'Tis the season for seasoning

Nathan Baker • Nov 16, 2018 at 9:40 PM

Growing up, the cornbread pan was revered as something almost sacred in our household.

Its cast iron surface was seasoned just so to get a firm, brown crust on the bread and to allow it to fall out of the pan without sticking. You never, NEVER, washed it with soap and water, and cooking anything in it besides cornbread, say a sticky breakfast of bacon and fried eggs, was a major transgression.

The cookware rules, seemingly cast in stone — or iron, so to speak — were there to preserve the cornbread pan’s seasoning, the multiple layers of hardened oil built up in it over years of use that gave it non-stick properties.

Cast iron has a long, storied tradition in the world’s kitchens, valued for its ability to withstand the high heat of an open fire. Europeans and settlers in the United States used heavy iron cooking pots and Dutch ovens in their fireplaces, and the flat-bottomed, cast iron skillet came into use when cooking stoves supplanted the hearth in the mid- to late-1800s.

It’s still used for many traditional recipes, especially in Southern cooking, and has seen a resurgence in popularity as some accomplished chefs now recommend it for certain dishes instead of the more popular and convenient teflon-coated aluminum pots and pans.

When I flew the nest, I left the cornbread and other cast iron pans behind with mom, but I hadn’t been out of the house long before a cornbread craving led me to the realization that something was missing from the cupboard.

I picked them up years ago, I don’t know where, probably a yard sale or a flea market, but I’ve now got No. 8 and No. 7 Wagner skillets, the latter of which has been crowned as my own cornbread pan. I’ve also got a modern enameled cast iron Dutch oven I bought last year when a major department store went out of business, but this column’s about seasoning, so we’ll pass on the Dutchie.

With Thanksgiving approaching, and a healthy portion of cornbread dressing on the menu, I decided to re-season the cornbread pan after some sticking issues the last few times I used it.

I wasn’t sure the best way to go about doing it, so I fired up the Google machine to find the consensus of the online chefs out there. Big mistake — it was like somebody took the cornbread pan and whacked me in the head like a stereotype disgruntled wife in an outdated cartoon.

It seems to me that everyone has his own oil preference, optimal seasoning temperate and time in the oven. One website that claimed to take on seasoning from a scientific standpoint said flaxseed oil was the best oil to use, but others said its proclivity to go rancid makes it a poor candidate. For me the cost is prohibitive, and it doesn’t keep indefinitely, so I’d rather not waste expensive oil. If you have used flaxseed oil, let me know how it turned out.

Some keyboard jockeys said high heat works best, others said low, long heat. Some only use lard for seasoning because that’s how our ancestors did it. Others said vegetable oil is best because it has a higher smoke point.

What I did learn is the seasoning on a pan is created through a chemical reaction called polymerization. During that process, the individual oil molecules in the pan join together into a network called a polymer. The new arrangement adheres the molecules to the pan and gives the coating hydrophobic properties, making it non-stick.

Even more confused, I did what most grown men do when overwhelmed — I texted mom.

Her method has apparently changed over the years. Mom said she now uses canola cooking spray and puts the pan in the oven at a low temperature — 200 degrees or so — overnight. She said she used to use Crisco and said most people recommend a high temperature, but the smoke sets off the pesky smoke detectors.

“We didn’t have smoke alarms in the old days,” she said. Thanks, mom.

I love my mom and value her good advice — I can hear her eyes rolling as I type this — but I did it differently.

I went for high heat and made my oil choice based on what was available in the cupboard — vegetable oil it is.

Most of what I saw recommended bringing the pan up to just above your oil’s smoke point to get optimal polymerization (sorry, mom), so I did a little more research and found that the smoke point of vegetable oil is in the 450-460 degrees range.

To prepare it, I pulled the cornbread pan out of the cabinet and (gulp) gave it a good scrubbing with dish soap and water using a regular sponge. That got rid of some of the burned crumbs of cornbreads past and gave me a dull base to start seasoning.

After pouring about half a teaspoon of oil into the pan, I rubbed it all over the inside with a paper towel, the preferred transfer tool of just about all of the online seasoning tutorials. After that, I took a second, dry paper towel and buffed the pan to get out any excess oil. Too much oil can pool in the pan and cause issues.

Then, I put the pan upside down on the rack of a cool oven with a layer of foil on the rack below to catch any drips.

I tried 500 degrees first, leaving the pan in for 30 minutes. There wasn’t too much smoke, but when I took the pan out, there was some spotting, perhaps the pooling I was worried about. I reapplied more oil for another coat, but tried 450 degrees this time. It seemed to coat a little more evenly, but for subsequent coats, I cranked the temperature up to 475, which seemed to do well.

After about five coats, what I’m left with is a satin coating, not glossy, that very much resembles the non-stick coating on store-bought aluminum pans.

I haven’t yet baked a test cornbread, so I’ll write an update on that later. And I still have the other skillet, so maybe I’ll test mom’s method out on it one day.

If you’ve got the perfect seasoning method, I’d like to hear it. Send it to me at [email protected]

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos