Coming to Terms with Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron
If you have many discussions with true cast iron aficionados, you may find a wide variety of opinions on a number of subjects: the “proper” method for seasoning cast iron, soap or no soap when cleaning, old cast iron vs. new cast iron, and much more. But if you really want to start an argument in some circles, bring up the subject of manufacturer pre-seasoning. For the uninitiated, there was once a day when all “new” cast iron came gun metal gray. Nowadays, that’s almost impossible to find because nearly all new cast iron comes already nice and black since it’s been “pre-seasoned” from the manufacturer, usually with a sprayed on vegetable oil concoction.
And for the extremely uninitiated, when someone refers to seasoning in cast iron circles, it’s a reference to the black coating that builds up overtime on a cast iron pan. This coating, or patina, is the product of the carbonization of oils and creates a natural non-stick surface on a pan. This is why a cast iron skillet or other pan actually improves with age as opposed to chemically treated non-stick pans which generally get worse as they get older.
I just ran an informal inventory of our cast iron. We have roughly 29 cast iron cooking items, or 30 if you count my Sportsmans Grill. In that count, I’m not including lids (even though I bought at least one separately) or novelty items such as the little ashtray-size skillet that we use for a spoon rest. With a couple of exceptions, all of our cast iron items are pans we actually use on a fairly regular basis. In other words, we don’t get into collecting cast iron for the sake of collecting. I’m not knocking that, mind you; nor am I saying I’d never do that. We simply don’t have the room for that right now.
Now of the 29 or 30 cast iron items we have, 16 came pre-seasoned from either Lodge or Santé. But that wasn’t always the way it was. My first piece of cast iron was a Lodge 10.25” skillet given to me in the mid-nineties by my mother. it came completely unseasoned, so I had to season it myself. I can’t remember what kind of oil I used on that first attempt, but I do recall that it was a disaster. Through trial and error, I eventually got it right. As many of you can no doubt relate, the more I used that cast iron skillet, the more I wanted to use cast iron for just about all my cooking. My second cast iron item was obvious. I needed a dutch oven to cook my gumbo. Somehow, I just instinctively knew gumbo would taste better in cast iron--and I was right!
I requested a dutch oven for Christmas and I received TWO that were exactly the same with one exception. One was pre-seasoned and one was not. As pre-seasoned cast iron really just came into vogue in the early part of this decade, many companies at the time offered both pre-seasoned and bare items side-by-side in the same stores. Seeing pre-seasoning as a bit of a novelty, and remembering my initial experience with my skillet, I opted to keep the pre-seasoned dutch oven and sell the bare cast iron dutch oven. I later regretted this decision.
What’s the big deal with pre-seasoning? Well, it tends to eventually come off the pan. Take for example, the lid pictured below of my Lodge 2 qt. Serving Pot:
You can see how faded the pre-seasoning has become. Believe it or not, that was after only two uses! I’ve re-seasoned it myself since, and it’s doing fine. I’d also point out that in my experience, a pre-seasoned pan doesn’t normally lose its seasoning quite so quickly. But this is typical of what often happens eventually to a pre-seasoned cast iron pan. And if it doesn’t fade, the pre-seasoning chips off. Of course, pre-seasoning is not dangerous to someone’s system as a chemical non-stick surface like Teflon might be. In fact, the pre-seasoning treatment that Lodge uses is even certified Kosher!
Nevertheless, when pre-seasoning began to fade or chip in the past, I used to get very frustrated. I really felt (and still do) that I can season a pan better myself. But try finding a major cast iron brand that still offers pans that aren’t pre-seasoned. They’re near non-existant. Now my frustration is fairly mild compared to some. Since Lodge has decided to no longer sell non-pre-seasoned pans, I’ve actually heard some folks say they’ll never buy Lodge again. In my opinion, this is extreme, although no one can argue with the cooking ability of a 100-year-old Griswold skillet or other older pan which becomes the only other alternative to pre-seasoned pans.
Regardless, my frustration with pre-seasoning has become a thing of the past. Yes, I’d rather season a pan myself, but I’ve come to terms with pre-seasoning, and my acceptance has come for a number of reasons.
1. Pre-seasoned pans aren’t really a new innovation.
Not too long ago, I was looking through Smith & Wafford’s The Book of Wagner & Griswold (the red book) when something very interesting caught my eye in this photograph below on p. 9.
There’s no date on the picture, but I would guess that it was from the 1940s or 50s, if not earlier. Notice the advertising on these Wagnerware pans. The main selling point for these pans is that they were pre-seasoned. Thus, I find it hard to throw stones at any cast iron company that pre-seasons today--whether that’s Lodge, Camp Chef/Santé, RangeKleen or any other company--because evidently, the idea’s been around for quite a while. Who knows if your prized decades-old skillet that you obtained second hand wasn’t pre-seasoned to begin with!
2. All regularly used cast iron will (probably) have to be re-seasoned.
Let me offer a lesson I learned from my grandmother’s skillet. When my grandmother moved into an assisted living home a few years back, I inherited her 10.25” skillet pictured below.
I don’t know exactly how old this skillet is. My grandfather tells me she had it their entire married life. They were married 71 years before she died in 2008. If it was brand new when they got married, it’s well over 70 years old. But if it was a hand-me-down, it’s much older. I have no idea what brand it is. It only says “NO. 7" and "10 1/4 IN.” on the back. It’s my prized possession of all my cast iron simply because it was my grandmother’s. If you told me I could only keep one piece of my cast iron, I would pick this one--even though I use it second to my Lodge skillet that was my first cast iron pan. Furthermore, when I received this skillet, it honestly had the nicest seasoning I’ve ever seen on any piece of cast iron. The inside bottom is as smooth as glass. I wish I could sit down and talk to my grandmother about this pan, but of course, I can’t now.
Now, you need to know that I take really good care of my cast iron. I never wash with soap. I treat every pan with a fresh coat of olive oil to prepare it for its next use. I never stack pans, and I’m very careful to avoid metal utensils when cooking in them.
However, one day I noticed that my grandmother’s pan was starting to lose its seasoning on the inside bottom. I was shocked! How could this happen? Then guilt set in. I felt embarrassed, ashamed. Knowing that there is no heartache in heaven, I at least found some relief in the fact that she didn’t know.
The reality is, though, that more than likely she had to re-season her pan every now and then. Granted, she and I used her pan differently. She probably didn’t cook overly acidic foods in her pan like chicken marsala (which uses red wine), and I don’t remember her cooking spaghetti sauce all that often in her skillet. Further, while I primarily use olive oil in my pan and occasionally bacon grease; my grandmother primarily used bacon grease, and if she wasn’t using that, she was probably using Crisco!
She also used her pan multiple times a day back and forth between the stovetop and the oven. In the morning, bacon and eggs were cooked for the whole family. She might use it at lunch as well. Sometime in the afternoon, the pan was used for cornbread, cooked in the oven. Then, in the evenings, it was used again for the family dinner. This constant use, multiple times a day, going back and forth between the stovetop and her oven, was incredibly “healthy” for this skillet. And frankly, none of my pans gets this kind of constant use. But I am firmly convinced that this back and forth between the stovetop and oven was a key for keeping such a quality seasoning on the pan.
Since I had to partially re-season my grandmother’s pan (I only concentrated on the inside bottom, using lard for seasoning), I’ve stopped using it for overly acidic foods. But the main point here is that even the best of pans--pre-seasoned or not--have to be re-seasoned every now and then.
3. Pre-seasoning gives folks new to cast iron a head start.
That statement isn’t original to me, and I wish I could find the source. But I remember reading those words one day on someone’s website, and it all just kind of fell into place for me. For many “modern” cooks, bare cast iron can be a real challenge. I know it was for me, but I fell in love with cast iron and was determined to persevere. But with people’s busy schedules, it’s easier for many folks to simply grab a chemically treated non-stick pan, especially if a cast iron pan is going to necessitate a lot of preparation beforehand. I’ve said it before, but I’m firmly convinced that whether one likes pre-seasoning or not, its mainstream use today has been a major factor in the cast iron renaissance that we have witnessed as home cooks (and many professional chefs and celebrity chefs) have realized grandma was right to begin with and have returned to using cast iron.
Further, when I was in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, touring the Lodge Manufacturing plant last summer, I asked a Lodge employee why they no longer offered bare cast iron. Her answer was rather interesting. She said that for a while they offered both. But she said that when put side-by-side on store shelves, the pre-seasoned iron outsold the bare iron by a wide margin. And when their pre-seasoned cast iron sold out, they found that customers would buy other brands that were pre-seasoned over their bare cast iron offerings. That was enough of an answer to make sense to me. Lodge is the last American foundry in existence. I don’t exclusively use their cookware, but I use a lot of it, and I’d hate to ever lose them the same way that other great cast iron companies disappeared over the last few decades.
Two Suggestion for Cast Iron Manufacturers
- Most cast iron cookware comes with a brief set of instructions for care and maintenance. I feel it would be a good idea to also include instructions for re-seasoning cast iron in case the pre-seasoning fades or flakes. Lodge includes re-seasoning instructions on their website, but it might not be a bad idea to include them with the product as well. I shudder to think of perfectly good pans getting thrown out, but I bet it happens.
- Since Lodge is the only cast iron company with a US factory, they might be the only ones who could actually implement this second suggestion. I think it would be a great idea if those of us who prefer bare cast iron were allowed to special order it and have a pan taken from the line before it has the pre-seasoning process applied. Although it seems a bit backwards when I really think about it, I would actually be willing to pay a few dollars more to be able to place a special order and receive my cast iron bare. Then I could season it myself.
Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.