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How to Clean and Season a Cast Iron Skillet

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Cast iron is practical, durable, versatile, and a favorite of many cooks. A cast iron skillet cleaned and seasoned becomes more nonstick over time and can last a lifetime. 

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

We look at how to clean and season a cast iron skillet.

How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet After Use

A cast iron skillet should be hand washed when it is warm. Speeding the cleaning process by putting a hot pan in cold water could lead to cast iron warping.

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

If there is food stuck on the pan, sprinkle coarse kosher salt into the pan. Then rub the salt into the food with a paper towel. Add more salt as needed. Dispose of the salt and food and wipe remnants away with a paper towel.

After the skillet is clean, heat it on low heat on top of the stove until dry (5-10 minutes) to remove the remaining moisture. A thoroughly dry skillet is important as it prevents rust from forming.

Do not store pans with the lid on them since the moisture in the air could become trapped, resulting in rust.

How to Clean and Season a New Cast Iron Skillet

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

The purpose of seasoning is to get a natural non-stick coating on the pan's cooking surface. Vegetable oil and canola oil are commonly used to season cast iron. The smoke point of these two oils is about 400ºF.

Some people prefer to season their cast iron skillet with Crisco® shortening. According to J.M. Smucker Co. Crisco® Shortening's smoke point is 440°F (227ºC). (per email correspondence)

The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to break down and oxidize. The key is to heat the pan past the smoke point of the oil used.

When the pan is heated past the smoke point of the oil, a chemical reaction called polymerization occurs. When this happens, the oil is bonded to the cast iron, creating a natural seasoning layer. 

Here’s what you need

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

Preparation

  1. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven
  2. Pre-heat oven to 450°F
  3. Line sink with towel

Instructions

Scrub the inside, outside, and handle of the pan with a Brillo pad with soap or you can use a stiff bristle brush with soap and water. 

When the pan is clean, rinse it with hot water and dry the pan thoroughly.

Next, coat the inside and outside with oil (vegetable or canola are often used). This is to create a layer of fat that will bond to the iron.

Place the cast iron skillet face down on the upper rack in the oven on a foil-lined cookie sheet. If you prefer, you can put foil on the lower rack and the pan upside down on the upper rack.

Heat at 450ºfor one hour. When an hour has passed, turn the oven off. Take the pan out when the oven has cooled.

Repeat the process another 2 or 3 times.

rusted cast iron skillet

How to Clean and Season a Rusted 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.

Instructions

Mix baking soda with water to form a paste

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 removed, 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: Season the Cast Iron Skillet (same steps as above)

Types of Cast Iron

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 covered round dutch ovens
cast iron skillet on white background

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 - 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.   

Cooking with Bare Cast Iron  

To ensure food doesn't stick to the pan, add a little oil and then add the food. The cooking temperature should be below the oil's smoke point.

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. 

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

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