How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware Thoroughly and Properly

How To Clean Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron skillets and pans have made a major comeback in recent years for good reason – when treated properly, they provide unparalleled non-stick performance and unmatched heat retention perfect for searing steaks, frying eggs, and more. But keeping cast iron cookware in tip-top shape requires learning how to clean it properly without damaging the seasoning.

The best way to clean cast iron is gentle, without soap, abrasives, or putting it in the dishwasher, using a combination of scraping, rinsing, salt as an abrasive, baking soda, and vinegar to remove stuck on food and debris while preserving the natural non-stick patina.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about effectively cleaning cast iron cookware while avoiding common mistakes that can damage it.

An Introduction to Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron has been used for hundreds of years thanks to its versatility, durability, and natural non-stick seasoning that develops over time. While extremely tough, cast iron does require proper maintenance and cleaning methods to keep it in good shape.

Cast iron gets better with use as layers of oil polymerize onto the metal to create a natural non-stick surface. This is why you’ll often hear about “seasoning” cast iron.

However, this protective patina can easily be compromised if the wrong cleaning techniques are used that strip away oil residue and leave the cookware exposed.

How Does Seasoning Work on Cast Iron?

The seasoning on cast iron consists of thin layers of oil that have been baked onto the metal’s surface at high heat. This provides natural non-stick properties and prevents rusting. Oils used for seasoning undergo a chemical reaction called polymerization, turning into a plastic-like coating. Heating causes the oil’s molecules to cross-link, forming bonds with the iron molecules in the cookware.

Seasoning can handle general wear and tear from cooking and won’t wash off with water. However, harsh soaps/detergents or abrasives can remove this essential layer.

Properly cleaning and caring for cast iron prevents damage to this seasoning so your pans stay naturally non-stick.

What NOT to Do When Cleaning Cast Iron

It’s important to avoid certain cleaning methods that will compromise the integrity of your cast iron cookware:

Don’t Use Soap or Detergent

Dish soaps are designed to break down oils and fats – directly conflicting with seasoning layers of baked-on oil.

Most experts recommended avoiding detergent entirely on cast iron. The surfactants in dish soap will quickly strip away seasoning and leave iron vulnerable to rust.

Don’t Put Cast Iron in the Dishwasher

The harsh spray, detergent, and hot water/drying of a dishwasher is a perfect recipe for destroying the seasoning on cast iron.

The dishwasher’s caustic environment will cause baked-on oil layers to rapidly break down. Don’t take the risk.

Don’t Use Steel Wool or Abrasive Pads

It can be tempting to use an abrasive material like steel wool or sandpaper to remove stubborn stuck-on food.

However, this will quickly scrape off your cast iron’s seasoning – and remove actual iron along with it. Abrasives should be avoided at all costs.

Safe & Effective Cleaning Methods for Cast Iron

Instead of the above harsh cleaning methods, use these gentle techniques to remove grime and maintain your cast iron cookware:

1. Rinse with Hot Water

After cooking, food debris and residues can simply be rinsed away using hot water. Oftentimes, this basic rinsing is all that’s needed after usage.

For more stuck-on food, use a stiff nylon brush under hot running water to gently dislodge any remaining bits without damaging the seasoning.

2. Make a Salt Scrub

If oil and grease need more lifting after a rinse, make a basic scrub with kosher salt and water. Apply the damp salt and gently rub with a soft cloth or sponge.

The salt works as a gentle abrasive to lift debris without harming the seasoning. Kosher salt is preferred over iodized salt which can leave a taste/residue.

3. Baking Soda Paste

For more heavy-duty cast iron cleaning, a baking soda paste effectively tackles tougher grease and cooked-on messes.

Mix a 1:1 ratio of baking soda with water until a thick paste forms. Apply the paste and let sit for 5-10 minutes before scrubbing and rinsing away. The light abrasion from baking soda won’t harm the seasoning.

4. Vinegar Rinse

Vinegar cuts through grease and adds a bit of shine. Mix a 1:1 ratio of water and distilled white vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes. Let cool, wipe the pan with a solution, and rinse.

Vinegar also helps eliminate odors and food smells that can linger in cast iron cookware.

Seasoning and Re-Seasoning Cast Iron

Part of the cleaning process is often re-seasoning to refresh and reinforce your pan’s protective coating.

Start with a fully cleaned and dried pan. Coat all surfaces inside and out with a thin layer of oil like grapeseed, vegetable, or Crisco using a paper towel or cloth.

Place upside down on the middle rack in the oven at 375°F for 1 hour. Let cool fully. Repeat the oil and heating process up to 5x for optimal seasoning. The pan will turn dark black as layers are added.

Proper Storage for Cast Iron Cookware

After cleaning and drying fully, rub the inside of your cast iron with a very light coating of oil if stored for more than a couple of days – this prevents moisture from causing rust during storage.

Avoid stacking cast iron cookware when storing. The weight can damage the seasoning layers. Use pan protectors in between if stacking is unavoidable.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cleaning Cast Iron

Can I put cast iron in the dishwasher to clean it?

No, dishwashers are too harsh and involve detergents, heat, and water pressure that will quickly strip away seasoning. Hand wash only.

How often should you clean cast iron pans?

Clean after every use – let pans cool fully before cleaning. Quickly wiping out after cooking prevents a heavy build-up.

Is it ok to clean cast iron with cold water?

Yes, you can safely use cool water to clean cast iron without issue as long as you follow the other guidelines. Avoid extreme temperature changes.

Should I use kosher or sea salt to make a scrub?

Kosher salt is preferred as it has larger grains that act as a gentler abrasive. Sea salt is finer and may be overly abrasive on seasoning.

Conclusion

With proper care and the right cleaning techniques, cast iron cookware can become naturally non-stick and last for decades as a kitchen workhorse. Avoid harsh soaps or abrasive materials, and rely on hot water, salt, or baking soda for scrubbing, and re-seasoning to keep pans looking and performing like new. Following these cast iron cleaning best practices will help ensure your cookware stays in top form for years to come.

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