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How To: Restoring & Seasoning Cast Iron Pans

Cooking with cast iron is not just for the campfire or farm, my friends. From chicken, fish, cornbread and more — the meals you can create with this versatile cooking essential are endless. It’s one of my all time favorite go-to pans in the kitchen and while cast iron skillets can take a little longer to warm up, the heat distributes evenly, making it much easier to get a consistent dish every time.

Vintage cast iron pans are the best in my opinion, but the ones you may have acquired at your local yard sale, antique shop or received from a family member probably have decades-worth of build up from improper care and look a little less than desirable for actually cooking with. Well, no fear as today I’m going to walk you through getting these beauties back in shape for fried chicken in no time.

If you don’t even know where to begin to source a cast iron pan, almost all kitchen stores carry the latest version all polished and clean — but what fun would that be? Hunting down your vintage skillet can be an adventure and I almost always have luck at antique malls, estate sales and sometimes a good yard sale. Look for the rusty, grimy, bumpy ones — they are usually the most affordable and you won’t believe your eyes when you bring it back to its original glory.

Cleaning up your new skillet is going to require a little elbow grease on your part, but imagine the story you can tell after reviving a piece of culinary genius. Once you’ve found your little piece of history you'll want to literally bake off all of the built-on grime that has accumulated on your pan and bring it back to life. Don’t worry about the rust at this stage — we will take care of that in no time.

Step #1:  Laying a piece of foil on the rack below or in the bottom of your oven, you want to set your oven to the “clean” mode and place your pan upside down on a middle rack.  Note: You may want to plan this part of the cleaning while you are out of the house. It does create some smoke and fumes that you might not want to be in the house for. Just remember — who knows how many years of grime we are removing? If you stay in the house, make sure the area is well ventilated.

After this cycle has completed and everything has cooled down, you can remove the pan from the oven. It will probably look gray and even rustier than before but any of the build-up or extra coating should have come off of the pan.

Step #2:  Now we are going to place the pan in a tub and cover with equal amounts of water and white vinegar, then add a couple squirts of mild dishwashing liquid. You can at this point leave the pan in for 1-3 hours — the rustier it is, the longer you can leave it, just keep an eye on it.

Step #3: Remove pan from water/vinegar bath and rinse with fresh water, wiping it well with paper towels and allowing it to dry completely. Your pan should be free from rust, grime and general build up at this stage. If not, continue to scrub with paper towels or fine steel wool until buildup and rust have smoothed out.

Step #4:  Now we are ready to season the pan. Seasoning is the process of making a cast iron skillet non-stick. Once a pan has been seasoned, if properly cared for, the coating will stand the test of time in your future cooking endeavors. The process is actually pretty easy — simply apply 2-3 tablespoons of canola oil inside the pan and wipe well with a paper towel. You’ll want to coat the entire pan.

Return to a 350 degrees F oven, placing the pan on the rack upside down like before. Allow it to bake and set up for 1 hour. While in the oven, the pores of the pan will open and absorb the oil — once cooled, the pores close back up, retaining the oil, which is what seasons the pan. Your pan should now have that shiny dark patina we all know and love and is ready to use.

Let’s look at what can happen with a little time and effort — can you believe this is even the same pan we started with? Please keep in mind I’ve come across some cast iron pans that were a lot worse in condition than the one I used here, so think twice before passing by that next rusty old piece of history you come across. They don’t make them like they used to, that’s for sure!

Now that we’ve got our pans cleaned up, seasoned and ready for use, I’m looking forward to sharing a few of my favorite recipes for cooking with cast iron soon.  Now sit back and pour yourself a nice Petite Syrah—you have earned it.

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