How to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet

Seasoning a cast-iron skillet isn't rocket science. Here's the fastest (and easiest) way to do it.

what to season your cast iron skillet with gear patrol lead full
Chandler Bondurant

Going back to the middle of the 19th century, there was hardly any talk or reference to cast iron seasoning before cast-iron skillets made a triumphant return to the home cooking zeitgeist in the early aughts. The cookware wasn't much different — most skillets made before 1950 were cast or machined smooth, where the majority in use today are sold rough — but cooking culture was, thanks in large part to the internet.

Discussion forums, Youtube, Instagram and cooking blogs gave rise to a new cast iron mythology, where we fret over which oils are best for seasoning, what we need to keep pans in tip-top shape, the right way to clean them and all the mistakes people make using them. What vexes cast-iron skillets users most these days? How to season the damn things, and how to season them quickly.

What Is Seasoning?

Seasoning is a layer of polymerized fats that's baked onto a reactive cooking surface to protect the cooking surface against the air around it and the food cooking on it. In this case, the fats will be from neutral cooking oil — one lacking a strong flavor, and the reactive surface is the cast iron of your pan. Reactive metals can leech toxic compounds into food, and seasoning prevents that from happening. Seasoning also helps keeps food from sticking from your cast-iron pan, and it helps to prevent it from rusting.

close up of a cast iron skillet
Chase Pellerin

Which Oil Should You Use to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet?

Most experts agree that grapeseed oil is the top choice when it comes to seasoning your cast-iron skillet. Stuart Shank of Stargazer Cast Iron says its strength comes from a high smoke point and low saturated fat content, which make for a "slick, durable seasoning."

Smithey Ironware’s Isaac Morton, meanwhile, likes its neutral odor, and he uses it to season every pan he sells. Stephen Muscarella of Field Company asked himself what oils would be useful in applications other than seasoning, are relatively easy to obtain and carry a neutral odor and taste. This led him to grapeseed.

"We like organic, cold-pressed oils for environmental and health reasons, and the chemistry is clear that oils high in polyunsaturated fats are the best at crosslinking into a durable coating," Muscarella said. Another highlight: it’s affordable.

How to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet in the Oven

For the last two decades, oven seasoning has been the go-to seasoning recommendation for new and old cast-iron cookware owners. The method is simple: coast iron in a thin layer of oil, place in an oven running really hot — usually around 400 degrees — remove after an hour to an hour-and-a-half, allow to cool and repeat steps as many times as needed. This method works, but it also takes up a lot of time.

how to season a cast iron skillet
Gear Patrol

How to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet Quickly

The fastest way to season a cast-iron skillet involves a stove, a skillet and opening your windows. Stovetop seasoning is favored by chefs, serious cooking personalities like Jeff Rogers and J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt and cast-iron cookware experts like Smithey's Morton. "We can’t do it in production [of skillets], but we all do it at home. You take a new pan and you’re able to apply a layer of seasoning on it that accelerates something like 10 years of seasoning process," Morton says.

Here's how to season a skillet in 15 minutes or less.

Step 1: Prep your house.

While we won't be lighting any fires in the house, we will be generating quite a bit of smoke. If you have windows in or nearby your kitchen, open them. If you have a vent exhaust over your stove, turn it on its highest setting. If there is a fan you could point toward the now-open window, set it up. While momentarily unplugging a smoke alarm is never recommended, you might consider it. This isn't meant to scare you off, but you should know there will be smoke in your home.

Step 2: Apply oil to skillet with a rag.

Get a rag from the garage or under the sink, dab it in your chosen oil and wipe around the cooking surface, sides and base of the skillet. The layer should reflect light slightly, but it shouldn't be glossy (glossy means you've applied too much oil). Then wipe the skillet down with a clean rag or paper towel to the point where the skillet is near-matte looking. If it's shiny at all when you start seasoning – using this process or the traditional oven method – the seasoning will be sticky and uneven in the end.

Step 3: Turn stove burner on high, place skillet on burner.

And now it begins. Your skillet will take 3 to 5 minutes to reach the smoking point temperature of the oil it's coated with, at which point wisps of smoke will appear. This is good! This is the oil breaking down and carbonizing into seasoning.

a cast iron skillet smoking on a hot plate
Smithey Ironware

Step 4: Every few minutes, wipe the skillet with the oily rag.

When the skillet starts looking bone dry, carefully give it a once-over with the same oily rag from the first seasoning layer. You can add as many layers of oil as you want, but two extra layers after the initial layer is plenty. Wear a heat-resistant glove, please.

Step 5: Turn the burner off, let the skillet cool.

All done. Sliding the dangerously hot skillet into a cold oven will help with the residual smoking and block someone from accidentally grabbing the handle. Whatever you do at this point, do not get it near the sink. If cold water comes in contact with a skillet this hot, there's a chance the temperature shock could cause the iron to sheer and splinter, which is a much bigger problem than an unseasoned cast-iron skillet.

How to Season a Cast-Iron Skillet Naturally

If all of this sounds like a lot of work just to get your cast-iron skillet in top-cooking form, then you can always opt to season it the old-fashioned way: by not seasoning it at all.

bacon in a cast iron skillet
Gear Patrol

"'Seasoning' in the sense of following the rules and rituals of the cult of cast iron are bullshit," says Dennis Powell of Butter Pat Industries. When Powell started his cast-iron cookware company, he searched old ads and books at the Library of Congress for mentions of seasoning. He didn’t find anything other than what he paraphrases to "grease it up with lard and cook." This method, if you can call it that, trusts that you’re cooking with fats frequently enough and at high enough temperatures that you’ll "season" the skillet just by cooking on it. You can use butter or any animal fat when cooking, and while your pan will develop a seasoning, it's going to take a long time and won't be very even.

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