So you’re interested in getting, or have already purchased, what we at Borough Kitchen like to call ‘a self-made pan’. That’s a cast iron, carbon steel, or spun iron pan that you need to season, which will gradually build a top layer, or patina, that releases food easily, not unlike a non-stick pan.
The difference? Your food will taste infinitely better, thanks to their ability to get extremely hot and distribute that heat beautifully. Translation: crisp, browned exteriors surrounding thoroughly cooked interiors. Your average weeknight salmon can become a perfectly seared masterpiece; pan-fried Brussels sprouts cooked in one of these pans can save the reputation of those boiled sprouts from childhood. These pans—which are naturally induction hob compatible, and in most cases oven-compatible too—are also excellent for making savoury or sweet pies, cornbreads, pizzas, and so much more. They can handle the heat of open flames on a barbecue. They will last forever and then some. We’ve met cooks who use cast iron pans that have been passed down from great-grandparents!
In exchange for all that, all these pans ask of you is that you do not use washing-up liquid or a dishwasher to clean them. The detergent is too abrasive and will dissolve that beautiful layer of seasoning that makes these pans so easy-release. They also should never be left wet, as exposure to humidity could cause them to rust—nothing a bit of re-seasoning can’t take care of, but still inconvenient.
But don’t worry: The benefits outweigh the maintenance needs, and the more you use these pans (and reap their rewards), it will feel like second nature.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the initial seasoning (what to do before you first use the pan to cook) and regular cleaning (what to do after each use). If a pan comes pre-seasoned, you can skip the initial seasoning. However, we’d recommend doing it anyway, because it’s a surefire way to bond oil to the surface of your pan and kickstart that easy-release layer. Plus, it only takes about 15 minutes; or, if you prefer a longer but more hands-off process, an hour. But this is entirely optional for pre-seasoned pans.
If for some reason the pan gets rusty or loses some of its stick-resistance—say, a well-intentioned dinner guest uses washing-up liquid to clean the pan—you can re-season it back to good health using the initial seasoning methods below. We mean it when we say these pans last a lifetime.
Which Pans Need Initial Seasoning?
The carbon steel pans we carry from De Buyer, as well as the carbon steel paella pans and woks we stock from various suppliers, must be seasoned prior to use.
The pans we sell from Lodge, Finex and Netherton Foundry—which you’ll notice are black upon purchase—come pre-seasoned, meaning the manufacturers have taken care of it and you can get cooking right away. Just make sure to use plenty of oil the first few times to get your pan used to handling food.
Enamelled cast iron pans, like the ones we carry from Staub, do not need to be seasoned, and you can clean them with regular washing-up liquid. That’s because the cast iron is covered with a layer of enamel, which prevents it from rust and allows it to act like a regular pan.
A quick way to tell if a pan needs seasoning is to look at the colour of its interior. If it’s black or very dark, it’s seasoned; if it’s a lighter grey, it needs to be seasoned. You’ll notice most carbon steel pans are grey when you purchase them. The more you use it, the darker it gets—it changes from shiny silver to brown and blotchy. Blotches are a sign the pan is building up a patina, which will help it become increasingly non-stick. Once fully coated, it will become uniformly dark.
For the quick method to season your pan, follow these steps:
- Rinse the pan with warm water and soap. It's fine to use soap here, as you'll be re-seasoning the pan and, in the case of De Buyer carbon steel pans, removing the beeswax coating
- Dry the pan with a towel, then put on low heat to finish drying
- Add 1/3 cup vegetable or other high-burning oil, 2/3 cup salt, and peels from two potatoes (this helps pull any remaining impurities from the pan’s surface). Adjust the amounts of these ingredients to suit your pan size—they should cover the surface generously. Cook over medium heat, using tongs to occasionally move the peels around the pan and up the sides to the rim, for 8 to 10 minutes (the pan will turn brown)
- Discard the contents, allow pan to cool, then wipe with paper towels
- Your pan is now pre-seasoned. It won’t be perfectly easy-release the first time—this takes time and use—but it kick-starts the process. After each use, follow the instructions below under ‘Regular Cleaning’
For the slower but more hands-off method to season your pan, follow the steps in this video from Lodge. (In British ovens, that's 200°C.) We don't recommend the oven method for De Buyer Mineral B carbon steel pans, as they should not be used in the oven for longer than 10 minutes. Wood-handled pans will not be suitable for this method either.
All that’s required to clean a cast iron pan after use is water. Islington Store Manager Laurence suggests ‘deglazing’ the pan by placing the pan over high heat and pouring boiling water into it, using a wooden spoon to remove stuck-on bits from the pan. Once that’s done, just wash it clean in the sink with warm water and make sure to dry the pan completely before storing. With this method, the high heat of the pan ensures that it’s thoroughly clean.
However, if the idea of using just water to clean the pan feels strange, you can do what Copywriter Nikkitha does: Rinse the pan in the sink with warm water. In the pan, make a paste with salt or bicarb of soda and a little bit of water, and use it to scrub off any stuck-on bits. Wash clean and dry completely before storing.
For an *additional* patina boost, which is optional but useful, you can return the pan to the hob. Over low heat, add a bit of vegetable or other high-burning oil and swirl it around so it covers the base completely. Once the oil feels hot and begins to shimmer (your hand will feel warm when you place it a few inches above the pan), turn off the heat. Once cool enough to handle, wipe the oil around the pan with kitchen towel or a cloth until it’s completely absorbed into the pan.
Tips for Cast Iron Cooking & Care
- Until you are confident in your pan’s patina, use oil when you cook in an iron or carbon steel pan. Make sure to only use oils with high burn (smoke) points, such as rapeseed, groundnut and vegetable oil, as these pans get very hot and low burn oils, like extra virgin olive or sesame oil, could scorch the pan and leave a sticky film
- Abrasive scrubbers, such as steel wool, are not recommended; use a lighter-weight bristle brush or kitchen towel. Don’t leave your pan to soak, as this will cause the pan to oxidise (and you’ll have to re-season it)
- Always make certain the pan is totally dry before storing. For total dryness, you can heat it on the hob or in the oven
- If you accidentally scrub off some of the patina, wipe the pan with a thin coat of oil and place it over high heat for about 10 minutes until the pan darkens (it will smoke; turn on an exhaust fan)
- The cooking of acidic foods—tomatoes, white wine, citrus—may cause the appearance of white stains, especially on pans that have yet to build a strong patina. If this occurs, the pan should be seasoned again
Your pan’s patina gets stronger and more hardy with every use, so don’t think you’ll be seasoning and re-seasoning your pan constantly. The absolute best way to ensure a good patina on your pan is to cook in it. Easy enough, right?