How To Clean Your Cast Iron Skillet ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Friday, February 8, 2008

How To Clean Your Cast Iron Skillet

Although it's tempting to treat your cast iron skillet the same as any other pan, doing so would defeat the purpose of using that hulking iron monster in the first place.

What makes your cast iron skillet so special? Over time, cast iron pans develop a dark layer of "seasoning" that is made up of absorbed oils. This layer of seasoning forms a helpful barrier that makes the pan naturally "non-stick", creating a perfect environment for searing and frying with relative ease. Unfortunately, the seasoning is also rather delicate and requires special care to maintain.

Photo of a cast iron frying pan, courtesy of Amazon.comIf you own cast iron skillet but don't really know how to care for it, you're in good company! The good news is that although it does take a bit of effort to maintain cast iron, it's actually pretty simple to do.
The basic idea is that you don't want to do anything to damage or disturb the layer of seasoning. That means that you can't use soap to clean the pan since it will dissolve the natural non-stick finish. You also want to avoid scrubbing the pan with anything that could cause the seasoning to flake or chip off - no scrubbing pads, Brillos, etc.

The best way to clean a cast iron skillet is to sprinkle some coarse salt over the surface and then gently scrub it with a paper towel to remove the food and grease.

However, if you forget or are forced to resort to washing it with soap and water, all is not lost. You can restore the seasoning by rubbing the inside of the pan thoroughly with vegetable oil (peanut is best) or lard (I know most of us don't have rendered pig fat on hand nowadays but Kasma, my Thai cooking teacher, swears by it for seasoning so I thought I'd mention it just in case...) and either cooking it over low heat on your stove top for half an hour or placing it upside down on a roasting pan to catch any drips of oil in a 300 degree oven for about an hour. The iron will absorb the oil, helping to repair any bald spots your soap or scrubbing has created in the pan's seasoned surface. 

Beware that either method is likely to produce significant amounts of smoke so you may need to leave some windows open and/or disable your smoke detector.
You should use additional oil when using the pan for the first time after this treatment since the coating will not yet be mature enough to do the trick on its own.

Happy frying!
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hardwareman said...

I thought you had a great article on cleaning your cast iron skillet. I would recomend never disableing a smoke detector much less recomending someone else to do that in a public forum. I would recomend using the outdoor grill to season the pan.

Good Cooking,

Don Boyd

hardwareman said...

I thought you had a great article on cleaning your cast iron skillet. I would recommend never disabling a smoke detector much less recommending someone else to do that in a public forum. I would recommend using the outdoor grill to season the pan.

Good Cooking,

Don Boyd

screwylooo said...

so glad to know how to care for my cast iron skillet!
but you're a few minutes late as I jusst finished washing it with soap after blueberry muffins this morning.
For the last time!

I'm assuming the same is true for woks too.


Us vs. Food said...

good article - i just let a crusty cast iron pan sit too long post-fish fry and had to wash it with soap and water. i happen to have some bacon fat in the fridge, and have also heard that that's the way to go. unfortunately, you're totally right about the smoke thing; last time, we smoked out our house and probably most of the surrounding apartments.

Eve Fox said...

Ha! Yes, the smoke is definitely not something to be underestimated! Which is why I suggested that you might need to deactivate your smoke alarm (since no one can stand that noise long enough to properly season a pan). However as harwareman pointed out, you should definitely reactivate your smoke alarm once you're done or as he suggested, you could try season the pan on a grill (but this might be more difficult if you have a charcoal grill instead of a gas one). We have a charcoal grill which is why I don't think it would have occured to me but a gas grill does seem like a good way to go that will save you from having to air out your whole house. said...

Dear Sirs, today I just purchased one Chasseur Cast Iron Crepe Pan (30cm.), I made process of cure pan with oil and put in oven by 40 minutes.

By when I made crepes, the batter is stick around the pan base, but in the center the batter no stick. I used recipe that came in box of pan.

Could you give some suggestion or comments to avoid stick batter?

Thank you.
Luis Alcazar

Anonymous said...

I have a question about your advice: while I have heard that some people do not wash their iron skillets with soap and water, in this age where food borne illnesses, including salmonella, are common, I wonder if this advice really makes sense? And do commercial restaurants really use these pans over and over without washing them with soap? This would really surprise me.

Eve Fox said...

I'm probably not the right person to ask about the restaurant practices since I don't have a restaurant background.

But I don't personally worry about salmonella from not using soap and water because it's not as if the food that was cooked in the pan was still raw at the end of the cooking process. And whatever food you cook in it next is also going to get heated up to a temperature that should kill any bacteria. Using soap and hot water seems much more important for washing things like cutting boards, knives, and kitchen counters that often come into contact with raw meat, fish, and eggs.

But I've never seen anyone recommend washing a cast iron skillet with soap and water since that will destroy the seasoning and make the pan more likely to rust. If you're really concerned about bacteria, etc., it might be best to just stick with regular cookware that you can wash the normal way.

Vivian said...

hardwareman, it is 9 degrees fahrenheit outside as I write this, so using an outdoor grill is not a palatable option for me right now, even if I had one, which I don't. Perhaps you live in a gentler climate.

Anonymous, to judge by my searches on Google, the professionals wash out their skillets with salt. I'm going to try it.

Anonymous said...

I've been told that when your pan is totally gunked up, you can get rid of all the old stuff by putting it in the oven and letting it go through the self-cleaning cycle. Could this be true? And safe?

Chili_Carne said...

Great tips for cleaning I always use cast iron pans for cooking.

Vivian said...

I have tried the salt cleaning method, and it does work but takes a lot of scrubbing, multiple passes and paper towels. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through, as does the seasoning, so, much as I hate to admit it, I'm letting my cast iron skillet sit around unused while I fry practically everything in my Teflon pan.

Elizabeth N. said...

We just got a couple of pre-1957 skillets (they look like your picture) & have been using them quite successfully. While the re-seasoning does stink (we use lard, for its flavor neutrality & heat stability), the cleaning can be pretty painless. One method we have found is to boil a little water in the bottom of the pan & use a metal spatula to scrape off the food. Use a low angle to scrape so that you are not scraping away the seasoning itself.

It's worth noting that because cast iron retains heat so well, you do not need to cook at as high a temperature, which can help prevent food being burned onto the bottom of the pan in the first place.

Linda G. said...

Does anyone use oil on a cast iron griddle when making pancakes? I do and it leaves a residue I can't get off with the salt. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

We use the CM Scrubber. It does a great job! It is made for cleaning cast iron cookware and works great on everything else, but not for non-stick. Here is the web site

Daan Wessels said...

Everything everybody has said on this post is good. The best way I have found is; After using your cast iron skillet, pot, Non-stick ceramic coated pan, whatever cooking utensil including any type of wok, is to put some coarse maize meal (corn meal or mealie meal... depending on what part of the world you're in), about a tablespoon full or two, and a couple of drops of cooking oil into the pot/pan/wok and rub it well with a paper serviette, or even a square of old newspaper. It removes all the surface clogging but does not spoil the seasoning. If you used enough, and not too much oil, you should be able to brush everything out with a kitchen brush and have a nice black shiny finish without any residue.
Happy non stick cooking. (Just remember, a nonstick surface on carbon steel or cast iron does not build up overnight. It takes elbow grease!)

Anonymous said...

I am an old country cook. The cast iron skillets and ware that I have used over the years has always been washed with soap and water. I always wash them lightly. I also put them on the stove top to heat dry every time I do wash them and then us a lil bacon grease to coat the pan after I turn the stove off and they are still hot.