Seasoning: it's not just for cast iron anymore?
November 14, 2012 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Why do people season cast iron cookware but not other kinds of pans?

I understand the reasons for seasoning cast iron. It's a porous surface, so bare cast iron is going to absorb food flavors and odors, the seasoning protects from rust, and it creates a non-stick surface. That makes sense to me.

What I don't understand is why people don't season other cookware. I mean, sure, other pans may not NEED the seasoning for the same reasons, but I would think the non-stick surface alone would be a selling point.

The internet is ripe with people discussing cast iron seasoning with a surprising level of passion. People argue about which kinds of oils to use, debate how many times a year to reseason, and completely lose their shit when someone washes their pan with soap. It's fascinating to me how enthusiastic people can be about a nearly-indestructible chunk of metal.

And yet, despite all this passion about cast iron seasoning, I've never come across a single mention of applying the process to another kind of pan. Why not? Wouldn't you want every pan to be a non-stick pan? Is there a reason people don't do this to aluminum/stainless steel/whatever cookware?
posted by wondercow to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Other pans are not porous and thus don't take to the seasoning process.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:28 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Regular Aluminum and Stainless steel are not porous surfaces, which means seasoning just won't work -- it only works because the oil used to season can take advantage of the porosity.
posted by brainmouse at 9:29 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

My carbon steel pans came with seasoning instructions.
posted by enn at 9:30 AM on November 14, 2012

As said above carbon steel can also benefit from seasoning, being covered by an oil varnish, because it is very vulnerable to rust.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on November 14, 2012

Carbon-steel woks, for example, are seasoned.
posted by bonehead at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yep, I have a thoroughly seasoned carbon steel wok.

Cast aluminum can be quite porous. Porosity is a common condition / defect in aluminum castings, something that foundries struggle to avoid. So I don't quite buy the porosity explanation, but I think it's true that it simply doesn't work well on most materials, for whatever reason.
posted by jon1270 at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2012

My aluminum Whirley-Pop came with seasoning instructions. I've also had carbon steel woks that needed seasoning.
posted by cabingirl at 9:38 AM on November 14, 2012

Maybe it's partly that it looks "bad" on light-colored surfaces like steel and aluminum, but inconspicuous (except for gloss) on black surfaces?
posted by jon1270 at 9:49 AM on November 14, 2012

People also season enamelware like Le Creuset.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:50 AM on November 14, 2012

Cast iron is extremely susceptible to rust/corrosion/oxidization. A proper seasoning takes oil (hydrocarbons) and reduces it to a anti corrosive layer of carbon effectively sealing out the oxidation process. The fact that it is "slippery" is just a pleasant side-effect.

Aluminum is actually also highly susceptible to oxidation; it happens in seconds. The difference is that aluminum oxide (the equivalent of iron's "rust") is just as good or better at doing most of the things we use aluminum to do (it is harder and more non-reactive). Whenever you see something that is aluminum, you are actually seeing something that is aluminum covered in the tiniest layer of aluminum oxide (which can actually be thickened through another process called anodization, but that is another conversation).

Stainless steel is called that because it is far less reactive (I think it is the addition of chromium and nickel). Unless it is heated to extremely high temperatures, or exposed to high levels of mechanical stress, it is just flat out less chemically reactive.

Carbon steel is back in the cast iron category of reactivity, and the seasoning process creates the same carbon-based, non-reactive shield against oxidation...

All of the hullabaloo around seasoning is over-hyped in my opinion. It is a pretty standard hydrocarbon heating process taking place in order to build the best possible carbon layer. Whatever pattern/behavior builds the best layer wins.
posted by milqman at 10:34 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

The freaking out about soap thing is totally bogus, BTW and IMO. I use a squirt of soap on mine all the time with no problems. Just NO HARD SCRUBBING.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Non-stick is not always desirable. People use aluminum or steel pans because they don't react, but you can get a good fond-- stuck brown bits-- on them, and then you can deglaze that with wine, stock, or whatnot and make a nice sauce. You don't want to scrape around on a non-stick pan or surface like a well-seasoned pan.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:58 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The oil varnish chemistry is a bit more sophisticated than any old triglyceride will do. A degree of unstaturation is really desirable to promote cross-linking like vulcanization in a rubber tire. Many vegetable oils are relatively highly saturated and thus take a long time to produce a good varnish.

One oil that is mostly unsaturated fatty acids is flax oil. Woodworkers have used linseed oil, another name for flax, for varnish for centuries. Seasoning with flax oil produces a durable polymer varnish much more quickly than with most other vegetable oils, even low smokepoint ones, like olive oil. In my experience, it also forms a tough, long-lasting finish, more durable than that made with other oils.

We also use a mild soap on ours from time to time with no problems.
posted by bonehead at 2:04 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're tempted to follow bonehead's advice & use flax oil, be sure it does not contain any driers, which can be poisonous (in the past, they used lead-based driers).
posted by mr vino at 2:19 PM on November 14, 2012

Foodsafe flax oil can be found in most health food and drug stores. I wouldn't use linseed oil from a hardware store, no.
posted by bonehead at 2:24 PM on November 14, 2012

FYI, the Big Easy Oil-Less Turkey Fryer has a stainless steel basket and cooking chamber that needs to be seasoned before use.
posted by Yorrick at 7:54 PM on November 14, 2012

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