Try all you want, but I bet you that you won’t be able to name a single person you know who happens to own a cast iron skillet and who doesn’t enjoy every single second of cooking with it.
And can you really blame them?
Cast iron skillets strike the perfect balance between affordability, durability, and utility. They’re dirt-cheap, distribute heat evenly, and—thanks to the fact that they don’t absorb or let go of heat quickly—they can keep foods warm for hours on end.
With the proper care from your side, those cast iron cooking vessels tucked away in your cabinets might as well last you a lifetime. Heck, they may even turn into family heirlooms someday; who knows!
Caring for cast iron cookware ultimately boils down to one thing, and that’s seasoning. A mind-condition, well-seasoned cast iron skillet is one that’s primed to last for generations.
Seasoning, as most of you who are reading this post probably know by now, is the process of greasing an empty skillet with vegetable oil and baking it for an hour or so in the oven.
Since cast iron skillets are not naturally non-stick, the seasoning—a layer of polymerized oil—gives your skillet a slick coating that not only keeps foods from sticking to it, but also protects it from corrosion and rust.
The correct way to season a cast iron skillet is to preheat your oven to 350°F and place the skillet face down so that any excess vegetable oil drips down instead of pooling inside it.
You need less oil to season a cast iron skillet than you probably think. All you need is a tiny dab, which you can apply to the cooking surface with a paper towel and then spread over the bottom and handle. Be sure to wipe away any excess oil so it doesn’t pool.
And you can use any oil you cook with on a daily basis, as long as it has a smoke point that’s high enough. My personal favorite is rice bran oil, as it sits right in the middle of being heart-healthy while not costing a fortune per quart.
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to put some kind of bakeware under the skillet, like a baking sheet or Dutch oven with a wide enough diameter, to catch the droplets of oil and keep them from ending up on the bottom heating panel of your oven.
So far, so good. But that probably doesn’t answer the question you came here for…
How often should you season a cast iron skillet?
Ideally, you will only need to season your cast iron skillet before first use if it is new. If you prepare fatty foods with it, the fats and oils will naturally contribute to the seasoning, keeping the skillet slick and protected from rust.
This, of course, is based on the assumption that you’ll never cook acidic foods in your skillet, clean it only by hand, seldom with soapy water, and dry it perfectly after every use.
As much as manufacturers like to recommend this to you in the owner’s manuals of their cookware, the reality is that it’s easier said than done—especially when you’re using a cast iron skillet for your daily cooking.
The chances are that, now and then, you’ll add a dash of vinegar to brighten up the asparagus sautéing in your pan, or cook the occasional chili with the quarter-bottle leftover wine from the night before, throwing in a can of peeled tomatoes.
Other staple, yet acidic, ingredients include wine, beer, vinegar, pasta, beans, and butter. I’m not saying you can’t use them in cast iron at all, don’t get me wrong. But keep in mind that they do classify as acidic given their pH levels.
If you’re like me, you may not be satisfied with the level of cleanliness you get when hand-washing a pan only with water, so you’ll use soapy water and a soft sponge to scrub off the bits and pieces of food that build up on the side of the pan.
All of these things are, in one way or another, detrimental to your cast iron skillet’s seasoning. So you may need to reseason your pan sooner rather than later.
What “eventually” means depends on a number of factors, including the amount of animal fat or vegetable oil you use, the acidity of the foods you make the most, and the amount of elbow grease you put into cleaning your cookware after every use.
A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet may hold its seasoning for years, but washing it with soap and preparing acidic foods in it will slowly but surely wear it down. In practice, you will need to re-season your cast iron skillet 2-3 times a year.
The good news is that it’s easy to tell when your cast iron skillet needs to be reseasoned: if you cook eggs sunny side up and they stick to it, this is a tell-tale sign that the seasoning has worn off.
Another sign is that the seasoning on your pan is starting to flake off. This can happen when it hasn’t been applied on properly, or when you’ve scraped off some of it by being a little too enthusiastic with the spatula (it happens to the best of us).
When you see black flakes on/in your food, you know that you’re there—and you know what to do. Strip off the old seasoning and re-season the pan.
Other, more prominent, signs that your skillet needs immediate care and attention from your side are corrosion and rust, which is what happens when you forget to wipe it dry and hung it up wet.
P.S. Another way to keep your cast iron skillet spick and span is using a cast iron conditioner, like a Crisbee stick or Knapp wax.