How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

Cast iron skillets are beloved kitchen workhorses, providing excellent heat retention and a naturally nonstick surface when properly seasoned. However, keeping cast iron properly cleaned and cared for is essential to maintaining its cooking performance and preventing rust. Cleaning cast iron is a delicate process requiring special techniques to avoid damaging the seasoning.

With some care and effort, you can keep your cast iron slick, seasoned, and ready to cook for generations to come. This comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about cleaning a cast iron skillet, from day-to-day maintenance to dealing with stuck-on food or neglected cookware.

Why Proper Cleaning is Crucial for Cast Iron

Cast iron relies on layers of oil polymerized onto the pan’s surface to provide its nonstick properties. This is why cast iron seasoning exists – without it, food would stick relentlessly, rust would develop, and you’d essentially have a useless hunk of metal on your hands.

Cleaning a cast iron skillet improperly can strip away or compromise the protective season coating. Once this seasoning is damaged, the pan’s performance suffers greatly until the layer can be rebuilt through reseasoning.

Additionally, moisture is the enemy of cast iron. If not fully dried after washing, rust can develop to permanently damage the pan. That’s why proper cleaning and drying practices are so important.

Following the techniques below will help ensure your cast iron lasts for years while maintaining its natural nonstick surface. Don’t worry – while cast iron cleaning requires some special care, with a bit of practice it becomes second nature.

Supplies You’ll Need

Cleaning cast iron doesn’t require fancy gadgets or hard-to-find supplies. Chances are, you already have everything needed:

  • Hot water – The hotter, the better. Hot water helps dissolve and loosen food debris during cleaning.
  • Mild dish detergent – Look for something free of strong additives, oils, or perfumes that can impart odors. Dish soap helps lift residue.
  • Stiff nylon bristle brush – Essential for scrubbing stuck-on bits without damaging the seasoning finish. Avoid abrasive scrubbers.
  • Clean lint-free cloth or paper towels – For drying and applying seasoning oil. Linen or flour sack towels work great.
  • Canola oil or other neutral high smoke point oil – For reconditioning the pan’s surface after cleaning. Avoid olive or butter oils.

Now that you’ve gathered the essential gear, let’s go over the steps for cleaning both lightly soiled and heavily soiled cast iron skillets.

How to Clean a Lightly Soiled Cast Iron Skillet

For day-to-day cleaning of lightly soiled pans, these simple steps will keep your cast iron in great shape.

1. Rinse With Hot Water

After cooking, rinse the skillet under hot running water while still warm to loosen any food debris. Using a soft sponge, gently scrub away any leftover oil or grease.

Avoid submerging the skillet to prevent water from seeping under the seasoning layer. Rinsing alone often removes debris from a lightly soiled pan.

2. Apply Dish Soap if Needed

If rinsing alone doesn’t remove residue, apply a small amount of mild dish detergent and scrub gently with a soft sponge or bristle brush.

Use minimal soap – too much can strip away seasoning over time. Stick to gentle scrubbing.

3. Rinse Thoroughly

Rinse away all soap with hot water, making sure to remove every trace of suds. Remaining soap can break down the seasoning.

Let hot water run over all the skillet’s surfaces until the water runs completely clear.

4. Dry Immediately and Completely

Dry the skillet immediately with a clean lint-free towel. Get into corners and crevices to remove all moisture.

Leaving moisture behind can promote rust. If water beads on the surface, keep drying until completely evaporated.

5. Apply a Thin Oil Coat

Use a clean lint-free cloth or paper towel to apply a thin coating of canola or vegetable oil over the entire skillet, inside and out.

This oil layer keeps the pan seasoned between uses. Wipe away any excess.

That covers the basics for cleaning a lightly soiled cast iron skillet! Simple hot water rinsing or a touch of dish soap as needed is all it takes. Now let’s talk about dealing with stuck-on messes.

How to Clean a Heavily Soiled Cast Iron Skillet

Over time, cast iron can become encrusted with burnt food residues that simple rinsing won’t budge. Thankfully, you can restore heavily soiled pans to like-new condition with a little elbow grease. Here’s how:

1. Scrub with Coarse Salt

For heavy debris, make a paste with kosher salt and a little water or oil. Scrub stubborn spots using a stiff nylon bristle brush.

The coarse grains provide abrasive action to loosen carbonized food without damaging the iron. Rinse clean when done.

2. Boil Water to Loosen Stuck Food

For food really stuck on, boil water in the skillet for 5-10 minutes. This helps soften burnt-on food so it can be removed.

You can also fill the skillet with hot water and let it sit for 30 minutes before scrubbing. Just be sure to dry it immediately after.

3. Use Baking Soda and Steel Wool if Needed

For the toughest stuck-on gunk that won’t budge with other methods, sprinkle baking soda and scrub gently with non-soap steel wool.

Rinse thoroughly after to remove any loosened food and baking soda residue. Avoid overly aggressive scrubbing.

4. Reseason the Pan Completely

After removing heavy buildup, old seasoning may be patchy or compromised. Reseason the entire skillet to refresh the nonstick surface.

See the next section for step-by-step instructions on how to season cast iron. Take time to do this, and your skillet will be good as new!

With a little time and muscle, you can restore the worst cast iron skillet to pristine condition. Just be patient, let the various cleaning methods work their magic, and avoid excessively harsh scrubbing to protect the pan’s surface.

How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet

Seasoning creates a natural nonstick surface crucial for cast iron performance. Without seasoning, food sticks relentlessly. Over time, seasoning wears down and needs refreshing.

Follow these steps to strip and reapply a fresh seasoning layer:

What You’ll Need:

  • Cast iron skillet
  • Oven safe gloves
  • Neutral high smoke point oil like canola
  • Clean lint-free cloths


  1. Scrub pan with steel wool – Use soap and steel wool to scrub off all existing seasoning and expose the bare iron. Rinse and dry completely.
  2. Apply thin oil coat – With lint-free cloth, wipe a thin layer of oil over the entire skillet, inside and out.
  3. Bake upside down – Place a foil-lined baking sheet in the oven, then put the oiled skillet directly on the sheet upside down. Bake at 450°F for 1 hour.
  4. Turn off oven and let cool – Turn off the oven and leave the skillet inside to cool completely, about 2 hours. This lets the oil polymerize onto the surface.
  5. Repeat oil and baking – After cooling, remove the skillet and repeat steps 2-4, applying another thin oil coat and baking again. This ensures a smooth, resilient seasoning.
  6. Let cool and wipe – When done, turn off oven and let the skillet cool completely before removing. Give it one final wipe with oil to maintain the fresh seasoning.

With these steps, you’ll restore your cast iron pan’s natural nonstick surface and restore its performance. Avoid metal utensils and abrasive scrubbers going forward to prevent damage.

Reseasoning every few months keeps cast iron in top cooking condition. With use, reapply an oil coat and bake for 1 hour at 300°F whenever food starts sticking more than it should.

Daily Care and Storage Tips

With the right daily care habits, your cast iron will deliver delicious meals for a lifetime. Here are some useful maintenance practices:

  • Always dry thoroughly – Ensure no moisture is left after cleaning to prevent rust.
  • Apply a light oil coat – Keep inside and out covered with a thin oil layer after drying.
  • Don’t let soap sit – If using soap, rinse it away immediately. Don’t let it soak.
  • Use non-metal utensils – Wood, silicone, or high-temp plastics prevent scratches.
  • Store carefully – Line shelves or drawers to avoid contact damage. Or hang pans if possible.
  • Avoid soaking – Don’t let cast iron soak in water. Only wash as needed and dry right away.
  • Cook regularly – Using your cast iron often maintains the protective seasoning layer.

With a little care, your cast iron skillet will provide generation after generation of delicious family meals. Pass down well-loved cast iron pans as heirlooms.

Troubleshooting Common Cast Iron Issues

Even with proper cleaning methods, cast iron skillets can still experience some issues. Here are some common problems and how to fix them:

Rust Spots

Issue: Reddish spots of rust develop on the skillet surface.

Fix: Scrub rust gently with steel wool and reseason. Rust can form from moisture left after washing. Ensure pans are dried thoroughly.

Patchy Seasoning

Issue: Seasoning appears blotchy, black and shiny in spots.

Fix: Normal with use. Reseason in oven to keep surface smooth. Avoid excessive oil when seasoning.

Food Sticking

Issue: Foods that once released cleanly now stick.

Fix: Seasoning may need refreshing. Scrub pan and reseason. Use oil with high smoke point when seasoning.

Metallic Taste

Issue: Foods have a metallic flavor.

Fix: Strip seasoning entirely with soap and steel wool, then reseason. Don’t use excess oil when seasoning.

With a well-loved cast iron skillet, a few issues can pop up now and then. Thankfully, nothing that can’t be fixed with a little reseasoning and TLC.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have some lingering questions about cleaning cast iron skillets? Here are answers to some common FAQs:

Can I use soap on cast iron?

Yes, you can use mild dish soap sparingly on cast iron when needed to remove residue. Be sure to rinse thoroughly and dry the pan completely. Harsh detergents or letting soap sit can damage seasoning.

How do you clean a rusty cast iron skillet?

Gently scrub rust spots with steel wool. For heavier rust, use a vinegar soak. Fully reseason the pan after cleaning up rust damage. Ensure proper drying after washing to prevent future rust.

Why does my food stick to cast iron after seasoning?

If food sticks after seasoning, the oil layer may not have fully polymerized. Repeating the seasoning process helps ensure a smooth, resilient finish. Be patient through several rounds of reseasoning if food keeps sticking.

Can I wash cast iron in the dishwasher?

No, never wash cast iron in the dishwasher! The harsh detergents and hot steam environment will destroy the seasoning. Always hand wash cast iron.

How often should you reseason cast iron?

There’s no set timeframe for reseasoning cast iron. Simply monitor the pan’s performance. Reseason whenever foods start sticking more than they should, often every few months with regular use.

Why do eggs stick to my cast iron skillet?

Eggs are sticky and temperamental in any pan. Ensure cast iron is fully preheated before cooking eggs. Use butter or bacon grease for extra insurance!

Final Thoughts

With its naturally nonstick surface and unbeatable heat retention, cast iron just makes food taste better. Keeping your cast iron skillet properly cleaned and seasoned ensures generations of delicious family meals.

While it requires some special care, maintaining cast iron becomes second nature fast. With the right gentle scrubbing, thorough drying, and occasional reseasoning, your cast iron will only improve with age.

Next time you enjoy eggs gliding across cast iron at breakfast, remember the simple rituals that keep this humble pan at peak performance. Respect your cast iron, and it will reward you with many years of loyal service in the kitchen.

So grab a stiff brush, crank up the heat, and give that crusty skillet some love. With a bit of restorative care, you can revive neglected cast iron and restore its timeless cooking magic.