Oh, the cast iron skillet. There are so many fans — and count us among them! — who praise its ability to cook just about anything, evenly, non-stickily without Teflon and last for hundreds of years. These things are family heirlooms! And it’s intimidating to clean an heirloom! Once you know how to clean cast iron, you’ll see it’s not as finicky and high maintenance as it seems.

Cleaning cast iron isn’t hard.

We should share some good news right from the start: these things are basically indestructible. There’s nothing you can do to them that can’t be undone with a bit of elbow  grease. (Soaked cast iron that become a scary rust wading pool, we know you!) If things have gone that far, you’ll need to re-season your pan; otherwise, cleaning is as simply as unsticking the bits stuck to the pan.

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You’ll need:
Paper towels
Scrubber sponge (like a Dobie pad)
Or a stiff scrub brush (like the OXO Good Grips Cast Iron Pan Brush
Or a scrubber (like The Ringer)
Or a wooden spoon
Kosher salt (optional)
Vegetable oil (optional)

What you’ll see in the stores:
Lodge SCRAPERGPK Grooved polycarbonate scrapers that fit Lodge brand cast iron grills
Lodge SCRBRSH A stiff bristle brush with a sad handle. Not recommended
Easy Off Oven Cleaner An aerosol lye cleaner for rust removal, not regular cleaning
Bar Keepers Friend A non-abrasive powder for rust removal, not regular cleaning

Don’t use:
Soap (OK, some people use a bit of soap, but they live on the edge)
Steel wool

How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

Method One: A Paper Towel

If there’s not much in the skillet, give it a quick wipe with a paper towel. You want to get any food bits off while preserving the coating and this is really as easy as it gets. Wait until the pan’s cool enough to touch, but not so cool that everything’s crusted onto it semi-permanently. This isn’t embarrassing laziness, it’s genius.

Method Two: Hot Water to a Hot Cast Iron Skillet

Add hot water to the hot pan. Scrub (lightly) with a scrub brush or a sponge. This chain mail scrubber works wonders, too. Then rinse!

If there are any stuck bits, add some Kosher salt and a bit of water. Use a wooden spoon (or a plastic pot scraper) to get them off, then give it another rinse.

Why kosher salt instead of table salt? The crystals on Kosher salt are larger so they’re more abrasive. If you’re also using water or oil, table salt is more likely to dissolve, which won’t help the cause, now will it?

To pull all of the remaining water out of the skillet, pop that sucker on the stovetop over low heat. You’ll see the last bits of water fizzle away. (Some people like to do this step with a towel, but the danger of leaving some moisture in the skillet isn’t worth it to us — and it’s honestly easier to pop the heat back on for another minute.)

When it’s completely dry, it’s time to re-oil.

Skip this step if you didn’t give your cast iron a tough cleaning.

Use vegetable oil or shortening. How much? Enough to give the entire skillet a thin coating. Remember to apply the oil to the bottom of the skillet, the sides, and the handle. Cast iron is porous, so if you don’t hit all sides, the oil will move to the section that’s not oiled. Then, with a fresh paper towel or more newsprint, give the entire thing a quick buff to remove the excess.

Yes, you can still use this soapless method after cooking meat. If you cooked the meat to temperature, you also cooked everything else in the pan (like juices, etc) to temperature, too. Clean the pan while it’s still warm and there’s nothing to worry about!

If you’ve cleaned your cast iron a little bit too much, you’ll want to re-season it. (Don’t freak out — you haven’t ruined anything and this step is just about as easy as cleaning it!)

Method Three: Alton Brown Cleans Cast Iron

If there’s already fat in the pan, great — don’t get rid of it. If there isn’t, add some. Then toss in a tablespoon or so of kosher salt and scrub with a wad of paper towels. Dump the salt and wipe your pan out with fresh paper towels. Tada! (This method also works best while the pan is still hot!) How’s it work? The fat and salt form a sort of abrasive eraser that scrubs off any detritus and bits of the fat fill the cast iron’s pores along the way.

How to Clean Rust off a Cast Iron Skillet

You’ll need: 
Steel wool or a scrubber like The Ringer
Or baking soda and a potato
Or vinegar and water
Or Easy Off Oven Cleaner or Bar Keepers Friend (Most intense!)

After you remove the rust, you’ll have a bare piece of cast iron (that’ll immediately start to re-rust), so proceed immediately to re-seasoning! These are ordered from least intense to most intense — start at the top and work your way down.

Method One: Scrub

Take a bit of steel wool — or The Ringer, which we love — and scrub until it’s gone. Give it a quick rinse, dry it over the stovetop, then re-season it!

Method Two: Baking Soda

Sprinkle a bit of baking soda on the skillet and rub it with a cut potato (just a raw regular one). Sounds crazy, works like crazy. Give it a rinse, a dry, and a re-season.

Method Three: Vinegar and Water

Soak your cast iron in a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. Dunk your pan in the solution and check it frequently — it should be finished within 12 hours and no more than 24 hours. Vinegar will cause the rust to bubble off, but the moment that unprotected cast iron hits air it’ll start to rust again — so don’t wait for a completely perfect pan. Completely clean the pan to get the vinegar solution off. If you have washing soda around, this works best because it’s a base and will counter the vinegar’s acidity. 

Method Four: A More Powerful Cleaner

Two other methods we like are Easy Off Oven Cleaner, which is a super powerful lye cleaner you typically blast into your oven, and Bar Keepers Friend, a non-abrasive powder that looks sort of like Comet. Follow the package directions and then proceed to re-season!

Method Five: The Self-Clean Cycle

Some people say it’s also possible to renew a rusted out cast iron by putting it in the oven on the self-cleaning cycle. That’s basically exposing it to super high heat, and we don’t recommend it. The self-cleaning cycle on the oven can actually wear out the oven in the long run.

How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet

You’ll need:
Oven set to 500 degrees
A clean and rust-free cast iron skillet
Organic cold-pressed flaxseed oil
Paper towels

Remove all of the rust from your cast iron, then coat the pan in a thin layer of flaxseed oil. Then wipe it off — until it looks basically dry. Put your cast iron pan upside down in the top rack of the oven and turn it on as high as it’ll go, probably 500 degrees. Once the oven hits temp, let your cast iron bake for an hour. At the end of the hour, turn off the oven and let it cool completely. When you take your skillet out of the oven, it’s seasoned!

How it works: The oil bonds to the metal, creating a stick-resistant surface that also preventing scratches, rust, and other contaminants.

Cast iron skillet maker, Lodge, says any oil is fine but we’ve seen more than one chef recommend cold pressed organic flaxseed oil. Sheryl Canter explains why — flaxseed oil is the only food safe drying oil that’ll truly form a hard seal not by drying out but by polymerizing. (You can find flaxseed oil in the refrigerated section of the health food store.)

Other oils people use:

Vegetable or canola oil
Extra virgin olive oil
Coconut oil
Shortening or another hydrogenated oil
Mineral oil
Bacon grease

These aren’t harmful really; they just don’t create the same tough, even seal as flaxseed oil.

Can I boil water in a cast iron skillet?

Some people say No! Never! Why would you say that! It’s a treasure, an heirloom, etc, etc. But we’re not those people and we don’t like to keep them around, either.

Honestly, the only truly irreparable damage is a hole in your skillet.

We’ve found that it’s fine to boil things in cast iron occasionally — simply add a bit more oil after you clean it — but we also don’t think it makes a ton of sense. When you’re boiling you don’t need a nonstick surface, and you might be boiling your patina off, so why risk it? You can boil a bit of water in your skillet if you need to release a bit of something that’s stuck on.

My pan’s sticky — what’s that about?

There are three things that could have gone wrong: too much oil, not enough heat, or didn’t bake it long enough. Best next move is to scrub it all off and start over.

In Sum

Step 1: Start with a great surface by seasoning with organic cold pressed flaxseed oil
Step 2: For light clean up, simply wipe with a paper towel
Step 3: For tougher jobs, add a bit of hot water to the hot pan and scrub with a non-abrasive brush
Step 4: Put the skillet on the stove over low heat to remove the excess moisture
Step 5: Re-season or re-oil as needed