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How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

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How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet
A person spreading salt in a cast-iron skillet.

No matter how well-seasoned your cast iron is, it’s inevitably going to get dirty. When it comes to cleaning cast iron, it’s important to note what you shouldn’t do. 

Pay attention to how to wash a cast iron skillet. Don’t throw it in the dishwasher or use metal scouring pads and harsh abrasives for everyday washes, because they can remove the seasoning. Once you’re all done cooking with your cast iron, wash it by hand using a nylon bristle scrub brush while it’s still warm (this actually makes cleaning much easier). You can opt to use rubber gloves, if needed.

If there are still bits of stuck food, you can use a plastic pan scraper or a chainmail cast iron cleaning tool. You can also simmer a little water in the pan for about one minute before scrubbing to loosen debris.

Afterward, you’ll want to dry it as soon as possible with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. Then, gently reheat the pan on low heat and rub a very light layer of cooking oil, like vegetable or canola, into the cast iron using a dry paper towel. And in case you were wondering, washing your cast iron with a little bit of gentle dish soap is just fine, according to experts. Keep in mind, it's best to avoid tough scouring pads.

A favorite way to clean cast iron requires something you use all the time in the kitchen: salt. The method is easy. Take a big pinch of coarse salt (kosher salt, but sea salt also works) and sprinkle it on the cooking surface. Then, take a clean paper towel and scrub the salt around the pan until any stuck-on food bits lift right off. Dump that salt right into the garbage and, if you want, rinse off the cast iron with water and dry it thoroughly.

Another clever kitchen method for cleaning cast iron is to use a half a potato along with the salt. Sprinkle the coarse salt into the pan and instead of using a paper towel, cut a white potato in half and use the cut side to scrub the salt around the pan surface. In addition to the moisture in the potato, there is a natural oxalic acid that helps dissolve any rust or burned bits.

How to Care for Cast Iron
A person holding a cast-iron pan with a seasoned surface.

Cast iron cookware is tough, but despite its reputation, it isn’t indestructible. Taking a little care with the pan is necessary to ensure its long life.

  • Handle cast iron pans carefully and don’t let them take any knocks, especially against an exceptionally hard surface, such as a stone countertop or concrete floor. The pan can chip or even break.
  • Avoid superheating the pan and never add cold water to a hot pan. This can ruin or damage the pan.
  • Be sure to clean your cast iron skillet after every use. A light cleaning will help maintain the skillet over time.
  • There are certain items you should not cook in a cast iron pan. Avoid cooking acidic things such as tomato sauce and wine-braised meats in cast iron as well as delicate items like omelets and fish. 
  • Sometimes your cast iron pan may be sticky after seasoning. This may be caused by cooking food with sugar or food with a lower fat content. You may need to scrub the pan with a sponge and re-season to solve this.  
How to Cook with Cast Iron
Person heating a cast iron pan to season it.

The easiest thing you can do to take extra-good care of your cast iron is to use it! Cooking in your cast iron regularly with any kind of cooking oil is an excellent way to keep your cookware in tip-top shape. Along that same train of thought, until you build up a good layer of seasoning in your cookware, food is probably going to stick to it. If you use it every day, it’ll be thoroughly seasoned in just a few weeks. If you only use it every now and then, it could take up to a few months. You should always thoroughly dry and oil it after every use (just as in the cleaning method described) to avoid problems like rust and scaling.

One thing you may not have expected when it comes to cooking with cast iron: You should avoid using it to cook highly acidic foods – at least until you’ve got a super-thick layer of seasoning. The acidity of foods like tomatoes, citrus juices and even beans will strip down the seasoning and make your food taste metallic. You can, however, cook with any utensils you like, even metal ones. Cast iron is tough, so it can handle pretty much any type of utensil once it’s seasoned.

How to Season Cast Iron
A person oiling a cast-iron skillet.

The most important thing you can do for cast iron cookware is give it a proper initial seasoning, even if it comes “pre-seasoned.” You should also season it at least once a year and more often if you use it regularly. 

Choosing the right kind of oil for seasoning is essential for getting a slick surface on your cast iron. It is important to use an oil that has a high smoke point and does not easily go rancid, which eliminates a lot of standard cooking oils as best bets. Organic flaxseed oil and organic avocado oil are both good choices for types of oil to use for seasoning cast iron. Flaxseed oil is considered a drying oil which means that it will season to a hard film on the surface of the pan. Avocado oil has a very high smoke point and is less expensive than flaxseed oil, even in an organic variety. While cleaning cast iron with salt is recommened, seasonsing with it is not.

Cast Iron Skillet Restoration
A cast-iron skillet with rust spots being cleaned.

How to clean a rusty cast iron skillet is a little more complicated. When it is a question of rust or cleaning a cast iron skillet with burnt-on food, the usual rules can bend a little.

Normally, you would avoid introducing cast iron to harsh acids. However, cast iron skillets that are in need of restoring can stand up to a little more rigorous treatment. The main thing to remember is to dry the pan thoroughly and season it well after you have recovered it.

For spots with rust, you can once again turn to cleaning your cast iron with salt. However, this time, add a little lemon juice power. Cut a fresh lemon in two pieces and dip the cut end in kosher salt. Rub vigorously over the rusted spot, adding salt as needed, until the rust is lifted from the surface. Then wash the entire surface of the pan with a little mild dish soap and warm water, rinse thoroughly and dry the pan well.

Scouring the surface with steel wool is also an excellent way to lift both rust spots and burned-on food particles from a heavily damaged pan. Use a fine grade steel wool pad and scrub the pan surface, inside and out, to remove rust and debris. Use hot water and mild soap if needed. Once you have cleaned all the residue off the cast iron, wash and dry your skillet as noted.

Once you have restored your cast iron skillet, you must immediately re-season the pan. If you wait, you may allow rust to re-establish itself. Follow the instructions in our step-by-step guide, How to Season Cast Iron. Be sure to repeat the process at least three times to ensure your pan has a solid protective layer.

While cast iron is not a dishwasher-safe skillet, the beauty and durability of these pans make them more than worth the little bit of effort required in cast-iron skillet care.