clean Than You Think

As long as I’m airing my dirty laundry, I’ll tell you my most embarrassing cast iron story. I broke a very intuitive and important cast iron principle by accidentally soaking it in the sink the first night I used it. I had made dinner (the flatbread was delicious, by the way), then stepped away from the kitchen to watch the halftime show. My husband did dishes after the game, leaving the sink partially full of water. Between putting our kids to bed and getting the kitchen cleaned up, neither of us thought to clean the cast iron separately from our other dishes. (Cast iron is metal, so leaving it immersed in water can cause it to rust.)

The next morning, I did some research. For me, soaking is the most effective way to remove buildup from other dishes, but I’d need a new method. I learned a few things. I assumed it wouldn’t be OK to use soap on cast iron, but actually, you can use dish soap and a brush or sponge to clean cast iron, just not as much soap as you would on other dishes. Cast iron is naturally resilient (outside of the rust thing), so it can withstand the scrubbing.

Photo by Ashley Poskin

But after my silly mistake the first night, having my cast iron anywhere near the sink made me nervous. Searching for another option to remove burned-on buildup from the pan, I found a really simple and surprisingly effective method: salt. Instead of using soap and an abrasive brush, I simply poured some big salt flakes on the affected areas of the pan, got a damp towel, and used it to scrub away. It worked like magic. The salt was just abrasive enough, and the scant amount of water from the towel put my overly anxious mind at ease. Now, I use this method every time I clean my cast iron. (A tip: you can use half a cut potato instead of a damp cloth—it has just the right amount of moisture!)
You Don’t Actually Need to “Season” your Cast Iron

One of the other reasons I’d long avoided buying a cast iron pan had to do with seasoning. Basically, you can make a cast iron pan non-stick by “seasoning” it—aka treating it with oil, then baking it. The oil fills holes in the metal and creates a coating that seals the surface, which can help prevent rust over time and keep your cast iron in overall tip-top shape.

Photo by Lauren Volo

Seasoning isn’t a hard step, but it’s an extra step, and any extra step can feel overwhelming. So instead of grabbing my oil, I again did a little bit of recon. I was pleased to learn two things: one, many modern cast iron pans actually come pre-seasoned (check with the manufacturer). For those pans that don’t come pre-seasoned (mine, a cheaper kind from Target, didn’t), seasoning is as easy as literally cooking your food.

Every time you cook, you’re adding layers of baked-on fat and oil that will build up over time on your skillet for a natural finish (especially when you’re frying with a generous amount of oil). Yes, you’ll still need to clean your cast iron and use a bit of oil when you cook, but to me, those are a lot easier than worrying about baking oil onto the pan as a separate step.

These little tips aren’t groundbreaking, but if someone told me about them years ago, I would have integrated cast iron into my kitchen routine a long time ago—and, by now, my pan would be perfectly seasoned (and hopefully, not rusty).