Cast-iron skillets are a must-have in any home cook’s kitchen. But despite being such heavy-duty cookware, they can be sensitive to a thorough washing. Knowing how to clean a cast-iron skillet correctly is essential to its longevity and its everyday performance.
Your two main goals: Avoid rust by keeping the skillet dry when not in use, and protect the pan’s seasoning layer so it stays nonstick. If you skip a proper cleaning, residual food can get stuck between layers of seasoning and create an irregular surface that attracts gunk—the opposite of what you want.
While non-enameled cast-iron cookware takes some extra care, it’s well worth the lifetime of usage you’ll get from a single pan. Make these simple steps a habit to enjoy superior roast chicken, fried chicken, frittatas, Dutch babies, cornbread, and other great cast-iron dishes, for years to come.
1. Wash while it’s still warm.
Start the process soon after cooking to prevent any food remnants from getting stuck as the pan cools. While your pan is still warm, bring it to the sink and wash it with a drop of dish soap. (Yes, despite popular belief, a little soap is fine if you remember to re-season your cast-iron skillet as needed. The water should be warm too, as you never want to shock cast iron with a sudden and drastic temperature change from cold water, since this could cause warping and even cracking.
Wash with something that will scour but not scratch. Avoid steel wool and go with something like a Dobie sponge, a stiff brush, a chain-mail scrubber, or our favorite, a Kamenoko Tawashi scrubber made from palm fibers. Gently scrub off any food bits and oil, then rinse thoroughly and move on immediately to drying.
2. Dry it completely.
Moisture is the enemy here, so you avoid soaking your skillet in the sink and never put it in the dishwasher. Doing so can lead to rust, a serious (but not irreversible!) affliction for cast iron.
Start by drying with an absorbent dishcloth, then set the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop over low heat for a few minutes until there’s no trace of moisture.
3. Give it a light oiling.
Rub the dry skillet all over, including the bottom and the handle, with a very thin layer of neutral cooking oil, such as canola or vegetable oil, the same way you would after seasoning. This helps protect the nonstick surface, further fighting the risk of rusty cast iron.
A little goes a long way here—you should only need about ¼ to ½ teaspoon. Wipe out the inside and buff off any excess oil with a dishcloth or a paper towel, then store in a dry place.
A note for those stuck-on bits…
Cast-iron skillets are excellent at heat retention, which is one of the reasons we love them. But that also makes it easier for gunk to get lodged onto their cooking surface.
If that happens, add this step to your cleaning routine: Before going in with the soapy water, sprinkle on a good amount of kosher salt (2 to 3 Tbsp. for a 10-inch pan). Add a few drops of warm water, then use your sponge to scrub away the mess. When cleaning a seasoned cast-iron skillet with salt, the crystals act as an abrasive to remove those tougher messes without damaging your pan.
If the crispy bits won’t budge, fill the skillet about halfway with water and boil for a few minutes. The hot water will release some gunk, but go in with a wooden spoon to scrape up the rest.
Either way, don’t forget to finish the washing process, dry completely, and oil lightly as usual before storing. And remember, food sticking to the pan can be a result of a worn-down coating, which may be a hint that it’s time to do a little cast iron re-seasoning.