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Monday, November 23, 2020

The Back Burner: How to season cast-iron cookware

Follow these easy, science-backed steps to perfectly season your cast-iron tawas and kadhais

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi | October 24, 2020 6:40:35 pm
cast iron, cookwareSeasoning is the non-stick layer that forms on the cast-iron surface when heat causes fat to break down and polymerise (Photo credit: Pooja Pillai; designed by Gargi Singh)

I recently bought a cast-iron dosa pan after months of procrastination and, without a doubt, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made for my kitchen. The dosas I make on them come out golden and crisp, unlike when I used teflon-coated or anodised pans and since I make dosas for breakfast about 4 days in a week, my cast-iron pan really feels like an investment.

The reason for my procrastination was, of course, the thought of having to season the pan and everything that I had ever read about this process convinced me that it’s too long-drawn and tedious to contemplate (yes, pre-seasoned pans are available, but I’d been told by many people that they still need seasoning at home and, also, have you seen the prices at which these pre-seasoned cast-iron utensils are sold?). It didn’t make sense to me that not only would I have to coat the pan in oil multiple times, but also soak it in rice starch water for a week, roast salt and fry onions and maybe an egg or two on it, before I could finally get around to making dosas.

Happily, I found out that almost all of these steps are quite unnecessary and I managed to season my new dosa pan perfectly well in under half an hour. I wrote a Twitter thread about the process a couple of days ago and based on the tremendous response it received (just under 20,000 people had interacted with the tweet at the time of writing this), there is clearly a need for it. I thought it best to write this post so that whatever I have learnt is accessible to those who are not on Twitter.

Since this is a post about seasoning cast-iron cookware, I won’t go deep into chemistry territory and will only touch on it enough that this whole process stops seeming like some magical, mysterious thing you can do only after you propitiate the gods and make a sacrifice during the full moon.

What does it mean to season cast-iron cookware?

Think about any old cast-iron cookware that is still in use, and you’ll recall that all of it has a rich, shiny black patina. This is what is known as the seasoning: a non-stick layer over the cast-iron surface, which develops through consistent use over time. Unseasoned cast-iron will have an unsightly, slate-grey colour and any food you cook in it will stick.

cast iron, cookware Unseasoned cast-iron cookware is dull and has an unsightly, slate-grey colour (Photo credit: Pooja Pillai)

How does seasoning form on cast-iron surfaces?

Seasoning forms on cast-iron surfaces when fat is heated to the point that it breaks down and polymerises. Heat changes the chemical properties of fat – let’s say, cooking oil – and one of the changes that occurs is the creation of polymers which are, to put it simply, plastic. Once cool, this plastic bonds to the surface of your cast-iron pan (or skillet or wok) to form a non-stick layer. As you keep using the pan, the layers accumulate and the pan gets better and better.
Based on the above explanation, it should be clear that really all you need to properly season your cast-iron cookware is oil and heat.

How to season your brand-new cast-iron cookware:

  1. Wash thoroughly with soap and water to remove any gunk. If you see rust on it, scour away to make sure it’s all gone.
  2. Dry the utensil thoroughly with a dishcloth or paper towel
  3. Now apply a thin layer of oil all over the utensil, covering every surface that’s made of iron. Use a paper towel to wipe off any excess oil. You can use canola, soybean, sesame, sunflower or any standard vegetable oil for this.
  4. On a medium flame, start heating the utensil.
  5. Just as the utensil starts to smoke, add a few drops of oil and, using a paper towel, spread a thin layer to cover the whole cooking surface.
  6. Repeat this 4-5 times, then turn off the stove and allow the utensil to cool completely.
  7. Coat it with oil and put it away until you’re ready to use it.
cast iron, cookware Seasoned cast-iron cookware will have a shiny, rich black patina (Photo credit: Pooja Pillai)

How to re-season your cast-iron cookware:

Clean the utensil (if required) and follow the steps from 3 to 7 above.

How to maintain your cast-iron cookware:

  1. Use it. That’s the most effective way to ensure that your cast-iron cookware doesn’t rust or get ruined in other ways. The more you use it, the better it will serve you.
  2. Always apply a thin coating of oil before putting it away. This will ensure that it isn’t affected by moisture.

A note on cleaning with soap and water:

In my Twitter thread, I had said that moisture is cast-iron’s worst enemy and I still believe that. However, based on some of the responses I received and some follow-up reading I did, I would say that it’s safe to wash your seasoned cast-iron cookware with soap and water, because the oil has already been polymerised and has bonded to the cooking surface. So soap won’t wash it away. That said, don’t scrub it hard (even though seasoning, once set, is pretty tough).
But, yes, make sure to dry it thoroughly and oil it before you put it away.

Final word on seasoning your cast-iron cookware:

Don’t be afraid of it. Seriously. Yes, you can make mistakes and you might chip off the seasoning accidentally, but given how easy re-seasoning it is, don’t be afraid to use your cast-iron cookware.
Also, you won’t ruin the seasoning if you use metal spoons and spatulas on the cooking surface, so go ahead and use them.

[The Back Burner is a weekly blog that will talk about all things food (with recipes, of course)]

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