Step-by-step guide for seasoning carbon steel pans and skillets

How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan or Skillet

This pan was new three days ago... now on its way to a great seasoning! Full directions below...

How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan or Skillet

Steps


Seasoning gives people fits. People end up with sticky spots, discolored pans, and on and on. I’ve had the same problems myself, and have resolved to learn how to get my cast iron and carbon steel seasoned correctly. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, and it seems to work pretty well.


First Things First 


Let’s all resolve to ratchet down the hysteria over these pans a notch or two. I see videos of people saying you have to season the pans eleven times, I see people coating them in oven cleaner and leaving them outside in trash bags, on and on. 


This is overcomplicating things and in almost all cases unnecessary.


I’ve been using my own pans for years, and haven’t yet had a pan get so gunky that a little soap, water and steel wool and a simple reseason wouldn’t fix it up.


So let’s all calm down and we’ll get this figured out.


Common Misconceptions About Non-Stick


Let’s also dispel a common misconception about non-stick surfaces: even after you get your pans and skillets seasoned, you still have to use fat when you cook. 


These things are not like those late-night infomercial pans where you just drop in an egg and it slides around with no fat whatsoever.


By the way, one time my wife bought me one of those TV pans, and we tried their egg test, and the egg stuck. It never, ever worked like on the infomercial.


So when we get our carbon steel and cast iron pans seasoned, our own fried egg test works like this: you heat the pan, put in some butter, and then fry an egg. If your pan is properly seasoned (even once), the egg will slide around. That’s your non-stick, seasoned surface.


You still have to use fat when you cook. For example, my mom has been cooking cornbread in her cast iron skillets for well over 50 years. They are seasoned beyond belief. But she still heats up Crisco in the iron skillet in the oven, and mixes the resulting hot oil with her batter, then the cornbread doesn’t stick. 

So let’s manage expectations and know that no matter how well you get your pans seasoned, you will still need to use some sort of fat or oil when you cook. Fortunately, fat is delicious, and we want delicious food.


How Many Times to Season


I’ve found that my pans are non-stick and ready to cook in with one good seasoning. People on the internet and TV season these things repeatedly.


It’s just too much trouble fpr a regular person to season a pan 11 times. You can do it if you want, but just know that that’s your new hobby and lifestyle choice. If you season your pan multiple times, you can turn it into a dark, shiny, richly-colored work of art. 


But let’s not forget that these things are cooking tools designed to be used heavily. They will get scratches from spatulas. Food will affect them. Recently, I seared some fajita steak in one of mine. The steak had been in a marinade that included some fresh lime juice. The acid in the lime juice pulled a little of my seasoning off, so I had to touch up my seasoning after use. In fact, searing a steak or other meat will leave little delicious sticky bits stuck to your pan that you can deglaze into a nice sauce. But your pan will need some maintenance after.


In fact, these pans will need a little maintenance every time you use them. And it’s incorrect to think that it is necessary to reseason multiple times every time you need to touch them up.


So, season as many times as you want to make yourself happy. Just know that you can cook in your pan after one good seasoning.


Start With a Clean Pan


We need to start with a clean pan. That means you need to NUKE YOUR PAN before you start the seasoning process.


If the pan is brand new, as was the case with the Matfer Carbon Steel Pan my wife got me for Christmas, the directions call for taking the peels of two potatoes, plus oil and salt, and fry them up. The salt and stirring remove the layer of manufacturing oil/grease that keeps your pan from rusting during the time between forging and when you bring it home from the store (or open the package on your doorstep). This is only necessary when the pan is new and has a coating of manufacturing oil.


So if your pan is brand new, follow the initial cleaning directions. Then give it an additional scrub or two with hot water and soap, for good measure.


If your pan is not new, and is just sticky or dirty and in need of reseasoning, then go ahead and clean it with soap, hot water, scouring pad, steel wool, whatever you need to do. Scrub out all of those sticky spots. Get the pan absolutely clean. I have yet to find a sticky spot that wouldn’t scrub out with a little elbow grease. Just keep scrubbing.


Now, I’ve seen people on the internet using power tools, electric sanders and the like. Unless your pan was recovered from a sunken shipwreck, you more than likely don’t need to go to these extremes. If you have little rust spots, you can generally scrub those off with a Brillo pad or steel wool. If that doesn’t work, some people like to use oven cleaners. If you do so, make sure you follow all the directions and triple extra wash your pan. No one wants oven cleaner residue in his or her food. If you use something industrial like sand paper or a power tool or the like, just make sure you double extra wash your pan and remove anything unsafe for food.


And really, these pans are just not all that expensive. If you have to spend eight or nine hours with power tools, oven cleaners and seasoning to fix up a beaten-up old pan, it might be better to just spend $20 for a new Lodge skillet, unless it’s some sort of family heirloom. 


Finally, make sure your pan is DRY. After you wash it, immediately dry it with a kitchen towel, then stick it on a stove burner for a minute or two. Heat the pan up and make sure all moisture is gone. Dry, dry, dry, else rust will form quickly.


Next: Decision Time


With your clean pan ready to season, you have reached a fork in the road and need to make two choices.


One, which will be your seasoning method, stovetop or oven?


Two, which oil will you choose to season your pan with?


Let’s dive in…


Seasoning Method: Stovetop or Oven?


I’ve seen people season pans on barbecue grills and camp fires, but let’s remember that we’re dialing down the hysteria here. For normal folk, oven and stovetop are the best options.


-- If you have cast iron to season, oven works best.


-- If you have a carbon steel pan and have a gas stovetop, then stovetop is easy and quick. Because the gas flame hits the bottom of the pan and then goes out and up and around, you can get a good distribution of heat all over the pan. This is a good option for routine post-daily cooking maintenance as well.


-- If you have a carbon steel pan and an electric stovetop (glass, ceramic, coils, etc.), the oven method will work better. Because the flat stovetop surface tends to produce good seasoning results only where the pan is in direct contact, you can end up with a round seasoned spot in the bottom of the pan, and no seasoning anywhere else. The oven is easy and works well.


So, make your choice.


Next, we  need to choose the oil to season your pan with.


Many, many oils work well. The more people you talk to, the more opinions you will get. 


Some people go exotic, and buy a bottle of flazseed, grapeseed or other fancy oil.


Some people buy special cast iron rubs, like that from Lodge. If you read the ingredients on the Lodge oil, it says canola.


In fact, regular canola oil is what I use most often, and it works just fine. And it’s one that most people have in their pantry to begin with.


Once you have chosen, it’s very important to find out the the oil’s smoking point temperature.


Smoking Point


When we season our pans, we need to bring them up to/above the smoking point of the oil we choose.


If you season on the stovetop, you don’t really need to be too precise, because you will pour oil in the pan and heat it until it smokes. You’ll be able to see the smoking point and it won’t really matter what the actual temperature is, because the pan will be smoking and you’ll know you’ve reached it.


But if you season your pan in the oven, it’s important to know the smoking point temperature so that you can set your oven to the correct temperature for good seasoning to take place.


It’s a good idea to set your oven temperature twenty five degrees higher than your oil’s smoking point. Not only will this ensure that your pan gets hot enough, but it provides a little margin of error since most people’s ovens are not exact in their temperature calibration.


I use an Ilve Majestic oven, which cost more than my first car. It’s off by 25 degrees low at every temperature all the way up the dial. Many oven manufacturers consider an oven that has and actual temperature within 5 to 10% of the one set on the dial to be accurate. So an oven set to 500 degrees might actually be 475 and still be accurate. Or “accurate.”


Speaking of (in)-accuracy, you will find ranges of smoking points for oils as well. For example, some sites list canola as smoking at 400, others at 425.


There is some sort of molecular reaction/bonding/polymerization that takes place at an oil’s smoking point that leads to the seasoning. I have no idea how the chemistry works, only that it does. Just set your oven to 25 degrees F higher than the smoking point of the oil you choose and you should be fine.


Some common oils and their smoking points:

Canola 425

Soybean 475

Grapeseed 425

Flaxseed 425


I like canola because my oven easily gets to 450 degrees, so it’s simple and I don’t have to do much legwork or thinking, and that’s fine by me.


And you can always ask the Google if you want to add more opinions to the mix.


On to the seasoning...


Choice 1: Stove Top


In this seasoning method, we will put some oil in our pan, place it on a gas burner, and bring the oil up.

For a 10 to 12 inch skillet, one half cup of oil is a good amount. Just make sure that it covers the bottom of the pan well. Add a little if you need to.


Turn on your burner and put the pan on it.


As the pan is heating, swirl the oil a little so it gets up the sides of the pan.


When it the pan starts smoking, let it smoke for 5 - 10 seconds, then remove it from the flame. 

Pour most of the oil out, but don’t wipe the pan out.


Return it to the flame and bring it up to the smoking point again.


Let it smoke for 5 - 10 seconds and then remove the pan from the flame.


Now, immediately wipe the pan clean with a kitchen towel. Make sure you wipe it until it seems dry. Be careful wiping because the pan is super hot. You can use a big wad of paper towels as well.


Two things to be very careful with:


One: Don’t start a grease fire. Don’t leave your oil smoking too long, We only need it to smoke for 5 - 10 seconds, then take it off the heat. 


Two: Be very careful swirling and pouring out smoking point oil. I accidentally swirled some on my hand and brought my finger up to its smoking point, and it hurt like hell. Skin peeled off a week later. Don’t do this. 


Now this will produce an initial seasoning. Your entire pan will not be a rich dark brown, but the color should have an initial change and it should be non-stick enough to pass the fried egg test. Your pan will develop its own dark patina over time the more you use it. But at this point it is seasoned and ready for you to start cooking with it.


Or repeat until you season yourself silly like the people on the internet.


This quick stovetop method is also good for routine post-cooking maintenance.


Oven Method


Once again, make sure you start with a clean, dry pan.


Turn your oven on and set it to 25 degrees higher than the smoking point of the oil you have chosen and let it begin to preheat.


On your stovetop, heat your pan a little. You just want it warm to “open the pores” of the pan a little. Do not get it searing hot or too hot to touch. Warm only.


For a 10 - 12 inch skillet, pour 1/4 teaspoon of oil into the pan, and rub it all over with a clean towel or wad of paper towels.


Note how nice and shiny this looks. We do not want it this nice and shiny now! If you were to season it now, it would develop sticky spots because it is covered in too much oil.


Get more paper towels and wipe it down again. Wipe it until it looks dry. There is still a microscopic coating of oil on it. This is what you want. This is what they mean by a LITE COATING OF OIL.


If you can still see streaks or small droplets of oil, you have too much oil on the pan. Keep wiping.


Now simply place the pan upside down on a rack in your oven. The oven should be getting close to being preheated. Once it is preheated, set a timer and bake the pan for an hour. After an hour, turn the oven off but do not open the door. Allow the pan to cool in the oven. This can take a few hours. Be patient.


After a few hours, take your pan out of the oven and it will be seasoned and ready to cook with.


And, for people who are bothered by little things, an added benefit of the oven seasoning method is that you can season the handle of your pan so that it turns the same color as the rest of the pan. That doesn’t happen with stovetop seasoning.


Congratulations


Your pan is seasoned! Now START COOKING. If you want, repeat the seasoning process as many times as you like, but just know that you do not have to do that. One good seasoning gets your pan ready to cook.


Routine Maintenance


Your pan will need a little maintenance every time you cook. When I cook eggs in butter or something oily, I just wipe the pan out with paper towels while it is still hot. No big deal. 


If you’ve cooked something that left little sticky bits here and there, there is nothing wrong with running the pan under some hot water while wiping it out with paper towels or even a plastic scrubber. Don’t use soap unless you absolutely have to.


After running my pan under water, I dry it with paper towels. I then put it on a burner and heat it up to make sure it is dry. Then I put one or two DROPS of oil on a paper towel and wipe the pan down. Then I take another dry paper towel and wipe off any remaining oil. Once again, there will still be a microscopic coating. You just don’t want it shiny like a new car on a showroom floor. That will lead to sticky spots.


Enjoy!

Video: Matfer Carbon Steel Pan Seasoning and Cooking
Video: Matfer Carbon Steel Pan Seasoning and Cooking

Watch a Seasoning Video: Seasoning Problems Solved

This video shows how to season a carbon steel pan, with good advice on oil and how to season a carbon steel skillet in the oven.