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Ask The Pan Handler: Help! I Messed Up Cleaning / Seasoning This Pan!

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Michael D. from MA wrote to Ask The Pan Handler with several inquiries. In part, he said:

“I totally screwed up a beautiful pan my wife got me a while back.  See the photos…It was totally smooth before I messed it up.  I had scrubbed some of the same type of stuff off the inside walls prior to “seasoning it.”  Now it’s everywhere.  Any assist you can give me to bring it back would be much appreciated.”

Here are the photos that Michael sent:

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Michael’s pan, photo 1.

Close up of the "seasoning" on Michael's pan.

Close up of the “seasoning” which Michael applied on the pan.

From my several emails with Michael, it sounds as though he spent hours and a lot of elbow grease cleaning his pan to bare iron – or as close to bare iron as he could get with elbow grease alone. He then used some methodology to season the pan, but ended up with the blotchy spiderwebs that you see in the photos.

Michael, I can assure you that just about everyone who has seasoned vintage cast iron cookware has seen these same blotches in their first efforts. The blotches that you see are from uneven layers / too much of the seasoning oil that you applied, which then cooked on to the surface of the pan.

As I understand it (I am no scientist!), in simple layperson’s terms, when the oil you are using for seasoning heats beyond its smoke point, it changes composition, polymerizes, and forms a thin hard elasticized layer on the iron which protects the surface. That hard layer is what we call the “seasoning.” Here is an article from Serious Eats which explains the smoke points of various oils, and why it matters. In addition to the chart on Serious Eats, you can find charts all over the web that list the smoke points of various oils.

You can see on your pan that you had too much of your seasoning oil, which then resulted in the blotchiness upon heating. I bet your house smoked to high heaven while seasoning it – am I right?

I use Crisco vegetable shortening when I season my pans (plain Crisco; not the butter flavor). Crisco works best for me to season pans. I do not use flax seed oil. I have tried it, and in my experience (and the experience of many others), after some period of time it flakes off.  There is a lot of controversy in the cast iron world about what oil is best to season your pan. I am not saying that my method is best or the only way; I am just saying that I use Crisco. Do some research on the web – you will see a jillion different oils and ways that people season their pans.

In your case, you can go ahead and use your pan, if you like. The seasoning will continue to build up with use and heat. If the aesthetics bother you (and I can see why it would – if you go through all that effort to clean the pan, you want it to look clean), strip the seasoning which you just applied from the pan, re-clean and re-season.

People all over the place have their own favorite methods of cleaning and seasoning. Mine is not the only way; it is just the way that works for me. That said, here’s what I would suggest for your pan:

To strip the seasoning (see also the FAQs section – there is an article there about cleaning vintage cast iron pans).

One easy method to strip the seasoning from a pan is to apply a thick coat of Easy-Off Oven Cleaner all over the pan, then place the pan in a large zip lock bag. Let it sit for a few days, to allow the Easy-Off to do the work for you. Be sure to follow the cautionary instructions on the can – use gloves and protective skin covering!

Once you have a nice bubbling mess inside the bag, remove the pan from the bag. Again, follow the cautionary instructions and protect yourself in doing so. Rinse it under hot water. Use stainless steel scrubbie balls and Dawn blue or Dawn Platinum dishwashing detergent to scrub the pan to bare iron. If you still have built up crud, apply more Easy-Off and put it back into the bag. Repeat until the pan is cleaned to bare iron.

To re-season (see also the FAQs section – there is an article there about seasoning and caring for vintage cast iron pans).

Thoroughly dry the pan using paper towels. Place it in the oven. Turn the heat to 450 degrees. Let the pan cook in the oven for an hour.

Turn off the oven, let the pan cool. Remove the pan from the oven when it is still warm – use potholders/towels/mitts/whatever is necessary to protect your hands from the heat.

Using a clean terrycloth rag (or shop towel), apply a THIN layer of Crisco vegetable shortening all over the pan, including any nooks and crannies. It is easiest to apply a very thin layer if the pan is hot. Use oven mitts – be sure to protect your skin!

Wipe the Crisco off the pan with a separate towel. It should appear as though there is no Crisco remaining on the pan – you should not have a “wet” looking surface.

Place the pan upside down into the oven. If you wish, you can place aluminum foil under the pan to catch any drips. I do not find this necessary. When you first start seasoning pans, though, it is common to use more Crisco than you really need (hence the spiderweb pattern that you see on your pan), so you might want to err on the side of caution and use the aluminum foil.

Turn the oven to 500 degrees. Let the pan cook for an hour. You may notice some smoke and an odor coming from the oven. Presuming you have a very thin layer of your seasoning oil on the pan, it should not be a tremendous amount. Be sure to turn on your vent fan.

Once the pan has cooked for an hour, turn off the oven. Let the pan cool. While still warm but not too hot to handle, remove the pan. Using the terry towel, wipe another very thin layer of Crisco all over the pan.

Let the pan cool.

Use that pan! I typically recommend that people begin with liberal use of their preferred oil and/or cook fatty foods such as hamburger to start. The seasoning will continue to build up with use.

After Use of the Pan:

After each use of the pan, be sure to clean it thoroughly, removing all food residue. It is easiest to clean while still warm. I use a plastic brush, stainless scrubbie balls, and/or a chain mail scrubber, depending on what I feel is necessary. I use a small amount of soap when I want to use soap. You can see my routine cleaning process on my youtube channel – see here and here.

Once the pan is cleaned, dry it thoroughly with paper towels. You may wish to heat it on your cooktop or in your oven to ensure it is completely dry. Wipe it with a THIN layer of your preferred oil (I use a spray of Pam on a paper towel) before storing. If you store your pans stacked in a drawer or cupboard, put paper towel between each pan. I keep some of my personal cast iron in my oven drawer, and I display my oft-used #5 and #8 on my counter in a rack.

My Griswold slant logo #8 with heat ring skillet and my Griswold Iron Mountain #5 pan with heat ring in the size 6, 8 rack offered on the site. With panhandlers, natch!

My Griswold slant logo #8 with heat ring skillet and my Griswold Iron Mountain #5 pan with heat ring in the size 6, 8 rack offered on the site. With panhandlers, natch!

Thanks very much for your inquiry and your patience in awaiting a reply, Michael. Now…go cook up some delights in your pan!

And Just For Fun…

Here are two photos that show how the Griswold Manufacturing Company recommended seasoning cast iron pans upon purchase (obtained via the wild, wild web).

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