Stopped by one of my haunts the other day and bought this frying pan for a $1.00. The fork was also a buck. Better half thought that I’d thrown a dollar away on the pan. He didn’t think I could bring it back into usable condition.
Actually, this post is a primer on one of the ways to season cast iron cookware or any other CI that needs restoration. While this discussion is for a large number of objects, done at one time, the concepts work for a single piece. Just scale back, as appropriate for the item.
First, round up your supplies. You’ll need vinegar (white preferred, but cider will work, too.) Steel wool scrub pads - no soap, green scrub pads, wire brush, oven mitts, vegetable oil or Crisco shortening, paper towels (heavy duty shop type towels, or lint free cotton rags - preferred), basting brush, bowl for oil, mineral oil for wooden items, old towels, pliers of several sizes (as applicable to the objects), and a heat proof work surface. Here you see a card table topped with inverted full size baking sheets and a grill rack.
Next setup your work area. In this case I’m using a turkey fryer and a water bath canner to “cook the cast iron”. Using the wagon brings the canner up to a comfortable working height. It was windy when this was done, thus it’s in a sheltered place. All the fallen leaves had been raked away. And a water hose stays at the ready, in case of need.
Before pix of some of the cast iron included in this session.
Broken bricks were used as a trivet in the canner. You can use any suitable object, such as canning jar rings for a trivet.
Canner filled with water, vinegar, and cast iron. Filled the canner about ½ full of water. Added vinegar. Rough estimate is about 1 pint to 1 gallon of water. I’ve used varying ratios of water to vinegar with success. The stronger the solution the faster it will act. For first time users of this method, use a ratio of 4 or 5 parts water to 1 part vinegar. After that, vary the solution to meet your needs. Loaded in the CI, then finished filling with water.
Because of the wind, I also used a windbreak around the burner. Brought the pot of water to a gentle boil and let it simmer for an hour or so. Then, turned off the heat and let it cool down. This takes a while. It’s often easier just to let the items soak overnight after heating. The heating process helps remove grease and crusty buildup associated with well used cookware. Helps, too with the removal of factory coating on new cookware. As long as the CI remains submerged, it won’t rust further, while soaking. Note: Don’t leave it for extended periods of time, as the acid may begin to pit the metal.
Once it’s cool, time to scrub. Warm water and Dawn dish detergent is what I use. Note: Make sure the iron is cool. Cast iron can crack if subjected to extreme temperature changes. And, for safety reasons it should be cool before handling. Use the steel wool, wire brush, and green scrub pad to remove the now loosened rust and cooking residue. Be forewarned, this is a messy job. Wear old clothes. Use rags that will be discarded afterwards. If your hands are sensitive, wear rubber gloves. It’s best done outside.
Clean until you have removed the rust and buildup. It isn’t necessary to try to remove stains, although if you continue to work on it, you can sometimes get to the bare metal. Each piece is different, so use your own judgement as to how much scrubbing to do. When finished rinse thoroughly, then rinse again. Dry the piece and immediately put it on a heating source to drive out the moisture that’s now in the pores of the metal. In this case, I’m using the side burner on my grill. Watch the color change, as the metal heats and the water is driven off. The lighter areas in these pix are dryer.
Immediately apply a thin coat of oil or shortening to the piece while it is still hot. Protect your hands with oven mitts. Use an oiled shop towel, rag, or pastry brush (natural bristles, synthetic will melt) to apply the oil. Doing this while the metal is still hot does two things. First, the item will begin to rust immediately. You can watch it form as the item cools down. Immediately applying oil stops the rusting. And, doing it while the metal is hot allows the oil to better penetrate the pores in the metal. Your first step in getting a cast iron non-stick surface. Place the oiled hot pan on a heat proof surface to finish cooling, if you’re doing more than one piece at the time. For a single piece, go to the next step.
Here you see my old Sunbeam grill set up to season CI. Using a grill is much better than doing this in the kitchen due to the smoke generated. And it will generate smoke!! Put cooled cast iron on a cool grill grate. Fire it up and shoot for around 350* grate temperature. Close the lid and bake until done. Most CI seasoning guidelines state to keep it in a 350* oven for an hour. When using a grill, the timing will depend on the color achieved. Often with small thinner pieces the color will go from brown to black in as little as 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on it. After the piece reaches the point of being nicely seasoned, continuing to cook will do harm instead. It drives out and burns off the oil you’ve so patiently applied. With a little too much time, the heat will remove the seasoning and you’re back to square one.
When the piece has turned black, turn off the heat, leaving the grill lid closed. Again, let the iron cool. When it is warm to the touch, again apply a light coating of oil. Use a rag or shop cloth saturated with oil to put on a sparce coat. You want a very thin film of oil. If you have the time and/or you didn’t achieve the depth of seasoning needed, repeat. Applying oil and heating several times will give the best results.
Now, your iron is ready to go into storage or for the final step in this process. No pictures for this step, as this will be done when these pieces are used for the first time.
Wash and slice a good sized potato. Heat the pan or pot and add a generous amount of cooking oil or shortening. Fry the potato until crispy (like French Fries). Discard both the potatoes and the oil in a safe manner. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel. Now, you’re ready to use it for your favorite recipe. Frying of the potato removes the metallic flavor that often accompanies freshly seasoned cast iron and adds one more layer of seasoning to the pan.
For the first few uses of the pot or pan, use it to fry foods such as bacon, sausage, and more potatoes. Each time it’s used for frying the seasoning is deepened and strengthened. Wait until it’s well seasoned before making tomato based stews. As with the vinegar cooking above, acid based foods will remove seasoning. Especially if it hasn’t been thoroughly cured.
Well seasoned CI can be washed with hot soapy water. I often read where this is a no-no. - That using soap will leave a soap flavor in the pan. - That using soap will remove the seasoning. If the first were true, manufacturers wouldn’t recommend using hot soapy water to clean their wares before seasoning. For the second, I’ve washed these pans for years in hot soapy water with no detriment to the seasoning. I DON’T let pans soak in soapy water.
To store your CI, put it in a dry place. Never store in plastic. Condensation from the air can lead to rust. Store the lids, separately, if possible, so the air can freely circulate around all the surfaces. A closed pan can have a rancid odor. If you do stack with lids on, put some folded newspaper strips between the pan and the lid, which will provide for ventilation.
If in long term storage, about once every 6 months to a year, wash and rinse the pan. Then, fry up another batch of potatoes and discard. Use a paper towel to wipe out the pan, leaving a thin film of oil on all surfaces. This renews the seasoning, heading off the potential for rust, and keeps the pans ready for use. Especially those pieces that you only pull out for special occasions.
In closing, the best way to store and maintain CI cookware is to use it frequently. For cleanup, wash, rinse, heat to dry, and oil, if needed. In time, applying additional oil following use won’t be needed, unless you’ve cooked a high acid food. Metal utensils won’t damage the non-stick finish, BTW.
Hope this cooking cast iron story has been of interest and offered some insights on cooking your own cast iron. Too, keep this in mind, the next time you’re at a yard sale or flea market. That rusty pan for a buck can become the perfect pan to use on your side burner or on the campfire.
PS - Next CI project to tackle.