So you’re probably here for one of two reasons: Either you heard you can’t wash a cast iron skillet the “normal” way (with soap) or you did wash it the normal way and quickly realized that was a mistake. Yeah, some of us have learned it the hard way.
Unlike Lily Collins’ titular character in Emily In Paris, not everyone has a hot chef who cooks omelets for them then tells you how to season the pan while looking longingly into their eyes. Unfortunately, they haven’t found a way to bundle that service with the product. (Trust me, I’ve looked all over Amazon.)
Maybe a loved one gifted you a pan and you’re looking to take care of it. And you should! If treated right, a cast iron skillet could last longer than most of your relationships. Sorry, was that too real?
For a nominal price, a cast iron skillet can last you a lifetime, says Tiffany La Forge, owner of Parsnips and Pastries and author of The Modern Cast Iron Cookbook. Not to mention you can cook anything in them, including pies, pizza, and pasta.
“I like to think of cast iron skillets as old friends. They are the most reliable, durable, and trustworthy pieces of cookware you can invest in,” La Forge says. “And really, they can appeal to any budget or skill level. I think they’re so popular because of how sustainable and versatile they are.”
So, now that you’ve forged a tight bond with your cast iron skillet, it’s time to learn how to keep it clean with helpful tips and some myth-busting.
Why are cast iron pans washed differently?
Cast iron cookware is made from the forging of steel and iron together. And in case you slept through chemistry, putting your pan in the dishwasher will cause your cast iron to rust over time.
“Water and cast iron are not friends. Even the smallest amount of water will cause rust, which is why it’s important to immediately dry cast iron after washing,” La Forge says. “However, the best thing about cast iron is that it can pretty much always be restored. If your pan has rusted, it must be scoured to remove all rust and then re-seasoned.”
The DL: You don’t want that to happen. You should also definitely use soap, La Forge says. “Never using soap in a cast iron skillet is a myth,” she says. “And coming from a decade working in kitchens, that certainly wouldn’t fly with any health authority either. Please wash your skillets!”
La Forge recommends a mild dish soap, meaning one that doesn’t have a strong fragrance because cast iron can retain what you put in it. La Forge washes her pan when it’s still slightly warm and the food is easier to remove. But please make sure it’s cool enough to touch.
Can I soak my cast iron pan in water to loosen up any crusted food?
As mentioned above, submerging your cast iron skillet in water is one of the worst things you can do. But that doesn’t mean you have to put a lot of elbow grease into cleaning it.
If food is stuck to the bottom of the pan, La Forge has a few basic tools to help: A polycarbonate pan scraper, a non-abrasive sponge, a stiff-bristled nylon brush, or a chainmail scrubber. Chances are you have one of these in your kitchen that will work perfectly on your cast iron.
There are times when even the sturdiest of scrapers won’t help you. For those particularly stubborn spots, La Forge says to fill the pan with water, bring it to a boil to loosen the food, then scrape it out. (I use a wooden spatula to pry the tough pieces out.) Scrubbing with a salt paste works well too, La Forge adds.
How do you “season” a cast iron pan?
Seasoning is a process to build a black patina (aka that glossy look) on your cast iron. It also keeps the pan from rusting and maintains the easy-to-cook-on surface. Some cast iron pans come pre-seasoned, but others you have to season yourself. You can season a pan yourself by coating it with a thin layer of oil (more on that later!).
Once the pan is seasoned, the best way to reinforce it is to use the pan often, La Forge says.
“This is especially true if you use your cast iron to fry chicken, cook bacon, or cook with fat,” La Forge says. “Building that beautiful patina and seasoning takes time, so use your pan often. I highly recommend always rubbing down the pan after cleaning with some oil and re-seasoning your pan whenever food starts to stick or the pan looks dull.”
What kind of oil should I use on it?
Typically after you’re done washing (and scrubbing) your pan, it’s important to dry and oil it. Oil helps build the layers of seasoning in the pan, especially after you wash it.
La Forge typically uses avocado oil on her cast iron, but she does so for one reason: She cooks with it often. “The best oil to use is the one you already have in your kitchen and the one that fits your budget,” she says. “Flaxseed and grapeseed are popular choices, but I use good ole canola or vegetable oil. It’s inexpensive, neutral-tasting, and has a high smoke point.”
So, keep it simple and use whatever is in your cupboard right now.
Can I season my cast iron pan in the oven?
Yes, when you first break out the pan, part of the seasoning process requires putting it in the oven. This makes sure the pan heats evenly, La Forge says.
Okay, let’s recap.
Here’s how you clean a cast iron skillet, according to La Forge:
- While the pan is still warm (but not hot!), use mild dish soap to clean the pan.
- To get rid of the stuck-on pieces, use a pan scraper, a non-abrasive sponge, a stiff-bristled nylon brush, or a chainmail scrubber.
- If the bits still aren’t coming off, bring water to a boil in the pan so the food loosens.
- Once everything is clean, immediately dry it.
- Using a paper towel, rub in cooking oil evenly over the pan.
And if your cast iron skillet looks particularly dull or food is getting stuck more often, you’ll want to re-season it with these steps:
- Coat the entire surface of the pan (even the exterior) with a thin layer of cooking oil that’s been thoroughly and evenly rubbed in.
- Place the oiled pan in a cold oven upside-down with foil below it to catch any drippings.
- Turn the oven to 400°F.
- When it reaches that temperature, bake the pan for one hour.
- At the one-hour mark, turn the oven off and let the pan cool in the oven.
- You can repeat this process a few times to develop a resilient seasoning, but you don’t have to.
Now go forth and make the most perfect omelet.
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