The facts and fictions of that cast-iron buzzword.

There is one word that follows cast iron wherever it goes. Into every news article. Down every online rabbit hole. One that’s fought over by home cooks and experienced chefs. One that is omnipresent and irksome and, in general, a big, overly complicated, equally watered-down waste of hot air and time. And that, dear friends, is seasoning.

Ah, seasoning—the culinary buzzword of the 21st century—with so much dogma surrounding it. But, of course, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. So let us debunk a few myths and explain a few mysteries. (Spoiler alert: it’s easier than you’ve been made to believe.)

First of all, what is seasoning?

In scientific terms, seasoning is the process of polymerizing (aka a chemical reaction in which molecules bond together) and carbonizing (aka converting carbon into carbonic residue) of fat on iron in the presence of high heat.

Polymerization of fat creates a thin, hydrophobic layer that helps protect the naturally porous iron surface from water, and thus rust, while also providing the foundation for a non-stick surface. The carbon residue contributes to a more durable coating and that trademark dark color that just so happens to be a nice side effect. Both happen only if your fat gets hot enough to reach its smoke point—aka when it begins to smoke—which, depending on whether you’re using lard or Crisco, olive or peanut or grapeseed oil, can range from 200 to 500 degrees. 

Have your eyes fallen out of your head yet?

In colloquial terms, seasoning has become known as that thick, rough, pitch-black surface of some grandmother’s cast iron—impossible to acquire without a thousand YouTubes, multi-generational Appalachian wisdom, and a touch of witchcraft.

Which all happens to be untrue.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get from new customers is why are their pans not black—an expectation largely hailing from those old, well-loved hunks of metal found in antique stores, or that ubiquitous Lodge cookware, which arrives the color of coal in part because of its sandpapery texture (which is a whole other science lesson we won’t bore you with now).

In reality, at its best, seasoning is not thick or rough at all.

It is multiple, thin layers—read a fraction of a millimeter in total—that are built up over time and buffed out between each meal for a more even coating, with scrubbers, soap, and all. Don’t fear losing that precious S-word in the process. Because guess what? It’ll come back the next time you use your pan.

In fact, many of the ones we use were never seasoned, just brought home silver straight from the factory and not missing a day in the kitchen ever since.

Our customers are right—our pans do not arrive black. But neither did Griswolds. Or Wagners. Or Favorites. In part, because they are smooth. But also because, despite being pre-seasoned into a luscious caramel color, they will still require the primary source of seasoning—cooking—to turn into that coffee color we have come to associate with a “seasoned” piece of cast iron.

By its very definition, seasoning takes time, like a good paint job or the patina on a pair of fine leather boots. It won’t look perfect right away, and its progress will depend on myriad factors, from your oil to your ingredients to your stove.

To get off on the right foot, we suggest these simple steps:

Cook something simple in your cast iron in the presence of fat at a high temperature, preferably in your oven. Remember, seasoning is born out of a combination of fat and high heat. Avoid things that are sticky or gunky like pot pie or mac-and-cheese.

For our Joans and Lilis, roast a chicken or vegetables. For our Heathers, Estees, and Erics, bake cornbread. For our Homer, make popcorn on your stovetop. Do so a couple times, and between each use, clean the heck out of your pan, dry it well, oil it up. From there, you should be good to go.

Don’t worry about smoke points or fancy seasoning oils or flaxseed or all that other pansplaining that the internet fools you with.

Just cook in the damn thing, and if you mess up, keep cooking.

Even a patchy new pan can still roast a mighty fine chicken.

And we’d rather have the chicken.

Wouldn’t you?

April 20, 2022 — Dennis Powell