Probably one of the most well-known bits of cast iron lore is that the more that you use your pan the better it will get.
This rule of thumb is referring to the seasoning, the thin, black layers of polymerized oil that have been converted to this state by heat and have adhered to the surface of the pan creating that famous non-stick state of cooking bliss.
Pre-seasoned pans from the factory are sold with a few layers of seasoning applied shortly after manufacture, and for many this is “good enough” to start cooking with your new pan even as you peel the labels off. But for others, a fully seasoned pan takes work, and adequate seasoning is a matter of opinion and personal evaluation. To them, no pan ever comes from the store with enough seasoning to be considered fully ready to cook on.
The most unhelpful advice I’ve ever read on seasoning basically says that a pan is fully seasoned when you know that it is fully seasoned.
What those folks are getting at is simply that it will feel like it cooks better. Or it will pass some kind of non-stick test. You’ll just know… y’know?
A test, you say? For example, some swear that a pan is only seasoned when it passes the egg test: crack an egg into the center of a hot pan, cook it to doneness, then slide it onto a plate… all of this without using a spatula or any other cooking tool. If it slides into the plate and leaves a clean pan behind: voila! Your pan is perfectly seasoned. If it sticks then get back to work: you’re not there yet.
But no, you insist, really… how long does it take to season a cast iron pan?
In my experience, it takes however long it takes to build up five … ten … twenty solid layers of seasoning. You’ll just know… y’know?
That might take just one quiet afternoon with a hot oven, some oil and a bit of elbow grease.
Perhaps a full weekend out camping and cooking all your meals over a fire where the hot flames meld oil to iron will find your pan seasoned perfectly.
Sometimes a couple months of casual cooking at home is required as you notice week by week that your pan gets a little smoother and easier to use each time you fry.
Or occasionally it will take years of waking up early to prepare delicious Saturday breakfasts for your still-sleeping kids until you realize that your seasoning should be considered a family heirloom.
So maybe those folks with the unhelpful advice are right. A pan is fully seasoned when you know that it is fully seasoned. You’ll just know… y’know?