Cooks have long relied upon cast iron cookware for its durability and versatility. Thinner nonstick cookware is prone to scorching and hot spots, and nonstick coatings can even flake off and leach unwanted chemicals into your food. But thicker cast iron heats more slowly and cooks more evenly, ensuring consistent results that experienced cooks love.
Cared for properly, cast iron can last for generations. In fact, cast iron skillets, grills, and dutch ovens are often treasured family heirlooms. You can use cast iron on both the stovetop for cooking and in the oven for baking. And in today’s highly specialized culture that has a gadget for every task, it’s comforting to find simple, versatile products that can serve many uses without cluttering up kitchen cabinets.
However, lots of novice cooks are intimidated by this kitchen classic because it sounds too complicated to use. Cast iron needs to be seasoned before its first use, and again periodically when the seasoned non-stick surface begins to wear away. Even cleaning it seems confusing, as food experts and manufacturers both have differing opinions about the best methods to use. To help you sort through it all, we have put together the best tried-and-true ways to clean cast iron cookware.
But first, there are several general things to remember about working with cast iron:
- Cast iron likes to be dry – don’t leave your pan to soak in water for long periods. Water will corrode your seasoned non-stick surface and rust wills start to form. Always store your cast iron in a dry location.
- Never put cast iron in the dishwasher. Doing so will remove the seasoned surface.
- Most manufacturers will say that you can use any type of utensil with your cast iron, including metal, but do be aware that sharp edges can cut into and scrape away seasoning. Wooden and nylon utensils are great and can save your having to re-season so often.
- After cleaning your cast iron, dry it thoroughly and wipe it down inside and out with a small amount of oil on a paper towel. This protects it from corrosion and keeps it in prime shape for your next use.
- Dish towels can be used in place of paper towels for more eco-friendly cleaning, but make sure to use a towel you don’t mind turning black. You don’t want to learn this lesson the hard way!
- The best way to keep your cast iron cookware in excellent shape is to use it regularly. The oils from cooking keep the seasoned patina in place.
The Soap Question
Whether or not to use soap to clean cast iron is hotly debated in food circles. Many traditionalists say no soap ever – washing a cast iron pan is a travesty. But to a cook who has never used cast iron, the thought of not washing it sounds unsanitary. It’s true that excessive use of soap can begin to dissolve the seasoned non-stick surface and expose bare iron, leading to sticking food and rust spots. But remember that, as in most things, moderation is key.
The method for washing with soap is simple. After your pan has cooled somewhat, use a paper towel to wipe any remaining food out of the pan. A warm pan will more easily release stuck on food; just be sure that the pan isn’t too hot for you to handle safely! Add a little hot water and mild dish soap and use a nylon brush or scrubber to quickly clean the pan, rinse, and then dry thoroughly. Follow as usual with a thin coating of oil before storing the pan.
Is Scouring OK?
There will be times when your pan has more food stuck on than can be simply wiped out with a paper towel. And if you don’t want to use soap for every cleaning, there are plenty of other ways to get your pan clean. To remove stuck on food, simply add some coarsely ground salt, scrub using a paper towel, and rinse with hot water. Many other cooks also swear by scrubbing with dry cornmeal or baking soda. A gentle scour with a scrubbing sponge will also clean well without doing any damage to the surface of the pan.
You should always avoid scraping your pan with sharp utensils or knives. Most manufacturers don’t recommend using steel wool, either. Instead, use these gentle scouring alternatives that won’t harm the surface of your pan but will get it perfectly clean. After scouring away the stuck on food, rinse well with hot water, dry thoroughly, and oil as usual before putting away.
It’s Really Stuck, Though
If the dinner dishes sat longer than usual on the counter and your pan has a lot of dried food left in it, the simplest way to clean it is to put enough water in the pan to cover the remnants of food and simmer for about a minute. Pour out the water, gently scrape away as much of the softened food as you can, and then use one of the above methods to finish the cleaning job.
A perfect tool to help with these tough cleaning jobs that’s also really cool looking is a chain mail scrubber. The smooth edges of the chain mail won’t damage the surface of the pan, but will scrub enough to get the pan really clean. Another plus is that the chain mail scrubber is naturally more antimicrobial and can be easily sanitized, unlike scrubber sponges that harbor lots of bacteria.
In a pinch, another way to get a really dirty cast iron pan clean is to coat the surface of the pan with coarse salt, then scrub the pan with the flesh side of half a raw potato. The combination of iron, salt, and potato creates a mild acid that helps to clean off the worst messes. But be warned – this method will also cut through the seasoning of your pan and it will have to be completely re-seasoned.
Don’t let confusion over cleaning keep you from using your cast iron. These simple cleaning methods have worked for generations of cooks, and they’ll work for you too. So try out a new recipe today, and rest assured that the cleanup will be the simplest part of the meal.