So you bought a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet (congrats!) and, now, you want to know if there’s anything special that you need to do when you’re using it for the first time?
Let’s just say you came to the right place. As a long-time owner of multiple pieces of cast iron cookware myself, I’m about to give you a crash course.
But, before we get into it, here’s the long story short:
To use a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet for the first time, rinse it in hot water and pat it completely dry. Pour a generous amount of high-smoke point cooking oil inside it, then preheat (not on high) and cook with it.
Of course, there’s more to it than meets the eye. So let’s see what else you need to know before you get cooking.
Cooking With Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron for the First Time
Rinse the skillet with hot running water. This helps to remove the dirt or residue that has accumulated during the manufacture, transportation, or storage of the cookware before it ended up in your kitchen.
You can use a soft sponge or a nylon brush, but not steel wool. Despite lore to the contrary, a little bit of dish soap is fine and won’t wash away the factory seasoning. (That said, many die-hard cast iron fans prefer to avoid it.)
Pat the skillet completely dry, on the inside and out. As you probably know by now, cast iron and moisture don’t get along well. In fact, it can quickly catch rust when exposed to it for prolonged periods of time.
Dry your skillet thoroughly whenever you’ve exposed it to water or cooking liquid. In my experience, a good ol’ dish towel, lint-free microfiber cloth, or a few paper towels are best for drying cast iron cookware.
Never soak a cast iron skillet (or leave water in it) for long periods of time; it can cause it to rust.
Add oil to your skillet. When cooking with a brand new cast iron skillet, pour cooking oil with a heavy hand the first three or four times. In other words, be generous and don’t hold back.
One piece of advice you won’t find in cookbooks is that a cast iron skillet can get scorching hot, and not all cooking oils stay stable at high heat.
For example, olive oil breaks down, producing harmful compounds and emitting bluish smoke, at a temperature of 375°F (190°C). That threshold is also called the smoke point, and all cooking oils have one.
The best oil for cast iron cooking is one with a neutral taste—so that it doesn’t impart too much flavor on your food—and a relatively high smoke point. My personal favorites are avocado oil (520°F), rice bran oil (490°F), and sunflower oil (440°F).
Get your skillet hot. Contrary to what most of us think, there’s seldom a need to cook on high heat. Doing so can be detrimental to your cooking as it can burn your food and/or cause the seasoning to flake off.
For example, Lodge, the longest-standing cast iron cookware company in the USA, pre-seasons their skillets with soybean oil, which has a smoke point of 450°F (232°C).
So you don’t want to heat a Lodge skillet above that threshold as the seasoning may burn and turn into black residue on your skillet that flakes off on your foods (unless you’re planning to re-season it shortly after).
Instead, use medium-low heat to make an omelet; medium heat for sunny-side-up eggs, bacon strips, onions, and beans; and medium-high heat for thick-cut steak, burgers, and salmon fillets.
Generally speaking, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. So these skillets take longer to get hot than ceramic or non-stick, but they distribute heat more evenly and are just as reluctant to let go of it.
This is what makes them so good for cooking methods that require a steady source of heat, like browning meats, shallow-frying foods, or baking cornbread.
Cook with your skillet. You know that the cooking oil in your skillet is hot enough to cook in when it starts to glisten and shimmer (dance around). That’s the best time to add your food and get cooking.
If the oil starts to smell weird and emit a steady stream of blue smoke, that’s a tell-tail sign that you’ve heated it past its smoke point. There’s no going back, and it’s not recommended that you consume the oil, as it has formed harmful compounds.
The best thing to do with burnt oil is to take the skillet off the heat, allow the oil to cool down (or transfer it to a heat-proof storage container if you’re under time pressure to continue cooking), then discard it.
You can cook almost anything in a cast iron skillet. A few things to keep in mind:
Red meat (thick-cut, burger patties, sausage) and poultry (whole birds, pieces) are better choices than fish. With its porous surface, the skillet can catch the smell and taste of fish and impart it on anything else you cook with it over the new few uses.
Avoid recipes that call for overly acidic ingredients—such as tomatoes, lemons, lime, vinegar, and wine—or their sauces. The bare iron surface will react to the acids and leach into your foods, imparting them with a metallic flavor.
No matter what you’re cooking, it’s best to bring it to room temperature by taking it out of the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time. When cold foods come into contact with a hot pan, they’re prone to sticking.
Let the pan cool down, rinse it with water, pat it fully dry, store it.
Never rinse a hot pan under cold water. You’re exposing it to thermal shock that can cause it to warp or, in rarer circumstances, break into pieces (cast iron is sturdy but brittle).
For the same reasons, you don’t want to put a hot skillet on a stone-cold countertop. Instead, let your skillet cool down naturally and by itself on the stove before cleaning and storing it. This can take one-two hours.
Clean your cast iron skillet using the same technique as before: rinse with hot water, with a little dish soap or no soap at all, using a soft sponge or nylon brush to scrub off any food residue, then pat fully dry with a dishcloth or paper towel.
The best places to store cast iron skillets are inside a cabinet, stowed in the oven, or hung up on the wall. The hooks for hanging cast iron skillets should be well-mounted to studs on the wall since these cooking vessels are very heavy.
What Does Seasoning Mean, Exactly?
Seasoning is the process of applying vegetable oil on the inside and out of your cast iron skillet with the help of a paper towel, then baking it face down (so that the oil doesn’t pool) for about an hour in an oven preheated to 450°F.
As a result, the oil polymerizes and turns from a liquid into a slick coating that protects your skillet from corrosion and rust and keeps foods from sticking to the cooking surface.
Seasoning is not rocket science, but it can be messy—especially if you’ve never done it before and you don’t know how much oil to use (the short answer is as little as possible so that it doesn’t drip onto your oven).
Happily for home cooks like you and me, most cast iron skillets come pre-seasoned nowadays, meaning that the manufacturer has already done the hard work for us in the factory.
Will I Ever Need to Re-Season a Pre-Seasoned Pan?
Unlike all other cooking vessels, cast iron skillets only get better with time. The more you cook fatty foods in them, the more the fats and oils contribute to the seasoning.
Still, certain things can wear off the seasoning on your cast iron skillet, like when you cook overly acidic foods in them or when you clean them with harsh detergents. When you cook sunny-side-up eggs in your pan, and they begin to stick, that’s typically a sign that you need to re-season it.
How often you need to do this depends entirely on your cooking habits and on how well you care for your pan. I recently wrote a whole blog post on the topic titled, “How Often Should Cast Iron Skillets Be Seasoned?”
Thank you for this very helpful information.
This skillet needs more attention than my other cooking pots.
Can you use bacon grease to season a cast iron skillet?
Great question, Ruthie!
We haven’t tried seasoning cast iron with bacon grease in the HCW test kitchen, but sources on the Internet claim that you can do it. But here’s why you should take that with a grain of salt:
Bacon fat is made up of unsaturated fat (the type that solidifies at room temperature) which, according to polymer chemist Dr. Zac Hudson in this interview on YouTube, isn’t as good as unsaturated fat (unsaturated fat stays liquid at room temp).
Other than the three oils listed in the article above (avocado, rice bran, and sunflower oil), canola oil, grapeseed oil, and flaxseed oil are also pantry oils with relatively high smoke points and rich in unsaturated fat that can also be used for seasoning cast iron.
Hope this helps!