You need to do more than a quick wash with soap and water to prevent your first time cooking with cast iron your last. The results and easy of regular cooking with cast iron are well worth the tiny bit of extra effort.
Getting a new cast iron pan ready for use takes more than a sponge and some soap. New cast iron is porous, with a slightly rough texture and microscopic pores that need to be filled prior to actually cooking with the pan. Seasoning, or curing, the pan includes filling those pores with oil, thus creating a smooth surface and preventing rust. If you try cooking with your cast iron pan before this process you will end up with a burned mess stuck in the pan. The pores in a hot cast iron pan expand when hot, and in turn will absorb whatever you put in it. All you need to do this properly is an oven, some vegetable oil (or melted shortening) and some time.
Step One: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Step Two: Wash and dry your cast iron cookware thoroughly while the oven is heating. New cast iron pans come from the factory with a protective coating, much like all commercial cookware. This coating needs to be removed before you can season it. Simply scrub the pan with a still brush or scrubbing pad (not steel wool), very hot water and a mild dish detergent. This should be the only time you will use soap on your cast iron, unless you need to preseason the pan due to a culinary disaster.
Step Three: Oil all the surfaces of the cast iron. Use about a tablespoon of vegetable oil or melted shortening with a paper towel or sponge. Do not use lard, bacon grease or any other animal products to season your cast iron. They can turn rancid and that will leave with having to clean and preseason your iron all over again. Wipe your oil over the pan’s entire surface. This does include bottoms, handles, legs and any other surfaces as well as the actual cooking surfaces.
Step Four: Put the cast iron cookware upside down in the oven and bake for one hour. By placing the pan upside down you allow any excess oil to drip off the surface of the pan rather than pooling inside the pan and carbonizing. Spread aluminum foil on the lower baking rack or a cookie sheet and place below your cast iron pan to catch any oil that might drip. While the cast iron is heating you might notice a little smoke or slight smell, which is normal. Just be aware that the more oil you used the more smell and smoke will be produced.
Step Five: When the hour is over turn the oven off but leave the cookware inside until the oven cools down. You now have a piece of cast iron ready to use. If you look at your freshly cured pan and are disappointed that you do not have the nice shiny surface that you were expecting, do not worry. That surface comes with the continued use of your pan. Every single time that you cook with cast iron the cure will deepen. In a few months of regular use you will see the deep black shiny surface that you want.
To protect and deepen the seasoning you need to use the cast iron cookware regularly and occasionally use it to make something high in fat. This includes hamburgers, bacon, frying chicken, baking pies and so on. For the first few weeks of using the cookware try to avoid cooking acidic or alkaline foods in the pan, including tomato or bean based dishes. The chemicals in the food can alter your seasoning if the pan is still developing a deep cure. After each normal post cooking cleaning of the pan be certain to wipe a small amount of vegetable oil around the pan. This will replace any seasoning that was lost during the cleaning. If you seasoning does break down and or you just feel the need to do a deep clean of your pan, you will need to go back and start over again and preseason your pan again.
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