Like Rapunzel in Disney’s movie Tangled, you too can become an expert wielder of a cast-iron frying pan.
Only, instead of a wicked step mother and bandits, we’ll be up against a smoking pan and a ruined dinner.
Let’s dive in.
The Top Three Reasons Your Cast Iron Pan is Smoking
1. Your pan is too hot. The seasoning on cast iron pans is made up of very thin layers of hardened oil. When you get your pan ripping hot, the oil will sometimes begin to smoke.
2. You’re cooking with, or seasoned the pan with, a low-smoke point oil. Olive oil, for instance, has a smoke point between 325-405°F which is fairly low compared to canola, grapeseed, or sunflower oil. This can also happen when cooking something like bacon or a hamburger. These fats will have a lower smoke point, so keep the heat on your pan lower when cooking these items.
3. The pan wasn’t cleaned properly and gummy layers of oil have started building up on the pan. These become more difficult to clean over time, and will typically start smoking as the pan heats up. Check out this guide to cleaning a cast iron for more info.
Three Steps to Preventing Your Cast Iron Pan from Smoking
If your pan is smoking, you may not know which of the three problems listed above is the issue. Here is a simple three-step method to address any of them:
1. Clean the pan thoroughly with hot, soapy water and a soft sponge. (Don’t worry, the soap won’t hurt it, only major scrubbing or metal utensils can ruin the seasoning).
2. Once the pan is clean and dry, inspect it for patchy seasoning spots. Run your fingers around the pans edges and bottom to check for sticky spots.
Sticky spots are a sign that some gummy layers of oil have built up in the pan. This typically happens when too much oil is allowed to smoke or burn in the pan over and over again, or when all the oil is not cleaned out of the pan after using.
If the pan's seasoning is patchy and there’s a decent amount of sticky spots especially in the area where food will sit, it’s time to do a full reasoning of the pan (see below for steps on how to do this).
3. When your pan is clean, select a cooking oil with a high smoke point; Avocado, peanut, canola, sunflower, or grapeseed oil are all great options. Heat the pan to a medium heat for a few minutes.
Check to see if the pan is ready by sprinkling a few droplets of water on the pan. When the water sizzles upon impact, the pan is ready. Add the oil, then begin cooking.
Keep a close eye on the pan and adjust the heat as needed. If you begin to see any smoke, turn the burner down. Keep in mind, the pan will take a minute or two to adjust to the temperature change.
What to do if Your Cast Iron Skillet Starts to Smoke
Turn the burner down. If you don’t notice that the pan is too hot until a lot of smoke is rolling off of it, you may need to remove the pan from the burner and pause the cooking all together to address the issue.
Remove the food you're cooking and carefully pour off any rancid oil. Allow the pan to cool down for a bit, then carefully wipe it out to remove burned bits and blackened oil. Then reheat the pan to a lower temperature, add fresh oil, and resume cooking.
Are cast iron fumes harmful?
The fumes from a smoking cast iron are typically from burning oil. While a short, infrequent exposure is unlikely to harm you, it is not a healthy thing to breathe in and best avoided whenever possible.
Does seasoning a cast iron create smoke?
Not if you season it correctly with a very small amount of oil. See below for instructions on how to do this.
How often should you season a cast iron skillet?
Perform a quick, re-season after every use, if possible. Perform a full strip and re-season if the pan is badly rusted, caked with gunk, or the seasoning becomes patchy and food begins to stick with every use.
Is it Possible to Ruin a Cast Iron?
Not unless you crack it or gouge a hole in it somehow, which I have never seen happen.
The best part about cast iron pans is that no matter how badly you ruin the finish, you can always restore it to near perfect condition.
How to Re-Season Your Cast Iron Skillet
There are two types of seasoning:
1. A quick re-seasoning that can be done after cooking. This will help maintain the lovely finish on your pan.
2. A full re-seasoning. Do a full re-seasoning when the finish has become patchy, the pan has rusted, or food begins to stick every time you use it.
How to Do a Quick Re-Seasoning:
1. Once you’ve finished cooking in your pan, clean it thoroughly. Hot, soapy water is perfectly fine to use if needed. Make sure you’re cleaning it with a soft sponge or cloth and not a scrubby. Soak the pan briefly to remove any stuck bits.
2. Place your pan on a burner and turn the burner on to medium-low heat. Heat the pan until it is entirely dry. While the pan is still warm, add 1 teaspoon of oil and rub it in with a paper towel.
3. Get a fresh paper towel and wipe out any excess oil. The pan will take what it needs; you do not want to leave excess oil behind or it will turn gummy, cause food to stick, and ultimately ruin the seasoning. The pan should look dry, and not greasy when you’re done.
4. Allow the pan to cool and store in a cool, dry place. Do not allow it to touch other cast iron pans or they will rust where they touch. In a perfect world, this process would happen every time the pan is used. But use your best judgment and do it as often as you can.
How to Do a Full Strip & Re-Seasoning:
This is typically a 2-3 day process. You should only need to do this if the quick re-seasoning method has failed, or if you’re restoring an old pan that’s been badly rusted, crusted over, or the seasoning is so patchy, you can’t cook in it without food sticking.
1. First, we need to remove all of the current seasoning. Run your cast iron through the cleaning cycle of your oven. This typically takes about six hours, the oven will lock for safety, and it may smell bad. Do not leave the house during this process. Sometimes ovens malfunction during the cleaning cycle and you want someone around to keep an eye on things. You’ll likely want to wipe out your oven with a damp cloth after it’s cooled. This will work on almost any kind of cast iron.
2. Clean the cast iron thoroughly by scrubbing it in hot, soapy water. Use a scrub pad and anything else you need to remove every last bit of seasoning. Rinse and dry the cast iron.
3. Select a high-smoke point oil for seasoning. Canola or grapeseed oil are great choices. A lot of people also love using flaxseed oil for this process. Check the smoke point of the oil you've selected (you can find this by googling), and preheat the oven to 25° hotter than the smoke point. Place the cast iron in the oven until it's completely dry. This should only take a few minutes if the oven is hot.
4. While the cast iron is still warm, rub a teaspoon or two of oil over the entire surface. Using a fresh paper towel, remove all excess oil. The cast iron will take what it needs and any excess oil will not harden properly. The pan should not look or feel greasy, it should appear almost dry after you’ve wiped it out.
5. Bake the cast iron upside down for an hour. When you heat a very thin layer of oil past its smoke point, it will harden and create a “finish” on the pan. Allow it to cool until you can handle it, then repeat steps 4 and 5 for a minimum of 4 coats. You can do as many as 8 or 10 coats and spread the process out over a few days if needed. This will create a fresh layer of seasoning on the cast iron.
6. When you’re finished, I recommend deep-frying something in the cast iron for your first cook. Something mild in flavor like doughnuts would be a great option. After deep frying, allow the pan to sit overnight at room temperature with the frying oil in it. This will help tremendously with sealing the seasoning you’ve just made.
7. Once you’ve emptied the oil, clean the cast iron in hot water with a soft sponge or cloth. Using a bit of soap is ok if necessary. Dry the cast iron by warming it briefly on the stove. Then store it and go back to using it as normal. Complete the “quick re-seasoning” process after use whenever possible.
To avoid a smoking cast iron pan, use an oil with a high-smoke point and lower your heat at the first sign of smoke.
Clean your pan well with hot water and soap if necessary to avoid a gunky buildup that will cause smoke. Use only soft sponges or cloths when cleaning, unless you are stripping the pan to do a full re-seasoning.
If your pan begins smoking, turn down the heat immediately. You may need to remove the pan from the burner entirely, pause the cooking, and clean out the rancid oil before proceeding if there is a lot of smoke or burned bits.
Avoid breathing in fumes from a smoking cast iron whenever possible.
Perform a “quick re-season” on the cast iron after every use, if possible. This will maintain the finish and make the pan much easier to cook with.
Perform a full “strip and re-season” when restoring a pan that’s been badly rusted or crusted over. Or if the seasoning is so patchy that you can’t cook in it without food sticking.