Why Is It So Difficult To Clean A Cast Iron Skillet?

Cast iron skillets are supposed to be one of the most durable and well-balanced cooking surfaces available to the average at-home cook, but why do they have such a bad reputation when it comes to the cleaning process?

For the longest time, cast iron purists preached until they were blue in the face that using soap and a brush to clean the surface of your skillet was sacrilegious because it wipes away the years of seasoning that has built up. And although that myth has been debunked time and time again, there's still a common belief that cast iron skillets are one of the most difficult surfaces to properly clean.

If you don't trust the newfound philosophy of proper cast iron cleaning with soap, water, and very little effort, or don't want to conjure up any unwanted ghosts of cast iron past, here are a few techniques to properly clean your favorite skillet.

Beef steak cooking in cast iron skillet

How To Clean A Cast Iron Skillet

Time is of the essence when you are cleaning your cast iron skillet. Although you don't want to start cleaning the cooking surface as soon as you remove it from heat (it retains heat for quite a while), you will want to start the cleaning process when the skillet is still warm. Once the surface is cool enough to handle, you can use any of the following methods.

The Water Method

After every use, it's advised to clean the surface of the cast iron skillet with hot water and a nonmetal brush or cloth. This might not remove all of the food bits left behind, but it's a good starting point.

  1. Wipe surface clean of food bits and grease with a paper towel.
  2. Rinse skillet with hot running water and scrub the surface using a soft, nonmetal brush or cloth.
  3. Dry the surface of the skillet. Leaving a wet skillet to air dry can cause rusting.

The Salt Method

More stubborn bits of food and grease will require a little extra work to remove, and that's where the salt method comes in.

  1. Wipe surface clean of food bits and grease
  2. Pour 1 cup of coarse kosher salt onto the skillet.
  3. Use a folded paper towel to scour the surface of the skillet.
  4. Rinse the skillet under hot running water and then dry the surface.

The Soap Method

Remember what we said about people getting on your case about using soap to clean a cast iron skillet? Well, if you really want to stick it to them, you can go with the soap method. Hey, it's not as bad as it sounds and you're probably doing it anyways.

  1. Add a small amount of dish soap to the skillet.
  2. Take a scrubbing device (sponge, rag, etc.) and scrub the entire surface of the skillet with soap and hot water.
  3. Rinse all food bits, grease, and soap with hot running water.
  4. Scrub the skillet one more time with a little bit of soap.
  5. Rinse off the remaining soap and dry the skillet.

This method should probably be a last ditch effort to remove any stubborn food bits, but it's a viable option nonetheless.

All three methods require some sort of seasoning after you clean the cast iron skillet, so don't forget that crucial step to conclude the cleaning process. Luckily, we have a step-by-step guide below.

A cast iron skillet being cleaned

How To Season A Cast Iron Skillet

Seasoning a cast iron skillet after it's been cleaned is just as, if not more, important than actually cleaning the surface in the first place. Leaving the skillet without a healthy layer of oil will leave it susceptible to rust, which is never a good thing with any pan or skillet.

You will want to season the cast iron after each cleaning, but the intensity of the process depends on how you went about cleaning your skillet in the first place. If you simply cleaned the cast iron with water and some light scrubbing, you'll only need to rub about a tablespoon of oil around the surface and call it a day.

If you are having to do some heavy duty cleaning, perhaps after cooking up a couple of hearty steaks, you are going to need to take a more thorough approach.

Seasoning To Revive Your Cast Iron Skillet

With a little bit of elbow grease and a few materials, you're dull or rusty cast iron skillet will be as good as new.

  1. First preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Thoroughly wash the skillet and then dry with paper towels (skip this step if you have already cleaned the skillet)
  3. Pour a thin layer (one to two tablespoons) of vegetable oil or shortening onto the skillet.
  4. Rub the oil to coat the entire surface.
  5. Place the skillet upside down in the oven and place a cookie sheet or layer of foil on the rack below; bake for one hour.
  6. Turn of the heat after an hour and allow the skillet to cool before removing.

After that, your skillet should be good to go and you'll be cooking in no time.

Breakfast in a cast iron skillet

Foods To Avoid Cooking In A Cast Iron Skillet

Even though cast iron skillets are one of the most balanced and durable cooking surfaces, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything should be cooked on one. For every giant cookie that's perfect in a cast iron skillet, there are things like delicate fish and acidic foods that are better reserved for other cooking surfaces.

Here are a few of the foods that you should avoid cooking in a cast iron skillet.

Acidic Foods

It's probably a good idea to reserve your more acidic sauces for something more forgiving like a stainless steel saucepan opposed to a cast iron skillet. This is because the acid in sauces like a lemon reduction or stewed tomato sauce can loosen molecules from the metal which can find their way into your food. The acid can also break down the coat of seasoning you worked so hard to achieve.

Pungent Foods

Garlic might be delicious, but it definitely doesn't compliment every food you might prepare in your cast iron. If you don't want the next dish prepared in your cast iron skillet to taste like garlic, strong peppers, or other aromatics, you might want to refrain from cooking those ingredients in your cast iron skillet.

Delicate Fish

The cast iron skillet's ability to retain heat can be both a blessing and a curse depending on what you're cooking. The latter happens to be the case for delicate white fish which can easily break apart under the high temps retained with cast iron.

Remember when using a cast iron skillet that it is always best to clean it after every use, make sure it's nice and seasoned, and please don't cook any overly pungent foods in it. If you follow these simple steps, your cast iron skillet can be handed down for generations of scrumptious cooking.

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