Thoughts on cast-iron seasoning, programming and everything…

Why Am I Doing This?

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It’s weird, but I feel like I’ve been peer pressured into starting this blog. Not that anyone has ever said “Geoff, you really need to start a blog.” It just seems like the thing to do. More importantly, it seems like you’re less legitimate as a programmer if you DON’T have a blog. Particularly a blog where you write about cool programming/tech things that you’ve discovered or figured out.

But here’s the thing. I’m still learning much more than I’m figuring out on my own. So I decided I would write about the one subject that I am actually exploring on my own - seasoning cast iron cookware.

A couple years ago when I was living in my first apartment with my best friend Garrett, we bought some cast iron skillets. We got them from Lodge, because it seemed like the only company that really sold cast iron anymore. When we got them though, the factory seasoning was somewhat disappointing, as was the quality of the metal itself. In particular, we noticed that the grain of the metal was quite large and that this led to a very rough and almost pitted looking surface to the metal. Not exactly ideal.

I had used cast iron pans for years. They were my favorite pans that my mother owned. I learned a bit about how to care for cast iron from my mother. Mainly, not to put them away wet. Typically we would towel dry, and then we would put them on the stove-top for a couple minutes until they were completely dry. When I got my own cast iron however, I decided that I wanted to know more about how to really properly care for cast-iron. But I was sorely disappointed by the collective knowledge that I found on the internet. Most of it was only half complete, or simply vague. Some pages sounded more like urban legend than actual advice. I was recently told with great conviction that the one thing you absolutely cannot do is submerge a cast-iron pan in soapy water; as though this would cause it to shatter instantly.

This has started to change. In about ten seconds of googling today (September 2013), I found one blog post by Sheryl Canter that talks specifically about the chemistry of cast iron seasoning. But at the time, the situation was exactly as Sheryl Canter describes, lots of mutually conflicting information with very few common threads.

So Garrett and I extracted what wisdom we could from it, and basically started experimenting. Not terribly scientifically, but we both anecdotally noted what we thought was effective about our various endeavors, and ended up diverging in our methodology. I became partial to the coating with oil and then baking in the oven at high heat, while Garrett went in the direction of stove-top seasoning.

More recently, I’ve come around to the stove-top seasoning method, mostly because it’s super convenient - after you’re done cooking, just put some oil in the pan, and turn the heat up a bit.

The biggest innovation so far has been using a flat-bladed metal spatula to actively push the oil around while heating it on the stove-top. This has a couple of effects, but the biggest one is that it actively enforces the surface of the pan to be fairly even as seasoning builds up because the spatula mechanically removes seasoning that is remarkably higher than other points.

The other big boon that I stumbled on by accident was using sunflower seed oil. I say by accident because it just happened that Trader Joe’s carries a very cheap bottle of sunflower seed oil that we bought to try out. It turns out to be really nice and easy to cook with, and also very good at seasoning my cast-iron. After reading Sheryl’s blog post, it’s clear that there’s a reason why when you look at this table of oil iodine values. Sunflower seed oil is right up there in the category of “semi-drying” oils.

The other interesting point about my adventures in cast-iron seasoning has been my unfortunate tendency to periodically simply burn the seasoning right out of my pan. This usually happens when I get distracted in the middle of seasoning my pan and end up leaving it in the oven at 500 degrees for four hours. Most recently my girlfriend and I left for the entire day (9+ hours) after I had turned on the electric stove-top to medium in preparation for frying up some eggs for breakfast (which didn’t happen). So the pan slowly cooked it’s way through the seasoning, and when I got back the bottom of the skillet was nice and grey, and covered in a fine black dust.

I used to get really upset every time this happened. Now, I’ve come to be much more Zen about it, and accept the impermanence of the seasoning on my pan. Now, I sort of regard almost as an opportunity to try to re-season it again.