How do I know when I need to re-season a cast iron pan?

You get a new pan from the store, or an old, new-to-you pan from a family member, and the first thing you’re likely to do is spend some time re-seasoning. Fresh from the factory, or stale from neglect, obviously is a great time to put in the effort.

But what about the pans you already own and are using regularly? How do you know if they need some intensive cast iron care or even a full seasoning restart?

I was cooking a batch of buttermilk pancakes this morning and noticed a chip on my twenty inch grill, the same pan that had given me some trouble a couple months back (but in a different spot on the pan!) That blemish had likewise started as a small chip and I’d let it fester for a few months only to watch it grow from a dime-sized divot into a scar that rendered a quarter of the large pan basically useless.

Now this new pit has me pondering my pan options: to push through, spot-repair, or fully re-season?

So, how do you know when it’s time to start the re-seasoning process?

It’s Wearing Out

Seasoning is just layers and layers of carbon built up over time and effort. Maybe those layers are just getting old, or thinning out in various places. Maybe you’ve been cooking too many delicious tomato sauce-based recipes and the acid and lack of fresh oil is leaving those layers a bit lacklustre. Or maybe you’ve built up so many layers that the actual shape of your pan is starting to change. Seasoning does get old and wear out, and a once-amazing pan might just need a refresh.

It’s Chipping Off

Like my morning dilemma, sometimes you pull a pan from the shelf and either from rough use or being bumped in the cupboard, a bit of the seasoning has actually cracked and chipped away. This creates an unwelcome uneven surface and over time is simply going to get bigger and rougher and make your pan less useful. A full re-seasoning on a big chip or a chip in the main part of the pan is probably the best course, but try a spot re-seasoning first. Scrub the spot down with some steel wool or an abrasive sandpaper, then re-season like it’s a new pan. If that doesn’t work, strip the whole piece to bare metal and start fresh. Plus, you don’t want any of those stray seasoning chips mixed in with your morning hashbrowns.

It’s Rusting Up

The worst cast cast iron scenario is rust. Stored wet, or maybe having been through a long cold winter (accidentally, I swear) left inside the barbecue, rust damages the iron at a molecular level and loosens your seasoning. Also, it tastes awful with eggs. A full cleaning and do-over is probably the best way to get back on the right foot with a pan that’s got a case of rust.

Most of all, you’ll likely just know when you need to re-season. A well-seasoned pan is a great tool. A pan that needs some care and attention from years of use, wear and tear is just …less so.

Saturday Chocolate Chip Pancakes

My twenty inch cast iron grill pan sees service at least once a week (when we’re home, that is) on Saturday mornings as a pancake making workstation.

For at least a decade our family tradition is a fresh batch of these simple breakfast treats.

1 1/3 cups of all purpose flour
3 tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 tablespoon of baking powder
1 egg
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 1/2 cups of white milk
1/2 cup chocolate chips

The flour, sugar, and baking powder get mixed together in a medium bowl.

The egg is whisked in a 2 cup measuring cup, then I add the oil, vanilla and milk and mix again.

The wet and dry are combined, mixed lightly, populated with the chocolate chips, and let to sit for about 10 minutes to hydrate.

Batter is poured in 1/4 cup portions onto a hot cast iron grill pan and cooked to desired doneness.

We serve it all up with maple syrup and a hot cup of coffee.

When Good Iron Goes Bad

My beloved twenty inch cast iron grill pan developed an ugly blemish over the autumn months.

A scar. A scab. A patch of failing seasoning crusted, bubbled and flaked off leaving a rough spot the size of a medium pancake on the middle edge of an otherwise awesomely seasoned piece.

This isn’t beauty-shaming. A good quarter of the grill was rendered useless for cooking by a spot of flaking seasoning.

I worked around it. At first.

Then I ignored it.

But it only got worse.

Three years ago I had cleaned this particular pan down to bare iron. I ran it through the deep cleaning cycle of the oven and burned off all of the seasoning. It was a mess. It took some serious love in the backyard and four rounds of reseasoning love to get it back into service as our Saturday pancake grill.

But a January mid-winter in mid-Canada is neither the time nor the place to strip a pan to bare iron.

Solution? Elbow grease, some steel wool, and an hour of grinding the blistering patch of dead seasoning into a smooth, bare spot. Then three rounds of hot-oven-baking-on some fresh carbon layers.

The results were successfully tested this morning… and those pancakes were delicious.