The NOT simple way to season cast iron

Over the weekend, I decided that this week’s SimpliFried posts would be all about stir-fry. I love making stir-fry — it’s so incredibly simple and quick — and I knew it would be a great series. That is, it was going to be a great series, until Monday morning rolled around …

On Monday, I went to the cabinet where I keep our wok and pulled out this:

What you’re seeing here is a brand new, flat bottom, iron wok from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. You can see that it is silver in color, and a little shiny. Woks shouldn’t be silver and shiny. Woks should be black and matte.

Right before we moved into our new house in March, I tossed our old, nasty, inexpensive Teflon-coated wok and ordered this beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The only problem is that I forgot I had ordered the non-pre-seasoned version. To get it to its beautiful black and matte state, I would need to season it myself. (I have vague recollections of this decision, but can’t remember why I wanted the non-pre-seasoned version.)

Seasoning is not a difficult or long process, especially if you’re okay with using animal lard. In just a few hours you can have a nicely seasoned wok ready for your stir-fry. However, there is a slight chance my son might be allergic to animal proteins (because being allergic to peanuts isn’t enough of a burden), so I didn’t want to pick up some lard from my butcher for this project. I know enough about science to realize seasoning a pan in animal lard wouldn’t be much of an allergic risk to my son, but I still felt weird about it. If I could avoid using animal lard, I would.

In the February 2011 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, there was a sidebar to an article about cast iron cookware that discussed using food-grade flaxseed oil on cast iron pans. Cook’s Illustrated raved about the method and provided a link to an online article for how to reproduce the results of this method at home.

I dropped $20 on some filtered, organic, food-grade flaxseed oil at my local Whole Foods grocery store (you can find it with the vitamins in the small refrigerated section), and headed home to pull up the directions and start seasoning my pan. The article “A Science Based Technique for Seasoning Cast Iron” is thorough, and I most certainly did not read it well enough to realize that the process takes more than 18 hours to complete. EIGHTEEN HOURS.

It’s not difficult: You slather the pan in oil, wipe it down with a cloth diaper or paper towels, bake it for an hour in a 500ºF oven, turn off the oven and let it cool down inside the oven for two hours, and then repeat the process. The reason it takes so long is because the whole process has to be repeated at least six times. It’s noon on Wednesday and I have only made it through the process four times so far (12 of the 18 hours).

This was the wok going into the oven for the first time:

I found that putting a garbage bag under the pan during the oiling process helps to keep the mess at bay. I’ve also learned that cotton diapers, although much more environmentally friendly to use, leave little flecks of cotton on the surface of the wok, which creates little spots on the cure (they’ll all be gone by the sixth seasoning — they’re almost gone after the fourth — but it’s still weird to have a speckled pan). I have discovered, too, that although this process is extremely simple, it’s mind-numbingly tedious.

If you buy a new cast iron wok, get one that is pre-seasoned.

I don’t know how someone who doesn’t work from home could even season a pan in this manner. It would take more than a week to do it — one seasoning a night — assuming you had no where to go after work. Sure, I may end up with the world’s most glorious seasoning, which I expect I will, but this most certainly feels like overkill.

I’d show you an “after” picture, but I still have at least six more hours of seasoning to go …

6 comments posted

  1. Posted by Beth - 08/10/2011

    My son also has a peanut allergy so I know about being cautious. Believe it or not, I am allergic to flaxseed and have found a blog with other people who thought they were crazy until they figured it out. Flaxseed oil hasn’t bothered me but I still try to avoid it.

  2. Posted by Kim - 08/10/2011

    When I buy cast iron cookware, I always buy the unseasoned version. From several people I know, the pre-seasoned kind aren’t always done well and they generally have ended up burning off the seasoning and starting over from scratch. (To do that, you just run your oven on the cleaning cycle with the cookware in the oven.) You will get a much better seasoning that you will be happier with by doing this from scratch.

    And people who work outside the home can do 2 seasoning cycles a night. Even 3, if they plan well.

  3. Posted by infmom - 08/10/2011

    We have a carbon steel wok that we bought in New York City’s Chinatown in 1972. I long ago gave up on seasoning it. It seemed that every time I put oil in it and tried to follow the directions all I got was a sticky mess.

    So after every use I scour it out with dish soap on a Scotch-Brite and rub a very, very thin film of mineral oil in it to keep it from rusting. I saw the flaxseed oil article (been a Cook’s Illustrated subscriber for years) but I figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  4. Posted by tulipgirl - 08/11/2011

    Thanks for this post. I’ve read the same blog, bought the flaxseed oil, but haven’t started yet. Somehow I missed the piece about doing it 18 times. humm…perhaps I should use the flaxseed oil for smoothies instead and forget about the whole project. Please let us know if it works!

  5. Posted by Liz - 08/15/2011

    re: multi-night season
    If you’re someone who doesn’t “plan well”, just do it about 90 minutes before you go to bed-turn the oven off after an hour and let it sit overnight-over 6 night and viola!

  6. Posted by Michael - 10/07/2011

    I used the same procedure over a month to season four pieces of cast iron I have. And, of course, the first time I used the griddle, stuff stuck to it.

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