I’ve been getting emails from people about how to clean and season cast iron. Checking out some of the postings and video’s on the internet, it’s no wonder why. Everyone seems to have their own way to clean and season – it can be confusing. There is far too much emphasis put on the “non-stick” side of cast iron – or the holy grail of frying an egg while it slips around. Don’t get yourself caught up in that, even cast iron isn’t perfect, it’s a vessel for cooking.
Here is why you should strip your purchased old iron back to bare metal – http://castironcanada.com/index.php/en/cleaning/why-clean-it
Now, first of all, it’s cast iron. Don’t overthink it. Secondly, have patience. Cast iron takes time.
Cleaning cast iron:
– Lye is sodium hydroxide, lye will dissolve the old seasoning and it will not hurt the cast iron. I’ve left pieces in the bath for weeks with no issue.
– Oven cleaner works – it can be messy but it will eventually get your pieces clean. If you go this route, be sure to buy yellow cap oven cleaner or read the label to ensure it has sodium hydroxide. The cheap walmart stuff is fine.
– If setting up a lye bath, use pure lye, usually available online or at smaller hardware stores. Generally comes in 454g or 1 pound bottles – do not try to use products like drano as they have other nasty chemicals that can stay with your iron. A lye bath typically uses 1 pound of lye to 5 gallons of water, some will make it stronger by using 1 pound to 4 gallons. This is fine. Add cool or cold water (not hot) to whatever you’re using as a bath and add the crystals slowly a bit at a time – stirring it in. Wear glasses or a face shield and rubber gloves when dealing with lye, one little splash in the eye isn’t nice. Take all precautions.
– Electrolysis is the king for cast iron cleaning, lots of videos and writeups online so i’m not going to get into it. If you want to keep the power bill down, clean what you can in a lye bath, scrub it then finish it with electrolysis.
– Stainless steel brushes and scrubbies will not hurt your cast iron. They are recommended for getting into tight areas and removing tough stuff.
– Invest in paper towel stock, you’re going to go through alot of them.
– Brass and/or copper should not be used on cast iron. They are softer materials and the metal can transfer to the cast iron piece you are cleaning – you will not get it off. Once in a while i’ll see a “cleaned” piece that has a golden or reddish color to it, I know it’s been cleaned with copper or brass and won’t touch it.
– Don’t throw your cast iron piece in a fire pit – yes it can work – but more likely you’ll do more damage to the piece like warp or crack it. It’s not worth the risk – especially with older pieces.
– Oven heat cleaning cycle – Some have success doing it this way, i’ve never tried it. Again, is it worth the risk. Some ovens can heat to a point of 900F or more – cast should be heated and cooled somewhat slowly. Do the math. If you get excited and open the door, you can shock the piece you’re trying to clean resulting in cracks or warpage.
– Mechanical cleaning – this drives me insane. It’s your cast iron piece, do what you want with it. But, realize if you take a grinder, wire wheel, sandpaper or whatever to a 100 year old skillet – then you’ve ruined both the monetary and historical value of the piece. There is nothing worse that seeing a beautiful old piece hanging in an antique mall that is nice and shiny. Just don’t do it. I tried the wire wheel once on an old Wagner National skillet, it was a perfect skillet but now has “bald” raised patches after the seasoning process, it will never be a perfect pan again.
Seasoning your cast iron:
Again, it’s cast iron, don’t overthink the process – stick to the basics and you’ll have a nicely seasoned piece for daily use. When you try to get fancy with it, that’s when issues tend to arise. Over time, your skillet will become mostly non stick, but the best of pans will have something stick to it – and I don’t care what oils you’re using to season. It will happen.
– Some people use fancy oils, if it works for them, great. Lots of “science based” postings over using flax oil to get a hard shine to the skillet, if that’s your cup of tea…For the cast iron beginner with a single pan, your experience will be much better by sticking with the basics using crisco or vegetable oil.
– Spray Pam vegetable oil works well, spraying the piece gets into tight spots.
– Get a couple of tooth brushes for getting into small crevices and logos.
– Good welding gloves are a must when handling hot cast iron.
How to season your newly stripped cast iron.
– After stripping your piece to bare iron, it needs to be seasoned. Preheat your oven to 200F then wash the piece in cold soapy water, rinse in cold water, dry it very well then place it in the oven for a good 20 minutes to dry. Keeping the pan cold tends to fend of flash rust – and cast iron will rust fast. 20 minutes in the oven at 200 is important to dry the piece well – you don’t want any moisture under your seasoning. If the piece gets flash rust, use oil and a good scrubbing with paper towel to remove it, keep wiping it til any and all rust comes off.
– Oil the pan. Use Crisco lard or spray pam, coat the entire piece evenly getting every nook and cranny. Remember, the more oil you put on, the more you have to take off.
– Use good paper towels or a lint free cloth to remove the excess oil. Using clean paper towels, keep wiping the pan til the pan is dry and nothing comes off on the paper towel.
– You’re probably asking why am I removing the oil when I need it for seasoning? The answer is simple, you’re not wiping off all the oil – what you want is the thinnest possible layer of seasoning on your pan. No matter how much you wipe the pan, there is still oil on it. If there’s too much oil left on the pan, the heat cycle will break the surface tension of the oil and you end up with a spotty black pan that’s not even and you’re starting over stripping the pan.
– Turn the oven up to about 325, put your pan back in the oven face down, you want to heat the piece gradually. After 15 or so minutes, take the pan out of the oven and wipe it down one more time. The pan is hot, hope you have some welding gloves or something. Set the oven to 450F and cook the piece for an hour. Open the windows and use a fan, it’s going to smoke and stink.
– After an hour, turn the oven off and let the piece cool down some. Reapply oil, wipe it out well then repeat the process.
– Your piece may turn black after one or two coats, but more likely it won’t. It will blacken over time. Don’t fret.
Some people will cook bacon as a first use, I find bacon will tend to stick. Much of the bacon produced today has lots of sugars, and that’s not what you want for your pan. I like to bake with the pan, home made breads are great as they cook at 400+ degrees. Pizza is wonderful, the pan is preheated to 500F. The more you bake your lightly oiled skillet, the better it’s going to be for your first fry.
If you do end up with food stuck to your cast iron after frying – and it is a common occurance – you can scrub it with some salt to get it off. Lodge sells a plastic scraper that can work well. Sponges with the nylon scrubber work well too. After cleaning your pan, wipe it dry and put it in a 200F oven for a bit to let it dry well.
Seasoning or blackening pans that you won’t be using – or for display only.
– If you’ve been using cast iron long enough, you probably know that seasoning can turn, get smelly or go rancid.
– If you clean pieces that you’re not going to use, going to sell, or just hanging on a wall – then mineral oil is the way to go. Collectors and sellers use this method for a quick blackening effect for cosmetic reasons only. It’s a low heat (300F), and creates a nice darkening effect that is not to be used if you’re planning on cooking with it.
– The Cast iron collector has a nice writeup on seasoning for display only. No need in me getting into it.
Good luck and again, don’t overthink cast iron. After all, it’s cast iron!