Cast iron cookware gives an unmistakable sear and an almost grilled flavor to food. Cast iron is a much older cookware material than more modern counterparts like non-stick, calphalon and aluminum, and is a bit more labor-intensive than other, newer cookware to maintain. Luckily, with a few simple techniques, you can ensure the endurance of your cast iron cookware and enjoy all it has to offer you and your cooking.
Cast iron is not naturally non-stick--far from it, actually--so a cast iron skillet must be modified somewhat to make sure foods won't stick to it. For the same reason that bakers apply spray oil or melted butter to a baking pan to make sure the baked foods will release from the pan when finished cooking, applying a layer of oil, lard or shortening to the inside of the cast iron skillet will give it a non-stick surface that also imparts a subtle flavor to foods cooked in it.
How to Season
Seasoning techniques vary, but in general the process involves applying some kind of fat to the inside of a cast iron skillet and applying gentle heat to set the layer of fat on the inside of the pan. Use a paper towel to apply any type of fat -- vegetable oil, olive oil, lard, bacon grease or shortening -- to the inside of the skillet. Place the skillet on the stove over gentle heat for 5 to 10 minutes or in a preheated 350-degree F oven for 1 hour.
When to Season
Cast iron pans should be seasoned at least twice when you first purchase them, before you cook anything in them. Regular re-seasoning is necessary depending on how often you use the cast iron cookware. Seasoning the pan every three or four times you use it to cook something will ensure that it lasts a long time. Failing to re-season the pan on a regular basis will cause food to stick to the pan. Foods can also react with the iron if the pan is not regularly re-seasoned, imparting a slightly metallic taste to cooked foods.
Avoid using too much oil when seasoning your cast iron cookware as this will create a layer of excess oil on the top of the pan that will quickly go rancid when stored. Some manufacturers now offer "pre-seasoned" cast iron cookware that saves you the trouble of having to season them yourself. Manufacturers also use proprietary oil blends that are particularly suited to the characteristics of their own cast iron.
Eoghan McCloskey is a technical support representative and part-time musician who holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and political science from Texas State University. While at Texas State, McCloskey worked as a writing tutor at the Texas State Writing Center, proofreading and editing everything from freshman book reports to graduate theses.