Here’s a question that every proud owner of a cast iron skillet will sooner or later find themselves asking: “Should I clean my skillet after every use?”
Cleaning cast iron cookware doesn’t have to be hard, as long as you know the dos and don’ts. I’ve been cooking with—and caring for—this type of pan for as long as I can remember, so I’m about to give you my take on the topic.
So, how often should you clean a cast iron pan?
Clean your cast iron pan after every use. Most of the time, wiping it down with a paper towel will do the trick. However, if your skillet is still dirty, wash it briefly by hand in soapy water before patting it dry for storage.
How thoroughly you need to clean a pan depends on what kind of food you’ve prepared in it. For example, it’s one thing to wipe down a little grease that’s leftover from grilled cheese sandwiches and another to remove the smell of salmon.
You can keep your pan spotless and rust-free as long as you follow a few foundational rules. Cast iron care is one of those things that, for one reason or another, sound much more intimidating than they are in practice.
So most of us naturally tend to overthink it. Here’s how to take that stress away—and get the basics right.
Dos and Don’ts for Cleaning Your Pan
Let’s start with the basics:
A cast iron skillet should never go in the dishwasher. The typical dishwashing cycle heats water to 140°F and takes 2-3 hours—and the prolonged exposure to the heat and dishwasher detergent can strip away the seasoning on your pan, making it vulnerable to corrosion and rust.
The best, and often underappreciated, way to keep a cast iron skillet spick and span is to wipe down the cooking surface with a paper towel as soon as it’s cooled down. But don’t wait too long; it needs to happen before any bits and pieces of food have dried out on and stuck to it.
As long as your cast iron skillet is well seasoned, the food residue should slide right off, making the rinse that follows feel like a walk in the park (if parks were a place where you’d go to do dish duty?).
In case your skillet is still dirty, give it a quick soap down with a non-scratch scrub sponge. Then rinse it under running water, and pat it completely dry with a few paper towels or a dishcloth. It’s essential to not leave any moisture on your skillet, as doing so invites rust quicker than you think.
The same rules apply when you’ve cooked smelly fish in your cast iron skillet. Unless, of course, you like your breakfast bacon and eggs smelling like last night’s salmon dinner.
Don’t Leave Water or Oil in Your Skillet
What if you’re feeling lazy or tired? Is it okay to leave water or oil overnight in your skillet?
In July 2020, YouTuber NeedItMakeIt left water overnight in two cast iron skillets. The first skillet was the one that he’d use on a daily basis, and the other was a brand new one that he’d just bought from the store.
Before you read on, check out his video. I won’t tell you more just yet, so that I don’t spoil the outcome for you.
As NeedItMakeIt demonstrated in his video, leaving water in your cast iron skillet—even if for a few hours—can make the cooking surface rust. In some cases, pretty heavily.
While you could always bring it back to life when that happens, it’s something you clearly shouldn’t be doing in the first place if you genuinely care for your cast iron cooking vessels.
It’s just as bad of an idea (for different reasons) to leave cooking oil in your pan.
Most cooking oils only contain only 0.1% to 0.5% moisture. So it will take them much longer to make your pan rust than leaving them out overnight.
However, cooking oils are generally unstable. They readily react to the oxygen in the air, developing a rancid smell and taste when exposed to it for a long time. So the better thing to do with used oil is to transfer it to a container.
I’ve written in detail on the topic in a post titled “Should You Leave Oil in Your Cast Iron Skillet?”
Will Soap Strip Away Cast Iron Seasoning?
Should you be worried about washing cast iron cooking vessels with soap?
The short answer is “no,” provided you’re doing it right. Here’s what I mean by that.
Allow your pan to cool down after every use, and never run cold water on it when hot. You not only risk to strip away the seasoning when you add soap but, in rare but plausible cases, your pan could warp.
At the same time, it’s okay to clean a pan with soapy water once it’s cooled down. Why is that?
The seasoning is essentially a coating of oil that’s polymerized to the cast iron surface, on the inside and out, which shields the metal from corrosion and rust and gives you a non-stick-like cooking experience.
As any stainless steel frying pan owner who’s had to do the uneasy job of cleaning cooking oil that’s burnt on and bonded to the metallic cooking surface will tell you, polymerized oil isn’t as easy to strip away as some of us think.
You need to preheat your pan, put in plenty of elbow grease and scrub very hard, for a really long enough time, for soapy water to do any damage to the seasoning on your cast iron skillet whatsoever. So don’t be overly worried about it.
But do avoid soaking. It can be least to say detrimental to cast iron.
Never soak a cast iron skillet in water; that’s a guaranteed way to make it rust. To remove burnt-on food or stubborn stains, wash your skillet under hot running water with the help of a little dish soap and a non-scratch scrub sponge.
The Bottom Line
As long as you never soak your skillet and never put it in the dishwasher, you should be fine giving it the quick wipe down and soap down after every use. The good news is that this doesn’t take too much time or effort on a well-seasoned pan (and all cast iron skillet should be well-seasoned).