Cast Iron for the Rest of Us

Let’s get one thing outa the way. There are some Cast Iron Fundamentalists in the world (it takes all kinds), and I am not one of them. I take decent care of my pans, and they serve me decently. With a fundamentalist approach you can reach amazing heights with cast iron. You can slide a frying egg around in it before you’ve even looked at the spatula. I’ve seen these feats with mine own eyes.

My pans are good. In their best times, you can easily loosen and flip a fried egg. But ain’t no sliding goes on in my pans. I just don’t have enough space, patience or spousal support for high maintenence pans.

If you want to create cast iron perfection, better look elsewhere. As with everything else in this space, I am concerned with cast iron for the rest of us.

Notice I specified “in their best times.” Cast iron is very resilient, which is one of the things I like. You can fix it up fast. You can also ruin it fast. And then fix it up fast again. No need to worry one way or t’other.

after scrambled eggs with cheese


How to Clean Cast Iron

Let’s start with the big taboo breaker. You know I love me a taboo. Fundamentalists look away.

I sometimes use soap.


Yes, pretty much everyone who’s anyone knows you’re not supposed to use soap. But one of my favorite things to cook in cast iron is salmon. As you might imagine, it leaves a fine fishy infusion that just, no matter how I tried to fight it off, needed soap. The first time I did it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, squeezed my eyes shut and squirted away. The fishiness washed off perfectly, then I did a quick season on the stovetop, and my pan was back in business. Now I never hesitate, if I have a real grease-mess pan on my hands, I squirt on the soap. No regrets.

My point is that it’s not so intimidating or exacting as you might have feared. Cast iron is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many shades of gray. Or black, as it were.

Having got that out of the way, in general the less you wash your pan the better. As I explained in the last post, seasoning is a build up of oils. The more aggressively you wash, the more seasoning you strip off. No big deal, just wash as little as you can get away with. If all you did was fry an egg, don’t wash at all. If you fried a nice piece of fish, scrub with soap, then season to replenish.

As for gear, I really recommend a nylon scrub brush for cleaning cast iron. A metal brush takes too much off. Nylon scrubbies work, but whatever you use on your cast irons will get pretty gross looking, what with all the blackened grease, and I prefer to have a long handle between me and the business end. The trouble is finding a brush with stiff enough bristles. I have used a sharp scissor to clip long, floppy bristles shorter and that stiffened ’em up pretty well. But recently I discovered a thing called a “grout brush” which has really thick stiff bristles and works great. It’s even got black bristles, instead of the usual kitchen white, so it looks less gross with the gunk on it.

cast iron gear-- a stiff nylon scrub brush and a pastry brush for oil

(About that gunk– wash your brush every now and then on it’s own, by dripping soap into the bristles and then scrubbing hard against the sink or something to work the soap around. Rinse with lots of hot water. Repeat till clean.)

For the most part cast iron washing will consist of plain hot water and yer trusty scrub brush. If your pan has a decent season, it should be relatively easy to scrub clean. If you have a real problem pan, soak it for a few hours and it should come right off. If the mess is the greasy variety, use soap, as I said.

The absolute best way to clean a pan is to take it immediately to the sink, still hot from use, run water into it, and scrub clean. This gets stuff off before it gets a chance to crust on. Because your pan is still hot, it dries itself off quickly, which is good too. Best of all, next time you want to use your pan, there it is waiting beautifically for you. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, my most common wash happens when I go to use the pan and discover last night’s dinner crust around the edge, ‘cuz I’m just dirty that way. If running a spatula around to knock out chunks is not enough, I put a half inch of water in it and set it on the stove. When the water’s at a rolling boil, I use my cast iron brush to scrub it clean.

Most important is to dry your pan. Don’t ever leave it sitting with water in it, it could rust. (Again, if it does, no tragedy, just scrub as per post #2 and reseason.) Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry cast iron, it will really scum it up. Instead set your pan on a low flame on the stove and set a timer for five minutes. Do not leave the room!!! I refuse to accept responsibility when you practically burn your house down by leaving an empty skillet on high heat and then going to do just one little chore outside. I would never do such a thing. Ahem….

Having warned you thusly, I will confess I only occasionally dry my pans. A well seasoned pan will just have a few beads of water clinging after the wash, which dry fine so long as the pan is left out in the open air…. At home in Cordova I had a pot rack above the stove. I highly recommend this to anyone with the means to make it happen. I love hanging pots and pans. A joy to behold, but also just darned practical. But here I just set the pan back on the stovetop and even there they dry fine.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn’t even have beads of water on it.

The key amongst all of this is to pay attention to your pan. Consider it a low maintenence pet, akin to maybe a goldfish. You can ignore it most of the time, but once in a while you do actually have to feed the bugger. In the case of cast iron, this means reseasoning. The oven season that I described in the first post is great for popping yer pan’s cherry on, but for regular upkeep a stovetop quickie is perfectly effective.

Say you’ve made spaghetti sauce in your pan (more on that in the next and last post!), washed it with hot water, and now you notice that rather than the “few beads of water,” the whole inside of the pan is wet. You dry it stovetop, and then it looks… well, dry. A well seasoned pan, even when dry, will have a sheen to it all the way accross. That’s the oil that keeps food from sticking. If your pan looks dry when it’s dry, just add a few drops of oil (really, drops are all it takes, be light), brush it around with a pastry brush, and heat it over low again for five or ten minutes. Need I repeat? Set a timer. Do not leave the room. Smoking oil does not smell pretty.

There. All fixed up and ready to go.

9 thoughts on “Cast Iron for the Rest of Us

  1. I am so with you on this one – I use soap too! and without shame! Sometimes certain food just doesn’t come off – so I add a little soap. I figure the amount of time I scrub it is going to ruin as much seasoning as a little bit of soap will. Every time I remember and I know I’m going to be home for a couple of hours I’ll just turn the oven on to low, spray it with an oil mister, toss it in the oven, forget about it for a couple of hours and it seems to maintain a nice even season this way even using soap from time to time.

    I say to all us soap users: go us!

  2. This series is absolutely fantastic. There’s a thrift store nearby and they have tons of pans but I never bought one because of the rust. Plus, the idea of cooking on someone elses stuff… no washie? No way!

    Now- I’m ready to buy a pan and give it a whirl.

    And not to leave the kitchen while reseasoning. Got it.

  3. Ok – admitting to dishwasher washing my pans when they are really crusty. But loving the fact I can reseason and off I go again. (But if you dishwasher them too much, the wooden handle shrinks up and then falls off, speaking from experience…..)

  4. I love this series! It is making me fondly miss my days at Harkness Co-Op @ Oberlin College. The first thing I did after I graduated and was living on my own was to buy a cast iron skillet and a good knife. (Harkness had lots of the former and few if the latter.)

  5. This is a great little how to for caring for your cast iron. I adore mine and love that I can cook whole meals with it and not have to use another pan, or oven dish even. After reading Maggie’s comment, I am reminded that I need to go buy a good knife.

  6. When I originally received this post, I saved it in one of my e-mail folders (entitled Apron Strings..natch) knowing that someday I would have a cast iron skillet of my very own to cook with. (One MUST have dreams to aspire to after all.) Well my future “someday” came unexpectedly when my dearest MIL passed away suddenly and I inherited her menagerie of cast iron skillets, griddle and pot that were passed down from her mother to her. So they have now made it down three generations and I aim to keep them to pass down to the next.

    So…thanks so much for all the info, I don’t know what I would have done without it! I cooked my first hamburgers in them tonight. One skillet was perfect, the other one “caught” the meat and was difficult to get off. But–thank goodness–I had your blog for handy reference and was able to wash them (sans soap this time) and then reseason the one that looked “dry”. You made it sooo easy! Oh, and thanks so much for the tip on not leaving the room during drying time and setting a timer for safety! I always wondered why my MIL kept having problems forgetting to turn off her stove. Now I know. Thanks again!

    1. wow! i’m so glad the posts were useful to someone! this is a dream reply for a how-to post…
      how wonderful to have heirloom cast iron. I have one, an aebelskivver pan from my mom’s dad’s mom.
      but i’m sorry to hear you had to lose your MIL to start your collection.

  7. Yes…I would give anything to have her here and have to “borrow” her cast iron instead of owning it. And thanks again for the blog info…all of my pans are now shiny “wet” looking and even look clean now. I’m soooo jazzed! Who knew one could get so enthused over a pan for God’s sake?

  8. It is many years later but i found this article’s description of the grout brush perfect! I have a grill I use on the fire, camping, and need to find a better way to clean it. Thanks.

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