The Obvious Secret of a Perfectly Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet

updated May 1, 2019
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Questions about taking care of cast iron skillets are some of the most frequent ones we hear from Kitchn readers — how to clean them, how to season them, what to do if someone’s auntie accidentally put theirs through the dishwasher. And I get definitely get it. I was in the exact same boat when I picked up my first cast iron skillet years ago. Mine never seemed quite as shiny, as nonstick, or as super-awesome as all the blogs and websites promised, and it was extremely confusing.

I finally learned what I think is the often-overlooked, rarely mentioned secret to perfectly seasoned cast iron cookware. It’s not hard or tricky, but it makes all the difference in the world.

The not-so-secret secret? Here it is:

For perfectly seasoned cast iron, you need to use your cast iron.

It seems obvious, right? But somehow, it’s not. Nearly all cast iron these days is sold pre-seasoned, so it seems logical to just expect it to behave as promised right off the bat. I certainly did. I was reminded of this recently when I bought a new griddle and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t performing as flawlessly as my favorite skillet.

In truth, the seasoning on cast iron is in a constant ebb and flow. You build up layers when you cook with it, but then you’ll also lose a few layers here and there — after cleaning some particularly stubborn food bits, for instance, or after cooking something very acidic. The aim is to build more layers than you lose, eventually accumulating a silky smooth, gloriously shiny, deeply blackened cooking surface.

Tomato Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuits — Yes, you can even cook acidic foods! (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

This doesn’t happen overnight or with a single seasoning. It also doesn’t happen after cooking a meal or two in your skillet. It takes months and years of steady use. There’s a good reason why food lovers are always gushing about inheriting their grandmother’s skillet or finding an old one at a garage sale — it’s not (just) for sentimental value, it’s because these skillets have years of cooking already built into them.

Take heart! The fact that it takes years to build up really beautiful seasoning doesn’t mean that it will be a pain to use all that time. Rub your infant and teenage skillets with a little oil after you clean them, go through the seasoning process every so often, and just keep cooking!

Bottom line: Cast iron rewards loyalty. If your pan has been sitting in the cupboard for a while, maybe it’s time to bring it out and give it some love.

I’d love to hear how long you’ve had your cast iron skillet, and how long it took you to feel like it was well-seasoned and nonstick.