How can I make my cast iron pans nonstick?
November 12, 2009 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Are well-seasoned, well-cared-for cast iron pans really supposed to be nonstick? If so, how do I make mine like that?

Many people say that cast-iron is as good as, or near as good as, nonstick pans in their nonstickiness.

Others disagree. I am among them. Advise me on what I need to do to move me into the agreement category.

So, assuming that the people who say cast iron pans are the bees knees* and don't cause stickiness** are right, what am I doing wrong? I want to cook things without sticking. Eggs are the worst, of course. Meat is OK if you sear it well, but there is still going to be residue sticking onto the pan.

Background: I follow cast-iron care recommendations to a T. I do not use soap. I dry thoroughly with a hand towel and then put in a low oven. I preheat. I keep the pans lightly oiled. I do not cook acidic foods in cast iron.

**Not me.
posted by Stewriffic to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
How long have you had the cast iron, and how often do you cook in it? It takes a while to build up a non-stick coating. I assume you are putting oil on the pan before you put it in the oven?

I own one pan, a large cast iron, that I use for almost every meal. I don't think cast iron is supposed to be non-stick in the sense that you can crack an egg into a bare well-seasoned pan and expect it to be flipped easily. You still need to add a bit of oil or butter, but a little is all mine needs.

Also - I tend not to even use water on my pan. I sprinkle salt into it and then scrub it with a paper towel. It's abrasive enough.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:04 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

You've got to cook greasy things in it on a regular basis. Bacon is good as is anything you can shallow fry in less than an inch of oil (fried chicken, tortilla chips, stuff like that). I've noticed that every time I sear meat or make a stirfry with sauce in my iron skillet, it's a little less slick than it was before. Every time I've just made chicken fingers or something similar in it, it's like it's super seasoned, dark, shiny, and slick as all get out. Eggs are no problem at all with a bit of additional oil or butter n the pan.

I sort of think of the seasoning on the pan as a bank account. Some things I cook in it are deposits to the account, some things are withdrawals. If I've been making a lot of withdrawals lately, I'll sometimes put a thickish layer of oil in the pan and just let it heat over medium or medium low for half a hour to replicate the act of a good fry.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:04 AM on November 12, 2009 [12 favorites]

Well, the first thing is that the pan must have many layers of seasoning. If you do indeed follow the cast-iron care recommendations, I assume the surface of your pan looks black, shiny and smooth.

When I use a cast iron pan to cook, I clean it afterwards while it's still hot. Basically, you take the meat out, take the pan right off the stove and run water into the pan. This kicks up a lot of steam, but it also deglazes the pan, so that all you have to do is give it a quick going-over with a dish brush (which has never touched soap). Wipe it dry, give it a new coat of oil, and you're done.

Of course, you could also turn that residue in the bottom of the pan into delicious, delicious gravy.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2009

Well, here's something:

Well-seasoned cast iron *can* be very slick, approaching Teflon levels of slickness. I mean, watch this video. But different pans are different. The omnipresent Lodge pans of today have a pretty rough grain to their surface, which they attempt to compensate for with their totally lame "preseasoning". Older pans tended to be much finer in texture. A pan is never going to be very slick until all the irregularities are evened out with a smooth, pore-filling buildup - until it is "seasoned". It takes a long, long time with the newer pans, because they're so much rougher.

If you're using a new pan, keep using it and seasoning it, but try picking up an older pan at a thrift store (it will probably be lighter and thinner - look for Lodges or Griswolds or Wagners), scouring it down to bare metal, and re-seasoning. It will develop the patina pretty quickly.

That there blog is really great, if you'd like to know more about cast iron than is reasonably healthy for anyone.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

The others above have got it right. Have to use some kind of oil every time. I like the bank account analogy, too.
posted by bebrave! at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, yeah, sorry. The cast iron pans are old-- at least 10 years for two of them, and the third is antique. They are black, shiny and smooth. No pockmarks.

I use them whenever I use a pan, unless I'm making eggs. Even with butter, eggs are a no-go in the cast iron.

As I mentioned in the question, I am meticulous about care, including re-seasoning when it seems needed, oiling before putting away, and etc. I have gone back and forth between using salt as the sole cleaner and using just water.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2009

As Pintapicasso said you still need a bit of oil to keep things from sticking. heat the pan then add the oil and allow it to heat a bit as well.

When cleaning you have to make sure that any food stuffs are cleaned off, when you clean the pan and dry look for different sheens on the pan, it should have an even slight shine, any dull spots are food remnants, that even if oiled will make your food stick.

This may be taboo to some, but i use one of those scotchbright green pads to get off any resistant residue ( I make a lot of sauces in my pans).
posted by Max Power at 11:12 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: "Non-stick" is sometimes just as much about technique as it is about the pan.

As for eggs, I cook omlettes in a bare non-stick stainless pan, and they don't stick. The key in my case is to get the pan really freakin' hot before putting in a little warm softened butter and then the eggs, which are also room temperature. Then you make your omlette, shake it out on a plate, and it never sticks. The idea is to get the pan hot enough that it cooks the eggs immediately, preventing them from sticking, yet you haven't burnt the butter. Kind of a juggling act, but it works.

The same pan, if you throw in cold butter and then cold eggs, and they will stick forever and you will have to make scrambled eggs instead. My point being that technique, not material, makes the pan "non-stick". In my experience.
posted by gyusan at 11:14 AM on November 12, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Hot pan, cold oil, food won't stick.

Heat the pan first, then add the oil, then allow the oil to heat before adding food.
posted by padraigin at 11:15 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Oooh. I think I may be coming to a realization. In peachfuzz's video, they're using about 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan that looks to be no more than 4" in diameter to cook one egg.

Maybe "nonstick" really means "nonstick as long as you use a metric shit ton of oil"?

I do heat the pan first.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:19 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

My point is, they may not be seasoned *enough*, especially pieces that are only 10 or 20 years old - it's been several decades since fine-grained cast iron was produced. It should really be like a glass-smooth finish in most places.

Other than that, I would agree with gyusan and padraigin that preheating the pan first, then adding oil, and then adding food helps a lot with getting food to release easily. Another thing I would note is to let things form a crust before you try to turn or move them - meat and eggs especially. Stirring or turning before they've done so guarantees torn/stuck bits.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:22 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Heh. It's a one and a half teaspoons in a 6.5" pan. But it IS true that you need *some* grease.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2009

Don't forget to pay attention to the things you're cooking. Acidic foods such as tomatoes cut through the seasoning, or so I hear (I'm too scared to try them myself.)
posted by Muffpub at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2009

The best way, if you want to cook eggs, is to use the pan only for that task.
In preparation, make pancakes with sunflower seed oil for a while and only rinse the pan if absolutely necessary not using any detergents. I normally just wipe the pan and put it back on its shelf when I'm done.
As said in an earlier thread before about crepes, I assume that fresh oil makes stuff stick more easily, no matter how hot. In pancakes, one solves this by making a very tiny pancake first and then all the others. New oil added to the oil already used for cooking is, funny enough, less of a problem.
To season the pan with oil out of the jar and then to put it away, in other words, may make it oily but not nonstick. A layer of oil-that-has-been-cooked-in is better in that respect.
Then, eggs do sometimes stick in spite of all precautions. One trick is to take the pan off-heat when the eggs are done and to put it on a cool surface for a little while, before trying to get the eggs out.
Important for the egg-pan is in any case to refrain from any braising or cooking that involves wine or lemon juice (on preview, yes, and tomatoes), because that almost always etches off the nice nonstick surface.
posted by Namlit at 11:46 AM on November 12, 2009


I have two super heavy pans and use them for everything including eggs (whoops! I just remembered I don't boil anything with 'em). I clean with soap and a non-metalic scrubber and season with crisco. No problems. No sweat. They're shiny, black, smooth, and non-stick. I love 'em!

I also dig cooking with oil and grease. I dunno. Maybe that's it.

I suggest more grease.

I think gyusan is on the right track. That's pretty much the technique I use with cast iron.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2009

I'm a fan of iron and only iron, and indeed my oldest (most loved) one is pretty close to nonstick. I don't think of that as the main benefit: I love them for the even stable heat and the way I cannot possibly hurt them. I agree with those above about preheating first the pan and then the oil/butter/whatever that you add before dropping food in them.

I haven't seasoned them in a decade. I wipe them with a paper towel and a dab of new oil after every use, though. I use water when necessary (re-oiling again) and scrub them with steel wool and plain water when something gets stuck. It happens.

I don't ever use soap because if I do, I can taste it.
posted by rokusan at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Maybe "nonstick" really means "nonstick as long as you use a metric shit ton of oil"?

Yes, that's exactly the case. You have to use some sort of grease or oil, and you have to use quite a lot of it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:13 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love my cast-iron pans, but I keep a non-stick omelette pan around for eggs.
posted by mzurer at 12:33 PM on November 12, 2009

I have a Lodge pan that I got new maybe... 5 or 6 years ago? It took a while but I can cook anything in it now, even fried eggs, no problem. It's actually the most nonstick pan I have at this point. I'm not fanatical about never letting it touch soap, or anything like that. I wash it fairly gently, and I never miss an opportunity to cook greasy things in it, but otherwise, meh. It just takes some time, and also make sure you get it hot enough. Food will stick to any pan that's not hot enough.
posted by rusty at 12:46 PM on November 12, 2009

I am somewhat amazed at the meticulous care some give to their CI pans. I have two that I've had forever, a 10" and 12", and I cook acidic food--tomatoes, si--and I wash in water with soap and mine are, for almost all foods except eggs nonstick with very low amounts of oil.

I never really have tried eggs in my CI because the pans are too large to handle the delicate egg processes. I have a stainless omelette pan (well, two--an 8 & a 10). All things equal, I use my stainless for most everything, my CI for pancakes, frying, and making (of all things) simmered tomato pasta sauces.

I've had my CI for 30+ years and one of them was already old then. I agree with the criticism of Lodge ware. I bought a Lodge Dutch oven, and it is one of my least satisfying pieces of cookware.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:51 PM on November 12, 2009

Peachfuzz's video looks about right for the proper amount of butter to egg ratio. He could have used less, but that looks to be about right. That's probably about right for what restaurants use to fry an egg). Generally if stuff sticks at home, its because people move it wrong, or don't use enough oil...

(HOWTO) Season a pan quickly - cast- iron, aluminum, whatever.

DISCLAIMER: Be prepared to be sweating, having the airvents on, and the smell of oil pervasively coursing through your kitchen. You will smell like burning canola oil. I am assuming the entire pan is a single piece - cast iron. There are issues with alumininum pans melting (and the handle falling off) or wooden handles catching fire, or plastic handles melting which I am not addressing here. This is also not for your favorite All-Clad pan. You are rendering this into a state of near permanent non-stick, which means the pan may discolor signficantly. Lastly, YOU CAN SERIOUSLY BURN YOURSELF DOING THIS.

Ok, first, this process takes about an hour, it takes a few rags, maybe a set of tongs, some pot holders, a glass of water, copious amounts of salt, oil (not olive oil - think canola, vegetable or safflower), and patience, and doing it wrong can and will actually leave you with a pan that is sticky, and/or very very very bad burns.

If your pan is one piece, turn on the stove to about 400F. Also turn on a burner. If your stove is electric, turn it on high, set a kettle (with water) on it, and come back when the kettle is making noise.

Bundle a few rags into a managable shape that you can maneuver with a set of tongs.

Once the burner is up to temp, turn the burner down to low, place the pan on the burner and add enough oil to coat the bottom. Once the oil is up to temp, add enough salt to the oil that you've got a big contiguous piece of oily wet salt. It should be grey. Turn the heat up to High/Medium High.

Pot Holder in 1 hand, grab the handle of the pan, and grab a rag bundle with the tongs. Use the rag to move the salt around inside the pan. Push hard, scrape and really really scour the pan with the salt. You should see black flecks come up and the salt should discolor. Continue to do this until the salt is brown/black. Dump it, add more oil, and bring it up to the smoke point. Add more salt and scour again. Repeat until the salt ceases to discolor significantly.

A note on working with salt and oil: The salt stays in suspension in the oil. Get the salt on you, and it will stick and burn through your skin. Dump it immediately into a plastic trashbag, and you'll have a hole in the bag and a hole in the trash can. This will retain heat like you would not believe. I dump it into a ceramic bowl, and eventually put it in the fridge to cool, then dump it in the trash a few hours later.

Now, once you've scraped all the cooked on food you've got a decent surface for starting to season. It probably looks shiny from the oil and very clean on the inside. Dust out the salt, add enough oil to coat the base base completely, and swish it around to coat the walls of the pan.

Place the pan in the oven. periodically remove it swirl the oil in it around (using the burner to keep it warm) and push to the smoke point of the oil. If the oil starts to build a shape at the edges, you *must* salt and scour the pan (over the burner), dumping the oil and repeating the process (oil, salt, scour, wipe, oil, oven, swirl, oven, check). Each time it goes in the oven, add less and less oil to the pan, as it will need less to treat the surface.

When you think you are done, hit it with a few drops of water, salt and scour the pan again.

What is going on:
1. you are cleaning the surface.
2. You are filling the pours of the metal with oil.
3. You are grinding the pours as non-existant as possible
4. You are cooking the oil to the surface to fill in the pours.
5. You are grinding the oil to level.
6. You are rendering the pan as one contigous sheet of baked on oil... sort of like baking teflon onto a pan.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:55 PM on November 12, 2009 [26 favorites]

You're probably not using enough heat. One of the things I have really learned in a restaurant kitchen is that you want to have your pans hotter than you think--things stick less when it's hotter, because they crust and seal away from the pan easier. If I can do fried eggs (with butter, obvy) in a stainless steel pan at home, you can do it in well-seasoned cast iron, trust me.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:02 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm like Lord Fancy Pants... I use my pans, wash them with soap and water, and then season them with crisco. My pans have always been sleek and black and I've never had a problem with anything sticking - up to and including eggs. In all of my years of cooking with cast iron (the only fry pans I've ever used and I love cast iron dutch ovens) I've never understood this whole "don't let soap touch your cast iron" business.
posted by patheral at 1:29 PM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Even with butter, eggs are a no-go in the cast iron.

Like others here, I cook eggs in cast iron at times. And like others here, I agree that it's all technique. Heat pan really hot, add butter and let melt, swirl, and then add eggs. And one more important note: assuming you're making a fried egg or omelette, after you add the egg to the pan, stop touching it for a while. Don't rush the process - let it set for a fair amount of time before you begin lifting the edges to run uncooked egg around the sides.

In my experience, if I start going at the eggs to early, they do stick to the pan and then I have to default to scrambled eggs. But if you let them sit a moment, they seem to stick first, but then develop sort of a sear on the outer surface that pulls away from the pan again. If you allow that to develop, they loosen much more easily and keep their shape. Then you can pour the uncooked egg around the sides until it's done, and flip into an omelette.
posted by Miko at 1:57 PM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think you just need to build up the seasoning more. I fry eggs all the time without any oil at all in my cast iron pan and they never stick, but I also go through quite a bit of bacon and have been doing so for years. Maybe this is a technique thing (I cook omelettes in a normal stainless steel pan and they don't stick at all - never tried it in my cast iron because the sides are sloped enough). For frying eggs you can't throw it in and then move it, you have to let it sit until the bottom has cooked a little and it releases from the pan - then you flip it.
posted by bradbane at 2:50 PM on November 12, 2009

I fry eggs in my 2-month-old Lodge skillet nearly every afternoon for my wife before she goes to work. I also cook just about everything else in it. I never undertook any particular seasoning regimen; and I don't even tend to clean it immediately. I never have a problem with sticking. I don't understand how I managed to get along without cast iron before.

Meanwhile, my friend came up and stayed with me for a few days. He cooked himself eggs while I was still asleep on three of those days, and wound up frying egg goo onto the surface of every pan he tried it in--including twice in my cast iron.

The difference, it turned out, was that I use about a tablespoon of butter for a 12" pan. He put in the barest sliver. Likewise, I cook on medium+1, while he cooked it on high--but put the eggs in while the pan was essentially still cold.

So the people who are talking about technique are right. You're doing it wrong.

And for the record, the kind of non-stick we're talking about here is not the same kind as teflon provides. Cast iron prevents sticking mainly by being having high thermal mass, searing surfaces before they have a chance to stick since the introduction of ingredients doesn't reduce the temperature much at all. Teflon literally reduces the coefficient of friction.

The two are not interchangeable. For instance, I'd never cook scallops in cast iron.
posted by Netzapper at 3:19 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thanks to this thread, I just successfully fried a fantastic over-easy egg in my late twentieth century cast iron pan.

I've been using this pan occasionally, mostly to sear meat before oven-roasting, but occasionally for pasta sauce and the like. I've avoided it for eggs after a couple of bad experiences.

It was fully seasoned once about twenty years ago, and since then, cleaning consists of either wiping it out after use or scrubbing it with a nylon green scrubbie and hot water, NO detergent. I ALWAYS put it back on the stove after this cleaning, add some oil, and wipe it all over with a towel, then let the pan sit over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. I guess this means I've been constantly topping up the fat bank account.

Tonight I pre-heated the pan, added about a teaspoon of butter, and cracked a cold egg into the pool, turning the heat to medium after that. Not only did the egg cook perfectly cleanly, I shocked myself by tilting the pan early in the cooking and saw the egg slide right to the edge of the pan. That little sucker didn't stick once, even after being flipped.

(The butter did turn a little brown, so I have to figure out better heat control.)


1) You don't need huge amounts of fat. Just a reasonable amount. For two eggs, even one teaspoon may be enough, although I'd err on the side of generosity while calibrating what your pan needs.
2) Mini-seasoning after each usage may help a lot if you don't cook a lot of bacon or other fatty food.
3) Hot pan, cold fat, turn it down! SRSLY.
posted by maudlin at 4:28 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No one has mentioned spatulas. I find it impossible to cook an egg in any pan without the right spatula for the pan. The spatula that works in a teflon pan is all wrong for cast iron and vice-versa. I like the thin, flexible, solid stainless-steel spatula for eggs on cast-iron. And plenty of bacon grease.
posted by rikschell at 4:52 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK. Lots of good information here. I think my problem has probably been in part one of technique. I'm going to try an egg with 1/2 T butter in my 6.5" skillet and report back.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:42 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: Wait. I'm going to let the egg sit out and become room temp before trying. So hang on!
posted by Stewriffic at 6:02 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: OK, here's how it went.

1. Brought egg to room temp.
2. Preheated pan on heat level 7 (glasstop electric stove)
3. Added ~1/2 T butter and swirled
4. Waited until egg seemed to have seared on bottom.
5. Used a thin-bladed metal spatula to ease the egg off the bottom.
6. Gently flipped.

Did not break yolk.
Did not stick TOO badly.
Certainly, however, the egg didn't slide around easily.
Butter was too brown.

See picture.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:04 AM on November 13, 2009

get your pan hotter, add the butter and swirl it quickly enough to coat the pan, then add egg.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:25 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: dnab: it was hot enough that the butter browned pretty quickly. any hotter and it would have burned.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:29 AM on November 13, 2009

I think you may be working too hot. I preheat around 6 on my glasstop stove, and it works best if the pan heats up enough so the handle is hot. Then I turn the heat down to 2 or 3. I usually add the fat right before the egg, and I like bacon grease because it doesn't burn the way butter does. Butter has a lot of water in it, and it's not the best for egg cooking. For me, under a teaspoon is plenty. What kind of spatula did you use?
posted by rikschell at 8:38 AM on November 13, 2009

ah, sorry, thought you had just left the butter in the pan too long. try bacon fat or veg oil. higher smoke point. add butter towards the end of cooking for flavour.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:49 AM on November 13, 2009

If you don't want your butter to burn, make clarified butter and use that. Clarified butter has lots of uses and it is easy to make (or you can just buy it, but where's the fun in that?)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:53 AM on November 13, 2009

Another way to approach the egg/butter balance point comes courtesy of Crescent Dragonwagon's The Passionate Vegetarian cookbook. I agree with her (through experience) that the mistake most people make is too high a temp on the fat. She recommends heating the pan slowly over a moderately low temp, and then "listening" to the butter when you put it in the pan.

I know, I know, I scoffed, too. But the butter froths and dances and after a few seconds, settles down and stops making noise. If the butter browns, wipe out the pan and start over--the temp is too high. When you have the right temp, gently slide the (already broken, room temp) egg/s into the pan.

I also use a tip I gleaned long ago from I forget who, but it was ostensibly as a low-fat option. Use a teaspoon of neutral flavor vegetable oil (canola or similar) in the pan as it is warming to temp. The oil helps keep the butter from burning. I really don't give a crap about the low fat.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:25 PM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just another data point. I cook eggs in my cast iron skillet with no problem and a minimum of fat. I don't do omelets or scrambled but just fried and they never stick. In fact I usually don't even use a utensil to get them out, just tip the pan and they slide right out. I don't have some particular method that I follow strictly, either. It must be variations in the pans that makes it non stick enough for eggs. I bet if you came to my house and used my pan, your eggs wouldn't stick. It has to be the pan, and not the technique.
posted by sulaine at 5:14 PM on November 13, 2009

This might seem crazy, but can you post a picture of the pan? Just to check on how seasoned it looks to the eye. Not sure how hard that is to capture in pixels, though.

It could be your pan was on the hot side. The egg looks good, though. I usually heat the pan, dollop the butter in, swirl, and then add the egg. If the butter is browning so fast, it might be too hot. I like to let it melt, then once it's liquid it begins to sizzle a bit - then add the egg as the butter's sizzle-foam is just subsiding (before it goes brown).
posted by Miko at 6:55 PM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: Lowered the temp this time. Broke two yolks along the way, but ended up with a gorgeous overeasy egg that I snarfed down on buttered toast with sriracha before I could take photos. Too lazy to take pix of the actual pan, at least at the moment. Maybe someday...
posted by Stewriffic at 8:21 AM on November 21, 2009

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