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Cleaning Cast Iron Pans Without Horrifying Grandma

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Are you afraid to use cast iron cookware because you aren’t sure you’ve got the patience to clean it? I know that feeling. I once destroyed my grandmother’s favorite skillet by putting it in the dishwasher to get rid of the black bits quickly.

Well, she taught me a thing or two—and not just about cleaning cast iron pans properly. She also made sure I learned plenty about re-seasoning them when someone turns them into a rusty mess. So, here’s the easy version of what I learned.

Cast Iron Myths

You may have the old wives’ tale about never cleaning cast iron cookware with water, but it’s just not true. That seasoning layer you’re trying to protect is pretty tough, thanks to polymerization. This process, where heat chemically bonds oil and metal, creates a durable coating that can handle soap and water. (Just not a dishwasher.)

But not washing your pans? That’s a recipe for food that tastes bitter thanks to picking up rancid, leftover grease. It’ll also attract kitchen pests.

Did You Know?

The Chinese revolutionized cooking around 200 BC by creating cast iron. Initially used for drying grains, it wasn’t until 1300 years later that they began stir-frying in those iconic woks. Talk about a game-changer in the kitchen!

How to Clean Cast Iron

For best results, wipe out your cast iron pan with a paper towel immediately after cooking then let it cool to room temperature. Wash it in hot, soapy water and use a wooden spatula or some salt on a damp sponge for stubborn bits. For burnt-on food, simmer hot water in the pan for 3-5 minutes then scrape, let it cool, and wash.

Pro Tip

Always let your cast iron pan reach room temperature before washing. Sudden temperature changes can cause a thermal shock that warps or cracks the iron.

Drying and Storing

If you’ve ever watched Outlander or even Little House on the Prairie, you’ve seen cast iron pans hanging from the mantle over the fire. That’s not for aesthetics. The fire’s heat got pans bone dry after washing, and hanging kept the rust away. But you don’t need to go back in time to accomplish that feat.

After cleaning cast iron, rub it with a towel, or use your stove or oven to get it warm, until it’s completely dry. Then swab it all over with neutral oil to protect the surface from moisture and wipe away the excess. Finally, slide a clean paper towel between pans before stacking them in the cupboard to protect their seasoning. 

Removing Rust

So, let’s say your granddaughter cleaned your cast iron in the dishwasher—with all the best intentions, of course—what do you do about the rust that’s all over it?

Rub rust spots off cast iron with stainless steel wool and a little vinegar, then wash, dry, and season it. For stubborn rust, slide the pan into a garbage bag, take it outside, and spray oven cleaner on it. Seal the bag overnight then wash, dry and season the pan right away.

Simple Steps to Season Cast Iron

Seasoning creates the almost nonstick black layer that makes people such fans of cast iron cookware. Patience pays off here. Several thin layers of oil, properly heated, creates a durable, hard surface, but slapping on a thick layer leads to a sticky mess. 

To season cast iron, rub it all over with a few drops of neutral oil then put it upside down on the center rack in your oven. Slide a baking sheet on the rack below to catch oily drips. Turn the oven to 450°F / 233°C / gas mark 8 and bake it for one hour. Let the pan cool in the oven and repeat the whole process until it has a hard, glossy black finish.

Pro Tip

Since seasoning cast iron involves a hot oven, use a neutral oil with a high smoke point like grapeseed, canola, or vegetable oil, or you’ll smell it for days. 

Cast Iron Troubleshooting 

Black flakes: If you notice black flakes on your cast iron, they’re either food residue or the seasoning layer is failing. Time to wash, dry, and season it.

Using vinegar: Vinegar’s acidity can weaken or strip cast iron’s seasoning layer. Only use it when you’re removing rust, followed by immediate cleaning and seasoning.

Acidic foods: Avoid cooking foods with a high acid content like tomatoes or citrus until your pan is thoroughly seasoned.

Did You Know?

Many manufacturers pre-season their cookware, and applying another layer or two will only improve its performance. 

Burned food: Never soak cast iron to remove burned food. Boil water in the pan and scrape the residue with a wooden spatula to clean it without damaging the seasoning.

Stickiness: A sticky pan is a sign of too much oil used after drying or when seasoning. Wash and dry it, then bake it upside down in a 450°F oven to polymerize the excess oil.

Odors: Sprinkle enough salt in the pan to cover the bottom, let it sit overnight, then clean it.

So, give your cast iron pots or pans a good wash and dry, then get on with the seasoning process. Just don’t try cleaning it in the dishwasher or you’ll make my grandmother clutch her heavenly pearls.

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