How To Clean Cast Iron Pans and Season Them

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It’s easy to clean cast iron pots and pans, even old rusty ones, and keep them like new forever.

If you’re looking for affordable cookware that can last a lifetime, cast iron pots and pans are just the thing. You can often buy cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens at garage sales for less than you’d spend on a latte. When properly cared for, they’ll develop a nonstick coating that improves with every use.

Cleaning Cast Iron Pots and Pans

You may have heard that you shouldn’t wash cast iron cookware with water — just wipe it with a paper towel so cooking oils can build up and season the pan. In reality, those layers of oil can go rancid, ruining the taste of your food and attracting pests to your kitchen. The coating these people are thinking of refers to the polymerized layer that cast iron pans develop during the seasoning process (below). That coating bonds to the iron and will survive soap and water.

How to Wash Cast Iron Cookware

To quickly clean your cast iron skillet after use, wipe any residue with a paper towel then wash the pan with hot, soapy water. Loosen stubborn bits with a wooden spatula or a damp sponge dipped in table salt. For stuck-on food, fill the pan halfway with hot water, let it simmer for 3-5 minutes, and then scrape the loosened bits and wash the pan. A cast iron pan scraper can also be helpful for this task.

How to Dry Cast Iron Pots and Pans

The best way to dry cast iron cookware is to rub it all over with a paper towel or lint-free cloth. You may want to dedicate a dark dishcloth for this purpose since some oily residue may come off as you dry the cast iron pan. That’s a normal occurrence and nothing to be concerned about, provided you store your cast iron properly.

How to Store Cast Iron Cookware

To properly store your clean cast iron pots and pans, first rub a couple of drops into it with a paper towel. Be sure to cover every side and even the handle. Then, grab a fresh paper towel and wipe off any remaining oil until the towel comes away clean. If you plan to stack your pans in a cupboard, put a clean paper towel in each one to prevent sticking and damage to the seasoning layer.

How to Season Cast Iron Pots and Pans

The quick way to reason your cast iron is by rubbing it with a couple of drops of neutral cooking oil and then putting it in the oven. Position the cookware upside down on the middle rack and put a baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil on the rack below to catch any drips. Next, turn the oven to 450°F / 233° C and wait one hour, then turn it off and let the pans reach room temperature in the oven before you remove them. Repeat the oiling, heating, and cooling sequence until your pans develop the glossy, black patina of a well-seasoned cast-iron pan.

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How to Clean Rusted Cast Iron Cookware

To remove rust from cast iron, use a chunk of steel wool and hot vinegar to scour away the rust along with the coat of black seasoning. This process may take several hours, and you’ll need to reseason the item to keep rust from forming again immediately.

For a faster way to strip cast iron, take the item outside and put it into a large, open garbage bag. Wearing protective eyewear and rubber gloves, spray oven cleaner on all sides of the cast iron piece, then close the bag around it. Wait 24 hours then scrub the cast iron piece with steel wool to remove the loosened coating. Wash, dry, and repeatedly reseason the item immediately to protect it from further rust spots.

How to Clean Enameled Cast Iron Pots and Pans

To wash enameled cast iron cookware, use mild dish soap, hot water, and a dish brush or Teflon sponge. For stubborn bits, bring a couple of inches of water to a boil and use a wooden spatula to pry up any gunk, then dump out the water and wash the pan. Clean interior discoloration with a little baking soda or Bar Keeper’s Friend on a damp sponge. Don’t use BKF or any citrus-based cleaner on the exterior or the color may fade. Once clean, dry your enameled cookware with a soft, lint-free towel and store it until next use.

Tips to Keep Cast Iron Cookware Like New

Besides washing, drying, and seasoning your cast iron cookware properly, there are a few other steps you should take to keep it like-new for a lifetime.

Never wash a hot pan in cold water. The extreme temperature difference will cause your cast iron cookware to permanently warp. Instead, use a wooden spatula or pan scraper to remove any food bits immediately after cooking then let the pan cool before washing.

Steer clear of acidic foods at first. Some foods like tomatoes and citrus are highly acidic. Avoid using your pan to cook things containing acidic foods until you’ve seasoned it several times.

Use caution with glass or ceramic cooktops. Cast iron cookware is heavy, so you must use extra caution if you have a smooth cooktop. Don’t let pans bang or drop on your stovetop, or you may crack it. Also, be sure to lift pans to move them instead of sliding them off the heating element or you may scratch your cooktop. (For more, see how to clean your glass and ceramic cooktop.)

Common Questions about Cleaning Cast Iron Cookware

Still have questions? Below you’ll find some of the most frequently asked questions and answers to help you clean cast iron cookware and keep it like-new for a lifetime.

What Are the Black Bits Coming off My Cast Iron Pan?

Most of the time, black flakes coming from your cast iron skillet are the result of improper seasoning or a sign that you need to reseason your pan. Wash and dry it, then immediately begin the seasoning sequence.

What Can I Use to Wash It?

The best things for washing cast iron cookware are hot water, a mild liquid dish soap, and a sponge or soft-bristled dish brush. If you find stubborn spots, use a wooden spatula or pan scraper to remove them, or try rubbing them with a little table salt and a damp sponge.

Can I Put My Cast Iron Skillet in the Dishwasher?

Never put cast iron cookware in the dishwasher. The combination of dish detergent and hot temperatures will damage the seasoning layer that makes it nonstick. Putting it in the dishwasher may also cause your cookware to permanently warp or develop rust.

Is It Safe to Clean Cast Iron with Vinegar?

Never use vinegar to clean your cast iron cookware because the vinegar’s acidity will damage the nonstick layer of seasoning. Only use vinegar on your cast iron when removing rust and plan to reseason it immediately.

Can I Let it Air Dry in the Drainer?

One hard and fast rule about cast iron cookware is that you must never let it drip dry. Moisture causes cast iron to rust. It doesn’t have to be soaking wet for that to happen, either: even a small amount of water that seeps through imperfections in the seasoning layer will result in black flakes and rust forming on your pan.

I Burned Food in My Cast Iron Pan. Can I Soak It?

Prolonged exposure to moisture will cause cast iron cookware to rust. Soaking it in the sink will also damage the layer of seasoning that makes cast iron nonstick. A better alternative is to boil a couple of inches of water in the pan and use a wooden spatula or pan scraper to pry away the burned bits, then immediately wash and dry the piece.

Do I Have to Clean Cast Iron Pans Right Away?

You don’t need to wash cast iron pans the instant you’re done using them, but you should at least remove any food in the pan then wipe it with a towel. This step takes less than a minute and keeps food from sticking to the pan as it cools. Once the pan has reached room temperature, wash it in hot, soapy water and immediately dry it to prevent rust.

What Oil Should I Use to Season My Cast Iron?

Technically, you can use any oil or fat to season cast iron, but the best practice is to use a neutral oil with a high smoke point. Neutral oils are those without strong flavors that could affect the taste of foods you cook. Choosing an oil with a high smoke point makes a better polymerized layer of seasoning without stinking up your kitchen when you use it. Grapeseed or canola oil are two good ones to use.

Why Does My Cast Iron Pan Feel Sticky?

Stickiness is a sign of improper seasoning or using too much oil before storage. To eliminate stickiness on your cast iron, put it upside down in a cold oven on the middle rack. Position a baking tray on the rack below. Close the oven and turn it to 400°F / 233° C and wait one hour. Turn the oven off and let the item cool to room temperature. This process turns the excess oil into a layer of seasoning and eliminates the sticky feeling.

Why Does My Cast Iron Skillet Smell Weird?

Cast iron cookware can pick up odors from the food you’ve cooked. A quick way to eliminate odors on cast iron cookware is by sprinkling it generously with table salt and leaving it to sit overnight. The next day, wash and dry the piece, reseasoning it if needed.

Do I Have to Season Cast Iron Pans I Just Bought?

Many cast iron cookware pieces come pre-seasoned. You don’t have to reseason them before cooking, but the more layers of seasoning, the more nonstick your pan is when you cook. So, the best practice is to wash and dry your new cast iron piece, then season it several times before first use.

Why Does My Cast Iron Pan Smoke When I Season It?

Although you can use any oil to season a cast iron pan, choosing one with a low smoke point means you’ll deal with smoke coming out of your oven when you season the piece. You may even notice the pan smoking when you cook. To keep your cast iron from smoking, season it with a neutral oil that has a high smoke point, like grapeseed or canola oil.

With proper attention to how to clean cast iron pans and regular seasoning, your cookware will become a family treasure that you, and even your kids, will cherish for years to come.

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  1. Catherine says:

    Lots of good advice, thanks. Mother always used cast iron, and now I want to get at least one skillet. But I wonder whether it can be safely used on a glass cooktop.