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How To Clean & Maintain Cast Iron (It's Easier Than You Think — Promise!)

Emma Loewe
Author:
June 03, 2021
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
how to clean cast iron
Image by NADINE GREEFF / Stocksy
June 03, 2021
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Cast iron's ability to retain heat makes it a popular pick for home cooking. And when properly maintained, this is one durable material that will only get better with age.

Take it from Rachael Narins, the author of Cast-Iron Cooking, who has collected dozens of vintage cast-iron pans over her tenure as a chef. "Treat it well and your great-grandkids will use it," Narins tells mbg.

The key to keeping these pans in cooking condition is maintaining their protective outer coating (aka seasoning) so their base iron layer doesn't fall prey to pesky rust. Here's the best way to clean, maintain, and refresh them.

How to clean cast iron.

While many people are skittish about cleaning cast iron, Narins says that it's easier than you might think. "It's still a piece of cookware," she says. "You wash it, you dry it, you put it away."

Follow this step-by-step routine to keep the coating on yours in good shape after every use:

What you'll need:

  • Nonabrasive scrubber (a chain mail or sponge would both work well)
  • Clean towel
  • Dish soap (if needed)
  • Coarse salt (if needed)
  • Food-grade oil or fat that has a neutral flavor like flaxseed oil, canola oil, or lard (if needed)

Method:

  1. After cooking, take your pan off the heat and drop any leftover food into the trash or compost bin. Let cool slightly before bringing it over to the sink.
  2. Rinse your pan with hot water. Use a sponge to gently wipe out any lingering food residue. If you have more caked-on stains, Narins says it's OK to add a bit of soap as needed. Adding some coarse salt can also help; its texture will further loosen stains. NOTE: Don't scrub your pan using anything too abrasive like a steel wool scouring pad, as it can damage that precious outer coating. Instead, use a scrubber specifically designed for cast iron or something soft like a sponge.
  3. Rinse your pan out thoroughly, washing away any soap or salt.
  4. Wipe down your pan using a dish towel, or pop it back onto a stovetop burner or in a warm, 350°F oven for a few minutes until completely dry. NOTE: You never want to leave your pan out to air dry, as it will rust.
  5. If you'd like, you can wipe a thin layer of food-grade oil into your pan using a paper towel or cloth to further reinforce its protective coating. This will help it maintain its sheen over time. However, Narins says that if you're already cooking with oil, it should be well-seasoned and this step won't be necessary.
  6. If you notice that your pan has any rusty or dull spots, you'll need to re-season it (more on that below).

How to maintain cast iron (top do's and don'ts).

In addition to giving your pan a good wash and dry after each use, use these tips to keep it strong:

Do:

  • Always use oil or natural fat when cooking with your cast iron. This will help maintain its protective, nonstick seasoning.
  • Invest in a separate pan for fish if possible, as cast iron tends to absorb strong flavors.
  • Re-season your pan if you see any rust or dull spots forming. If you treat your pan well, this shouldn't happen.

Don't:

  • Boil water in your cast iron, as it can make it get rusty.
  • Leave your cast iron soaking in water.
  • Put your cast iron in the dishwater.

How to season cast iron.

Accidentally leave your cast iron sitting in the sink overnight? It will likely look dull and rusty in the morning, but it's not the end of the world. Cleaning and re-seasoning it should help you get its smooth, glossy finish back.

What you'll need:

  • Nonabrasive scrubber (a chain mail or sponge would both work well)
  • Oven
  • Clean towel
  • Dish soap (if needed)
  • Coarse salt (if needed)
  • Food-grade oil or fat that has a neutral flavor like flaxseed oil, canola oil, or lard (if needed)

Method:

  1. Clean all the food out of your pan using the aforementioned rinsing routine.
  2. Once dry, use a paper towel or cloth to rub 2 tablespoons of food-grade, neutral oil in a thin layer over the inside and outside of your pan. Use one that has a high smoke point, as your cast iron is headed to the oven next.
  3. Wipe out excess oil and pop your pan upside down in a 500°F (260°C) oven, with a baking sheet on the rack underneath it to catch any drips.
  4. After one hour, the oil should polymerize and harden, forming an all-natural nonstick coating. Let your pan cool in the oven before handling.

FAQs:

When should I season my pan?

Narins explains that if you buy an untreated cast-iron pan, you'll want to season it when you get home to seal it off before cooking with it. After that, you shouldn't need to season it unless you notice that it's getting rusty or dull.

A seasoned pan will look glossy, shiny, and smooth, like well-conditioned leather.

What about enameled cast iron?

Since enameled cast iron has been pretreated with a glaze, it doesn't need to be seasoned, Sierra Tishgart, the co-founder and CEO of cookware company Great Jones, tells mbg.

Unlike traditional cast iron, enameled pans and Dutch ovens will also be fine in the dishwasher, though they don't stand up quite as well in heat and should be kept off the grill.

How should I store cast iron?

Cast iron can be stacked and stored along with your other pans, but Narins likes to leave hers out on the stove as a reminder to cook with it. Since cast-iron pans also tend to be on the heavier side, this will also save you from lugging it around.

The bottom line.

Cast-iron pans have a reputation for being hard to maintain, but once you have a baseline understanding of how this durable, sustainable material works, you'll be ready to cook with it again and again (and again).

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