Caring for Your Ironwork
Treat your iron as if it is alive! If left uncared for it will eventually rust away into its natural form of iron oxide. With a little care, we can protect it, passing it down to future generations to enjoy. Look below to see how to care for and season your ironwork!
First, lets get familiar with the terms for the materials I work with and what protects them.
Iron is a chemical element with symbol Fe (from Latin: ferrum) and atomic number 26. It is, by mass, the most common element on Earth, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. In its metallic state, iron is rare in the Earth's crust, limited mainly to deposition by meteorites. Iron ores, by contrast, are among the most abundant in the Earth's crust, although extracting usable metal from them requires kilns or furnaces capable of reaching 2,730 °F or higher.
Carbon Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon which contains a carbon content from about 0.05 up to 2.1 percent by weight. Higher carbon content is typically found in knives and tooling because of its ability to harden. In addition to carbon steel, there are many other alloy steels. Alloy steels are carbon steels in which small amounts of alloying elements like chromium and vanadium have been added. Stainless steel is an example of an alloy steel that has above 11 percent chromium added which helps prevent the iron from rusting and gives it additional heat resistant properties.
Rusting is an electrochemical process that begins with the transfer of electrons from iron to oxygen. The iron is the reducing agent (gives up electrons) while the oxygen is the oxidizing agent (gains electrons).
Oil is any nonpolar chemical substance that is composed primarily of hydrocarbons and is both hydrophobic (does not mix with water, literally "water fearing") and lipophilic (mixes with other oils, literally "fat loving").
Waxes are a diverse class of organic compounds that are lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures. They include higher alkanes and lipids, typically with melting points above about 40 °C (104 °F), melting to give low viscosity liquids. Waxes are insoluble in water but soluble in organic, nonpolar solvents. Natural waxes of different types are produced by plants and animals and occur in petroleum.
In nutrition, biology, and chemistry, fat usually means any ester of fatty acids, or a mixture of such compounds, most commonly those that occur in living beings or in food.
How I Protect my Forgings
When steel is forged, the heat and oxygen causes a layer of iron oxide to form on the outside of the steel. This forms a hard shell that can help protect the iron from rust (you can see this in the photo to the right). It will especially be protective if this layer is soaked in a hydrophobic material like oil, wax, or fat. At the end of the forging process, I heat the steel to just below 400 F (the flash point of beeswax) and apply the wax generously to the steel. At this temperature, beeswax is readily absorbed into the iron oxide shell surrounding the steel. This will protect it in a dry environment for years. In a kitchen environment, it may been to be waxed or oiled more often.
How to Season a Skillet Easily
First things first, you need a skillet with the proper finish. Too smooth and your seasoning won't stick, too rough and your seasoning layer will not coat the "peaks" of the finish and food will stick. Its easy to understand if you think of the finish as a microscopic landscape of mountains and valleys. These peaks and valleys can help hold the seasoning, providing grip for the polymerized oil finish you will apply.
Once you have a proper skillet, the next step is to protect it from rusting. Remember from the terms above that carbon steel doesn't like water - we need some form of hydrophobic coating. This can be oil, wax, or fat. For a skillet, I prefer grapeseed oil. This is a drying oil that will polymerize easily and form a tough non-stick coating. In my experience it offers the best performance (Note: I recently switched from flaxseed oil which performs very well, but has an off-putting smell when baking). Rub a very light coat of oil over the skillet and make sure to get in any nooks where the handles attach to the body of the skillet. Bake in the oven for 2 hours at 450 F. Now your skillet is protected (but not seasoned). Feel free to repeat this step more than once and also after the overall protective layer has degraded.
Once the skillet is protected, it's time to season it! The first step is to get your skillet nice and hot. I prefer to do this outside because it can get smoky, but if you have a nice range hood it shouldn't be a problem. I use a Coleman Camp Chef Ranger II stove because the large burner sizes work well with my 12 inch skillet. Now, get the skillet to the oil smoke point (420 for grapeseed). Next, apply very thin coats of oil to the skillet and watch as they dry. Each time the coat dries, add another coat. I typically do this at least 8 times (it doesn't take very long with this method). Now you have a seasoned skillet! When you cook, don't forget to add oil and get the proper heat before adding food!
Keep it dry! Don't let iron come into contact with water for long periods (and sometimes short periods) of time. A good way to keep your skillet dry is to put it on the stove (or oven) after washing and heat it until the water has dried.
To wash the skillet, I usually put water in it and let it soak for 5 minutes until the food is soft. I then use a chain mail scrubber to gently wash it.