Every kitchen should have at least one cast iron skillet. They’re versatile and can be used for everything from browning steak and searing salmon to baking cornbread and making pan pizza.
And, when it comes to caring for this type of pans, everyone tends to have an opinion, but not every opinion is grounded in facts. So, in this post, I’m going to help you separate fact from fiction.
I’ve been cooking with cast iron for as long as I can recall. I can still remember, almost as if it was yesterday, my great granny leaning over a deep skillet on a wood-fired iron stove as she’d make french fries whenever we were over to her country house.
She passed a long time ago, but her skillets, handed down in our family for generations, are still with us. And we do our best to care for them as diligently and as lovingly as she did.
Whether you had similar experiences growing up as a child or not, let’s talk about what you need to do to care for your cast iron pans. We’re going to cover cleaning, seasoning, and storage.
Clean By Hand, Seldom With Soap
To clean a cast iron skillet, give it a scrub down with the help of a nylon brush under hot running water. If eggs, cornbread, or other food is stuck to the cooking surface, create a paste of equal parts salt and cooking oil, and scrub the surface with it using a folded paper towel.
Moisture is cast iron’s worst enemy. After patting your pan thoroughly dry, a good way to get rid of any leftover moisture is to heat it over medium-high for 5 minutes or so.
As soon as your skillet has cooled down, it’s ready for storage.
As for cleaning cast iron skillets with soap, the jury’s out about how okay that is in the first place.
For example, some cast iron cookware manufacturers will advise against using soap in their cooking vessels’ usage and care instructions.
At the same time, die-hard cast iron fans say that using soap on a skillet is fine, as long as the pan is not hot and the person cleaning it doesn’t put in too much elbow grease.
I seldom use soap.
Most of the time—especially on an aged and well-seasoned pan—the bits and pieces of food left after cooking slide right off. So I stick to the nylon-brush-and-hot-running-water approach (pun intended).
Still, when I don’t want my pork chops smelling like yesterday’s salmon fillets, I give my pan a quick soap down with soap. Sometimes, that’s the only way to get rid of smells that these skillets are so good at catching!
Use something mild; there’s no need to go crazy with shine and grease removal formulas and such.
Will Soap Strip Cast Iron Seasoning Off?
Mild soap will degrease your pan, which won’t necessarily remove the seasoning. The seasoning is a thin layer of oil that’s polymerized (molecularly bonded) to the pan. In practice, it’s not as easy to remove as we often think.
A few decades ago, when soap had homemade lye, domestic dish soap and soap bars were indeed capable of stripping off the seasoning on a cast iron pan. That’s no longer been the case for a long time, so no need to worry. The dish soap that you and I use has chemically clean lye (sodium hydroxide), which won’t agitate the seasoning as much.
Be sure to rinse the soap really well after you’ve used it. Otherwise, your skillet may impart an unpleasant flavor to your food the next few times you use it.
And you do want some grease or oil on your pan at any moment of time. So, after you’re done cleaning and drying it off, get some oil on there and spread it on the inside—and why not on the outside while you’re at it—with a paper towel.
Season the Pan on the Inside And Out
When I’m over at someone’s house, and I notice that their cast iron pans and pots are rusty on the bottom, I usually ask, “How do you season your cast iron cookware?”
It turns out a good few of us only season the cooking surface of cast iron and don’t always apply a good coat of oil on the sides and bottom of the pans. If you find yourself to be one of them, allow me to change your mind!
Caring for your pan means seasoning the whole thing every now and then (interior, exterior, handles), not just the cooking surface.
Re-season your pan by scrubbing off the old seasoning, heating the pan for 5-10 minutes to get rid of any leftover moisture, then greasing it on the inside and out with high-smoke-point cooking oil.
Stephen Muscarella, Co-founder and Panman of The Field Company, tells Munchies viewers to use grapeseed oil.
Grapeseed oil has a relatively high smoke point of 420°F (215°C) and is high in unsaturated fat, which is the kind you’re looking for when doing this type of task.
“One of the worst oils to choose is coconut oil,” he adds. “It’s just gonna burn up and really not do much. For seasoning, I’m just trying to get the job done—and the job’s gonna get done the best with grapeseed oil.”
Place the pan face down in a preheated oven to 350°F, so that oil doesn’t pool in it, and let it bake for one hour. Put a piece of foil or a baking sheet on the lower rack to catch oil from dripping down onto your oven’s bottom heating panel.
Brad Leone, Test Kitchen Manager at Bon Appétit, shows how this is done step by step in a helpful YouTube clip on the topic:
“I bought a pre-seasoned Lodge skillet,” one reader asked, “Should I count on the pre-seasoning?”
Pre-seasoning, whatever the make and model of your pan, can be a hit or a miss. Most of the time, it’s good enough for you to get started cooking with, but it may take your pan a good one or two weeks of daily use to develop a “proper” seasoning that’s truly non-stick-like.
When the pre-seasoning hasn’t been applied properly, it will start to flake, at which stage you should strip it off and re-season your pan. So, in your first one or two weeks of cooking, be on the lookout.
How often should you re-season your pan? While the answer depends on how you use and care for it, the short answer is once or twice per year with normal use. Check out my detailed thoughts on the topic.
How to Store Cast Iron
Store your cast iron pans and pots in a cabinet, on the stovetop, in the oven, or hung up on the wall. The important thing is to keep them in a dry place, away from the sink or any other sources of moisture in your home.
In my opinion, the best way to store cast iron pans is to hang them up on the wall. It makes them readily accessible to you at any point in time, allows them to dry and remain cool, and protects their surface from getting knacked by other pans stacked on top of them.
However, not every reader will have that option. When space is limited, stacking is the only way to store a bunch of bulky and heavy pans. Stack cast iron pans by placing a paper towel on the bottom of each to protect its surface from getting knacked.
Cast iron is heavy to lift and carry around and, dropped from a tall enough height, can snap into pieces. So think twice about stashing your skillets in an upper cabinet unless you’re absolutely sure that there’s no way for you (or anyone else in your household) to drop them.