Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There is a Season(ing)

It was a few months ago while I was overseeing the after-dinner clean-up when my friend, Jenny, expressed reservations toward wiping out a cast iron Dutch oven to my satisfaction. I told her not to worry about it, just use warm, soapy water and a gentle hand and we'd dry it on the stove top and give it a thin coat of vegetable oil, as per my usual methodology. "Okay," she said. "I just don't want to do anything to mess up the seasoning." I thanked her for her concern and replied,"Yeah, the measure of a man can be taken by the quality of his seasoned cast irons." She thought about it for a second, screwed up her face and said, "Maybe with this crowd, but I don't think it's normal. Most guys go for muscles and money."

Jenny's dig regardless, I started thinking about re-seasoning the old Dutch oven a few days later. The old layer was starting to peel away in places and there was a rusty blush growing on the underside of the lid. It was around that time my father called to tell me about an article on the very same topic in "Cook's Illustrated" magazine that was supposed to revolutionize the way cast iron should be seasoned.

Now, "Cook's Illustrated," in case you don't already know, is the greatest thing to home cooks since sliced bread. The magazine tackles just a few recipes and techniques in each issue, with tons of text on the trial-and-error process that led to the perfection of the final result, which, almost always, works beautifully in my kitchen. There are honest and thorough produce reviews and ingenious tips for convenience in the kitchen and pantry. Add to that the fact that publisher and editor Christopher Kimball is a hunter and often writes beautifully of that pursuit in his letter from the editor and I simply cannot give the publication higher praise.

The staff at "Cook's Illustrated" called blogger Sheryl Canter's seasoning technique for cast iron "ultimate" and that was good enough for my dad and me.

First, a word on seasoning. Cast iron is a desirable material for cookware because it distributes heat evenly and holds it better than any other metal or compound used in making pots and pans. Unless it is "seasoned," however, cast iron is decidedly "stick." To make it non-stick, you must treat the cast iron with several layers of natural oil and heat. The heat causes the omega-3 fatty acids in the oil to combine into a strong coat that gives well-seasoned cast iron pots and pans their smooth, shiny black look.

This Dutch oven needs love.
The debate rages on the type of oil to use and how long and how high the cast iron should be heated. I have always used vegetable oil and a low oven with new cast iron pans. For touch-ups (which are occasionally necessary) I wipe the pan with a paper towel and a thin coat of oil on the stove top over medium heat. Over the years, my Dutch oven is the pot that suffers the most, as it is the workhorse in my kitchen. It needed a make-over and what better excuse to try the new, "ultimate" method?

Stripped down after three rounds with the oven cleaner.
So I started the daunting process as described in "Cook's Illustrated." First, since this wasn't a new pot, I had to strip all evidence of the old seasoning out to get to the bare metal underneath. The article said to do this with oven cleaner - just spray on a layer of foam, allow it to set for 30 minutes and wipe everything out with soapy water and paper towels. I'm not sure what the pots and pans they tried this on started out looking like, but my faithful Dutch oven would not go peacefully into that good night. The old seasoning practically laughed as I tried to scrape it away with paper towels. Then I tried the rough side of a sponge with marginally better results. A second round of oven cleaner was in order. When that failed, I drove to the store to get the big guns - steel wool. A third cleaning round finally produced the bare metal I needed to start the seasoning process, but I was already a day and a half into the project.

Now, instead of vegetable oil, the "ultimate" technique calls for flaxseed oil, which has six times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as "old reliable" and forms a polymerized bond that is supposed to withstand the rigors of a run through the dishwasher and come out unscathed. Such a boast is practically unbelievable to me, (I'm used to cast iron pans that rust in 30 seconds if you don't dry the water residue immediately) but since it's the "ultimate," I paid the $15 for a 12-ounce bottle of flaxseed oil at the local health food store.

I took my stripped Dutch oven and placed it, as instructed, into a 200-degree oven for 15 minutes to "open the pores" of the metal for a better bond. Then I applied a teaspoon of flaxseed oil (well shaken to stir up those all-important lignans) and wiped it into a thin layer the interior of the pot. I applied a similar layer to the lid and cranked the oven up to 550 degrees. When the oven came to temperature, I placed the pot and lid on the middle rack and let it rip for one hour. A word of caution: Ovens operating at such high temps for long periods tend to smoke. Make sure you can open some windows or disable the smoke detectors before you start. If you're married to someone (like I am) with a low tolerance for kitchen smoke, do NOT attempt this while they are at home.

After the hour was up, I turned the oven off and allowed the pot and lid to cool in there for two hours more, then I repeated the process... five more times. Even after the first go-round, however, I was impressed. The Dutch oven came out with a beautiful black patina that only got better with each treatment that followed. It's a two-day process, covering 18 hours, six of which require you to sit in a smokey kitchen hoping the oven doesn't explode and watching the gas meter spin furiously. It ain't for the faint of heart. But my God it was beautiful!

Ultimate rust?
With the seasoning process finally complete, I couldn't wait to take the old Dutch oven for a test drive, and there's no higher purpose for that particular piece of cookware in my house than as a vessel for making venison garam masala. The masala puts the pot through all of its paces; browning meat, sweating onions, three hours braising in a low oven and a high, fast boil-off on the stove top to finish. The result? A great batch of venison garam masala, but the "ultimate" seasoning came through poorly.

Patches of cast iron showing through?
Perhaps I didn't strip the original seasoning as thoroughly as I could have, but after three rounds with the oven cleaner, I was starting to fear for my eyes and lungs. Maybe it's better to just start with a fresh piece of cast iron so the flaxseed gets a better bond. All I know is, I'm leaving the rest of my pots and pans alone and adding the remaining flawseed oil to my yogurt in the morning. There have to be a better ways to spend 18 hours of your life, don't you think?


  1. Perhaps a job better suited for a sander or drill w/ sander attachment...

    I recently heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper make the comment that animal fats make the best seasoning for cast iron. I have a tough enough time parting with any of my procured animal fats in recipes though.

  2. Sir, there may be better ways to spend 18 hours of your life, but I can tell you with all honesty that there was not, at this moment, a way to better spend the five minutes of my life it took to read this entry! I couldn't put it down, even though I haven't the slightest interest in flaxseed oil, cast iron or cooking. I do however, have an exceedingly unhealthy interest in eating!

    In other words...MAN, that was some good writin' 'bout cast iron pots.

  3. Good article! I guess probably some of the most beautiful cast iron cookware I've ever seen was cured back when everyone still cooked with lard. I don't know if veg oil would cure it the same or not. I do know they do a lot better if you use them often.

  4. Thanks guys. I'm starting to think the enamel-coated cast iron is the way to go; all the benefits of the material without the fuss of maintaining a seasoned coat. I do love me that classic look of smooth black metal.

  5. I've always wanted to do some heavy cooking on camping trips, but I'm always fishing until dark-thirty and then it's a bag of freeze-dried whatever and some oreo's and off to bed. Man. Getting old stinks. ;)

  6. Jamie,

    I used to sweat over my cast iron, until I finally relaxed and took the easy way.

    I crank up the heat on the stove, add olive oil when it's hot enough to smoke and rub it in with a paper towel. When the metal seems to stop absorbing the oil, I stop and let it cool. Voila.

    It's probably not kosher or "right", but it's worked well with my two skillets and the dutch oven.

  7. I think you have it right Phillip. In attempting this experiment, I now feel like I was trying to reinvent the wheel. Before and after it, I'm treating my pots and pans pretty much like you do.