How to Properly Clean a Cast Iron

— Written By Jessie Jones and last updated by
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Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my granny and great granny. One of their staple pieces of kitchen equipment was their cast iron pan. These pans are popular due to their ability to distribute and retain heat, their durability, and their versatility, transferring from the stove to the oven and completing a wide range of tasks with ease. Now that I’ve become older, you guessed it, I have my own prized cast iron pan – two to be exact! The questions I see most often when it comes to cast iron are how do you clean and care for them? They need special attention, and the “seasoning” is fragile, right? Not at all – it’s all about maintenance.

First, almost all cast iron these days comes pre-seasoned. It’s important to know that even in a pre-seasoned pan, food might stick just a little, so avoid recipes that require the pan to be completely nonstick the first couple of time you use your new skillet. If you follow these steps, you are guaranteed to build and maintain the coveted seasoning:

  1. While the pan is still warm, wipe the pan clean with paper towels to remove excess food bits and oil (if you wait until the pan is cool, it will be more difficult to remove stuck-on food).
  2. Rinse the pan under hot, running water, gently scrubbing with a brush or nonabrasive scrub pad to remove any last traces of food. Salt is a great cleaning material for cast iron and it’s cheap! Now, most would stop me and say “absolutely not,” but it is okay to use a small amount of dish soap if necessary – just make sure to rinse it all off.
  3. VERY IMPORTANT – Dry the pan COMPLETELY and put it back on the burner over medium-low heat until all moisture is evaporated. NEVER put away a wet, or even damp, cast iron pan – it will rust!
  4. Without turning off the heat, add ½ teaspoon of oil (flaxseed, soybean, and vegetable oils are great choices) to the warm, dry pan and wipe the interior with a wad of paper towels (use tongs to hold paper towels to protect your hands) until it is lightly covered with oil.
  5. Continue rubbing the oil into the pan, replacing the paper towels as needed, until the skillet looks dark and shiny and doesn’t have any remaining oil residue.
  6. Turn off heat and let pan cool before storing.

Easy peasy, right? By following these steps, you will have happy cast iron pans that will last generations. One other bit of advice, you don’t have to follow these steps religiously every time. If food does happen to cool in the pan and get stuck, just wipe out what you can, heat it back up a little, soften the food with a little water, then pick up at step two. The only foods you cannot let sit are highly acidic foods like tomato, wine, or lemon sauces – they can leave a metallic aftertaste.

For more information, please contact Jessie Jones, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 910-671-3276, by E-mail at jessie_jones@ncsu.edu, or visit our website.