Cast Iron: it’s a cookware staple. It’s also the most versatile and durable type of cookware material out there, with their traditional look being favored by chefs and those who enjoy cooking at home. But it can be a little daunting to own- that is, until you know how to season, care and clean one.
This guide is here to show you the ins and outs of cast iron, from seasoning your pan to maintaining its finish. We’ll also explore which oil you need to use to get the absolute best seasoning.
Let’s dive in.
What is seasoning?
Seasoning is the process of preparing an item for use by applying a protective film to the surface. Phrases such as “seasoning the pan” or “seasoning a cast iron skillet” refer to coating it with oil and baking it in an oven, thereby cross-linking and polymerizing the molecules on its surface.
This forms a hard non stick surface on the cast iron cookware which protects it from food and the environment around it.
The best oil for seasoning cast iron
If you want the short answer, the best oil for seasoning cast iron is flax oil, this is because it’s a drying oil. Thin layers of drying oils become hard and tough when exposed to the air, which is what makes it so great for seasoning cast iron. Flax oil also contains a high amount of polyunsaturated fats making it more reactive during the polymerization process.
Lastly, it contains a high amount of omega-3 which helps to create a harder seasoning. All these factors combined make flax oil the best option for seasoning cast iron.
Now I realise not everyone has flaxseed oil in their cupboard and people want to season right away. So if you have multiple options to choose from and flaxseed oil isn’t one of them, then keep reading as we dive in and teach you how to identify the best oils for seasoning cast iron.
Note: If you wish to skip all the reading on the different oils, you can use our tool below to help you select the best oil. Simply select which oil you want, and check the oil score at the bottom. To understand the other information on this tool, keep reading.
Cold pressed vs unrefined vs refined
Cold pressed, unrefined and refined oils are all the different methods that manufactures use to create the oil. Pressed oils are created by mechanically pressing the seeds, unrefined oils are lightly filtered to only filter out the largest particles, and refined oils are heavily filtered and strained with heat to remove smaller particles.
All these methods for creating the oils affect the flavor of the oil, so it’s important to know when your using it as salad dressing, but when it comes to seasoning a pan most of the compounds will get burnt off anyway.
Unsaturated vs saturated fats
Saturated fats are a popular option for many, this includes bacon grease and lard. But the reality is, you should always pick unsaturated fats when seasoning your cast iron.
This is because unsaturated fats are far more reactive than saturated fats, and thus polymerize better when seasoning.
So why do so many people use saturated fats? During the 19th century, people used lard or bacon grease because it was more readily available. It will still create a protective layer on your cast iron, but it won’t be near as good as unsaturated fats. This is why flaxseed oil and vegetable oil are becoming much more popular.
Monounsaturated vs polyunsaturated
Now we have established that we should be aiming for unsaturated fats, should we be aiming for monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats in our oil for seasoning cast iron?
The more double bonds an oil has, the more reactive it becomes meaning it creates a better seasoning for your cast iron cookware. So always opt for oils with more polyunsaturated fats. The higher the percentage the better.
The smoking point of an oil is the temperature at which the oil turns to smoke. Pretty simple right?
So why do you need to know this? Well seasoning a cast iron pan is all about polymerizing the fats. When fats reach their smoking point, they begin to form bonds and polymerize. These bonds stick into the imperfections of the cast iron pan, essentially forming a barrier to block food from entering these imperfections.
If a fat doesn’t reach it’s smoking point, it won’t polymerize and you won’t get a protective barrier on your pan. This will be obvious because the oil will wipe straight off the pan.
So when deciding on an oil, it’s critical to know it’s smoking point so you can heat your pan to the required temperature needed to polymerize the oil.
Let’s take a look at the different oils and their properties to help you decide which one you want to use.
Corn oil is mostly polyunsaturated with a percentage of 82.3%. This makes it a good choice in terms of seasoning a cast iron skillet.
The smoking point of corn oil is 450 °F (232°C) . This is relatively high in comparison to other cooking oils.
Overall with it’s high smoking point requirement, it’s not the best choice, however if you don’t mind the heat required to reach this smoking point, then overall it’s a good choice of oil for seasoning a cast iron skillet due to it’s high amounts of unsaturated fat.
Avocado oil is mostly monounsaturated with a percentage of 70.6%. This makes it a good choice for seasoning cast iron, but it’s far from the best.
The smoking point of avocado oil is 250 °C (482 °F). This is relatively high in comparison to most oils, so if you don’t mind the heat required to reach this smoking point then you will find this oil is not a bad choice overall.
Canola oil is mostly monounsaturated with a percentage of 63.3%. This makes it a good choice for seasoning cast iron, but like avocado oil it’s far from the best.
The smoking point of canola oil is 238 °C (460 °F) which is slightly lower than avocado oil. So as with avocado oil, if you have the heat required to reach it’s smoking point, then it’s not a bad choice, just not the best.
Grapeseed oil is mostly polyunsaturated with a percentage of 74.7%. This makes it a good choice in terms of the properties required for seasoning cast iron, and in fact you will notice that grapeseed oil is becoming more popular amongst seasoned veterans in the industry.
74.7% – Polyunsaturated
14.3% – Monounsaturated
10.5% – Saturated
The smoke point of grapeseed oil is 216 °C (421 °F) and is one of the lowest of all oils we are looking at. This is due to it’s high amount of polyunsaturated fat, so if you don’t have much heat to work with, this could be a fantastic option for seasoning your cast iron skillet.
Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated with a percentage of 73.0%. This makes it a good choice of oil for seasoning cast iron.
10.3% – Polyunsaturated
73.0% – Monounsaturated
13.8% – Saturated
The smoke point of olive oil is 193 °C (380 °F) which is relatively low amongst most of the oils we have discussed. Overall, if producing enough heat is an issue for you, then this is a fantastic choice for seasoning a cast iron skillet.
Lard is extremely high in saturated fat with a whopping 39%. This means it’s not ideal for seasoning cast iron unlike the tradition suggests. 90% of other options are better than lard for seasoning.
11% – Polyunsaturated
45% – Monounsaturated
39% – Saturated
The smoke point of lard is 374 °F (190 °C) which as you can probably tell this is extremely low. This is one of the reasons lard was so popular in the old days for seasoning due to it’s availability and low smoke point.
But in todays world where you can get a variety of oils to choose from, lard is no where near the top of the list. I would recommend avoiding lard for seasoning cast iron cookware.
Vegetable shortening is another popular choice which is unjustified. It’s relatively high in saturated fats and relatively low in polyunsaturated fats.
28% – polyunsaturated
41% – monounsaturated
25% – saturated
The smoke point is 360-410°F (180-210°C) which isn’t too high, but at the same time it’s not low.
Therefor unless I only had vegetable shortening in my home, I would not use this as a seasoning product for cast iron cookware.
Bacon grease is the second most popular saturated fat for seasoning cast iron. But as with lard it’s only a myth that’s it’s even remotely good in comparison to the other fats. It’s 32% saturated fat which means it’s the third highest saturated fat type on this list. And that means it’s bad for seasoning cast iron.
11% – polyunsaturated
41% – monounsaturated
32% – saturated
The smoking point of bacon grease is 190 °C 374 °F which is relatively low, so it’s easy to polymerize into a seasoning. But due to it’s saturated fat content, it’s just not reactive enough in comparison to other oils. I never season my cast iron skillet with bacon grease.
For those who wouldn’t believe it, yes coconut oil is a whopping 87% saturated fats. Don’t worry it’s still healthy, but it’s not good for bonding to cast iron which means you should always avoid this oil for seasoning cast iron.
1.8% – polyunsaturated
6% – monounsaturated
87% – saturated
The smoking point of coconut oil is 400 °F (204.4 °C) so it’s around the middle in comparison to other oils, but as mentioned above, this is probably one of the worst options for seasoning cast iron. So simply leave it out.
Flaxseed oil (drying oil)
As mentioned above, flax oil is a drying oil which makes it extremely beneficial for cast iron pan seasoning. Combined with it’s 68% polyunsaturated fats totalling 86% unsaturated fats, flax oil is the best oil for seasoning cast iron.
18% – monounsaturated
9% – saturated
But what makes it even better is the extremely low heat needed for it to begin to polymerize. The smoke point of flax oil is 225°F (107.2 °C) which will not only make it extremely easy to season, but it will speed up the time needed to season too.
Overall this is the best oil for seasoning cast iron without a doubt, and anyone who tells you different does not know their chemistry.
Vegetable oil is a common oil is many households. With it being 81% unsaturated fat with 48% monounsaturated fats and 33% polyunsaturated fats, it’s definitely a good contender.
33% – polyunsaturated
48% – monounsaturated
14% – saturated
The smoke point of vegetable oil is 449.6°F (232 °C ) which is relatively high. So overall, if you can reach those temperatures with your heating appliances, then I wouldn’t dismiss vegetable oil as a seasoning oil at all. I would advise it if you don’t have anything better such as flax oil.
How to season cast iron cookware
Now we have covered which seasoning oil you need for your cast iron pans, it’s time to start seasoning.
Knowing how to season cast iron can seem complicated, but honestly it’s really simple and we will be keeping it simple.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when seasoning cast iron is they select the wrong oil, and that just leads to mediocre results. Choosing the best oil is the most important step.
So before we begin, we need to select the best oil for seasoning cast iron.
Step 1: Preheat your oven
The first and most important step, is to preheat your oven (If you are using a stovetop we will cover this later when needed)
Now to choose the temperature you need to look at the smoke point of the oil you are using and then heat the oven up higher than the smoke point. So if the smoke point is 400°F you need to preheat your oven to around 420°F.
This will allow the oils to polymerize properly. Don’t select 400°F exactly if your smoke point is 400°F simply because you will be depending on the oils smoke point being accurately measured.
Always go around 20°F higher than the oils smoke point.
After you have set your oven to preheat, let’s move onto cleaning your cast iron pan while the oven is preheating.
Step 2: Clean your cast iron pan thoroughly
The next step is to clean your cast iron cookware.
To do this you’ll need to use some kosher salt. Why? Because cast iron has thousands of miniature pores where dust, dirt and food can get trapped. So even if you have a new cast iron skillet, there may still be dirt trapped in the pores and kosher salt will act as an abrasive whilst washing out easily.
So get some kosher salt, and rub it over the entire pan using a new soft cloth. You need to ensure you rub it everywhere including the handle and the back of the cast iron pan, because we will be seasoning all of it.
Whatever you do, do not use a paper towel for cleaning cast iron prior to seasoning because the fibers on the paper towel will get caught into the pores of the cast iron, which will block the oils from entering the pores.
If for some reason you don’t have any kosher salt, then some suitable alternative include steel wool or a skin scrub brush, basically something that’s durable and won’t break off into the cast iron easily.
After you are satisfied that you’ve give your cast iron cookware a good clean you need to rinse the salt off.
To do this, simply put your cast iron pan into the sink, and run the tap over it. Now take a sponge and use the non abrasive side to wipe the salt off the pan.
After, gently use some paper towels to dry the pan.
Step 3: Coat the entire surface with oil
Now your cast iron cookware is fully dry, we need to start the pan’s seasoning process. So get the oil you have chosen and pour a small amount onto the pans cooking surface.
Now take a clean soft cloth, and rub the oil everywhere ensuring your coating the entire pan. Make sure you only rub a thin layer of oil onto the pan so you avoid using excess oil. If you do use excess oil, you will end up with a sticky layer of seasoning after you have finished.
You are probably wondering how much is too much oil? Well a little trick I use is, if I have to think about whether I’ve used too much oil, then I have used too much. The cast iron pan should look dry once you’ve applied a thin layer of oil.
If you have accidently used too much during the initial seasoning process, then get a second cloth and start wiping the pan down to remove some.
Try not to worry too much about excess oil too much though, because I have another trick up my sleeve on the next step.
Step 4: Baking it in the oven
Now you have coated the entire pan in a thin layer of cooking oil, it’s time to bake it.
Your oven should now be preheated to above the smoke point temperature of the cooking oil applied. So place your cast iron frying pan in the oven upside down.
Remember how I said if you used excess oil not to worry? Well placing the cast iron frying pan upside down in the oven will allow any excess oil to drip off. Just make sure you place some aluminum foil or a tray underneath so your oven doesn’t get coated in oil.
It’s better if you don’t apply excess oil in the first place, but if you do this should prevent any excess oil from remaining.
The oil won’t drip off at first, but as it heats up the viscosity of the oil becomes lower, and it’s then starts to drip off.
Now close the oven door and leave it in for an hour. After an hour take it out of the oven and move to step 5.
Alternative step 4: Using the stove top
If you don’t have an oven for baking your cast iron pot or pan, then there’s no need to worry. You can achieve the exact same result with a stove top.
The only downside to a stove top, is you need to keep an eye on it as you would with cooking in the unlikely event of a fire. So it can be quite time consuming.
All you need to do is coat the cast iron pot in oil, place it on the stove top and heat the pan up until you see smoke coming off.
Keep it at the temperature until all the smoke has disappeared, your pan will now be seasoned and you can move onto the next step or reapplying the seasoning.
Step 5: Applying more layers
At this point, you should now have a successful layer of seasoning on your cast iron. Your cast iron will feel smoother than it did previously due to the protective plastic like barrier.
Now you need to repeat the process again, applying a thin layer of oil and baking the cast iron frying pan upside down for an hour.
This will add more layers of seasoning onto your cast iron cookware, which reinforces the protectiveness of the seasoning.
You will need to repeat this around 6-8 times. I always aim for 8 if time allows, but if not then 6 layers is fine.
After finishing, you should now have a seasoned pan ready to use for cooking with a brilliant nonstick surface.
How to clean cast iron
Cleaning your cast iron after every use is essential to proper care.
Below I will be sharing my way of cleaning cast iron that’s used by many professional chefs to keep your cast iron looking like new.
Step 1 – Drain the oil
The first thing you need to do straight after cooking food is drain any oil that’s been used in the cooking process.
I tend to drain it into a small bowl so I can discard of it later.
Step 2 – Wipe the rest with paper towels
Now you’ve drained most of the oil, use paper towels to wipe the pan down. This will soak up any leftover oil and wipe any food off that’s not stuck to the cast iron pan.
Step 3 – Add some coarse kosher salt & hot water
Now add some coarse kosher salt to the pan, followed by a bit of hot water, just enough to wet the salt a little. Remember not to use cold or warm water as this could cause thermal shock and crack the cast iron.
Step 5 – Use a towel to wipe the salt into the pan
Now using a paper towel, scrub the salt into the pan removing any food that’s stuck to the pan, this should get everything off.
Step 6 – Rinse the pan
Now it’s clean, simply rinse the salt out of the pan, and give it a wipe if needed.
Step 7 – Dry & Heat the pan
Now that the pan is clean, dry it down with some paper towels and then put it on the stove top and turn the heat on.
Heat the pan up until all the water has evaporated.
Step 8 – Coat the pan in oil
Lastly, use some fresh cooking oil to wipe the pan, this will give the cast iron a fresh coating of oil which acts as an additional barrier.
The cast iron should now be clean and ready to be stored away for the next time.
How to care for cast iron
Caring for cast iron cookware can be extremely easy, especially when you have memorized how to, it becomes second nature.
Follow these easy tips to ensure your cast iron stays new for longer.
1) Season it properly
The first and most important step to caring for cast iron is seasoning. Without seasoning, your cast iron will not last long at all, regardless of what you do.
Building a solid layer of seasoning on your cast iron will protect it the harshness of cooking and the environment.
If you don’t season your cast iron, it will lead to rust, even if you can’t see it on the surface. Rust will lead to weakening, which eventually leads to the cast iron cracking.
And if you do get it on the surface, it will eat away at the cast iron, leaving you with the only option of buying a new one.
So if you are serious about using cast iron for cooking, then learn to season it properly with our guide above and ensure it’s always got a layer of seasoning on before using it.
2) Clean it thoroughly after each use
As with everything, if you don’t keep your cast iron clean, it’s going to encounter issues.
With cast iron, food is eventually going to find it’s way to burn onto your pan, and then getting it clean will be a big job.
As with oils, food can polymerize too. With a seasoned pan it’s much more unlikely for food to polymerize, but eventually it’s going to find it’s way through. And when that happens, prepare to get aggressive and strategic with your cleaning strategies.
So keep your cast iron clean after each use, and you will never run into this issue.
3) Keep it dry
This is one of the most important steps after seasoning, and I can’t stress this enough.
If you don’t keep your cast iron dry, it’s going to rust, and it’s going to rust quickly.
Don’t believe me? Check the amazon reviews for any cast iron skillet, you will see amateurs constantly posting pictures with their 1 star reviews saying their cast iron skillet has rusted after a few weeks.
This is because they wash their cast iron, and leave it to dry naturally. And this is a fatal mistake since cast iron is prone to rusting.
After washing, dry it thoroughly with paper towels straight away, or heat it back up to evaporate all the water. Ensure there are no droplets of water on the pan before walking away from it.
4) Limit the amount of acidic foods
There is a big myth going around that you can’t use acidic foods on cast iron. This is completely false and it’s spread by fear mongers.
The only consequence to cooking acidic foods in cast iron is, it eats away at your seasoning. However if you limit the amount of acidic foods, then your seasoning will build faster than the acidic foods can eat away at it.
So there is no issue in using acidic foods at all, just limit the amount you do use. And if you do want to use a lot of acidic foods, then keep an eye on your seasoning and re-season if necessary.
5) Store it in a cool dry place
As mentioned above, if you leave water on your cast iron it will begin to rust aggressively. But even if it’s dry, it can still rust if you leave it in an environment where there is moisture.
Therefor we advise you to store your cast iron in a cool dry place, this will prevent moisture in the air beginning the vicious cycle of rusting.
6) Don’t soak it
Whatever you do, don’t leave cast iron to soak. Not drying your pans properly will lead to aggressive rusting, but leaving your cast iron to soak will leave you with rust all over your cast iron pans.
Moral of the story? Never ever under any circumstances leave your cast iron pan to soak. If you clean your cast iron after each use as advised above, then you’ll never need to soak it for cleaning purposes.
7) Coat it in oil after use
Don’t worry, we are not asking you to season it after every use. That would be over the top.
But every time you cook, you should get in the habit of cleaning it straight away, and then rubbing a thin layer of oil on the inside of the pan.
This will provide some extra protection against moisture in the air.
Can you cook acidic foods in the pan?
You can cook some acidic food in the pan, but you have to be careful because any acidic food will eat away at the seasoning. If you cook acidic food too much in your cast iron pans without reinforcing the seasoning, you’ll eventually end up with no seasoning left.
How often do you season a cast iron skillet?
Once you have done the initial seasoning, you shouldn’t need to season it again. Simply because every time you cook, the fats from the food should add to the layer of seasoning, essentially reinforcing it with every meal you cook.
Can you cook tomato sauce in cast iron?
Yes you can cook tomato sauce in cast iron regardless of what other people say. Tomato sauce may be acidic, but as long as you have a good layer of seasoning on your pan, your cast iron will be protected from the acidic tomato sauce.
Can you ruin a cast iron pan?
You can ruin a cast iron pan very easily. Leaving it in water is one way to destroy it quickly. Always clean your cast iron pan thoroughly and make sure you dry it thoroughly after washing to avoid ruining it.
Can you soak cast iron?
As stated above, you cannot soak cast iron, this will lead to rust and destroy your cast iron cookware. If you need to clean it, use some soapy water with a scrub brush but don’t let it sit in water for a long time.
Can you absorb iron from a cast iron pan?
If it’s not seasoned yes, the iron will be absorbed by the food. This usually gives meat extra flavor, however if you have seasoned your cast iron then no iron will not be absorbed into your food due to the barrier the seasoning creates between the food and the cast iron.
Why is my cast iron seasoning sticky?
Cast iron seasoning can be sticky for multiple reasons, the most common being excess oil when seasoning it. If you use too much oil, some of it won’t have anywhere to bond and will turn into a sticky mess. Use a thin layer of oil when seasoning to avoid sticky seasoning.
How does seasoning protect cast iron?
The oils polymerize and bond with the pores in the cast iron, this creates a barrier on top of the cast iron, protecting it from both acidic products and moisture in the air. Just make sure you season the entire pan including the back and the handle to get full protection from seasoning.
Why you should care about seasoning your cast iron cookware
There are a variety reasons why you should want to season your cast iron cookware
First of all, seasoning a cast iron skillet gives it a nonstick surface. This is the main reason you want to season it. If you don’t have a non stick surface, you will end up with burnt food bonding to the surface making it impossible to clean. The nonstick layer also protects your pans from being scratched and damaged by utensils.
Second of all, the layers of seasoning create a barrier around the pan, this not only prevents rust and corrosion, but also helps decrease the amount of heat that is transferred to the food inside. Now you might be asking yourself how can a layer of seasoning make a difference in the amount of heat that gets transferred into food. That’s because this layer protects the food from being burned by hot pans surface during cooking.
Who should be seasoning cast iron?
Anyone can season their pans. There are no special requirements to seasoning you pan, and If you have just bought your first cast iron skillet and want to start using it right away for cooking, then seasoning it would be the best idea since you will be protecting it from rusting and avoid having food stick on its surface when cooking. Seasoning a pan before using it also prolongs its life.
Where Can You season cast iron?
Seasoning a cast iron skillet can be done anywhere at anytime. You can season your cast iron cookware at home and outdoors as long as you have some form of extreme heat such as an oven, a stove top or an outside grill.
How long does it take to season cast iron?
It depends on how many times your willing to season your pan. Each layer of seasoning should take around 1 hour and 15 minutes in total. 15 minutes to prepare the seasoning, and 1 hour baking time
You will also need to season your cast iron cookware multiple times, we would recommend around 6-8 times all in the same day to achieve the best results. So realistically you want to be free for an entire day to do this.