Sunday, May 25, 2014

Conditioning a Cast Iron Pan

Since an old college roommate angrily threw away a cast iron pan one of us had ruined, I've been fascinated with how to fix them up. I spent most of that summer between my sophomore and junior years caking oil onto the bottom of that pan, wishing I had air conditioning, and procrastinating French homework I now wish I had done. I learned a lot, though, and through my own series of roomies, mishaps, and debacles with taco seasoning, I've had to learn a lot more from that very same pan.

Reconditioning a Cast Iron Pan

  • Ruined pan
  • Canola Oil (NOT OLIVE OIL. Olive oil can’t handle the heat of the oven or the sustained flame on a stove and will smoke too much. It also won’t cure. If you hate canola oil, use grapeseed oil or another high heat oil. Peanut oil leaves too much flavor in the pan.)
  • A utility scraper or spackle knife
  • A brillo pad (or steel wool and barkeeper’s friend)
  • Time, a stove, an oven, and water
  • Bacon (you will not be eating this bacon).

Step 1: Obtain a ruined pan.

This might happen because you go to thrift stores for everything, because you left the heat on for too long when you were trying to dry your pan without using a paper towel, or you might have a roommate who insists on using soap and water to clean the cast iron.

The necessary supplies are shown here.

Step 2: Boil water in the pan to loosen the grit.


Step 3: Scrub and scrape.

You may find that you want to scrape around the edges first so you have a foothold of sorts as you head for the middle. This is a really great way to take out your pent-up rage over the poorly attached gutter outside your bedroom window which clatters and rattles all night when it rains.

Step 4: No Really, Keep Scraping. 

Get all the black and rusty bits out. You really should not leave any – when you start adding oil, the little back bits will be where the new conditioning starts to peel. The iron beneath should be silver and textured. As best I can tell, this is what makes the new oil stick so well.
Use that elbow grease!

Step 5: Almost There. 
Clean the edges. Scraping out the side walls of the pan might be more than you feel up to – that’s fine. You have to get the edges, though. If you don’t, your new conditioning will just peel off from the sides. At this point, your pan probably looks like this. The wavy lines across the middle are from the boiling water. That’s normal.

Step 6: Add the oil and choose your conditioning method. 
This pan has marks from the water used earlier, but it's totally ready for conditioning. 

Method 1: Oven. This is for people with less patience but a fair amount of time (or a stay at home job).
  • Your pan is PERFECT. 
  • You have time to take the pan in & out of the oven every 2 hours over 6-8 hours.


1. Rub the pan with a VERY THIN layer of oil. The amount below would be significantly reduced after being rubbed in with a paper towel.

2. Place in a 350 degree oven for two hours. Remove. Let cool. If the surface is sticky and holds a fingerprint, you out too much oil in – put the pan back in and hope it cures.

3. When you remove the pan and the oil is a little sticky but does not hold a fingerprint, heat the pan on the stove, add oil, rub it in, and return to the oven.

4. Do this 3-4 times. The oil will be thick and will be a caramel color. Skip to Step 7.
It should be glassy looking.

This is what a pan looks like when it’s removed from the oven after the first time, perfect but for one blemish where there was a bit of junk on the pan. You have two choices if you have a blemish: start over or switch to method 2, where you can guide the oil into the blemished spot.

Method 2: Stovetop. This is good for people with a gas stove, a couple of hours, less perfectionism than your at-home-pan-conditioner, and a lot of patience.

  • Gas stove
  • 2-3 hours
  • Canola oil
  • Wooden spatula
  • Paper towels
  • Thick oven mitt


1. Rub the pan with canola oil, a very thin layer.

2. Heat on low-medium heat for 5-10 minutes, wiping out the oil if it pools. Heat until it looks like the pan above. The oil should be thin, and you’ll probably see the silver beneath the oil for a few rounds of this. If it’s smoking very gently, it’s working. If it’s smoking a lot, there is a problem.
This is what a pan looks like after you've done the first layer of oil.  The little blemish isn't a huge deal but you should try to avoid them if you want a better outcome.

3. Add a VERY SMALL amount of oil, about a teaspoon.

4. Rotate the pan around, spreading the oil all over. Heat until it looks like the pan above.

5. Repeat for 3-4 layers, until you have a smooth, glassy surface.

This is the glassiness you should expect.

Step 7: Cook some bacon.

In the oven method, chances are you will have a caramel layer which looks SUPER smooth and cracks off a bit with the bacon – that’s the cured oil. In the stove top method, you might have the same effect – I’ve found that if that happens it’s less traumatic in the stove-conditioned pan.

This is what it looks like if your oil wasn't cured and you start to add medium to high heat.  If this happens, shock the pan with oil and go back to the beginning.  If something somewhat less than this happens, continue to cook the bacon.

Cook the bacon all the way. Little flakes of oil and some burnt oil will come off of the pan. Rub the pan down when you’re done.
This is what your pan will look like when it's pretty much done and you're just adding some more oil to condition it for real cooking.

Step 8: Cook high-fat foods or foods with oil for the next couple of days. Yum. Seriously, I’m talking skin-side-down chicken under a brick, sausage, asparagus coated in olive oil.

Step 9: The Long-Term Care and Cleaning of Your Pan

1. As soon as you’re finished cooking, remove the food from the pan and run water in the pan. The water will bubble and pop a bit, but all the food will be removed. Scrape it, if necessary, with a wooden spatula or a natural fiber bristle brush. If you need more abrasion, canola oil and salt on a rag works great.

2. Dry immediately, either on the stove or with a towel. I use an old t-shirt (two sides sewn together) to do this. Some people prefer paper towels.

3. Heat a little bit of canola oil in the pan and rub it around with the wooden spatula.

4. Watch the conditioning improve with time!