Seasoning a cast-iron skillet is one of the greatest contentions in the world of cookware.
Numerous questions come to mind when you think about seasoning a cast iron pan:
- Which is the best, most stable oil to get the job done?
- Could there be some foods that shouldn’t be cooked in a cast-iron?
- Is it ok to soap a freshly seasoned pan?
Homeowners always have tricks up their sleeves for the best seasoning method. However, no one has been able to settle the debate as of yet.
Seasoning an iron pan is more than just randomly picking an oil and brushing it on.
Every oil has a different melting point, which will work to either enhance your cooking or just become a sticky mess. If you haven’t found the right oil for your cast-iron cookware, then read on for a low-down on the best seasoning oils.
But before we get to that, let’s kick off with an insightful scoop on the science.
In case you’re looking for a cast-iron pan, our top recommendation is T-fal pre-seasoned cast iron skillet. It comes pre-seasoned for the first use, and there are step-by-step instructions on how to season it perfectly. It’s dishwasher-safe, budget-friendly, and comes with a long handle with a comfortable grip. It also heats food evenly, making it perfect for browning, searing, frying and sauteing.
The Chemistry behind Seasoning Cast Iron Pans
The seasoning takes place through a process called fat polymerization. When heated, fats react by forming large molecules called polymers.
When the right amount of polymers have been produced, there is a marked increase in the viscosity of the fat.
Seasoning is a radical process of fat polymerization. Heating up the layer of fat on an iron surface triggers the production of free radicals that crosslink to form a thick film on the pan.
This film hardens over time and keeps your pan well-seasoned. In short, the heat reacts with the iron surface and changes the molecular structure of the oil. This then creates a hard surface that serves as a non-stick coating.
The free radicals that are created are essentially carcinogenic. Therefore, it’s very important not to heat oil above its smoking point. If the oil is expelling smoke, throw it out, and start again.
However, these free radicals only exist until you bake the pan. By the time the pan is baked and cooled, there are no more free radicals.
The smoking point and effectiveness of the oil are what primarily determine whether it qualifies as a good seasoning oil or not.
And this is what brings us to our next point.
Understanding the Smoke Points of Cooking Oils
Simply put, a smoking point is when an oil begins to emit smoke indicating the release of fatty acids.
As the temperature of the oil or fat rises, it begins to disintegrate into fatty acids. The smoke point of each cooking oil hinges on the duration and intensity of the heat it is exposed to.
Since seasoning requires high temperatures, it’s wise to use oils with higher smoke points. After the food-grade oil is smeared onto a cast-iron pan, it will be baked above its smoking point.
This is what releases free radicals and results in a thicker coating on the surface of the pan.
The secret to a good seasoning oil is to use “drying oils” that have a higher capacity to form a stronger bond with iron.
Why Olive Oil May Not Be The Best Oil for Seasoning Cast Iron Skillets
Olive oil is generally known for its low smoke point, which is somewhere between 325-375 degrees F.
It burns much easier than other oils like canola or flaxseed oil.
You can season your pan with olive oil; however, the problem arises when you start using it to cook your food.
If the seasoning doesn’t stick to the surface of the pan properly, anytime you heat it up above its smoking point, the seasoning will begin to degrade.
When the layer of oil begins to wear off, your pan will become sticky. This can affect both the quality and taste of the food you cook.
Olive oil is naturally rich in oleic acid, contributing to its stability.
It also has a number of antioxidants and polyphenols, which does make it a healthy oil. However, these benefits are limited to cooking and sautéing.
Its low smoke point isn’t stable enough to be cooked off in the oven. However, you may always use it if it is the only option available.
The Best Oils for Seasoning a Cast-Iron Skillet
Many homeowners do use olive oil to season their pans since it is conveniently available.
However, it is not the best oil for seasoning a hard surface like iron.
As mentioned previously, dry oils have a higher capacity to form a stronger bond with the iron’s surface. They are highly stable, effective, and won’t change their viscosity under high heat.
So with that, here are the most stable fats to use when seasoning a cast-iron skillet.
Amongst all the oils used for seasoning a cast-iron, grape seed tops the list. It has a high smoke point, low saturated fat content, and is extremely durable.
It binds amazingly with the iron’s surface and produces a long-lasting, hard film over the pan.
Its strength really is in its high smoke point (420 Degrees F), which allows it to tolerate the high heat without burning.
It is the perfect food-grade oil that has a neutral taste and odor. As it is extremely safe for cooking, grape seed is the best oil to season a cast iron.
Being high in polyunsaturated fats, it has the best cross-linking, which creates a durable coating over the pan. It’s also one of the most affordable cooking oils to use in your kitchen.
Flax Seed Oil
Even though flaxseed oil has a low smoke point (225 Degrees F), it’s still one of the best “drying” oils.
This means it dries out naturally and forms a harder film over the pan’s surface.
If you truly want a long-lasting and durable seasoning, then flaxseed oil should be your top choice. Painters and woodworkers use it to form a thick, hard surface over their craft.
Flax oil effectively binds to the skillet’s surface. It can form the perfect non-stick, sheer coating that can make your pan dishwasher-safe.
However, even when it’s one of the best oils to season a cast-iron, it’s important to use unfiltered, 100% organic flax oil.
Re-seasoning won’t work with low-quality flax seed oil. Make sure the oil you choose doesn’t have any additives, flavors, or other oils present in it.
Since flaxseed oil contains a potent amount of omega-3 fatty acids, it needs to be refrigerated right after purchase.
Make sure that you’re investing in a 100% organic, pure flax seed oil as it will reap the best seasoning results. If you’re looking for a tried and tested review for flaxseed oil – here it is.
Soybean oil is an ideal choice for a relatively healthy and affordable seasoning oil.
Unlike other oils, soybean is free of synthetic chemicals, animal fats, or peanut oil. There are zero chances of any allergies because it is highly refined oil.
It also has a very high smoke point (492° F) and is inexpensive, which makes it an ideal choice – only second to grapeseed oil.
Vegetable oils are always a great choice for seasoning iron skillets as most have a smoke point of 400° Fahrenheit or higher.
It has relatively low amounts of saturated fat (7%) compared to sunflower or corn oil. However, this percentage is enough to make for a stable seasoning oil.
It’s also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
This makes it a better choice for seasoning as it dries up quickly and forms a thick, sturdy layer of fat on the pan.
There are some cooking experts who prefer using the classic saturated fats for seasoning cast iron pans.
Animal fats and butter have a tendency to naturally season your pan while you cook. You won’t have to buy a separate seasoning oil or wait for it to bake down.
The layer of fat will be enough to prevent your food from sticking to the iron pan.
Also read: Seasoning a Copper Pan
The Ultimate Way to Season a Cast-Iron Pan
Now that you have a fair idea of the best seasoning oils, let’s get on with the process. In essence, you can use just about any cooking oil for seasoning.
Even olive oil would do.
However, if you’re looking for that hard layer that won’t come off even from the most aggressive washing, then you should choose a stable oil.
There are many different kinds of seasoning methods. Typically, homeowners would smear some oil onto the pan and bake it in the oven to solidify the fat.
Here’s are the right ways to season a cast-iron pan.
Seasoning the Pan by Baking in the Oven
- Begin by pouring a high-quality oil into the pan and gently smear it with your fingers. Make sure you rub it up to the rims of the pans for even coating.
- Next, preheat the oven up to 400° Fahrenheit and leave it that way for 15-30 minutes. Once the oven is heated, toss in the oiled pan. Bake it for about an hour until the layer perfectly meshes into the iron’s surface.
- Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool. Once it is safe to touch, you may wipe off the excess oil with a soft cloth.
- Repeat the process of adding oil and keeping it in the oven multiple times till you get the desired seasoning
Seasoning the Pan by Cooking on the Stovetop
- Pour some oil into the pan and rub it in nicely. Use your fingers to ensure that the oil is evenly coating the pan. This step is important as an uneven layer will cause the food to stick in the pan.
- Switch on the flame to medium-high. Put the pan on the stove and allow the oil to cook. When you notice smoke, remove the pan from the stove.
- Allow the cast-iron pan to cool down completely, and wipe off the residue with a paper towel.
Also read: How to Season Cast Iron Without an Oven?
Additional Tips for a Well-Seasoned Cast-Iron Pan
Seasoning a pan may seem simple, but it needs precision and care.
Here are some tips to protect and maintain the seasoning layer on your cookware. Before you pour the oil, prepare your pan for seasoning.
Give your pan a thorough wash with some soap and hot water. This will help you eliminate all the packing oils and food residue.
Rinse well and towel dry. Treat it over a heat source of 200 degrees F or above.
Allow it to cool down before you move on to the seasoning. This step will ensure that the pan’s surface is squeaky clean and ready for a sturdy seasoning.
Remove Excess Oil
There are chances that even when you’ve perfectly seasoned your cast-iron pan, it could leave a sticky residue on the top.
This is the buildup of excess oil that hasn’t fully converted to seasoning. A quick solution is to re-bake it.
Place the pan in the oven – this time, upside down.
Direct exposure to heat will cook off the excess oil. Bake the cookware at 400 degrees F for an hour. Allow it to cool, and then store it in your cabinet.
If you’re grilling or cooking high-heat, acidic foods, your seasoning may work a little too hard.
This can produce a dark residue over the pan’s surface.
Don’t worry if you notice some of this residue coming off while cleaning. It’s normal and will eventually go away with regular use.
Avoid Using Metal Spatulas
Using a metal spatula or a metal scouring pad on your cast-iron skillet can wear away the seasoned layer.
Keeping the seasoning intact is your main goal. Therefore, only resort to silicone or wooden spatulas for cast-iron cookware (plastic spatulas can melt and stick to the pan).
Choosing the right oil for seasoning will ensure a harder, sturdier, and more effective non-stick layer on the pan.
Instead of pouring in the next available oil, it’s best to invest in a high-quality seasoning oil for long-term use.
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