How to Polish Cast Iron: A Guide to Make Your Skillet Buttery Smooth

Heirloom cast iron cookware carries the rich legacy of generations, often boasting a patina that’s as smooth as glass— a testament to the meticulous craftsmanship from those who came before us.

In the early days of mass-produced cast iron cookware, each piece were meticulously hand-polished or milled to a smooth finish. Fast forward to today, and the landscape of cast iron cookware production has significantly changed. The emphasis on quick, cost-effective manufacturing often means that the smoothing step is bypassed. As a result, many new cast iron pieces come with a pebbled or rough texture, which can be less than ideal for those expecting the classic, slick surface associated with vintage pieces. According to many cast iron aficionados, this departure from the polished pieces of old made the seasoning less even and the release of food more challenging.

The desire to recapture the essence of a bygone era has led to a resurgence in polishing cast iron cookware among enthusiasts. Using today’s tools and a bit of elbow grease to bring back a level of quality many believe was lost in the transition to mass production. But before we dive into the ‘how,’ let’s pause and consider the ‘should’ — is polishing cast iron always beneficial? Let’s discuss this fundamental question in the next section.

Should you Polish Cast Iron?

Right off the bat, I’d say that polishing your skillet is not necessary to enjoy the benefits of cooking in cast iron. If you use your skillet regularly and care for it well, the cooking surface will still get smoother and slicker minus the time and effort of sanding down the pan. Granted, that process can take years, if not decades.

Also, it is said that smooth cast iron skillets are harder to season than rough ones. While I cannot find any hard scientific evidence that clearly points to this, I did find this study that says edible oils need level of roughness for them to adhere to a surface, which could support the anecdotes of many cast iron users.

With that said, polishing a cast iron skillet is easy enough to do on your own, so go ahead if you feel like it. However, you must be careful not to overdo it lest it becomes to smooth for oil to adhere to.

The benefits of polishing a cast iron skillet

If done right, polishing your cast iron skillet can improve it along the following aspects:

  1. Improved non-stick surface: A polished skillet minimizes sticking, making it ideal for cooking eggs, fish, and other delicate ingredients with ease.
  2. Aesthetic appeal: There’s undeniable charm in a mirror-like finish on your cookware that speaks of quality and care.
  3. Easier cleaning: Food residue is less likely to stick to a smooth surface, making cleanup a breeze.

The dangers of polishing a cast iron skillet

If you botch this whole operation, your skillet may come out worse than when it started. Here are some of the ways you can damage a cast iron skillet during the polishing process:

  • Excessive thinning – Overzealous polishing can wear down the actual cast iron, especially if power tools are used improperly. This thinning can weaken the skillet, making it prone to cracking or warping, especially when exposed to high heat.
  • Uneven polishing – Instead of achieving a uniformly smooth surface, a botched job may lead to uneven areas. These can create hot spots when cooking, where food may stick or burn, and cold spots where the heat is not sufficiently conducted.
  • Makes seasoning difficult – As discussed earlier, over-polishing can make seasoning a cast iron skillet harder as oils need a rough surface to adhere to.

How to Polish a Cast Iron Skillet

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to polish a cast iron skillet.

Part 1: Cleaning

Before you begin scuffing off the surface of the skillet, you should first make sure that it is clean and free from any residue. So, go wash your skillet with water and your trusty chainmail scrubber. Use some soap if necessary.

There is no need to strip off the seasoning during this process – it will get removed naturally as you polish the skillet anyway.

Part 2: Polishing

Now, the crucial part. Polishing a cast iron skillet can be approached through manual hand polishing or by using power tools for a more efficient job. However, both approaches follow the same principles – that is: use circular motions, focus on one section at a time. For this project, you’ll only need 80-grit sandpaper. Using medium and fine grit sandpapers may cause over-polishing. Remember: you still need a certain level of roughness on the surface of the pan for seasoning to adhere effectively.

Materials you need:

  • 80-grit sandpapers or sanding discs
  • Dry cloth or paper towels
  • Power sander or drill

Step-by-step guide:

  • Start sanding with the 80-grit sandpaper. Remember to sand the side walls of the skillet as well.
  • Once satisfied with the smoothness, wash the skillet again to remove all traces of dust and grit.
  • Dry the skillet completely, preferably in a warm oven or on a stove to evaporate all moisture.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much it. Don’t aim for a mirror-finish, that only comes with regular use and great seasoning. Just remove the noticeable bumps, then you are all good.

Part 3: Seasoning

After the sanding process, you’ll have to reestablish the seasoning on the surface as a significant portion of it have turned to iron dust by then. The seasoning process is a different beast that will pad this article too long if discussed here, so go on over to our full cast iron seasoning guide if you need step-by-step instructions on how to do it properly.

Which Brands Make Polished Cast Iron Skillets?

If you don’t want to go through all of these polishing madness, you’d be better off buying a piece that is already polished to begin with. Here are some brands that offer polished cast iron skillets right out of the box:

  1. Borough Furnace
  2. Butter Pat Industries
  3. Field Company
  4. Finex Cast Iron Cookware Co.
  5. Lancaster Cast Iron
  6. Smithey Ironware Company
  7. Stargazer Cast Iron

While this is certainly the more convenient approach to getting a smooth cooking surface without much time and effort, your wallet may have other opinions.

A More Polished Cooking Performance

There’s no replacing regular use and diligent cleaning when it comes to improving the quality of cast iron skillets. However, if you want to skip the decades-long process of developing a high-quality cooking surface, polishing your cast iron skillet can be an effective way to “fast-forward” to a better performing cookware.

If you want to learn more about cast iron cookware, apart from how to store cast iron cookware, go ahead and explore Cult of Cast Iron for more guides and blog articles! Cult of Cast Iron is your ultimate source of information and inspiration for anything and everything cast iron cookware.

Join the Cult of Cast Iron today and discover the wonders of cast iron cookware!

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