Everything you need to know about cast iron skillet care including seasoning a raw skillet, cleaning, and re-seasoning, preventing it from smoking, and more!

Cast Iron Skillet Care 101

Does your cast iron skillet smoke when you use it? If so, you’ll want to read this post and discover why it’s smoking and learn how to prevent it from happening again.

I had the same problem as you, so I decided to do a little investigative research by picking up the phone and speaking to the experts at Lodge Manufacturing in Tennessee. I can’t wait to tell you everything I learned, but first, you’ll need a little background about what cast iron is.

What Is Cast Iron?

Cast iron is exactly what it sounds like. It is iron that has been “cast” into a molded form. As such, it appears in many variations in modern kitchens. The popular line of Le Creuset cookware is simply cast iron that has been coated with enamel. Lodge Manufacturing company makes the familiar black cast iron skillets and griddle pans that most cooks instantly recognize.

Why Does Cast Iron Rust?

Cast iron skillets without the enamel coating are prone to rust. Iron rusts when it comes into contact with oxygen and water. To solve the problem of rusting and to make the skillets appropriate for home cooking, most manufacturers coat them with seasoning before they ever hit the store shelves. This seasoning consists of layers of oil that are baked on in stages at the manufacturing facility. The friendly representative at Lodge Manufacturing told us that they’ve been pre-seasoning their cast iron cookware for ten years now.

Are All Cast Iron Skillets Pre-Seasoned?

Not all makers of cast iron skillets pre-season their products. Some hardware stores sell brands of cast-iron pans that are “raw”— that is, you are supposed to season them yourself before you use them. You can instantly tell the difference between a pre-seasoned skillet and a raw one. The raw one will be gray, and the pre-seasoned one will be black. After you correctly season your raw, gray skillet, it too will be black.

Raw Cast Iron Skillets Smoke

Now, here’s the thing. If you don’t take the time to pre-season your raw, gray skillet before you use it, it will smoke. It may smoke so much that your whole house fills with smoke. It may cause your smoke detectors to go off. You may never want to risk that again. You might even be tempted to cast that skillet away and never set eyes on it again! But don’t put the skillet in the yard sale yet. In the next section, you’ll see how easy it is to season your raw, gray skillet.

How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet for the First Time

Seasoning cast iron pans is straightforward, albeit a tad time-consuming. Feel free to sit down and read a good cookbook or chop some veggies in between steps, because when your skillet is all beautifully seasoned and ready to use, you won’t be able to resist firing up the range and making something aromatic and delicious in it.

Step 1: Prepare a shallow baking pan (wide enough to hold the skillet) by placing a sheet of aluminum foil in the bottom. The pan and foil will catch any drippings so they don’t end up falling to the bottom of your oven. (We know what that’s like!).

Step 2: Set your oven to 350°F. (You don’t need to waste energy by preheating. Whatever the current temperature is when you put the skillet in, is fine.)

Step 3: Use hot water, a scrub brush, scrubby or Brillo pad, and a dollop of dish soap, and wash the raw cast iron skillet. (If your skillet has rust spots on it, you might want to use a pan scraper like stainless steel wool on it.)

Step 4: Rinse well with plain water, making sure you get ALL the soap residue off.

Step 5: Dry thoroughly.

Step 6: Use either melted Crisco vegetable shortening, which is what Lodge recommends or another suitable oil (see a list below) and wipe a thin, even coating all over the skillet, covering every square inch.

Step 7: Place upside down on the baking pan, and bake for one hour.

Step 8: After an hour, turn off the oven and let the pan cool all the way down, still in the oven.

Step 9: Repeat steps 6 through 8 until your gray skillet has developed a rich, black patina.

Now, if all that sounds incredibly arduous, don’t worry. You only have to go through that once or maybe twice in a lifetime. You’ll never have to do it if you buy a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet, actually.

If you have a black, pre-seasoned skillet, you only need to occasionally reapply the seasoning, in order to: a) retain the skillet’s non-stick property, and b) prevent the formation of rust.

Now that you know the basics of the cast iron skillet, let’s get down to the fun part of caring for your skillet and getting the most use out of it.

Babying Your Cast Iron Skillet

Actually, you really don’t need to baby your cast iron skillet. These things are tough enough to handle a lot of wear and tear. After all, they are cast iron. In all probability, your skillet is the toughest piece of cookware you will ever own.

Having said that, you do need to practice certain routines when it comes to taking care of your cast iron skillet.

1. Reduce the use of soapy water.

When you wash your cast iron pan, kitchen dish soap will dramatically reduce the seasoning on it with each use. It makes sense when you think it through. The seasoning is made up of layers of baked-on oil. Kitchen dish soap is designed to “cut through” grease. Though you would usually want your dish soap to get rid of grease, this is the opposite of what you want to do to your cast iron skillet.

What to do instead? Soak for a few minutes if necessary, rinse with plain hot water, and wipe out with a paper towel or tea towel. In 99% of cases, this will remove the food residue and the stuck-on bits.

2. Dry completely after each rinse.

Remember that water and oxygen will promote rust on your cast iron skillet. If you aren’t positive that you’re getting your cast iron skillet bone dry after you rinse it clean, then just pop it onto the stovetop for a few minutes to heat it up and get it nice and dry. (Just don’t forget and walk away from it!)

3. Season lightly after each use (if you didn’t cook with oil).

If you cooked with oil, you really don’t need to season it after you rinse and dry it. If you didn’t though—maybe you sautéed with water—it doesn’t hurt to wipe it down with a little oil before you put the skillet away.

First, though, put down that bottle of coconut oil. Coconut oil is awesome for many things, but re-seasoning your skillet isn’t one of them. You see, coconut oil has a really low smoke point. That is the temperature where it will start to smoke. If you season with coconut oil, and then you heat up your skillet to high, you’ll see smoke rising from the skillet. So remember, no coconut oil in your cast iron skillet.

The best cooking oil choices to re-season your cast iron skillet with are:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Palm oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Vegetable oil

There are others, but these all have really high smoke points, so try to stick with them.

Finally, don’t oil the underside of your skillet unless it’s in really bad condition. The underside makes direct contact with the heat source, so if something’s going to smoke, it will start with the underside.

To season, just put a little oil on a paper towel and buff into the surface.

But My Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet Is Still Smoking!

If you have a black, seasoned cast iron skillet that smokes, the problem is that you have the heat up too high. Cast iron distributes heat really well, so in most, if not all, cases, you shouldn’t need to turn the heat up any higher than medium. Cast iron also retains heat, so as you cook, you might find that the pan keeps getting hotter and hotter, in which case you might want to turn the heat down further. Also, remember not to use low smoke point oils with your cast iron skillet.

Handling Your Cast Iron Skillet

The handle of your skillet will get super hot, so be sure to use a little oven mitt or tea towel when shifting the skillet around. They sell little pot handle sleeves, especially for cast iron skillet handles. These are really cute but can be a fire hazard if you forget and turn the handle so that it’s over another hot burner.

Other than that, it’s really simple to cook with a cast iron skillet, especially since it’s basically a non-stick surface (as long as you use a little oil with a high smoke point in the bottom). If you take care of your cast iron skillet, you can expect to get up to 100 years of use out of it—maybe even more.

This post was originally published on April 22, 2016, and updated in November 2018. 

About the Author

Sharon Chen is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, an author and a sous vide fanatic who believes food not only brings healing but also connection. As the creator of StreetSmart Kitchen, she's on a mission to help you find balance, ease, joy, and simplicity in the kitchen as you improve your well-being.