How to Maintain a Cast Iron Skillet

Written by Carly Hallman

There are many reasons why you’d chose to cook with a cast iron skillet rather than a pan with a non-stick coating. For one, they last for generations; even a full-on rusted over pan can often be saved with some time and elbow grease! You can also get an effective non-stick surface without any harmful chemicals that may be potentially carcinogenic. Lastly, there are some great health benefits, including a very small bit of added iron to your food.

So, there are a lot of reasons why a family might make the switch, but cast iron skillet care and maintenance is a pain, right? No, it’s not too bad! After developing a new cooking/cleaning routine, you’ll have a long-lasting, safe kitchen tool with very little work. Here are our tips on cast iron care: how to season, clean, cook with, remove rust from, and re-season a cast iron pan!

Cast Iron Skillet Maintenance

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How to Maintain a Cast Iron Skillet

Tips for Cleaning, Cooking With, and Restoring Cast Iron

Seasoning a New Pan

If it’s pre-seasoned …
you should still wash it and go through these steps anyway at least once.
Hand-wash
Wash the pan inside and out with warm water and a small amount of mild dish soap.
Dry immediately
Water leads to rust.
Cook on the stove
Completely remove all moisture.
Rub with oil
Rub inside and out. Use unsaturated fats: corn, vegetable, flaxseed, grapeseed, or canola oil. Flaxseed is the modern favorite.
If your oil layer is too thick …
wipe off the excess with a paper towel.
Bake upside-down at 350 degrees F for an hour
Watch for smoke.
Let cool in the oven
Then, pat the pan dry, removing the rest of the oil.
Repeat 3-4 times
Repeat the process for pans that are not pre-seasoned.

Cooking

Pre-heat your pan
Use oil
Put oil or butter in the pan before food.
Metal utensils are OK!
Just avoid intense scrapes.
Avoid cooking highly acidic foods
Acidic foods like tomatoes, wine, and citrus can damage the coating. But if you have a good layer of seasoning, a little bit is often fine.
Avoid boiling water
Don’t attempt to cook pasta; water is the enemy.
Cooking will add trace amounts of iron to foods!
Enjoy an iron nutritional boost.
Remember not to grab the handle while cooking
Consider getting a handle grip or mitt.

Washing

Hand-wash with warm water right away
Don’t let your pan sit around too long.
A little soap is OK!
A small amount of mild dish soap is fine, contrary to popular belief.
Use salt to scrub
For persistent, stuck-on food, pour in ½ cup of salt and then rub it away.
Don’t use harsh metal scrubbers
Use a soft sponge, nylon brush, or scraper.
Dry immediately
Don’t let it soak in the water!
Put back on the stove
Cook off the remaining moisture.
Rub with oil
Carefully add oil to the inside.
Cook on the stove until it smokes
Then, turn the heat off. Wait before putting the cool pan away.

Removing Rust

Scrub off rust
Use steel wool and elbow grease.
Wash off
Use hot water and soap.
Dry immediately
Cook off excess moisture on the stove if necessary.
Re-season using the prior steps
Do this once the rust is completely gone.
Alternative Method: Salt and a potato
Use a raw potato cut in half and scrub the salted pan.
Alternative Method: Vinegar
This is for extremely damaged pans. Soak the pan in equal parts vinegar and water for a few hours, checking it frequently. Let soak for no more than 8 hours.
Alternative Method: Oven-cleaning
This is for extremely damaged pans. Use the self-cleaning cycle on a modern oven; this will turn the rust to ash and strip the pan of everything but the iron itself.

More Maintenance Tips

Re-season occasionally
Use your pan frequently
Don’t let it stay wet
Never use a dishwasher!

Sources:

The “seasoning” of a pan is layers of polymerized oils and fats baked onto the surface until it eventually becomes a nonstick coating. It is created with love and care over a great deal of time, by cooking on layers of fat in the oven. That’s, in essence, how to season a cast iron pan: rub with oil, bake, rub with oil, bake, and repeat!

There’s lots of advice and strategies on how to season cast iron with the best type of coating. Flaxseed is considered to be the favorite type of oil; it creates that deep dark look and matte-finish surface, though it can be expensive. Other typical options are vegetable oil, corn oil, grapeseed (another more expensive option), canola, or shortening. Olive oil and butter are not ideal for seasoning cast iron; they’re fine for cooking, but doesn’t give a pan the right consistent finish.

Keep in mind that many modern factory-made pans come pre-seasoned. It’s a good idea to wash and season it one more time before use, but it won’t require continuous baking like a non-seasoned skillet, which needs to be oiled and baked a fair amount (at least three or four cycles).

How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware

Contrary to popular belief, you can use a small amount of mild dish soap while cleaning cast iron! You cannot put it in the dishwasher, however! The pan must be hand washed fairly promptly with a non-metal scrubber and needs to be dried almost immediately.

The enemy here is water. Water creates rust in the iron, which can require re-seasoning and intense scrubbing later on. Never let it soak overnight. Many people like to cook off the excess moisture over low heat after washing. Then, carefully, once it’s cooled a little bit, you can add vegetable oil before putting it away.

If you’re in a desperate position where mild dish soap and a scraper won’t quite cut it, here’s how to clean cast iron: Skillets covered in gunk can be easily cleaned with salt and a raw potato. Try it! It works like a charm.

Tricks and Tips for Cast Iron Cooking

Yes, taking care of cast iron takes a little bit more patience and time, but is often worth it. Just check out these amazing cast iron skillet recipes:

Noted that highly acidic foods like tomato sauce, wine, or sugars can mess with your seasoned coating. A little bit of acid is fine. If it’s properly seasoned, it’s not an issue, and usually, it just needs to be scrubbed and re-seasoned afterward.

How to Remove Rust from Cast Iron

Most cast iron skillets, however rusty, can be saved! It’s simply a matter of scrapping and scrubbing off the rust back down to a smooth iron surface, washing it, and re-seasoning it. Unless the iron has worn down too thin over 40 years and cracks in the process, rescuing and seasoning a cast iron skillet is almost always possible. It just can be a lot of labor to get it back to that point.

There are several strategies on how to re-season cast iron that won’t break your back: the old salt-and-potato method for washing works well here, too, soaking in a vinegar solution often works, and using the oven-cleaning function on a modern oven will turn the rust to ash. This can all be done when the rust is at an extreme point.

Then, once it’s been cleaned of rust and washed, you’re ready to start seasoning again (layering on the oils and baking until you have a nice coating). See! There’s a reason seasoned cast iron pans are passed down in families over generations. With a little bit of maintenance and care, cast iron can be enjoyed by your family too!


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