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Seasoning: Back in the Day, Iron Pans Came Naked, and People Knew How to Do It

4 Min Read

That’s right, people just knew how to do it. Season, that is.

Somebody taught them, “This is iron. Don’t leave it wet. It will rust.”

Somebody said, “Take care of this pan and it will take care of you.” If you’ve never cooked with cast iron then it’s your lucky day. Popular among hipsters, senior citizens, city slickers, and real cowboys, cast iron takes all kinds.

I have learned everything I know about cast iron from other folks who love it. Take my friend Brenda, who I met at an estate sale. I followed her back to her truck because I could tell she knew something I didn’t. She kept looking at all my rusty pans.

When I asked her, “Did I pay too much?”   

She said, “I don’t know, what are you going to do with all that?”

And at that point, I really didn’t know. I wanted to restore them. I wanted to see what I could find under the rust and crud. I started with a can of oven cleaner and a couple trash bags in the sun. The oven cleaner strips the pans alright, but I didn’t like all the ingredients on the can.

So then, I read about electrolysis. I bought a steel plate and a battery charger. I had the thing going all night but it proved to be fussy and I was trying to process fifteen pans in one round.

Then I discovered lye. I was already familiar with sodium hydroxide from making bar soap with my sister. Lye proved to be the best passive cleaner for processing large amounts of cast iron, but it requires care. I wear goggles and gloves. After removing the pans from the lye, I neutralize with vinegar before cleaning with a power drill and a wire brush.  

cast iron brought back in rough shape.

You can bring cast iron back from the grave.  More than once, a customer has brought me a skillet they found buried in Louisiana soil. I’ve tried it all: chemicals, electricity and fire. But for most, a conventional oven, steel wool and a bottle of Crisco will suffice. 

Start with a project skillet, not an artifact.  Maybe there’s a dimple of rust, or a well-intentioned roommate accidentally stripped your pan in the dishwasher. A ‘seasoned’ pan, is simply a clean pan with a luster and a naturally non-stick surface made of polymerized oil.

There’s so much chatter out there on how to season, its ridiculous. The basic idea is: get your pan real hot, then oil it (pronounced: earl-it). 

A finished restoration.

Seasoning Pro-tips:

  1. Apply light even layers to a pan that’s already hot (think about varnishing or painting, same deal).
  2. Preheat your oven to 375. After just 5 minutes in the oven, remove and “wipe” off all surface seasoning then leave in the oven for an additional 50 minutes (you’re not actually wiping off the seasoning, you’re preventing drips).
  3. Bake the seasoning on your skillets with your skillets upside down (this helps distribute the oil, and prevents further splotching/pooling).
  4. Repeat 2- 7 times (you can do it gradually over a week.  Roast a chicken.  Bake some cookies. Seasoning is something that can happen in the background).
  5. Last step: final seasoning, crank your oven to max and let pans come to temperature until the seasoning starts to smoke.  Turn off heat (within 10 min) and let the pans come back to oven off temperature before removing.  This ensures your seasoning will not scratch.

 

And this is the unspoken thing: once you know, you teach someone else.

 

Resources:

To learn how to identify your vintage cast iron, he also has some precious youtube videos…

http://www.castironcollector.com/

This lady knows how to make soap…

http://www.annelwatson.com/soapmaking/

So you want to buy 50 pounds of Lye…

https://www.bulkapothecary.com/

By Betsy Lindell

Betsy Lindell lives and works in New Orleans. She writes, takes photos, seasons pots, and studies the intersection between people and the tools they use to feed their appetites. She has a store called Seasoned, a cult classic among people who have their most important conversations in the kitchen. She buys, trades and sells vintage cookware. She loves cast iron and objects with stories.

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