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Do This When Your Frying Pan Smells Like Fish

So you fried fish in your cast iron skillet and, as delicious as it came out, you’re now wondering what to do about the strong fishy odor that’s left lingering on the cooking surface?

I hear you. Cast iron cooking is great and all but, let’s be honest with ourselves here, this morning’s bacon-and-egg breakfast is not supposed to remind you of last night’s salmon dinner.

The question is, what can you do about it?

To get the smell of fish out of your cast iron skillet, clean it thoroughly by hand, under lukewarm running water, with the help of a soft scrub sponge and a squirt or two of dish soap.

You’ll notice that fattier fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and trout, tend to impart a stronger smell on your pan’s cooking surface than leaner fish do. 

There’s a perfectly good reason for this.

Fats, you see, concentrate and carry aroma compounds. As you prepare fatty fish, most of the fat will melt from the heat of cooking, dripping down from the fish and pooling right into the pan.

Unless you get rid of all of it, that leftover fat will keep making your food smell… fishy.

Cleaning your skillet with soapy water helps you get rid of fishy smells in it because it dissolves the fishy fats that carry that smell in the first place, letting you rinse them down the drain (instead of letting them sit there and flavor your food for days on end).

How to Remove Fish Odor From Your Cast Iron Skillet

So far, so good.

We established that by far the best way to remove fishy odor from your cast iron pan is to clean it by hand, with soapy water.

We also discussed where that smell comes from in the first place and went through the backed-by-hard-facts reasons as to why dish soap is so effective at dealing with it.

Total time: 5 minutes

How to hand-clean fish odor off of your skillet in four easy-to-follow steps:

  1. Briefly rinse your cast iron skillet’s cooking surface under lukewarm running water so that it gets wet.

  2. Dampen your sponge, give it a drop or two of dish soap, and squish it a few times to disperse the soap evenly.

  3. Place your pan on the counter and scrub the bottom and sides of it thoroughly using the rougher side of the sponge

  4. Rinse the pan under running water, patting it completely dry for hanging or cabinet storage with a lint-free cloth or paper towel

  5. (Only for cast iron and carbon steel pans) If you’re worried about moisture in your pan, heat it for 5 minutes over medium heat on your stove to make it evaporate

What if you came here to get advice, but you own a different kind of pan?

For carbon steel pans, which, just like cast iron, shouldn’t be exposed to moisture and have seasoning, follow the steps above as-is.

For ceramic, non-stick, stainless steel, and copper pans, follow steps 1 through 4, skipping step 5 (heating an empty ceramic, non-stick, or copper pan can damage the coating/lining on it).

A good way to check if you managed to get the job done is to fry a sunny-side-up egg in your pan (you just cleaned your pan, so pour the cooking oil with a heavy hand), then give it a good whiff and taste test.

In the ideal scenario, the egg shouldn’t smell or taste fishy in any way.

Can You Clean Cast Iron With Soap?

One of the myths about cast iron cookware is that you can’t clean it with soap.

While that was indeed the case for the soap your grandma used to use, which had homemade lye in it, obtained by soaking wood ashes.

That’s no longer true for the dish soaps that you and I rinse our cooking vessels with today; they’re made with chemically pure lye (sodium hydroxide), which won’t agitate the seasoning as much. Most present-day soaps, as a matter of fact, don’t even contain lye. Instead, they are synthetic detergents.

Properly applied, the seasoning on your pan is a thin layer of cooking oil that’s polymerized on the exterior of the metal, which basically means that the oil has bonded with the metal on a molecular level.

To damage or strip it off, you’d have to use a chemically aggressive soap or put in way too much elbow grease than necessary. So opt-in for mild dish soap, and don’t go crazy when you scrub.

At home, I use Frosch dish soap, an highly effective yet very mild dishwashing detergent from Germany.

My Thoughts on Other Techniques Out There

As people used to say back in the days, there’s more than one way to skin a cat (dear cat people, don’t rush to close the tab on me; this is just a literary expression, and I’m actually a cat person myself).

At the same time, the Internet’s a big place—and it’s full of advice-giving people who haven’t taken their own medicine nor done the necessary due diligence before telling others how to solve the problems they cover on their blogs and YouTube channels.

Google the topic, and it won’t take you long to stumble upon tips in the likes of filling your skillet with a solution of water and white vinegar and letting it rest for an hour or two in your pan (?!).

Unlike some of the other techniques that my fellow bloggers have written about, cleaning your pan with soapy water, especially if you make sure to use mild soap, won’t damage the seasoning or, worse, strip bits and pieces of it off of your pan.

Know your author

Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.