Reader Annemarie writes:
This is off topic for this question, but something that you might be able to help me with. A few months ago I won a “Le Crueset” cast iron saute pan, with a wooden handle. I know that you are supposed to season the pan before use, but I’ve only been able to find methods that involve putting the entire pan into the oven. I’m reluctant to do that with the wooden handle. Can you suggest a method? I’ve tried just heating oil in the pan, but that doesn’t do the trick.
Hey Annemarie! First, congratulations on a nice pickup! This is an obvious question, but did the pan itself come with any instructions? I ask because Le Creuset is obviously a very respectable brand, as such the odds are very good that it’s pre-seasoned and all you need to do is start using it. In fact “just using it” is good advice just generally for cast iron. People get overly obsessed with seasoning these days. Plain ol’ use will accomplish the task quicker than you might think.
Seasoning all has to do with the breakdown of fat molecules. Those molecules are “E”-shaped with three long fatty acid molecules attached to a “backbone” of glycerol. Heat them, however, and they begin to break into pieces. The individual fatty acids come loose from the backbone, at which point they’re free to bond with whatever type of molecule catches their fancy. If they happen to be near iron, they’ll bond to that, with their polar end down and their “fatty” end up. The end result for the pan is that all the tiny pores in the metal get plugged up and the surface becomes slick. This action happens with normal use and produces a very nice seasoning patina.
Hard core seasoning aficionados kick the whole procedure up a proverbial notch by employing a liquid fat (oil) and very high heat. This method not only breaks the fatty acids off their glycerol backbones, it breaks the fatty acids themselves into pieces — pieces which, in the presence of metal and oxygen, rearrange themselves into chains known as polymers. These polymers inter-weave with one another to create an incredibly hard and dense plastic-like film. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to scour blackened drips of burnt fat off the exterior of a sauté pan, you’re familiar with the stuff. You find it on the outside of pans and on cooktop surfaces because that’s where the big heat is.
To create a polymer film on the inside of a pan you need oil (because less saturated fats make harder polymers) and a temperature of 500 degrees or more. It’s a stinky, smoky process and one that in my opinion isn’t necessary, except maybe for a wok. A plain ol’ modest-heat-and-fat seasoning works great for most purposes and after time will become so thick that you won’t be able to scrub it off. So my advice is just to use it. Alternately, a reader had an interesting suggestion when I last discussed this topic: take the pan to a corner diner and ask them to put it in the deep fryer for 5 minutes or so. It’s a short cut to the plain-ol’-using-it route that would actually not hurt the handle and would be pretty entertaining to do!
Me, I’d make some corned beef hash in it with plenty of butter, once or twice a week for a month, being careful not to soap it much afterward. Done.