Seasoned, Unseasoned, or Pre-Seasoned: A Chef’s Take on Cast Iron Pans

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Last updated on January 30, 2023

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People tend to fall into three categories regarding their cast iron pans: 

  1. Cast Iron Lover - Swears by their pan and uses it frequently.

  2. Cast Iron Hater - Rarely has success using their cast iron and dislikes the pan.

  3. Unsure About Cast Iron - Doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about the pan and tends to avoid using it because of this.

If you fall into either of the two latter categories, this article is for you. Let’s dive in.

What Does Seasoning Do?

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The seasoning on a cast iron pan is made up of very thin layers of hardened oil. When used and cared for properly, this will make the pan non-stick and easy to cook with and clean.

You cannot use an unseasoned cast iron skillet for cooking. The food will stick badly and may take on a metallic taste.

There are 3 types of seasoning on Cast Irons:

  1. A Pre-Seasoned Pan is one that the manufacturer has seasoned for you.

  2. A Seasoned Pan is one that has been seasoned either by the user, the manufacturer, or both.

  3. An Un-seasoned Pan needs to be seasoned by the user before it can be used for cooking.


Is it Better to Buy a Seasoned or Unseasoned Cast Iron? 

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A pre-seasoned cast iron will be sleek, shiny, and ready to use. Sometimes it will have a smooth surface, other times, the pan may have a slightly pebbly surface that some people believe causes the food to release more easily from the pan.

An unseasoned cast iron is for the die-hard cook who knows a lot about cast iron pans and prefers to create their own seasoning. You cannot cook in a cast iron pan until it has been seasoned.

Most cast iron pans these days come pre-seasoned. I am a big fan of buying a pre-seasoned cast iron for several reasons:

1. It’s ready to use right out of the gate. You can begin cooking with it as soon as you get it home.

2. The manufacturer of the pan is likely to do a much better job seasoning the pan than the average cook.

3. Getting an unseasoned pan ready to cook with is a very long process. It can take 2-3 days to get a proper seasoning on the pan.

4. If you do not season a cast iron pan properly, food will stick, the pan will be very difficult to use, and ultimately, you will have to strip the pan and complete the seasoning process again from the beginning.


How Often Do You Need to Season a Cast Iron? 

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To maintain the seasoning on a cast iron pan, you ideally want to perform a quick re-seasoning on it after every use. But as life doesn’t always allow for this, perform the quick re-seasoning as frequently as possible. The more you keep up with this, the easier the pan will be to cook with and clean.


How to Perform a Quick Re-season (Basic Maintenance) of Your Cast Iron

1. Once you’ve finished cooking in your pan, clean it thoroughly. Hot, soapy water is perfectly fine to use if needed, just be sure you’re cleaning it with a soft sponge or cloth and not a scrubby. Soak the pan briefly in hot water to remove any stuck bits.

2. Place your pan on a burner and turn the burner on to medium-low heat. Heat until the pan 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.

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.


Maintaining the Seasoning on Your Cast Iron

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A cast iron pan needs to be seasoned after you’ve cooked with it. The exception to this is when you’ve deep-fried something. Cast Irons LOVE deep frying, and your seasoning will always benefit from this cooking method.

If your pan is in very good condition and you’re gentle when you use it, you might be able to get away with seasoning it less frequently. But keep in mind, the more you season it, the easier the pan will be to cook with and the harder it is to damage the finish.

If food is sticking to your pan or the finish becomes patchy, try to be very diligent about re-seasoning the pan to avoid further damage to the finish. This would also be a great time to treat yourself to some deep fried doughnuts or fried chicken; this can help repair seasoning that has been slightly damaged.


How to Season a Cast Iron - Completing a Full Strip & Re-season 

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Complete a full re-seasoning when the finish has become patchy, the pan has become badly rusted, or food begins to stick every time you use it.


How to Do a Full Strip & Re-Seasoning:

This is typically a two-three 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 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 process 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, steel wool, 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. Flaxseed oil is a more expensive option, but a lot of people prefer it. Check the smoke point of the oil (you can find this by googling), and preheat the oven to 25°F hotter than the smoke point. Place the cast iron in the oven for a few minutes until the pan becomes completely dry.

4. While the cast iron is still warm, rub a teaspoon or two of oil into 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 to cool until you can handle it, and repeat steps 4 and 5 to create 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 is ideal. Then allow the pan to sit overnight 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 needed. 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.


FAQs

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What Happens if I Don’t Season My Cast Iron Skillet?

The finish (seasoning) on your pan will slowly get worn down from everyday use. The pan will become patchy and food will begin to stick to it. Eventually, the pan will become unusable and you’ll have to strip and re-season the entire pan, which is a several day process.


Can You Use Any Oil to Season a Cast Iron Skillet?

You can, but it is much better to use neutral oils with a high smoke point, such as grapeseed, canola, avocado oil, or sunflower oil.


Can I Use Soap to Clean My Cast Iron Skillet?

Only if necessary; using soap every time you clean your skillet will wear down the seasoning. However, it is better to use soap once in a while to get the skillet totally clean, then to let layers of burned oil or food build up. Make sure you’re using a soft sponge or cloth to clean the pan and never a scrubby. Check out this guide for cleaning burned spots on a cast iron.


Can I Use Any Utensil in My Cast Iron Skillet?

No, use only silicone-tipped tongs, wooden utensils, or silicone spatulas. Metal will damage the seasoning.


Can I Cook Anything in My Cast Iron Pan?

You can cook almost anything in a cast iron pan. Acidic foods are best avoided as they can damage the seasoning. For example, you can make a cream sauce in the cast iron, but avoid making marinara as tomatoes are very acidic.


Conclusion

The seasoning on a cast iron pan is essential if you want to cook with it, and buying a pre-seasoned pan is a better option for most people than trying to season one yourself. 

Perform a “quick re-season” on your pan after each use, if possible.

Perform a full “strip and re-season” on your pan if it becomes crusted or impossible to use without food sticking to it.

Use only high-smoke point oils and non-metal utensils in your cast iron pan.

You may use soap to clean a cast iron as needed, but be sure to use a soft sponge or cloth and not a rough scrubby.

Happy cooking!

Savannah

About the author, Savannah

Savannah grew up in Kansas City, where she learned to cook brisket and ribs from her Mom and Grandmother. She's spent the last 10 years in the restaurant industry where she worked her way up from prep cook to Chef instructor. In 2017, Savannah and her partner sold everything that wouldn't fit in their suburban and traveled the US where she got a job cooking in each city they stayed in. Savannah has trained under more than 50 chefs and done everything from running a food truck to making chocolate. She currently runs her own cottage bakery and teaches cooking classes in Northern Colorado.