Seasoned vs. Unseasoned Cast Iron Skillet – A Guide

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A seasoned vs. unseasoned cast iron skillet is a tricky concept for beginners. But knowing the difference can help you confidently cook in cast iron. In this post, I’m sharing everything you need to know!

Small cast iron skillet with soudough Dutch baby, strawberries, and blueberries in it.

One of the questions I hear the most from beginner cast iron cooks is, “What is the difference between seasoned and unseasoned cast iron?”

Knowing the differences between the two is key. And with that knowledge, you will kill it in the kitchen as a cast iron cook and confidently know when and how to season your cast iron skillet.

So, if you have a cast iron skillet and you don’t know how to use it, if everything you make in your cast iron skillet sticks (I’ve totally been there), or if your skillet keeps rusting, this is for you!

Also, if you are curious about cooking in cast iron but don’t know what the best cast iron skillet size is for your needs, check out my cast iron skillet size guide. There is a perfect skillet out there waiting for you!

Note: Though I am writing this post in the context of a cast iron skillet, the information and tips throughout apply to all non-enameled cast iron cookware.

That Time When I Ruined Everything I Cooked in Cast Iron

When I first started cooking in cast iron, two things happened. First, I burned everything, and the food stuck to the skillet. Second, I hated it and ended up putting all of my cast iron in the darkest depths of my cabinet.

A year later, I tried again with more knowledge and patience. And now, I can’t live without my cast iron skillet. I use it every single day, and it’s such a treasured part of my family’s daily lives that I hope to keep it in my family line for generations.

It was a true “it’s me, not you” breakup with cast iron. I didn’t understand the basics of cast iron cooking like I do now.

Luckily, you can learn from my mistakes. With a few simple tips in your back pocket, you can skip the meltdown I had (really, you don’t need to dramatically shun your cast iron like I did) and live out all of your wildest cast iron dreams.

Pinterest pin: sourdough dutch baby with fresh fruit on top with close up of handles below and text "Seasoned vs. Unseasoned Cast Iron Skillet"

What Is Cast Iron Seasoning?

Before I learned how to cook with cast iron, I had a romanticized idea of what “seasoning” cast iron meant. I thought it was a way of cooking and adding dramatic layers of flavor to my food.

But “seasoning” has nothing to do with directly adding flavor to your food. Instead, seasoning is a layer of polymerized oil that creates a non-stick surface and prevents your cast iron from rusting.

In short, seasoning develops when high temperatures are applied to a thin layer of oil in the skillet. When the oil reaches its smoke point, it binds to the iron, creating a natural, non-stick surface.

Large cast iron skillet with a pizza in it, shown in Rebecca's kitchen.

Seasoned vs. Unseasoned Cast Iron Skillets

When it comes to seasoned vs. unseasoned cast iron, what we are actually talking about are the skillets’ nonstick properties—not your favorite spices.

A seasoned cast iron skillet has a slick coating that creates a natural, non-stick surface. On the other hand, an unseasoned cast pan does not have a non-stick surface.

Sure, if you cook with enough oil in an unseasoned cast iron pan, you might luck out and not have any food stick. Look, I live in the American South, where we love butter, so no judgment if you add that much fat.

However, the root of the comparison is the polymerized coating. Not only does it provide a non-stick surface, but it acts as a protective coating against rust.

It’s guaranteed that unseasoned cast iron will rust. Luckily, you can easily restore cast iron. But with a few simple cast iron care tips and tricks and proper seasoning, you won’t have to worry about rust or stuck food at all.

Video – Cast Iron Care Guide

YouTube video

Seasoned vs. Unseasoned Cast Iron Skillets & Flavor

Seasoned Cast Iron & Flavor

It is a myth that seasoned cast iron adds flavor to your food. I touched on this above, but the purpose of seasoning cast iron is to create a non-stick surface. So, seasoning actually creates a surface less likely to hold onto or transfer flavor.

With that said, I believe cooking in cast iron makes food taste better, but not different. For instance, you can get a beautiful, crusty sear on steak when cast iron is well-seasoned. And because cast iron holds on to heat, it’s easy to make golden crispy potatoes or perfectly toasted sourdough bread.

But seasoned cast iron will not add new flavors to your food. It will only highlight the existing flavors of the food you are cooking.

Unseasoned Cast Iron and Flavor

Contrary to popular belief, cast iron is a porous material. So, if your skillet is unseasoned, it can hold onto undesirable flavors. Plus, scraping off bits of stuck food can be challenging, which can transfer flavors.

This is particularly undesirable if you use cast iron for both cooking and baking. Imagine if caramelized onion flavors were transferred to your sourdough peach cobbler or sourdough cinnamon rolls. Your dessert would be totally ruined.

Creamy lemon chicken shown with a checked yellow decorative towel

Can You Cook in an Unseasoned Cast Iron Skillet?

Theoretically, yes, you can cook in an unseasoned cast iron skillet. But you probably don’t want to. The food will stick, and it is a huge pain to clean.

Also, if you have a rusty, unseasoned skillet, you should not cook on it. It will need to be restored and re-seasoned before use. And considering unseasoned cast iron easily rusts, it’s only a matter of time before you end up with a rusty skillet in desperate need of seasoning.

When Does Cast Iron Need to Be Reseasoned?

  • Rusty skillet – If your skillet is rusty, it needs to be reseasoned. You can scrub off the rust with steel wool, clean it thoroughly, and follow the standard seasoning process.
  • Cooking improper foods – A well-seasoned cast iron pan can handle some acidic foods here and there, such as quick recipes like creamy lemon chicken or gnocchi with sage cream sauce. But generally, I recommend avoiding making tomato sauce or using vinegar, for example, in cast iron because it can strip the seasoning over time. If you have cooked a lot of acidic foods, you should re-season your cast iron skillet.
  • Normal wear and tear – Even with proper care and cooking techniques, your cast iron will need regular seasoning. I usually season mine about once a month or as needed.
  • Stuck food – If you notice food is sticking to your cast iron skillet, that’s a tell-tale sign that you need to re-season your skillet.
  • Dull or matte appearance – Well-seasoned cast iron has a semi-glossy appearance. So if your skillet looks dull or matte, it’s time to season it.
Close up of cast iron skillet handles. The skillets are displayed on a natural woven charger

Is a Brand New Cast Iron Skillet Already Seasoned?

The seasoned vs. unseasoned cast iron skillet conversation is a little murky when it comes to brand new cast iron cookware.

A new pre-seasoned cast iron skillet does have a seasoned coating. However, I’ve never found them to be truly non-stick. I recommend reseasoning your new pan before putting it to the test.

In fact, it was the “pre-seasoned” marketing that led to my beginner cast iron fails. Everything I cooked stuck to the pan, and I thought I was doing something wrong. But it turns out, it just wasn’t seasoned enough.

How To Season a Cast Iron Skillet

The Initial Seasoning

I recommend seasoning in the oven the first time you use a new cast iron pan.

  1. Preheat your oven to 450°-500° F. The necessary temperature depends on the oil’s smoke point, so only heat to the oil’s max temperature.
  2. Wash the skillet thoroughly with regular dish soap and warm water.
  3. Dry the skillet well. This is really important because you will need to add oil in the next step, so you don’t want water separating the oil from the cast iron. Also, cast iron easily rusts, so never leave water on it.
  4. Use a paper towel to rub a thin layer of oil over the entire skillet. I recommend using an oil with a high smoke point. Cover the entire skillet, including the handle, rim, sides, bottom, and pour spout (if it has one). Wipe off any drippy or pooling excess oil.
  5. Bake for 1 hour. Then, turn off the oven and let the cast iron completely cool inside of the oven.
  6. Repeat as necessary until your cast iron has a semi-glossy coating.

How to Season Cast Iron on the Stovetop

When my cast iron skillet needs a little seasoning touch-up, I use a quick hack for seasoning.

  • Wash and dry your skillet.
  • Using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of avocado oil inside the skillet (for this method, I’m just seasoning the cooking surface of the pan, not the handle or outside).
  • Wipe up any excess oil that has pooled or dripped.
  • Turn on the stove and bump it up to high heat.
  • When the oil smokes, turn off the stove. Allow to cool to room temperature on the burner.

I would not recommend this for an initial seasoning or for seasoning a rusty skillet. This is a quick method for touching up a regularly well-seasoned skillet.

Keep It Seasoned with Cooking

For most home cooks, the best way to keep cast iron seasoned is to cook in it as much as possible.

Each time you add oil to your skillet and cook with it, you are building a thin layer of seasoning. I’ve repeatedly found that if I cook anything with a lot of hot oil, like sourdough fried chicken, I end up with a beautifully seasoned cast iron skillet.

I’ve often mentioned this on my blog and on my YouTube channel, but if you are trying to season your cast iron via cooking, this is not the time for low-fat cooking.

Bust out your butter and oil and get to cooking. You need the oils and fats to improve the seasoning.

Overhead over sourdough fried chicken frying in hot oil

Tips for Cleaning Cast Iron

Cast iron seasoning is relatively durable. But there are a few precautions you can take to help your seasoning last longer:

  • Use regular dish soap – Yes, you can use soap to clean cast iron. The common myth that you can’t use soap comes from old-school practices when soap was caustic. But modern dish soap and warm water are fine to use.
  • Never put your cast iron in the dishwasher – Look, I get it. I don’t like washing dishes by hand either. But you’ll be heartbroken if you put your cast iron in the dishwasher. It will wreck the seasoning and potentially rust your pan. Luckily, if your skillet is well-seasoned, it should take only a minute to wipe it out and clean it up.
  • Avoid metal scrubbers Technically, you can use metal on cast iron. But I’ve found that it can sometimes scrape off the seasoning, especially if you have a few thick spots of seasoning. I used a chainmail scrubber once, and it took off bits of my seasoning. I’ve since switched to a Scrub Daddy, and it works like a charm.
  • Don’t soak – Even the best-seasoned skillets can rust if they are soaked. It’s okay to wash your skillet with water. But don’t soak it. If you have stubborn stuck-on food, you can simmer a little water in the pan to loosen it up. But be sure to pour the water out and wipe down your skillet with a little oil afterwards.
  • Thoroughly dry – In the same vein as above, completely dry your skillet after each wash to prevent rust.
Small cast iron skillet with rainbow cherry tomatoes in it on a gas stove

What Oils Can I Use for Seasoning Cast Iron?

High Smoke Point Oils

Just about any neutral-flavored cooking oil will work. However, in my experience, the best oils are those with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil.

They tend to be less expensive. And because they are not delicate like low smoke point oils, you can ramp up the heat to 450°-500° F without worrying about it.

Low Smoke Point Oils

Using flaxseed oil or other low-smoke point oils to season cast iron is a growing trend. They will certainly work, but because they have a low smoke point, you will need to adjust the temperatures for seasoning.

Animal Fats

You can also season cast iron with animal fats. In fact, traditionally, lard was the most common oil for seasoning cast iron.

However, animal fats go rancid quickly, so I wouldn’t recommend using them if you aren’t cooking in your cast daily. If you stash your skillet in a cabinet and forget about it, you’ll have a stinky mess on your hands.

Cast iron skillet and wooden spoon

Does an Enameled Cast Iron Skillet Need To Be Seasoned?

No, enameled cast iron does not need to be seasoned. The enamel is a glass coating that protects the cast iron from rust.

Do keep in mind, though, that it’s a myth that enameled cast iron is non-stick. You will need to add oil to enameled cast iron like you do with stainless steel or other cookware.

If you want to learn more about cooking in an enameled Dutch oven, check out my cooking with a cast iron Dutch oven guide. I live for making sourdough donuts, vegetable soup, and no-knead sourdough in my enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

If you tried seasoning your cast iron and want to share your experience or have questions, leave a comment below!

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