I'm looking for tips on how to season and maintain a cast-iron skillet, Paleo-style.
If you Google it, you will invariably find tips to use Crisco or vegetable oil (plus people arguing back and forth about why one is better than the other). Only occasionally will people say to use lard, and the reasoning is usually something like "My grandmother always used lard... I know it's unhealthy, but it's tradition!"
So. I have a Lodge pre-seasoned skillet that I've been using for a while. I love it but I am getting frustrated with the food sticking to it. [There was a LOT of food sticking after I cooked anything.] I must be doing something wrong....
I sanded off all the pre-seasoned stuff and tried various things on my own. Before I went Paleo, I used canola oil (yuck). Now I use only grass-fed lard, but I'm still getting mixed results. So, my questions to you are,
What am I doing wrong?
How do you season your skillet to get food not to stick? What temperature/direction/length? Any special tricks? (Wipe off excess after the first 15 minutes of seasoning, or no? Pre-heat oven or not?)
How do you clean and maintain your pan after everyday usage? Use soap? Kosher salt? Wire brush (if so, where did you buy it)?
From a health perspective, should I be concerned about the high-temperature method, since the smoking point of lard is much lower than 450F?
I use a lot of paper towels around my skillet, to wipe off excess lard and to re-touch it on occasion. To minimize waste, I'd rather use a cloth towel of some sort that does not leave cloth fibers on the pan. Any suggestions?
**UPDATE #2 as of Sept. 2011: I no longer endorse the method below. I was very pleased with the initial results, as the pan was genuinely non-stick for the first time ever. But, the first time I splashed hot water on the pan (without soap!), the seasoning just washed off. I'm extremely disappointed, as I spent many hours seasoning my pan in the manner described below. I don't know if I'm going to bother trying again. I did use lard and not flaxseed oil as Sheryl Canter advocated, so maybe that's a key difference. I don't know. Please let me know if you find a good solution.
UPDATE #1: As I commented below, I followed the instructions on Sheryl Canter's blog very closely and got excellent results, after months of being very frustrated with a sticky pan and flaking seasoning. Here is what I did:
Sanded down all the seasoning, 100-grit sandpaper -- I had several layers of flaky and caked-on seasoning to get rid of.
I couldn't get all the seasoning off with just sandpaper, so I soaked the skillet in lye bath. I bought the lye at Lowe's. It's called "Roebic Crystal Drain Opener" and is 100% lye. Be very careful with lye as it can burn your skin.
- Fill a plastic tub with cold water (lye can eat through other substances so plastic is probably your best bet).
- Using gloves and goggles, pour some lye into the cold water. If desired, stir with a plastic spoon.
- Soak skillet overnight. If necessary, add more lye and keep soaking until all the seasoning is gone.
- When all seasoning is gone, rinse carefully in cold water and a little bit of soap.
- If your pan is very old and rusty, you can soak in 1:1 water:vinegar for up to 12 hours, but do not do this unless absolutely necessary.
- Rinse pan several times and apply baking soda to neutralize the acid, as vinegar will eat through iron.
- Immediately dry off skillet and place in an oven at 450F for an hour. (Don't preheat the oven.) Sheryl thinks this will produce magnetite, which may be helpful for seasoning.
- Allow pan to cool somewhat (or handle very carefully).
Repeat seasoning steps starting here:
- Heat the skillet on low-medium and melt some pastured lard onto all surfaces of the pan.
- Wipe off ALL of the lard. I can't stress this enough. Wipe it all down, so much so that you feel like there's nothing left. Failure to follow this step is what I think caused me so many problems in the past.
- Place in oven at 450F for an hour (again, do not preheat oven, as you want the pan to heat up slowly so as not to warp), then turn the heat off, and let the skillet cool in the oven. It takes a couple of hours. I prefer to place the pan upside down, but the lard shouldn't drip or pool at all, if you've wiped it down as I described in the previous step.
- If you get a lot of smoke coming out of your oven, one commenter stated that starting at 350F for a 1.5-2 hours, then raising the temperature to 450F, will eliminate the excessive smoke. I tried this and it seemed to work! Otherwise, you'll want to do this with open windows and the fan going on high.
- Repeat the seasoning process at least 6 times. I put on 7 coats and the results were amazing. My Lodge skillet doesn't have a nice smooth surface like an old Griswold pan, but the seasoning is solid and fried eggs do NOT stick to the pan. I've tried several methods (low heat, high heat, different oils) and this method was the only one that produced any results.
Notes: Sheryl insists that flax oil is the best oil to use, and that the seasoning process polymerizes the oil so that the oxidation/heat damage to the oil will not cause health problems. I'm not sure if this is correct. The idea is that the polymerization burns off all the fat so that only carbon is left behind.... Okay, but if that is true, why does a lye bath remove the seasoning? I thought lye eats fat. (I don't understand even basic chemistry so if I'm missing something, please let me know.) In any case, I used pastured lard and the results were awesome, so I don't see any need to use flax oil.
Also, in Sheryl's post about black rust (magnetite), as I understood it, the naked (unseasoned) pan should be heated at 450F for one hour before applying the first coat of seasoning, but this step doesn't have to be repeated for subsequent coats. I could be wrong on this, though.
Finally, according to Sheryl, you should not be concerned about exceeding the smoking point during the seasoning process, because you WANT to exceed the smoking point to facilitate polymerization. Or something to that effect.
Summary: Key factors: make sure all the flaky, crappy seasoning is off before you start. I tried half-heartedly sanding down my skillet and applying a coat of seasoning on top of a layer or two of crappy seasoning, and it was a total failure. Wipe off as much of the fat as you can before you put it in the oven. High temperatures work way better than low temperatures for seasoning. Results were excellent and now I finally see why cast-iron is a pleasure to use! This pan is now almost as good as a Teflon, and in much better shape than when it came pre-seasoned.