Strip This Pan, Part Two

I know that with a name like “the cast iron guy” you might expect that I’m some kind of guru in cast iron when in reality it as much about a philosophy of life that is expressed in the form and function of cast iron as much as a so-called cast iron expertise.

I write this as a caveat because often I post ideas that I’m as much interested in exploring more about or expanding my experience with and not so much sharing some deep knowledge of or advice in.

Like, say, recommendations for stripping a cast iron pan for reseasoning … with, say, vinegar.

Something that I have to report that as of my experience over the last twenty four hours did not work out at all for me.

I set up a shallow basin in the backyard.

I rested my twenty-inch cast iron grill in the basin.

I submerged the grill with a generous glug-glug-glug of multiple litres of 5% white vinegar.

I let it sit for sixteen hours.

The result? My pan was wet and smelled of vinegar, but there was no noticable breakdown of the seasoning let alone was it completely flaking off or otherwise dissolved. In fact, I would say all I accomplished was wasting about five bucks worth of vinegar. The pan after drying is unchanged from its soak in food-grade dilute acetic acid.

I suppose the allure of this idea that vinegar might have come from the notion that acids are bad for seasoning. We’re told to limit how much you might, say, cook with tomatoes (which are an acidic food) because they degrade your seasoning. A few years ago I made the mistake of leaving a bit of tomato sauce in the bottom of a pan (someone else put the lid on and it got missed in clean up) and a couple days later the seasoning had degraded to the point where I needed to run it through the oven a few times.

Also, vinegar seems like one of the easier and/or cheaper methods of stripping a pan. No fancy chemicals cleaners or tools or long, energy-expensive trials in the oven: just a bit of solution from the cupboard.

It’s also suprising how many search results appear for this, too, complete with warning about how the pan might rust up as soon as you pull it from the vinegar bath.

I suppose, if I’m being generous to these content farmers, there are many vaguely worded bits of advice about using vinegar on cast iron and there seems to be a genuine misunderstanding between “cleaning” a pan and actually stripping the seasoning. It’s easy to assume it will work “as advertised” if you’ve never tried it for yourself.

Which I have now tried.

And which I’ll not be trying again, unless someone happens to point out some glaring error I may have made in my simplistic trial of (basically) soaking my pan in kitchen chemical overnight.

Bringing me back to my point of experience versus expertise: prior to this weekend I had no experience with vinegar and cast iron, whereas now I can confidently advise that I don’t recommend you bother with this method.

Strip This Pan, Part One

My big ol’ twenty inch reversible grill has developed some pitting over the summer and I’ve been contemplating the pros and cons of various methods to strip a pan down to bare metal and start the seasoning process from scratch.

1. A self-cleaning oven on clean mode heats up the pan hot enough to incinerate the seasoning and burn off everything down to raw iron, but it heats up the house and has been linked to cracked pans.

2. Roasting a pan in a fire or over the barbecue can get the iron hot enough to turn the seasoning to cinders, but the heat is uneven and, again, has been said to warp or crack cast iron if not carefully monitored.

3. Elbow grease and a lot of sandpaper or other mechanically abrasive system will rip down the seasoning on all or part of a pan, and is a method I’ve used to spot repair seasoning, but the work involved is definitely… well, work.

4. Posts online have claimed that soaking in white vinegar overnight can erode the seasoning on a pan down to the point where it can be wiped off easily. I’ve never tried this, but with a twenty inch pan I might need a bigger sink or a big tub of some kind.

5. Back in the realm of over cleaning, chemical oven cleaner sprayed on the surface (then tuck the piece into a couple layers of garbage bags) is said to strip a pan to bare metal, though my suspicion is that the mess at the end might leave me wishing I’d tried something simpler.

6. And finally in the realm of complicated (and perhaps expensive if you don’t own the set up) is using electrolysis which likely involves some clever chemistry knowledge and a bit of electricity to erode the carbon of the seasoning.

I’m going to pick one of these before the week is out and give it a whirl.

Stay tuned.

Can I use an outdoor grill or campfire to season my cast iron pan?

Iron. Oil. Heat.

These are the three foundational ingredients needed to season any cast iron pan.

If you have a cast iron pan, a bit of oil, and a heat source then you should be able to season that pan. And so the simple answer is, yes, if your heat source is a campfire or a gas grill this would count and you should, most definitely, be able to season cast iron outdoors on a grill or other open flame.

In fact, in my own experience, I’ve had some great luck seasoning cast iron both on the barbecue and over the fire while out camping. There are many practical benefits including dispersal of smoke, efficiency of the process, and the honest-to-goodness joy of sitting around a fire doing something as practical as seasoning your cookware.

I’ve also had a couple bad experiences. So, a caveat

Cast Iron Guy Caveat: Fire and flame are less predictable than electric heat sources. And unpredictable heat can mean things might get a little too hot or too cool as you work to find the just right level of heat to achieve the best seasoning results.

Too low heat means that the chemical reactions to create seasoning won’t happen and the oil will likely just get gummy and sticky and fail to properly polymerize to become seasoning.

Too high heat means the oil and any established seasoning will likely burn and disintegrate leaving bare iron behind.

Check out my article on using a self-cleaning oven to strip seasoning for a refresher on how different levels of high heat affect the seasoning on a pan. I wrote about some of the chemical properties of seasoning and how the blast furnace temperatures of self-cleaning modes torch seasoning to ash.

Finding that just right heat in an oven somewhere in the middle of that too high and too low value is a matter of setting the knob to the just right number.

Finding that just right heat on a campfire or over a gas flame is a trickier prospect and requires attention and care above the heat source, and definitely not just throwing it into the flames or coals and hoping for the best!

While many things can go right, there is more wiggle room for things to go wrong: uneven seasoning, soot and ash contamination, over-heating and burning off the seasoning you’ve already created, increased difficulty to season handles or edges, or even in the extreme, possible cracking of your pan by moving it through too much temperature variation too quickly.

So, with a good steady-burning bed of coals or a medium flame on your grill, a rack or grate to rest your pan above the heat, the right tools, the right oil, and with work and care, yes, you can season cast iron on a campfire or outdoor grill… but maybe start with a practice pan to learn.

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.