Cleaning and seasoning cast iron can be intimidating. There is a common misconception that cast iron is delicate and easy to mess-up. The reality could not be further from the truth. Humans have been cooking on cast iron for centuries. Its durability and utility have made it a staple in kitchens around the world, from traditional Asia cooking culture to New York steak houses. After learning these simple steps to clean your cast iron skillet, you’ll be ready to tackle any meal or mess!

Five Easy Steps to Cleaning Cast Iron

Wipe it out: After your skillet has cooled and is warm enough to touch, wipe the interior to remove any oil or food residue. Cleaning cast iron when it is still warm will reduce the time and difficulty of cleaning your pan and help prevent food from sticking. If you are able to clean the skillet out by simply wiping it out, stop here. Having a small amount of oil after cleaning is not a problem. In fact, keeping a pan from drying out is an important part of long term maintenance. Over-cleaning your cast iron pan is unnecessary and will only stand to damage your seasoning. For many meals, this will be the only necessary step to cleaning your skillet. If you are unable to clean out cooked on food or your meal had a particularly strong flavor that you want to avoid imparting on your next dish, proceed to the next step.
Clean it up: After you’ve done some preliminary cleaning, wash with warm water and a mild dish soap. If your skillet requires a more aggressive cleanse, we recommend using a chainmail scrubber. It’s important to not use anything too aggressive such as steel wool, sponges or other abrasive cleaning methods as these will strip your seasoning. For particularly difficult to clean messes, fill your pan halfway full with water and heat over the stove. As the water heats up, the sticky leftover food particles should soften and become easier to wipe out. After allowing the water to come to a near boil, pour the water from your skillet and use a chainmail scrubber to remove all food particles.
Dry it off: It is important to rinse and dry your cast iron skillet immediately after cleaning. We recommend using a lint-free towel. NEVER allow cast iron to air-dry as this can allow rust to build. This is particularly important if you have just used soap. Remoisturizing your skillet with oil will be crucial in the next step.
Heat it up: Place your clean cast iron skillet over low heat for 5-10 minutes. This will remove any additional moisture left on the skillet after wiping it dry with a towel. Remove the pan from the heat after all water has evaporated and wipe with a small amount of cast iron seasoning or a half teaspoon of high smoke point oil throughout the interior of your skillet. Be sure to remove any excess oil/seasoning blend, leaving the surface all but dry after wiping the oil out with a separate cloth or towel.
Store it carefully: Store your skillet in a cool dark dry place or on the stovetop for regular use. If you have multiple cast iron pans, avoid the temptation of stacking them on top of each other for long periods of time as this can tarnish the seasoning. We also recommend hanging them proudly on your kitchen walls!

Things to Never do when Cleaning a Lancaster Cast Iron Skillet

Use an abrasive cleaning method such as a steel wool sponge: This will weaken or strip your seasoning.
Soak your cast iron skillet in the sink: This will ultimately lead to a rusty skillet.
Run your cast iron skillet in the dishwasher: Once again, an overexposure to moisture will lead to rust. Additionally, the dishwasher will strip the seasoning that you’ve worked so hard to build.

How Clean is too Clean?

Many new cast iron users will be inclined to clean their cast iron skillet like they might clean their other non-iron cookware and dinnerware. While it is important to clean off cooked-on food and unwanted strong flavors, overcleaning cast iron can result in drying your skillet out or stripping the seasoning. Seasoning is the coating that protects your iron and makes it nonstick. Aggressively removing residue from the bottom of your pan can result in lifting your protective seasoning. Additionally, iron is a porous material. Similarly to other porous materials, such as wood, you want to maintain a healthy amount of moisture, in this case, from oil.

Is it Ok to use Soap to Clean Cast Iron?

There may not be a more controversial question amongst cast iron enthusiasts than that of washing cast iron with soap. While many will say that it is never ok to use soap on a cast iron skillet, in reality, this is not the case. While soap is often not necessary for cleaning a skillet when a simple wipe out will do, using a small amount of dish soap is completely acceptable.

The myth of not using soap with cast iron cookware comes from a misunderstanding of seasoning. While soap will de-grease your skillet and require you to re-oil your skillet before storage, it will not eliminate the seasoning.

What is Seasoning?

“Seasoning” is the term that everyone associates with cast iron. There are many myths surrounding the word as well as misunderstandings about what exactly the term means. To put it simply, seasoning on cast iron is polymerized oils that are dried and hardened by heat which form a thin protective layer on your skillet. This layer protects the skillet from rust and is a natural and non-toxic barrier between the pan and your food. Because cast iron is porous by nature, oil fills in the pours before being hardened during polymerization, giving your Lancaster skillet a glass smooth surface.

Polymerization occurs when an oil is heated past its smoke point. At Lancaster Cast Iron, we apply two coats of “seasoning” to your skillet before shipping it to you. This means that we apply a very thin coating of pure grapeseed oil before baking each skillet at 480 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. This is repeated a second time. When the oil reaches its smoke point, it is chemically altered (polymerized) into something that is similar to a natural plastic. We double season our skillets to allow you to begin cooking in your Lancaster skillet immediately. That being said, seasoning is something that is built up and perfected over time through general use and cooking. Each time you heat a skillet up to sear a steak, sauté some veggies, or bake off some cornbread, you are contributing to the seasoning of your skillet.

If you accidentally strip your seasoning with acidic foods or want to add a full additional layer of seasoning to your skillet, check out our guide to season your cast iron.

How to Remove Rust from Cast Iron

When exposed to air or moisture, iron naturally rusts. This compound, also known as iron oxide, is a result of oxidation which occurs when iron comes in contact with oxygen. This is a naturally-occurring reaction that we always want to avoid with cookware. The best methods of prevention are following the cleaning steps laid out above. Maintaining a healthy layer of polymerized seasoning as well as a light base of oil will prevent almost all cases or rust from occurring.

If you do find that some rust has appeared on your skillet as a result of water droplets, damaged seasoning, or soaking in the sink overnight, first attempt to remove it with an oiled towel. If the rust proves to be more substantial and cannot be removed with this method, this is the time to use an abrasive sponge or steel wool. Other effective methods include scrubbing with coarse table salt and vegetable oil using a halved potato. After removing the rust and washing your skillet, follow our instructions for re-seasoning your cast iron skillet.

Best Methods for Cast Iron Storage

When you’ve finished cleaning or re-seasoning your skillet, you will need to think about where and how it is being stored. The best place to keep your Lancaster skillet is right on top of the stove, ready for use the next day. For those who prefer to keep their iron stored away, areas with large amounts of moisture such as near a sink or dishwasher should be avoided. Typically the best place would be inside of an enclosed cupboard or pantry. Avoid the common temptation to stack your pans as this can damage the seasoning. Another great way to store your cast iron skillet is to hang it either below a cupboard or on the wall, displaying the unique design of your Griswold, Wagner or Lancaster.

Cleaning Cast Iron Glossary

Chainmail - Stainless steel loops woven together in a washcloth sized piece that is typically used to clean and remove food particles from cookware
Polymerization - Chemical reaction that occurs when heating an oil beyond its smoke point. Molecules bond to form larger structures of polymer chains
Seasoning - Layers of polymerized fats that create a non-stick cooking surface on cast iron cookware
Smoke Point - Temperature at which oil or fat breaks down and begins to give off smoke