Admit it. The only reason you aren’t using that cast iron skillet your mom bought you is because you’re intimidated by rumors of rituals and myths about how to clean and care for it. You’ve heard the drill—never wash a cast iron skillet. Rub it with salt and oil every time you use it. If you don’t season your cast iron correctly, it will rust and pit and might even blow up like a grenade. I kid—I made up that last one.
A mystique about cast iron skillets and cast iron pots in general makes them both irresistible and terrifying at the same time. So when I got a cast iron skillet as a gift from my mom—because it’s the perfect gift for the foodie in your in life—I decided to ask an expert about the best way to clean it. And as I often do when looking for expert advice, I started by asking my Facebook friends to recommend a pro who would answer a few questions for me. Turns out I know an awful lot of bona fide experts on cooking with and cleaning cast iron skillets. Here’s what I learned.
A Professional Chef’s Perspective on Cleaning Cast-Iron Skillets
Christopher Treantafel is a chef at Mill Wharf Restaurant in Scituate, Massachusetts. He’s been cooking professionally for more than 30 years and learned about cooking in and cleaning cast iron cookware at his grandmother’s side. At the restaurant, he uses cast iron skillets for blackening seafood. At home, he uses it for everything.
When I mentioned that a lot of people think caring for cast iron cookware is “complicated,” he literally snorted. “It’s only complicated if you’re lazy,” he told me. Here’s his step-by-step for seasoning a new cast iron skillet and caring for it once it’s seasoned.
How to Season a New Cast-Iron Skillet
- Wash it with warm, soapy water to remove any factory grease or chemicals. If it’s a pre-seasoned skillet, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Dry it well.
- Put it on the burner for a couple of minutes to evaporate any moisture that’s left.
- With a soft, clean cloth, rub it inside and out with cooking oil or melted shortening.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Place the pan upside down on the middle oven rack. Spread aluminum foil on the rack below to catch any drips. Let it bake for an hour.
- Turn off the oven and let the skillet cool completely before removing it.
The heat causes a chemical bond to form between the iron and the oil, creating a nonstick surface that will last as long as you take proper care of your skillet.
How to Clean a Cast-Iron Skillet
- If there’s hard-to-remove food residue, scrub it with a steel wool scrubber.
- If the food residue is really stubborn, stick your skillet in a 350 F oven and let the food burn away. Honest. It works.
- Wipe it with a clean cloth and store it.
- If you notice food starting to stick, or if the surface feels gummy, season it again.
- In any case, season it again every few months to keep the non-stick surface up to par.
Oh, and Chris mentioned a nifty bonus to cooking in a cast iron skillet or any cast iron pot: it adds a little bit of iron to everything you cook in it.
Cast-Iron Skillets at Home—The Real (Home Kitchen) Experts Chime In
One of the best things about crowd-sourcing recommendations is that you find out just how much your friends know. As it turns out, I have a lot of friends who regularly cook with cast iron cookware. And they weren’t shy about sharing the tips they’ve picked up about using their pots and keeping them in tip-top shape. Here’s a quick round-up of extra tips and advice to inspire you to dig in and really enjoy your cast iron cookware.
Lazy Cast-Iron Care
Wendy Kinsolving lives on Half Moon Farm in Montana. She’s been cooking in cast iron cookware all her life. “They were the only pots we had when I was a kid,” she says. “So, I learned to take care of them.” She shared some tips you’ll only get from someone who seriously uses her cookware every day. These are some of my favorite Wendy tips:
- If you love your cast iron, never put it in the dishwasher. It will strip away the seasoning and make it prone to rusting.
- Use lard or bacon grease to season rather than oil. Or solid shortening. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, try coconut oil. Cooking oil tends to smoke at a lower temperature and gets gunky quicker than solid fats.
- Wendy uses soap on her cast iron pots all the time. “If it’s got a good season on it, it won’t strip,” she says. “If you can still see water beading on it, it’s still seasoned.”
- You should strip and re-season your cast iron about once a year or so, depending how much carbon is built up on the outside. She swears by Scotch Brite scouring pads for this.
- You can cook on a glass cooktop in a cast iron skillet, but she wouldn’t recommend dropping your skillet on it from any height.
- A good cast iron skillet doubles as a weapon in the coming Zombie Apocalypse.
Reviving A “Ruined” Cast-Iron Skillet
Colin Novick is a dedicated hiker, home cook, and conservationist. He’s used—and rescued—more than a few pieces of cast iron cookware. He shared this:
If it is pitted, rusted, or flaky, you need to take it down to metal and re-season it. Folks recommend all sorts of methods: a traditional one is to use salt as the abrasive and cut potato as the grinder. You would be surprised by how bad a pan can look and still be brought back!
Cooking in Cast-Iron—Home Cooks Dish
Joyce McNickles loves cooking in cast iron because the pan holds the heat for a long time after you turn off the fire. That means your second serving of soup or greens will be just as hot as the first. She says don’t be intimidated about taking care of your pots—you can find everything you need to know online.
Tammie Smith has been cooking in cast iron all her life—she’s a down-home Southern cook. She loves using cast iron because it heats evenly—no hot spots to burn your food. As far as taking care of her pots, she says, “It’s easy. Just oil them and keep them out of the moist.”
By far my favorite response, though, came from Ava McConnell, who prepares food for her family in cast iron cookware several times a week. “I love my cast iron,” she gushed. “It’s so easy to care for: wash it, oil it, heat it. That’s it. Provides even cooking temps, can go from stove to oven (or just in the oven if you aren’t feeling like using something else (I’ve made blueberry skillet bread in my baby before). Practically indestructible, and the best gift your mama ever gave you aside from your life.”
Recommended Cast Iron Cookware
- AmazonBasics Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet Pan, 15 Inch for around $27
- Klee Enameled Cast Iron Skillet with Pour Spout (Set of 3) 7-inch, 8.5-inch, 10-inch for around $50
- AmazonBasics Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Dutch Oven Pot with Lid and Dual Handles, 2-Quart for around $20
- AmazonBasics Enameled Cast Iron Covered Dutch Oven, 6-Quart, Blue for around $45
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness and lifestyle topics.