Whether searing a pork loin or baking an apple pie, the cast iron skillet has proven to be one of the most versatile, long-lasting cooking tools in the Southern kitchen. This popular piece of cookware, often romanticized by both professional and home cooks, is durable, practical and a must-have in traditional Southern cooking. Becoming familiar with the cleaning and caring process for your cast iron, known as seasoning, can seem intimidating at first. With the proper care, your cast iron has unique potential to last generations, thanks to the skillet’s heavy duty metal.
Although using lard to season is the most popular approach in the South, it's possible to maintain a nice patina and help your skillet reach heirloom status even if you don't eat animal products.
The importance of seasoning is simple: your cast iron has a protective coating called the patina which can rust when mixed with soap and water. Aside from preventing rust development, seasoning your cast iron helps to keep your food from sticking to the surface of the skillet. Traditionally, the skillet is coated in a fat such as bacon grease or lard. The skillet is then put in the oven at 350 degrees for one hour to dry the oil, which forms the protective coating. You should season once a month, but it really depends on how often you use your cast iron and the kinds of food you cook in it. Frying a big batch of chicken every week, for example, would mean you should season your skillet more often than if you only use the skillet to make cornbread every now and then.
We’ve identified three common diets — omnivore, vegetarian and vegan — and broken down three distinct approaches to seasoning your beloved cast iron.
Jason Bergeron, Executive Chef at Orlando, Florida’s Chroma Modern Bar & Kitchen says his kitchen uses oil with a very high smoking point (the temperature at which an oil or fat begins to give off visible smoke), such as canola and even avocado oil at the restaurant. “This allows us to get the pan very hot on the initial seasoning and not have the oil catch fire or smoke like crazy,” Bergeron said. The molecules begin to form brand new molecules in the oil — a process called oil polymerization — at the smoke point and creates the sought-after patina.
The chef’s personal choice of fat for seasoning his cast irons is the traditional lard. “The lard does not have a super high smoke point but it is in its natural form,” he added. “Lard is making a great comeback in cooking, just like butter.” According to this Forbes article from May 2016, millennials spearheaded the resurgence of lard and duck fat as food trends due in part to the fact that many view animal fat to be purer than processed oils like vegetable oil.
At Atlanta, Georgia’s popular vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Sunflower, chef and owner Lin Sun typically uses vegetable oil for menu items not cooked in a cast iron. However, Sun favors safflower oil for seasoning their cast iron skillets. “It works well with the iron skillet especially since safflower is great for high heat,” Sun said. “We've tried all sorts of different oils like coconut, peanut, sesame and olive. All have their nuanced flavors, so it depends on what we're making and the aroma and essence we're striving for that dictates the oil we use. Safflower is well-rounded and absorbs better as a seasoning.”
Vegetarians may find safflower oil, extracted from the safflower plant, to be a good alternative to vegetable oil. Safflower oil itself is odorless and flavorless, and is a nice choice for anyone — meat-eaters and vegetarians alike — looking for an oil that doesn’t have a pronounced flavor.
Randy Talley, co-owner of Green Sage Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina, urges vegans to season their cast irons with refined coconut oil. Refined coconut oil is derived from dried coconut meat, the white lining contained within the shell of a coconut, known as copra. Coconut oil also has many health benefits including antibacterial and immunity-boosting effects.
Refined coconut oil differs from unrefined coconut oil in that the refined oil has been bleached and deodorized. It also has a higher smoke point than unrefined coconut oil, which has the same smoke point as butter or lard. “Coconut oil is the superfood oil of the future,” Talley said.
“What we do every time after we cook is we wash the pan with hot water and a green scrubby pad, then heat off all the water just on the stove. After that we put coconut oil back in the pan to season the skillet,” Talley said, demonstrating the stovetop method for seasoning cast iron. The stovetop method is not as commonly used as the oven method — and threatens a smoky kitchen — but still gets the job done. To season your skillet on the stovetop, place it over high heat and let it get screaming hot. Remove the skillet from the heat, and rub oil into the pan with a paper towel. Put the skillet back on the stovetop over medium heat for about 10 minutes, letting the oil dry completely. Pro tip: crack a window if you’re using this method.
No matter which seasoning oil you choose — lard for its pure animal fat, safflower oil for a flavorless alternative or coconut oil for its health benefits and high smoke point — you are engaging in a true Southern tradition when you take the time to care for your cast iron. This long-lasting cookware makes for a wonderful heirloom. “Cast iron skillets last forever if taken care of,” Chef Bergeron said. “If you purchase a decent cast iron pan and take care of it, you can hand it down to your grandchildren.”