How to Clean, Season, and Cook in Cast Iron Skillets

As part of my professional life, I often advise cooks on the right tools to outfit their kitchens. And I’m continually surprised at the resistance I encounter when recommending cast iron skillets.

It’s not that people are opposed to the price point, at least for the basic skillets—investing in enameled Dutch ovens is a commitment—but that they think the general upkeep is too much or that they’ll do something wrong and ruin the pan.

how to clean, season, and wash cast iron skillets
Photo: Casey Barber

They’re afraid cast iron skillets are too high maintenance, or in the immortal words of When Harry Met Sally, “the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”

Which is not true. Yes, you do need to season cast iron before it can develop the perfect, long-lasting nonstick finish, but it’s something that happens naturally over time as you cook with it.

Cast iron is one of the easiest, most versatile cookware pieces you can use, and here’s how to care for it.

What is Cast Iron?

The process of making cast-iron cookware is a centuries-old process. Foundries like Lodge, America’s oldest cast iron cookware manufacturer, melt filtered scrap steel and pig iron, then pour the molten metal into a mold that’s been made from pressed sand (like making a high-pressure hollow sandcastle!).

Once the metal cools, the sand is broken and blasted away from the newly molded cookware, then recycled for use in the next mold.

cast iron skillets
Photo: Casey Barber

Alton Brown, in his book I’m Just Here for the Food, describes it thusly: “Iron is dense—really dense—which makes it a relatively slow conductor. But that density also allows for even heating, and once it gets hot it stays hot.”

Because it locks heat in, cast iron’s ideal for almost any cooking method, from frying and searing to braising and even baking.

And because it builds up a naturally seasoned surface with every use, there’s no fear of off-gassing or ingesting chemicals.

Enameled cast iron—those lusciously colored Dutch ovens and pans—has the same dense metal interior, but because it’s been coated in protective enamel, no seasoning is necessary. Though made essentially the same way, there are slight differences in the various companies’ interior finishes.

Italian wedding soup pasta
Photo: Casey Barber

I hold my flame Le Creuset near and dear to my heart for cooking chili, spaghetti sauce and other slow-simmered foods, but I find the black interior coating on Staub’s cookware is superior for searing.

How to Season Cast Iron

Seasoning a cast iron pan is as easy as coating it with a nice layer of fat and baking it on.

All the experts have their own preferred methods for doing this—some swear by avocado oil, which has a ridiculously high smoke point, while others like flaxseed oil because it dries “hard.” Alton Brown rubs his skillet inside and out with melted shortening.

I season my cast iron skillets with canola or vegetable oil for a few reasons: it’s a neutrally flavored oil, it’s inexpensive and I’ve always got a gallon or two in the house.

Lodge pre-seasons all of its products with vegetable oil in blazing-hot ovens before they leave the factory.

breakfast sweet potato hash with fried eggs
Photo: Casey Barber

Even if you’re buying a new cast iron pan, it’s a good idea to give it an extra layer of seasoning once you bring it home. (Working with an old pan? See “Cleaning a Cast Iron Pan” below for tips on how to clean it before giving it a fresh coat of seasoning.)

To season a cast iron skillet:

Rub oil in a thin, even layer all over the skillet with a paper towel and place the pan upside down on the top rack of a preheated 400 degree oven.

Set a baking sheet or spread a piece of aluminum foil on the lower rack to catch any drips.

Bake for 30 minutes, then remove with oven mitts. Wipe any extra drips or shiny spots with a clean washcloth or paper towel, cool to room temperature, and store.

Repeat as needed throughout the year when the seasoning looks a little worn.

cast iron skillet mac and cheese
Photo: Casey Barber

What (and How) to Cook in Cast Iron

After your pan has its initial layer of seasoning, you might want to cook a few high-fat foods for its first few spins around the block. Pan-fry some chicken or crisp up some bacon to help build up the surface to a high gloss.

Eventually, it’ll be smooth, shiny, and way better than chemically coated nonstick.

And then the sky’s the limit: fried eggs, cornbread, grilled cheese sandwiches, professionally charred and caramelized steaks, delicately fried fish fillets and crab cakes, fruit cobblers and crumbles….

Some think it’s a bunch of malarkey, but high-acid foods like tomatoes and citrus or vinegar-based sauces can potentially degrade the seasoning and leach a metallic taste into the food if left to simmer too long and too often in the pan.

But this doesn’t mean you need to avoid acid entirely when cooking in cast iron.

millet skillet cornbread
Photo: Casey Barber

It’s perfectly fine to throw some tomatoes into a quick pan sauce, or to deglaze with lemon juice when searing scallops, but I’d avoid using your non-enameled cast iron for making a big batch of red sauce or perfecting your slow-cooked baked beans.

Make those recipes in the enameled cast iron Dutch ovens—that’s why they’ve got the protective coating.

Just avoid using metal utensils on cast iron, lest you mar the well-seasoned finish with scratches.

Oh, and all cast iron pans are metal, duh, so don’t put them in the microwave unless you have a death wish.

Cleaning a Cast Iron Pan

Do you have water? Then you can clean your skillet.

Don’t scour it with a soapy lather—that’ll just take the seasoning right off the metal—and don’t you dare put it in the dishwasher.

Rinse the pan with hot water and a clean washcloth as soon as it’s cool enough to handle, and scrub off any stuck-on spots by making a paste with a handful of kosher salt. Yep, good old kosher salt, giving your cast iron some natural exfoliation.

cast iron skillet with salt
Photo: Casey Barber

But maybe you accidentally soaked your cast iron skillet in a sinkful of soapy water, and now the seasoning has rubbed off and it’s rusty in spots.

As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says, don’t panic. And don’t toss that pan in the trash.

How to (Re)Season Rusted Cast Iron

Here’s how to clean cast iron pans that have run into a little trouble, or old pans you’ve picked up at a flea market or tag sale that need a little TLC to get them back to good-as-new.

Gently scrape small rust spots or sticky bits away with Bar Keepers Friend and a washcloth.

cast iron skillets

For larger areas of rust or for a whole-body renovation, scrub the pan all over with a steel wool pad.

For really terrible-looking pans, you can bring in the big guns: wearing protective gloves in a well-ventilated area, spray the pan with oven cleaner and place in a plastic trash bag. Let sit for 8 hours, then rinse and dry well.

Once your cast iron pan has been exfoliated down to the metal, season with oil as instructed above and you’re back in business.

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  1. Thanks for all these tips! I am bookmarking this page.

    I hesitate to use my current cast iron pan because it is so heavy. We had a smaller one in Europe. Actually, Sven had found it at an abandoned homestead in Sweden. It was such a great pan! I left it in Europe when we moved. Perhaps I should bring it back next time I go abroad?

  2. Great tips, now I have to get my wife to re-season my favorite cast iron griddle [she is much better at those types of things].

  3. We love our cast iron fry pans, Le Crueset pot, and now our cast iron pizza pan from Lodge. We use bacon fat ( in lieu of lard ) for seasoning.

    We knew about and use Kosher Salt to scrub with, but this post adds a few more welcome tips for care. Thanks!

  4. I really need to re-season mine. I love, love my cast iron skillet. I didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to use metal utensils on it–I do all the time and it hasn’t been a problem. Cast iron skillets make the BEST refried beans FYI. Also, if you haven’t seen Tangled, cast iron makes a prominent appearance;)

    1. MyKidsEatSquid – I just watched Tangled a few weeks ago and was LOVING the (untraditional) use of cast iron! Glad to hear that you haven’t had a problem with metal utensils iether. I tend to err on the side of caution with those things.

  5. It’s so funny how often your posts address something that’s happening in my kitchen at the moment. I’ve just recently come into two new cast iron pans, one of which was coated in rust and saved from the dump. They’ve inspired me to get rid of my old heavy 12-inch cast iron skillet that I’ve avoided using for years because of the weight, and get a smaller one in it’s place. After all, the first thing I ever learned to cook was a fried egg, in my dad’s well-seasoned cast iron skillet. I’m going back to my roots.

  6. I’ve got my Great-Grandmother’s cast iron skillet, at least 80 years old, quite possibly 100. Frugal Man knows how to clean it, but he also knows he can get away with leaving it as he’s be threatened with loss of life if he does anything untoward to that skillet!

  7. Great article and information. I love my skillet but unfortunately don’t use it nearly as much as I should.

  8. great tips! and thanks for the reminder that i need to treat the rust spots on the skillet and griddle i inherited from my mom. they’re beautifully seasoned (except for the rusty parts) and i really need to get to using them!

    1. Alicia, I’m glad you’re giving it a chance. It’s really NOT a big deal – and it’s kind of like an Etch-a-Sketch in that if something gets messed up, you can just wipe it away and do it again!

  9. Casey, I could hug you for this. It’s perfectly timed. I inherited Nan’s cast irons (some of them were her mom’s!) but Nan never could listen when I said DON’T WASH THAT IN SOAP! So I’ve got to rebuild the seasoning on all those pans, and now I don’t feel scared to do it. Thank you.

  10. I so needed this primer, Casey, thanks. I’ve tossed two cast iron pans in the past couple of years due to rust, and now I know I didn’t need to. Will try again.

  11. Great post, Casey. We just brought the cast iron my husband uses for outdoor cooking into the house. We are now set for skillets. We’ve read to never season cast iron with butter or lard, as it will go rancid. Thanks for this post!

  12. I think one of the most important things in this article is the Don’t throw it away when rusty! I dug a dutch oven out of the ground at my in-laws house that they had left outside for years. Cleaned it up with a bunch of steel wool until it was smooth again, then reseasoned it in the oven and then with a batch of fried chicken, and that pan you would never know had spent years in the dirt. Cast Iron is awesome.

  13. I recently discovered cast iron in my quest for a pan that truly stayed nonstick. Stainless steel works but it’s fussy and can be horribly sticky if you don’t preheat. I bought a Lodge skillet and fell in love. Then I needed a lid and found one in an antique store, also Lodge but circa 1950. Since then I’ve bought, cleaned and seasoned a 1950’s griddle without a brand name but I love it, and a 1910 Griswold dutch oven that I picked up for $34! It was all rusty and pitted but usable oncecleaned.

  14. Forgot to add the vintage pieces are machined smooth, and are prettier, thinner and lighter than new CI. The new pans cook just as well though.

  15. After obtaining a rusty, caked old CI fry pan, I scrubbed it with steel wool & comet cleanser very well.
    After it dried over heat, there were spots, & blemishes that needed to be removed. I used a wire wheel, on a drill, and in some cases, ( a 4& a half inch) grinder / sander to remove bad rust, & some defects in the original casting. Next was scrubbing once again, & drying.
    The process of curing / seasoning the pans is long, but simple.
    First, remove the eyes of some potatoes, & scrub any dirt off really well.
    Peel the potatoes, & SAVE the peels. The amount depends on the size of the skillet. Place peels in the pan, the more the better, half full or more..( you will have enuf peeled potatoes left to make a mountain of mashed potatoes, or scalloped potatoes for a week.)
    Next, fill the pan to the top with distilled water.
    Bring to a boil & let simmer, and occasionally filling to the top with more distilled water as it evaporates. Let this mix simmer for hours & hours, replacing dis water as it evaporates. The pan will turn greyish black.
    after it cools, dump the contents in the compost pile .
    I then scrubbed it with a “scotch brite” green & yellow scrubber.
    Dry the pan over the stove for a few minutes & while it’s still hot, coat the inside with Crisco shortening.
    For preparation before use, I coat the inside of warm pan with canola oil.
    After use , I scrub it with the sponge. If there are food bits stuck on, use the scotch brite pad to remove the food bits & rinse well with hot water, & dry the pan with paper towels, AND dry further over the stove for a few moments.
    I don’t oil it after use, as this will collect dust. I simply oil it before cooking .
    I occasionally use a few drops of dish soap for those hard to clean spots.
    YOU can re-cure it with potato skins, & simmer when you think it needs it to be more non-stick in the future.
    Heating the pan & then oiling it before each use helps build a non-stick coating.

  16. Instructions on my new “glass” top stove said not to use a cast iron pan on it. I am upset that they say not to. Is it true that you are not to use cast iron pans on flat surface stoves?

    1. Peggy, I would defer to the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific stove/range. Some induction cooktops DO work with enameled cast iron pans such as Staub and Le Creuset, but it’s always safest to check with customer service for the brand you own so you don’t void your warranty and damage your oven, your pans, or yourself.

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