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How to Break in a Cast Iron Skillet

Ever wonder how to break in a cast iron skillet? Here are some tips on how to do it—all of them super easy and very important!

Breaking in a new cast iron skillet is a rite of passage for home cooks. This versatile piece of cookware, known for its durability and superior heat retention, can last a lifetime with proper care. 

sliced butter, cast iron skillet, and bottles of cooking oil

But before you start cooking your favorite dishes, it’s essential to season your cast iron pan correctly. Seasoning creates a non-stick surface and protects the pan from rust. Let’s walk through the steps to ensure your new skillet is in tip-top shape for its first use and beyond.

Cooking with an Iron Skillet

From early in my adult life, I’ve used the Lodge brand of iron skillets, but most brands are good. I love the fact that I can go to almost any store that sells cookware and get what I want.

I cook everything from savory southern style cornbread to deliciously sweet chocolate chip cookies in my skillets. For some reason, food just tastes better when you cook with cast iron.

First Things First: Cleaning Your New Skillet

Your new cast iron skillet might come pre-seasoned, like those from Lodge Cast Iron or Field Skillet. However, it’s a good idea to give it a good scrub before its first use. Despite popular belief, using a little soap on your cast iron isn’t harmful. 

cast iron skillet on a red towel

Use warm water, a stiff brush, or a non-abrasive scrubber (like steel wool) to clean the skillet. Avoid using abrasive scrubbers or coarse kosher salt at this stage, as they can damage the pre-seasoned layer.

After scrubbing, rinse your skillet well and dry it completely. Using a clean rag or a paper towel is a great way to ensure there’s no excess water left on the surface.

The Seasoning Process

Seasoning is what transforms your skillet into a non-stick pan and creates that coveted iron seasoning layer. The best oils for seasoning have a high smoke point. I prefer to use avocado oil. I’ve also used tallow and lard.

Canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, and flaxseed oil are also decent choices. Olive oil, despite its popularity, isn’t the best for seasoning due to its lower smoke point. I’ve also used butter, but it also has a lower smoke point. So that should be an absolute last resort.

Here’s how to season your skillet:

  • Preheat your oven to a high temperature. Around 450-500°F works well.
  • Apply a thin layer of oil. Use a paper towel to coat the entire pan (inside and out, including the handle) with your chosen oil. Be sparing; too much oil can lead to a sticky residue.
  • Place the pan upside down on top of a shallow baking pan. This catches any drips and ensures even seasoning.
  • Bake for an hour. This process allows the oil to polymerize, forming a hard, protective coating.
  • Let the pan cool in the oven. Once cooled, give it a quick wipe with a paper towel to remove any excess oil.

Cooking with Your Seasoned Skillet

Now that your skillet is seasoned, it’s time to start cooking! When using it for the first time, it’s a good idea to cook foods that are high in fat, like bacon or steak, to bolster the seasoning. Avoid cooking acidic foods like tomatoes, as they can strip the seasoning.

salmon cakes cooking in a cast iron skillet

One of my favorite things to do is oven-fry salmon cakes in my iron skillet. Or if you prefer, you can cook them on top of the stove in the same skillet.

When cooking, start with a medium heat to warm up the pan and then adjust to your recipe’s needs. Iron pans retain heat well, so there’s seldom a need for very high heat. After cooking, let your pan cool before cleaning.

Cleaning and Maintenance

After each use, clean your skillet with hot water and a stiff brush. If needed, a little bit of dish soap and a pan scraper can help remove stubborn food bits. 

Dry the skillet thoroughly, then apply a thin layer of oil while it’s still warm. Or put the skillet in a hot oven for a half hour to get rid of any excess moisture. This keeps your pan’s seasoning in good condition for a long time.

Avoid leaving water in your pan for extended periods, as this can lead to rust. If your skillet does rust, don’t panic. A bit of elbow grease with steel wool, followed by the seasoning process, will restore it.

Regular Use and Care

Regular use is the best way to maintain a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Each time you cook with oil or fat, you’re essentially adding another layer of seasoning. 

sliced butter, cast iron skillet, and bottles of cooking oil

For best results, alternate between using your skillet on the stovetop and in the oven, as different cooking methods contribute differently to the seasoning.

Loving a Well Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet

A good cast iron pan, be it a skillet or a Dutch oven, is an investment for any kitchen. With these tips, your cast iron cookware will provide a lifetime of cooking pleasure. Follow this process with all of your cast iron skillets.

stack of cast iron skillets on a table

Remember, the only time you should use high heat is during the seasoning process. For everything else, medium to low heat will do the trick. With every use, your skillet will improve, creating a perfect non-stick surface for all your culinary creations.

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Tuesday 30th of April 2024

Please don't use butter to season your cast iron.