How To: (Re)Season A Cast Iron Skillet

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Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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  1. Avatar Kazzy
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    Wonderful! I’ve got a relatively older reversible skillet (4+ years compared to the new pan-style skillet we got for our wedding last year) that needs some upkeep. I’ll try this. I’ve kept the new one in great shape using a pretty simple regimen:

    1.) Cook in it. Often. And don’t skimp on the fat.
    2.) Clean it as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. Use only water and a doby pad.
    3.) DRY DRY DRY! Get all that moisture off.
    4.) A solid coating of quality spray oil (just a bit easier than rubbing on oil).

    Thoughts on this process?Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kazzy
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      I think that sounds entirely reasonable, especially if it works well per your needs. I have no idea what other enthusiasts might say – “A cooking spray oil! Why I never! Fetch my fainting couch at ONCE!” – but if you’ve got a method you like, by all means, stick with it.

      I might suggest though, in the name of cheapness, not using a Doby (?) pad. A metal spatula should get everything serious out of the pan, especially if you pour a touch of hot water into a hot pan, essentially deglazing it. Then simply pour the water out, dry, oil, and you’re done. But that’s only to save money/wear-tear on Doby pads.Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to Kazzy
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      What kind of spray oil? Lots of them have soy lecithin which will turn into a nasty goo and is nearly impossible to remove.
      I highly recommend you put a dab of oil on a cloth and give extremely fine coat instead.

      Also, what the heck is a doby pad?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Plinko
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        http://www.jdindustrialsupply.com/scdoallpuclp.html

        It is sort of like a plastic scratchy pad. Abrasve enough to take off anything that might be stuck but not strong enough to remove the finish. If I use it (which isn’t always), it is usually just a few times around with loose pressure.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Plinko
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        Also, I tend to use a canola oil spray, because of the high smoke point. A quick check show it does have the soy lechiten, though I haven’t (yet) noticed an sludge or film. If this is an error, I’m happy to be shown the light. On the next run to BJs, I plan to pick up a vat of peanut oil and transition to frying in this. Would a drop of this work well?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy
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          Peanut oil, like sesame oil, is aromatic: it will affect the taste, but then canola does, too. Corn oil has a much higher smoke point, you might not want to go to peanut oil entirely. Good peanut oil isn’t cheap, what with last year’s crop failure.Report

        • Avatar Artor in reply to Kazzy
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          says:

          Sunflower oil has an even higher smoke point, and has a pretty innocuous flavor. I still prefer bacon. Mmm… bacon…Report

        • Avatar Plinko in reply to Kazzy
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          I use canola oil, it’s cheap and pretty neutral and I always have plenty. Lard would probably be an excellent choice.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Plinko
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            I’ve heard good things about coconut and palm oils for the seasoning.

            Instead of using PAM or some commercial product like that, I have a gizmo that you put your own oil in and pump and it sprays just like PAM but is pure oil, no extra chemicals or preservatives. I liked the idea of PAM but it always smelled funny to me. The sprayer does make us cut down on how much oil we use. I even have one misto dedicated to hot oil (the container is full of hot dried chili peppers and I regularly add more oil).Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to wardsmith
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              PAM is to be avoided whenever you possibly can. The stuff leaves a nasty residue.

              I bake on parchment or cornmeal. Fry with lard, ghee, or olive oil, depending. I run a lactose-free kitchen, so the options are limited.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to wardsmith
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              says:

              I have the same gizmo, but right now it is dedicated to olive oil, which I’m confident has too low a smoke point for the cast iron. Perhaps a second one with another oil is in order…Report

              • Avatar sam wilkinson in reply to Kazzy
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                What are you cooking that is smoking this much? I’ve heard this objection before but.never encountered it as a problem.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to sam wilkinson
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                EVOO has a lower smoke point that just about any other commonly used oil. You can’t, say, deep fry in it because the temp you need the oil to be at is about or above the smoke point of oil. If you burn the oil, everything will taste like smoke (and not the good kind), even if the food doesn’t look burned. Of course, you woukdn’t deep fry in EVOO for economic reasons as well. For most preps, olive oil is fine, but if you are using very high heat or extended periods of heat, olive oil is a bad choice.

                If we’re talking about a thin coat to care for the pan, on top of which another fat will be used for the actual cooking, there is probably zero problem. I’ve just internalized a mindset away from olive oil for high heat.

                As to what I’m cooking, I do a lot of frying in the skillet. An inch of oil is enough to fry most things, especially when you’re only cooking for two. I shoot for the oil to be around 350.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      It appears most of the lit out there does indeed confirm Plinko’s suspicion. Sam, if I dan control the temp, any reason I can’t do this on the grill? Hard to run the oven that long in the summer heat.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kazzy
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        Which part are you doing on the grill?Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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          The oven parts. I’ve got an enamel grill grate and a pizza stone I can place between the skillets and the grate is direct contact is bad. I’d like to do it this weekend, but do not want to blast the ovens for 4+ hours on what is supposed to be a scorcher. I can control temperature to within a few degrees of what I desire.Report

          • Avatar Sam in reply to Kazzy
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            Are you including the oven-cleaning cycle part in this calculus? Can you get a grill that hot? If you can, right on. If not, there are other methods for de-gunking a skillet that don’t involve heat. I’ve never tried them, but they’re out there.

            Meanwhile, the worst thing that happens is that it won’t work, but you won’t hurt the cookware itself. Wait for a cooler day and try again at a higher temperature. I think you’ll probably end up being fine.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam
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              A charcoal or gas grill will work just fine. What’s needed here is a true reduction-oxidation and to drive out any remaining water in the pores, wouldn’t you agree? It’s not so much the extremely high temperature but the time involved, which is how oven cleaning works anyway.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to BlaiseP
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                Blaise – I’m interested to see if you’re correct about the temperature against the time. My instinct is the temperature matters, but if it doesn’t, that’ll be an interesting thing to know.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam
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                Well, think of it like firing a clay pot. Reduction-oxidation, old chemistry memory aid: OIL RIG, Oxygen is Losing (electrons), Reduction is Gaining (electrons). Iron’s easily oxidised, which is why your third picture we see all the rust. But more importantly, we see all the organic material come up from the surface. That happened because you broke all the hydrogen bonds connecting the carbon to the iron, replacing them with oxygen. Hydrogen bonds are fairly easily broken with a small amount of heat, that’s why eggs turn opaque when you cook them, meat and suchlike, too. But cook anything long enough, presuming it’s carbon based, it will turn black. Free carbon. Soot, essentially. It stands to reason what you’re doing is removing decades-old seasoning.

                Any oil is really just a long carbon chain. Add hydrogen and it will start solidifying. You can break the hydrogen bonds with heat, but as with your bacon grease, it will thicken again.

                Heat increases the speed of a reaction but the only reaction we need to get the old crud off is to separate it from the iron and that’s really breaking the hydrogen bond to the iron surface.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Sam
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              says:

              Sam-

              Neither pan is really gunky, though de-gunking won’t hurt. My new Weber easily pushes 550 with all burners on high and get beyond that with the sear burner on. Grunt-grunt-grunt.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    I… I’d have eaten the bacon, too.

    I’m not proud of that fact. But I’d be a liar to claim otherwise.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      The look my wife gave me when I told her what I’d done was a combination of horror and resignation, as if she realized what she’d married and realized the complexities of divorce, all at once.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko
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      This should be a regular feature of the League: The Public Confessional.Report

    • Avatar Artor in reply to Burt Likko
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      I love me some bacon, but I don’t know if I’d eat the stuff seared in a rusty new pan. Fortunately, I like my bacon lean, so I usually trim the excess fat off and keep a supply of trimmings in the fridge. Every once in a while, I’ll render them down and refill the jar of bacon grease I keep on top of the stove. THAT job does an awesome job of seasoning the pan! I’d foolishly put it on a hot burner to dry after washing, and got distracted by a phone call & a round of WOW, burning off all my seasoning.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater
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    Excellent post. Hilarious. I particularly like how you didn’t let the excess bacon grease go to waste by making some home fries. That’s the sign of a sharp mind, taking advantage of your opportunities and all.

    In recent years I’ve become more inclined to the almost sacred virtues of cooking with cast iron. I prep my rusty old skillets – some of them scores of years old, dug out of an old chicken coop if you can believe that – by using electric sanders, then season them along similar lines (no bacon, my wife’s an expectant vegetarian). I *NEVER* use soap to wash them. Hot water and fingers are all that’s necessary. A quick re-heat and the occasional dab of oil seems to suffice.

    But I wanna try the bacon-grease method on one or two of em. But I have a question: will it give a bacony flavor to everything cooked in the pan? (I’m hoping the answer is “yes”.)Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Stillwater
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      The next/first time you genuinely cook something you want to eat after having done this method, you might get bacon, but it will almost immediately be overwhelmed by the flavors of whatever you’re making, especially if you’re not constantly cooking with bacon grease to reinforce the flavor.

      Unfortunately then, if you’re hoping to live the dreamer’s dream – a piece of cookware that makes everything taste like bacon, every time you use it – I’m afraid I have disappointed you. Good luck in your quest.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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        Thanks for the info, even if it’s slightly disappointing. But I’m not losing hope. Maybe I can find a lithium-ion powered bacon-flavoring pan offered on a late night cable infomercial.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Stillwater
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          Cookware is a problem, but you can go old school and store your old bacon grease in a coffee can and use it in place of other fats. I will also point you to my bacon bourbon recipe, if you prefer to imbibe your bacon. The best part: the process wastes not an ounce of bacon… YOU STILL GET TO EAT IT ALL!Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater
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          Kazzy has this problem defined. If you want to add some bacon-y goodness to this ‘n that, the secret is to slow bake your bacon in the oven, pouring off the grease into a can.

          This is the method used by the gods atop Olympus: a dollop of bacon grease in corn bread, baked in cast iron with a lid.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP
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            I remember reading a novel that focused on a Southern African-American family some time in the past. It talked about how the matriach (not sure if it was mom or grandma) who kept three cans on top of the stove: one for bacon grease, one for chicken grease, and one for everything else. It described how sometimes she poured stuff in but on good days, she scooped stuff out; the kids knew something tasty was coming. I don’t remember the novel and may be noting specifics poorly, but at the time of reading, I didn’t get it. My Italian family NEVER cooked like that.

            Now? I get it. OH, how I get it.Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kazzy
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              Growing up in the South both of my grandmothers (and my mother) kept a coffee can in the freezer for bacon grease.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                Mmmm, drippings.Report

              • Avatar Johanna in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                Growing up in the Midwest, my mom and grandmother did the same, so I think this practice travels well. My great grandparents were Swiss immigrants, too, so no southern connection. Bacon grease is a crucial ingredient both for Swiss steak ( the real stuff, not what they sell at restaurants) and rosti (Swiss fried potatoes).Report

              • Avatar Plinko in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                We also put the grease in an old tin can, but my parents foolishly threw the can away when it was full.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Plinko
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                When my wife and I were first married I invited her parents over for a homecooked German meal. I cooked a half pound of bacon to make my grandmother’s German potato salad recipe. At some point I turned around and my wife had dumped out all of the grease. She was trying to be helpful. I almost cried. Needless to say we cooked another half pound of bacon and all was right.

                I still tease her about that one.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                You can cook HALF POUNDS of bacon? I assumed anything less than a full pound was simply impossible!Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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        says:

        This bacon business can easily be replaced with any hydtrogenated lipid you’d like. Now I never season my pans with bacon fat, I use a few tablespoons of Crisco or peanut oil, specifically because bacon has a lot of sugar cure in it, which will also get into those pores. Sugar will caramelize and burn.

        The care and feeding of a steel wok or cast iron requires nothing more than a few drops of peanut oil and a paper towel to keep the steel from rusting. I suppose canola oil will do, any oil with a high temp smoke point will do fine. Over time, the peanut oil will burn down to black. You don’t see it on cast iron since it’s already black but on steel you will. It takes years to get the back completely black.

        I started using greenie pads on both my wok and my cast iron many years ago.Report

  4. Avatar wardsmith
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    So if my cast iron pans are Lodge is that a bad thing?Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP
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    Another benefit of cast iron: you’ll never suffer from iron deficiency if you cook in it regularly.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to BlaiseP
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      By the same token, those with too much iron will not only not benefit, but will have their problems worsened. This is something I’ve encountered as I’ve tried to spread what little gospel I’ve got on the subject: people who want in but cannot for health reasons.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Dwyer
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    Awesome post Sam. You did a fantastic job with the play-by-play instructions. Very, very cool.Report

  7. Avatar North
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    Fascinating and also amusing. Well done sir.Report

  8. Avatar Annelid Gustator
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    Question–what about an enameled dutch oven? Safe to burn it off in the self-cleaning cycle?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Annelid Gustator
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      No. Don’t even heat up an enamelled cast iron pot without anything in it.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP
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        Will that cause the enamel to crack? Differential expansion between the iron and the enameling?Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to James Hanley
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          I’m not even sure I understand this query. Why strip an enameled dutch oven? Why not simply acquire a new cast iron dutch oven? Lodge sells a perfectly nice one for $40. Or, hit the yardsales or the thrift shops. You ought to find something workable in relatively short order.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley
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          The glaze is porcelain. Glazed iron is a concession to the problem of cooking stews and suchlike. People like the appearance of glazed ironware but really, a glazed pot is more trouble than it’s worth. Think of it as putting a coffee cup on your open burner.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP
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            But how else am I going to heat up my coffee in the morning?

            More seriously, thanks, I get it now.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP
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            I’ve found that 90% or more of the recipes that require a glazed dutch oven can be accomplished with a stock pot and a corningware dish.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP
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            I have one glazed pot which is handy for stews and such. The other perk is you can deep fry in it, which isn’t always possible in a cast skillet because of depth (though I fry plenty of smaller stuff there). I suppose a cast iron pot would work, though those tend to be harder to find.
            But, yea, Le Creuset and others really make bank on the fanciess of it. Truth be told, my glazed has developed some staining on the exterior and is hidden away while the cast iron gleams on the stovetop 24/7Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy
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              Exactly right. I have an enormous electric roasting pan which I use for gumbo. That’s enamel glaze over steel. I never make less than several gallons of gumbo at a time, which I freeze in two-person portions. Pointless to make less: all that chopping and making of roux and suchlike.

              Roux’s another thing I’ll only make in cast iron. I make up a ton of it, pour it out onto a cookie sheet and cut it up into chunks, freeze those too. Some people make roux quickly, which is heresy. Takes me two hours.Report

          • Avatar Plinko in reply to BlaiseP
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            I’ve always been told, in extremely strong terms, not to use my cast iron to cook anything acidic. So, my glazed dutch oven gets used several times a month because I can use wine, tomatoes and vinegar in it without a thought and I don’t stew or braise much without a lot of those.

            It cleans somewhat less easily than my properly-cared for cast iron, but it’s still quite easy and requires no care.
            Now, I’m lucky in that mine was a gift, as much as I love it I’m not sure if Le Creuset would fit in my budget if for some reason I needed a new one.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Plinko
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              One of the worst moments with my ex-wife was when she put my cast iron in the dishwasher. As Citizen notes below, I was obliged to sand it down to get the pits out. I’ll never say anything bad about her, but I’ve never seen anyone else burn pots so horribly. She did a job on every single one of my pots over time.Report

            • Avatar M.A. in reply to Plinko
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              I’ve done vinegar sauces and vinegar-based marinade meats in my cast iron, and even included spraying on some lemon juice, with no troubles. If there’s enough fat in the recipe, the acidity won’t hurt your cast iron.

              Now as to cooking nothing but pureed tomato or drizzling plain lemon juice onto a hot, unprepared cast iron skillet, I’d probably be a little fainter of heart about that.Report

  9. Avatar Citizen
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    says:

    Good on ya Sam,
    I typically spend alot of time sanding the cook face down to silver metal. It is ok to use water when sanding, I also use a grind stone if the pan is initially very rough.
    Not mirror finish but enough that you know the pores are as shallow as they can be. Some pans have nearly no pores and will sand very nicely. Those types tend to be non-stick.

    During the last of the sanding with the fine, it needs to be heated and drive out the water before it rusts. Before it cools, I use bacon fat or EV olive oil.

    To prevent excess build up of the black coating a steel spatula is utilized to scrape down to bare metal after each use. Before the pan and burner has a chance to completely cool, I will wash it and place it back on the hot burner and drive the moisture out. Once the moisture is gone and the bottom is still warm, a quick wipe down of EV Olive oil readies it for the next use .

    The undoing is when someone uses the pan and doesn’t scrape it or drops the pan in dishwater over night/doesn’t season it before putting away.Report

    • Avatar M.A. in reply to Citizen
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      Given that you were repairing a neglected one – good job!

      For cleaning, I actually use about a tablespoon of salt plus a few drops of olive oil. Take a paper towel (folded quarters or eighths) and rub it all around the pan; the salt will scour the surface without damaging the seasoning layer. Rinse with water when done, then dry thoroughly with the paper towel. That method’s kept my cast iron going beautifully for years.Report

  10. Avatar M.A.
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    says:

    I’d have eaten the bacon too. No sense wasting good bacon.

    And the only reason I’ve heard not to soap a seasoned skillet was that it’ll strip the layer, not that it’ll actually leech into the food (as long as you’ve properly rinsed it, the soap ought to all come out).Report

  11. Avatar Kevin Carson
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    says:

    Excellent article. A couple of notes:

    Old skillets are the best, because they’re made with much coarser grained iron these days.

    And the older and more seasoned a skillet is, the more brittle it is likely to be. I inherited a wonderful old skillet from my aunt that was slicker than teflon. Unfortunately when I dropped it, after several years’ loving use, it shattered like glass.Report

  12. Avatar karl
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    If my oven has no self-clean cycle (which it doesn’t, it’s just an oven) what do I do with my pan? (No funny answers, please).Report

    • Avatar sam wilkinson in reply to karl
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      says:

      The explanation I’ve always read involves using an oven-cleaning spray. Cover the piece and out it in a trash bag for a few hours or a few days. Take out, rinse, and see what the situation is. If it needs sanded, sand it. If everything has come off, start with fat adding part of the recipe. (Many people do this method even if they do have an oven with a self-cleaning cycle.)Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to karl
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      says:

      FWIW, a “self-clean cycle” on most ovens simply means the oven heats itself up as hot as it can possibly get for an extended period to burn out whatever might be caked inside. It locks the door during the process and for a while afterward so you can’t possibly burn yourself. If you can otherwise crank the heat up and just leave it, you can get the thing clean. Wipe with a damp cloth when done to remove the ash and residue.Report

  13. Avatar Joe Watterson
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    says:

    I also have an old Griswold! I don’t know how old it is but it back in the 50’s when my mother used to cook with it looked the same as it does now. Although I keep the inside well seasoned, I’m proud of the years of use implied by the encrustation of the sides and would never try to make the pan look new by removing it. I see I can’t insert a photo. It has a “5” at the top and “724” and “Erie, Pa., U.S.A.” at the top. Cool!Report

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