Cleaning

How to Season (& Clean) Your Trusty Cast Iron Skillet

If you treat a cast iron pan right, it'll last a lifetime (or two, or three).

May  4, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

The cast iron skillet is at once the most beloved and most feared kitchen tool. Chefs and home cooks alike revere it for its versatility, durability, and ability to distribute and retain heat evenly. It’s the ideal deliverer of pancakes, fryer of eggs, caramelizer of onions, and searer of meats. Fluffy cinnamon buns can bake in it, and juicy chicken can roast in it. The cast iron is all-powerful, but as Spider-Man fans know, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And the responsibility of caring for a cast iron is where the fear usually comes in.

Cast iron pans are shrouded in mystery. How do you buy them? Clean them? Season them? The term “seasoning” gets thrown around a lot, but what does it even mean? Basically, it’s a science-based method that protects the material, creates a naturally nonstick surface, and flavors the pan over time by bonding oil to the iron. Whether you purchased your skillet pre-seasoned or not, it’s wise to perform an initial seasoning before the first use and then subsequent re-seasoning every time it appears dry to you. The thing to remember is that if you treat a cast iron pan right, it'll last a lifetime (or two, or three). Here’s exactly what you need to do to keep it in tip-top shape for your numerous kitchen tasks.

  1. Heat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place a piece of foil on the middle rack to catch any drips coming off the pan.
  3. Lightly coat the cast iron pan with a neutral oil that has a high smoke point: canola oil, vegetable oil, and grapeseed oil are great options. Rub the oil all over the pan—both inside and outside—with a paper towel.
  4. Position the pan upside-down on the piece of foil in the oven.
  5. Leave in the oven for an hour.
  6. Turn off and let it cool.
  7. When cooled down, rub another light coat of oil all over the pan.
  8. Store for future cooking adventures.

You can repeat this process for reseasonings or, like Food52 community member vvvanessa, use the need to reseason as the perfect opportunity to make more fried chicken.

It’s even easier to season your cast iron if you properly clean it on a regular basis. And remember, the more you use a cast iron pan, the less maintenance it needs! Our co-founder Amanda Hesser swears by the no-soap method as her favorite way to clean cast iron. Community member Denise Smith-Weiss agrees, saying her grandmother never used soap to clean the skillet. Grandmas know best, so you don’t have to, either. Here’s how to do a soapless clean:

  • Add a pinch of coarse salt to the dirty pan.
  • Scrub the salt into the skillet with a paper towel so the bits and scraps of stuck food release from the pan, and dump them out.
  • Rinse the pan under water, if you want to. This is an optional step.
  • Dry the pan immediately!
  • Lightly coat the cast iron with oil just like you would during the seasoning process. Store for later.

If you do want to use soap on your cast iron occasionally—Lloyd, a community member and cast iron fan believes that it won’t harm your pan—our suggestion is to use the mildest soap with a non-abrasive sponge, or you'll lose your seasoning, and no one wants that. So, if you want to go this route, follow these steps:

  • Hand wash (Don’t ever, ever put it in the dishwasher! Don’t soak!) your skillet to make sure it’s free of any scraps.
  • You can use a bit of soap and scrub with a sponge, but remember to dry the pan immediately—rust is the number one villain when it comes to cast iron, so the drying is crucial. Paper towels and lint-free cloths work best to eliminate moisture.
  • When bone dry, give the pan a lick of oil just like you would during the seasoning process and store away for next time.

Do you have any other tricks for seasoning cast iron pans? Tell us in the comments below!

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22 Comments

Merle G. May 19, 2020
I love w everything! I wish those beautiful weights came heavier. I use 10-12 pounds. Might you possibly add those ? [email protected]
 
Victoria P. May 9, 2020
I’ve got a little bit of a cast iron pan fetish. No matter how many times I’ve moved, I still collect the heavy duty ones of every shape and size. You know I’ve got two teenagers who will be getting homes of their own someday. Anyway, if I find a particularly beat up one at a garage sale (remember those) my husband takes it to the garage for a real stripping with the steel grinder. He Takes it down to an almost silvery smooth sheen inside and out. Then I oil it inside and out and heat it in the oven. My mom only used olive, but I’m willing to try flaxseed. Oh, and I’m in the never soap camp. Thanks for all these great tips.
 
Kathy S. May 8, 2020
If you have stuck-on schmutz on your pan, add water enough to cover it and bring to a boil. If it's really bad, let it boil a few minutes, then turn the heat off. Once the pan has cooed down enough to handle, dump the water and wash it with hot water. It usually comes out clean without too much scrubbing. Afterwards, put it over a medium burner for a few minutes to dry thoroughly. I learned this from my mother-in-law, who cooked in cast iron her whole life.
This is for regular cleaning after use. When I have acquired a pan with carbon buildup, I use the oven cleaner/plastic garbage bag method to strip before washing and seasoning. The chain-mail type cleaners also work well for getting cast iron clean.
 
Francoise V. May 8, 2020
Thanks! I'll have to look at its condition again and decide where to start. I really don't want oven cleaner in my house so hopefully heat will do it. It was my fault. All 3 pans were in great condition and then I moved and... well, life changes! Thanks.
 
Jana May 8, 2020
I keep my cast iron collection clean and well seasoned. After I wash and dry it, I put it on the stove top and turn up the flame for about 3 minutes. This heat dries it completely, then I do a quick oil before storing. If you don’t do the heat dry, and put on oil, water can be trapped under the oil and will cause the rust.
 
Francoise V. May 8, 2020
Used cast iron all my adult life, until recently, as did my mother and as do my siblings. None of us ever use soap to clean the pans. Scrub with a brush if needed and rinse, oil rub if needed. But I put them away for a while adnd want to get all 3 back in service. Two I am hoping a good season, maybe two, will rescue do fine, but one is near rusty/rusty. How can I rescue it?
 
Kevin K. May 8, 2020
See my reply below to Françoise.
 
Noel B. May 8, 2020
The problem is that for an old cast iron pan, simple scrubbing does not get it cleaned. Baked on grease remains. BUT if you put it in your self-cleaning oven and levae it there for a cleaning cycle it will emerge as new as when you bought it home from the store. Of course it now meeds to be seasoned (see above).
Noel Bouck
 
Francoise V. May 8, 2020
No self-cleaning oven. Low-tech house here. :)
 
Kevin K. May 8, 2020
You can use oven cleaner and a garbage bag. See the link I posted in a response below. In the article the URL links to you’ll find another link to an article the author wrote when she retired a rusty popover pan using oven cleaner. I’ve used this method successfully.
 
Wow, I’m realizing that I have not taken very good care of my 2 cast iron pans! I’m re-seasoning them now and in the future I will use the coarse salt method to clean them. I’ve been put on the right path- thank you!!
 
Kevin K. May 5, 2020
Actually the best oil - really the only oil - to use for cast iron seasoning (and carbon steel seasoning) is flaxseed oil. The best seasoning is formed by fat polymerization and fat polymerization is maximized with a drying oil, and flaxseed oil is the only drying oil that’s edible. I re-seasoned all my cast iron and carbon steel a few years ago and flaxseed oil is the bomb. (I've cooked professionally for 45+ years so have plenty of experience with both cast iron and carbon steel.) The science behind great seasoning can be found here: http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/ Thanks to Sheryl Canter all my cast iron and steel have never performed better. Note that you want pure food grade flaxseed oil. It's spendy but one uses VERY little. Store it in the fridge.
 
Arati M. May 6, 2020
That’s a very useful tip! I have to say I’ve never heard about flaxseed oil being so appropriate for cast iron seasoning. Will look into it, thank you!
 
M May 11, 2020
Flax oil has pro and con camps, and is certainly not the "only" oil. Some complain of flaking. Personally, I stopped using it when it gave no discernible difference from the veg oil I used previously, other than it going bad in the fridge before I could use it all.
 
Kevin K. May 11, 2020
If it flakes it either isn’t pure or the seasoning procedure wasn’t done correctly. Fat polymerization (especially when one does 5-6 separate coats) results in an ultra-hard, smooth surface, virtually nonstick.
 
emgoh May 4, 2020
I have 3-4 old cast iron pieces that had been my dad's (he passed in 2012). There is some rust but my main thing is that they are really sticky so dust and cobwebs are stuck to the surface. I figure I can do the salt thing and give them a good scrub, but with seasoning, would it be normal for that sort of sticky buildup or was that a result of poor maintenance. (To be fair to to my dear dad, as his health worsened, so many things he used to be very fussy and tidy about started to get neglected. We didn't realize the extent until after he'd passed.)
 
M May 5, 2020
Depends what the stickiness is and how the seasoning was underneath. If it's food residue, cleaning it will be trickier. But if it's just that horrid grime that comes from steam and dust mixing, it might come right off. Salt might be too weak. I'd use a fairly stiff brush with a little soap and water, and see what's underneath the grime. Dry immediately, investigate the surface. If it looks good and heating it didn't unlock bad smells, oil and use. If it looks bad, strip it and re-season.
 
Dccblue May 8, 2020
When you say "strip it" what do you mean? I have a pan with grime and rust. How do I start over?
 
M May 11, 2020
Stripping it means taking off ALL of the seasoning, and "stripping" it down to the iron surface. People generally strip either by leaving it in the oven during the self-clean cycle, or with oven cleaner and a lot of time and ventilation. There are a ton of websites that outline the process using a variety of methods.

Having no outdoor space of my own, I do the oven-self-cleaning option. At such a high heat, the coating that protects the iron from rust turns into a fine dust. It's a little tricky, because the iron will be SUPER sensitive to moisture and start to rust immediately. As soon as the cast iron is able to be handled, it is wiped free of the dust, coated with oil, and baked in the oven. This process is repeated a few times until there is a polymerized coating that once again protects the iron from moisture.
 
Brenda S. May 4, 2020
I’m a cast iron lover I probably own 8-10 cast iron. Seasoning them really helps keeping them youthful looking after It ageing.
 
M May 4, 2020
Rust is a beast, but I find super-sticky foods to be the worst culprit, esp in lesser-seasoned pans. They stick to the seasoning, and can be impossible to get off without flaking off said seasoning.

1. In the early days of your cast iron, use it for least-sticky cooking. (Fried egg with a good amount of oil/butter, nuts that release oils, shallow deep frying, etc.) This will allow you to build your seasoning naturally.
2. Clean by wiping/rinsing cast iron, putting it on the stove for a min on high heat to ensure dry if rinsed, rub a touch of oil around whole warm/hot pan.
3. When food sticks, while pan is still crazy hot, gently push the end of a fish flipper against the surface so you're coaxing food off rather than scratching pan. Continue until you can run it along surface without catching anywhere. (a little water sometimes helps) Wash, rinse, oil.

And as much as rust is the villain, if you've stripped it and re-seasoned and it's still a touch red, that's okay. It'll darken over time.
 
Arati M. May 6, 2020
Very helpful, M. I tend to always follow step 2 as well, after a clean.