They’re incredibly hardy pieces of equipment.

By Margaret Eby
June 12, 2020
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Cast-iron skillets seem to confound people. It makes sense, in an era of nonstick cookware and stainless steel, that they could be intimidating. The rules are different. They have to be seasoned before you start cooking with them. And to maintain that all-natural nonstick coating, you have to be careful when cleaning them too. You don’t soak them. You can’t put them in the dishwasher. If you mention that you have one on Twitter, many white dudes will lecture you on their proper care and maintenance and make you wonder . But I’m here to soothe your nerves and let you know a simple truth: It is very, very hard to irreparably mess up a cast iron skillet.

Are there best practices for keeping cast iron at peak condition? Sure there are. First, it’s helpful to know that when people warn against “ruining” a cast-iron skillet, usually they’re talking about the seasoning. Cast iron pans improve every time you use them, thanks to an accumulation of oil and fat particles baked onto the surface. That layer is the seasoning, and the more it accumulates, the more nonstick the pan will be. 

Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

That’s why it’s best to avoid cleaning the pan using products that strip oils and fats from its surface dishwashing detergent and dish soap. (A little soap if you need it is probably fine, just be super sparing.) But if you, or your roommate, or some other well-meaning kitchen helper ends up putting your skillet through the dishwasher, don’t panic. You can re-season a cast iron skillet. All you need to do is coat the pan, inside and out, in a neutral oil, like vegetable oil. I usually splash a little onto a paper towel and rub it all over the skillet until it looks evenly coated—a tablespoon or two should do it. It doesn’t need to be  and put it in a 300F oven for three or four hours. Then the seasoning will start building back up. 

The best way to clean a cast iron skillet is by hand. Lodge, the iconic cast-iron cookware company, recommends a three-step process. First, scrape off any bits of food—a pan scraper works well for this. I own this clever little piece of chainmail that scrubs off any stray food particles easily, and I recommend it if you’re nervous about cleaning cast iron. If you need to, you can use a little bit of dish soap, but be sure to rinse it off immediately. If food is really stuck on, simmer a little water in the pan for three to five minutes, let the pan cool, and then try the scraper.

Second, dry your skillet promptly with a dish towel or paper towels. Cast iron is a big hunk of iron, after all. Too much exposure to water will cause it to rust. You can still salvage a rusted pan by scraping and re-seasoning it as long as it hasn’t totally rusted through, but it’s more of a pain than just wiping the skillet dry every time you use it. If I’m doing other work in the kitchen, I sometimes put the clean skillet over a low flame on the stove for a few minutes just to make sure all the water has evaporated.

Third, coat the pan in a little bit of neutral oil. You don’t need much here, just a light coating. Again, I’d splash a little onto a paper towel and rub it in, or you can use a seasoning spray. That’s it! You did it, the pan is good to go. Don’t stress too much about cast iron skillets. They’ve been around a long time, and you have to really work hard—or throw one into the ocean and never retrieve it—to make it unusable.