Can I use a self-cleaning oven to strip a cast iron pan?

The short answer is yes.

The more complex answer is … maybe.

A self-cleaning oven is the closest most of us have to a blast furnace inside of our homes. And as many people will tell you while there are multiple ways to strip old seasoning from cast iron, the high heat of an oven’s clean cycle might be the simplest.

My oven claims that on self-clean mode the temperature gets to nearly 900 degrees Farenheit (or about 480 degrees Celsius.) That’s hot. Hot enough to incinerate the seasoning off of any pan.

So what is cast iron seasoning anyhow that we can burn it off our pans, pans that we use over heat all the time?

Cast iron seasoning is a layer of polymerized oil.

Oil is a word we use to describe a vast variety of chemicals with complex molecular structures and specific physical properties. Cooking oils generally come from crop plants and we can eat them.

Polymerizing is a fancy way of saying that many smaller molecules can be chained together to form one massive molecule. Plastic, rubber, nylon are examples of polymers you might be familiar with already. Cast iron seasoning is also a type of polymer.

Cooking oil at the right temperature can be turned into a polymer onto many types of surfaces. We take advantage of this process to season cast iron cooking pans, covering them with lots of very large oil polymers that at the correct window of temperatures create a non-stick cooking surface. Simplistically, we are creating a kind of coating by linking uncountable small oil molecules together using heat.

This coating improves and strengthens with just enough heat, but as with many types of natural compounds if we use even more heat we can destroy it too. By design, because we like to have clean things, it incinerates at the same temperature of other charred food bits, grease, and cooking stains… or the temperature a self-cleaning oven.

So, yes, you can exploit the almost-blast furnace temperatures available in your kitchen to burn the polymerized oil layer from your cast iron pan and “clean” it bare in your self-cleaning oven. Almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit will reduce those polymerized oils to a fine ashy powder that you can wipe off with a damp cloth.

The maybe part of this answer is that high heat is unpredictable. Even some of the best cast iron is not made as uniformly as it may appear as you heft that heavy pan onto the fire. Pans are meant to be heated and then disperse that heat in a specific way (into food, into the air, etc.) So when you heat a pan in very hot in contained space, in a way it was not designed to be heated, there is a chance it could crack or warp.

I’ve personally stripped multiple pans by this method and never had a problem, but all of those pans were replaceable and inexpensive. If I was restoring something more valuable or an antique, I might not take the shortcut of a self-cleaning oven.

So again, can you use a self-cleaning oven to strip a cast iron pan… maybe. This method is fast and convenient (especially if you’re already cleaning your oven) and you can start fresh with a bare metal pan. This might be worth the maybe.

Griswold Egg Pan (Part One)

Some more backstory…

Just before the pandemic rolled in and I was nursing ideas about how to make effective use of my domain name I struck upon the plan of buying and “restoring” old cast iron pans. My plan was to scour through eBay, adventure through yard sales, and bumble among the aisles of second hand shops to look for old pieces.

I would buy them.

I would clean them.

I would re-season them and use them.

I would write about them.

So in September of 2019 I picked up the first of my project pieces from an online seller, a Griswold #3 Egg Pan which arrived in fair, but crusty condition, via the mail.

As is visible in the attached photos (the pan resting on a cutting board, snapped in September 2019 & after a light wipe down) the small pan needed a little bit of care. It was dirty for a start, as if the seller had cooked lunch in it, cooled it off, then packed it off to be shipped. Also, the seasoning had the chipped and peeling look of a wall that’s been painted a dozen times over the years and then started to erode and wear revealing the layers. Otherwise it’s a nice piece. There is some uneven casting on the bottom (and I have no means or skill to refinish this) but the cooking surface is smooth and clear of scars.

First, a little about the history of a piece like this. I specifically went looking for a Griswold pan because there they are kind of the stereotypical antique but affordable collector cast iron piece, new enough to find in your grandparent’s kitchen but old enough to say, hey… this is an old pan.

Griswold Manufacturing was an American manufacturer of cast iron kitchen products founded in Erie, Pennsylvania, in business from 1865 through 1957. For many years the company had a world-wide reputation for high-quality cast-iron cookware. Today, Griswold pieces are collector’s items.”

– Wikipedia

I’m not a cast iron restoration expert.

Over the last five years and in using multiple pieces of my (purchased new) cast iron cookware for that long, I would firmly tell you that as far as use and care goes, I’m in the intermediate “home cook” skill level.

That said, a caveat. Restoration is a new hobby for me. In other words, I’m probably doing something wrong and I’m not going to be doing much in the way of repairs so much as this more about simple cleaning and re-seasoning efforts. So… be gentle in your replies. I’m learning out here in the public eye.

Now, the Griswold #3 709 I is not a valuable collectors piece, but I think it’s at least sixty-plus years old. Tiny. Only about seven inches across, it makes for an ideal egg pan. I’ve been through a few forums and websites trying to put an age to it and as far as I can tell it was probably cast circa 1939-1957. Neither rare nor of import, I figured it was a neat first “old” piece to kick off my set, and I wouldn’t be destroying an historical artifact if I messed it up.

My first step was to run it through the clean cycle of the oven. This stripped the iron down to bare metal. Then I cleaned the char and oxidized powder off with soap and water then immediately ran a couple seasoning cycles in a hot oven with a light vegetable oil.

After it cooled I put it the cupboard …and forgot about it for a while.

The next two pictures (on a granite countertop) were snapped in January 2021, as I pulled the piece out and decided to write a short series on this new blog.

I ran it through another seasoning cycle (lightly oiling it and baking it with my latest round of sourdough bread).

I cooked a couple eggs in it.

I grilled a cheese sandwich.

It’s starting to develop a useful and seasoned cooking surface.

And as I continue to season and cook with this pan over the next few weeks and months I’ll write future posts with more info.

Stay tuned.