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How to Clean and Re-Season a Cast Iron Skillet

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A cast iron skillet is practical, durable, and versatile. You can buy a brand new skillet or economize and pick one up at a yard sale.

A cast iron skillet that is cleaned and seasoned becomes more nonstick over time and can last a lifetime.

What is Cast Iron?

Cast iron is a mix of iron and carbon which can be molded and placed into a cast. It contains 2% carbon which is the primary alloying element, and 1-3% silicon.

The melting temperature point is very low, making it a lot more useful than other metals. Cookware made from cast iron will rarely get damaged due to its high indestructibility. 

Since cast iron is a mix of iron and carbon, it can be used on induction cooktops and electric and gas stoves.

This article discusses how not to scratch your induction cooktop when using a cast iron skillet.

enameled cast iron covered round dutch ovens
cast iron skillet on white background

There are two types of cast iron.

The first is enameled cast iron, in which an enamel glaze is applied to the bare cast iron. The second is the traditional bare cast iron cookware such as a skillet, a griddle, or a square grill pan.

Enameled Cast Iron  

Enameled cast iron cookware is easy to maintain since it doesn't have to be seasoned, is easy to clean, and won't rust. It can be used to cook acid foods such as spaghetti sauce.

One drawback of enameled cast iron is they are more expensive than bare cast iron products. Another is they are less durable as the paint can chip off.

Bare Cast Iron Cookware 

There are two main reasons why people might oppose using bare cast iron cookware.  

First, if you usually cook with a 12" skillet, a cast iron skillet of this size might be too heavy for some. The 6 and 8-inch skillets are great for cooking a couple of eggs, a pancake, or a chicken breast.

The second disadvantage is an extra step in maintaining cast iron cookware - namely, seasoning.

This is crucial to obtaining a non-stick surface. It only takes a few minutes to clean, dry, and season your cast iron skillet.   

Pancakes in cast iron griddle

Cooking with Bare Cast Iron  

Cast iron cookware is versatile – it can be used on the stovetop, in the oven, or over the campfire.

It is sturdy and durable if cared for properly. Although cast iron is slow to heat up, it retains the heat longer than stainless steel pans once it does.

A cast iron skillet is a great choice for deep frying chicken and okra, cooking a thick steak or bacon, making cornbread, pizza, Shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, or an apple pie.

Pancakes can be made in a round cast iron griddle at home or over a campfire. A review of this griddle from Lodge can be found here.

Food can be prepared on the stove and then placed in the oven. For example, prepare a sauce in a cast iron skillet or pan, add other ingredients such as meat or cheese, and place it in the oven to cook. 

Dishes can be served on the cast iron pan. It is important to note that the contents of the pan will keep cooking for a very short time, and the pan will remain hot for a few minutes.  

Cast iron waffle irons are terrific for making hot waffles. Although there is a wide range of waffle irons/makers from which to choose, some prefer the old-fashioned cast iron waffle iron.  

If you are in the market for one, visit this site to see some of the best waffle makers and irons. They also have a nice roundup of other innovative appliances yet not widely advertised.

Acidic foods such as tomato sauce should only be cooked in a well-seasoned cast iron pan and only for a short time. If tomato sauce simmers for hours, it can erode the seasoning.

Some people have a cast iron skillet that is only used for preparing desserts. Their theory is that if a skillet is to cook spicy foods and then used to prepare an apple pie, the residual flavors from the spicy food can transfer to the apple pie. 

cast iron skillets with sponge and steel wool

How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware

Cleaning and seasoning cast iron cookware are very easy. The more steps taken to keep it in good condition, the longer it will last.  

There is much discussion about seasoning cast iron cookware.

Seasoning refers to the layer of polymerized oil that has bonded with the cast iron cooking surface.

The purpose is to have a slick surface so that food does not stick. It is easier to cook with cast iron if the seasoning is protected.  

Cast iron cookware should be hand washed when the pan is cool. Speeding up the cleaning process by putting a hot pan in cold water could lead to a cast iron warping.

Be sure to thoroughly dry the skillet after washing to prevent rust from forming.

We have outlined that cleaning cast iron purchased new or at an estate sale is different from routine cleaning.

rusty cast iron skillet with wooden handle

Cleaning Newly Acquired Cast Iron

1. Line the sink with a towel, so it does not get scratched.

2. Using a Brillo pad with soap or soap, water, and a stiff bristle brush, scrub the inside, outside, and handle of the pan. Rinse with hot water.

3. Coat the inside and outside with a solid shortening.

4. Place upside down in the oven on a foil-lined cookie sheet or place foil on the lower rack and the pan upside down on the upper rack. Heat at 350ºF for one hour.

5. Turn the oven off. Take the pan out when the oven has cooled.

Steps for Routine Cleaning of Cast Iron

1. Scrub with a nylon bristle scrub brush before the pan cools. Do not use abrasive cleaners. Rinse with hot water. Dry with a dish towel or paper towel.

2. If there is food stuck on the pan, sprinkle coarse kosher salt into the pan. Then rub the salt into the food with paper towels.

Add more salt as needed. Empty the salt and food and wipe remnants away with a paper towel.

3. Heat on low heat until dry (5-10 minutes) to remove the remaining moisture.

4. Wipe pan when cool to remove remaining grease. Do not store pans with the lid on them. The moisture in the air could become trapped, resulting in rust.

How to Season Cast Iron Cookware

A newly purchased bare cast iron skillet should be washed and seasoned.  

The purpose of seasoning is to get a non-stick coating on the pan's cooking surface that is natural.

Lodge uses soy vegetable oil to season their cast iron products. Shortening or canola oil are also good seasoning products. The following is the seasoning process recommended by Lodge.[2]

Steps for Seasoning Cast Iron  

1. Rub a small amount of cooking fat/oil into the pan. This is to create a layer of fat that is bonded to the iron.

2. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven.

3. Place the cast iron skillet face down on the upper oven rack.

4. Heat at 350ºF for one hour.

5. Turn off the oven. Take out when the oven is cooled.

Repeat the process another 2 or 3 times.

If cast iron skillets are cleaned, dried, and seasoned correctly, they can be handed down to your family's next generation of cooks.

A cast iron skillet can be used for cooking on the stovetop, in the oven, on a camping oven, or over a campfire.

cast iron pan rusted

How to Clean and Season a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet

Cast iron is susceptible to rust unless sealed with a protective layer of carbonized oil, called seasoning. However, even if the pan is seasoned, it can rust if there is water in the pan.

Using a skillet we found at a thrift store, we developed step-by-step instructions on cleaning and seasoning a rusty cast iron pan.

Here’s what you need

  • Towel to line sink
  • Steel wool (Brillo, SOS)
  • Scrubber (e. g. Scotch-Brite ™)
  • Solid shortening
  • Mild dishwashing detergent (I used Dawn)
  • Paper towels
  • Rimmed cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil

Preparation

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350°F
  2. Line sink with towel
  3. Mix baking soda with water to form a paste
cast iron skillet scrubbed with SOS

Step 1: Rub skillet with baking soda and water

To break down the rust on the pan, use baking soda and water. Place the baking soda mixture on the pan and rub with a scrubber (I used a Scotch-Brite™ pad).

Rinse the pan in running warm water once the rust has broken up.

Step 2: Scour with steel wool

Now that some of the rust has been taken off, it is time to use a steel wool pad.

Run warm water in the pan, scrub the handle and the inside and outside of the pan using Brillo or SOS.

Keep scrubbing until the rust has been removed. This can take some time, depending on how rusty it is. Rinse the brown mush off in the sink.

Step 3: Clean the skillet with a soft sponge

To ensure the skillet is thoroughly cleaned, scrub it with a soft soapy sponge and warm soapy water.

Rinse the skillet with warm water until all the soap and debris are gone from the pan.

Step 4: Dry the Cast Iron Skillet

Once the skillet is rust-free and completely clean, dry it with a paper towel or a lint-free cloth. It is important to take as much time as needed to ensure that the skillet is completely dry.

Step 5: Coat with solid shortening

Put solid shortening on a clean, folded paper towel and coat the pan, inside and outside (including the handle). A thin layer of coating is best.

Wipe excess shortening with a fresh paper towel. If the pan is held at an angle, the oil probably will not run or drip.  

Step 6: Bake the Skillet in the Oven

Line a baking sheet with foil and place it on the lower rack of the oven to catch any excess oil that might drip.

Place the cast iron skillet in the center of the top rack upside down in the preheated oven.

Let the skillet bake for one hour.

After one hour or so, turn the oven off and leave the skillet to cool completely as the oven cools down. This extra time allows the seasoning to cure further.

[1] http://www.engineershandbook.com/Materials/castiron.htm

[2] http://www.lodgemfg.com/use-and-care/cast-iron-lets-cook

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