Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cleaning Your Cast Iron Cookware

“If everybody's thinking alike, somebody isn't thinking.”

Cleaning your cast iron after use is one of those things that is easier than many people think. As a bonus, if you use and take care of your iron properly it gets consistently better over time.

If you remember only two things from this post please remember:

1) Use your cast iron often. Frequent use improves the seasoning which makes the iron more nonstick. The improving nonstick quality is, in turn, going to make cleanup easier. Cleaning the cast iron properly will not degrade the nonstick properties and will make cooking with the iron even easier. It is kind of a Yin and Yang thing.

2) Clean the iron with the least aggressive method that will do the job. If a quick wipe with a paper towel and a rinse under hot water is sufficient then don't use a stiff brush and soap.

Use and cleaning are interrelated with cast iron. You should be giving your iron a nice slow warm up on a fairly low heat setting. Let a skillet warm up for 5 minutes at medium low rather than cranking the heat to high and trying to use it in 2 minutes. Adding too much heat too quickly to cast iron is about the only way to warp it in daily use.

Add oil to your preheated skillet right before adding the food. This prevents sticking which makes cleanup easier.

After cooking remember that cast iron stays hot for a very long time. Let it cool until it is warm enough to handle without a hot pad. Letting cast iron heat up and cool down slowly is important. If your cooking application requires rapid changes in temperature you should be using aluminum or copper. Horses for courses as the idiom says.

Most of the time all I do to clean a piece of cast iron is to run the hottest tap water into the piece while gently using a brush to remove any food items. I then dry the piece by putting it into the oven at 250 degrees or putting it on a stove burner set to low. Using heat to finish drying is critical for both removing all traces of moisture (especially for those who live in humid areas) as well as sanitizing the cookware.

Update: I now recommend woven plastic scrubbers over a brush. Same process, different tool.

You may be wondering about the use of soap. I think it is unnecessary for most cleaning and will definitely impair the early seasoning process of a piece of cast iron.

I think it is OK to set a well seasoned piece of cast iron in some mildly soapy dishwater if you just fried a mess of catfish and want to remove the odor. I would not do this with a skillet that is still developing a seasoning. (if a fried egg does not glide around inside a skillet it isn't fully seasoned yet) Adding harsh soap directly to the iron cookware and scrubbing it with a dishrag or brush will set your seasoning back (or flat out remove it) and may impart a bad flavor.

A better option than dishwashing soap may be plain old white vinegar. Vinegar removes odors, most grease and sanitizes as well. Add 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water and store in a spray bottle. When needed simply spray the cookware, wipe with a dish brush, rinse and dry in the oven or on the stove. Do not let the vinegar set too long as it can corrode iron. (You also need this vinegar spray to take care of wooden cutting boards)

A dishwasher should never be used for cast iron. The iron will rust in that hot, steamy environment.

Sometimes I use the edge on a silicone or wooden spatula to scrape out stubborn bits of food.

Here are four scenarios that should cover the range of cleaning challenges.

1)You've sauteed some mushrooms and garlic in olive oil. Nothing stuck so wipe out with a paper towel and rinse under hot water. Set the skillet back on the burner over low heat to dry.

2)You've stir-fried some flank streak and vegetables, a fond remains after deglazing. Run hot tap water and brush skillet until clean. Set the skillet back on the burner over low heat to dry.

3)You think your skillet is fully seasoned so you scramble some eggs but discover it wasn't seasoned enough. Lots of egg residue remains stuck to the bottom. Add hot water to skillet and let sit while you eat breakfast. Dump out water and add 1 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt and some oil and scrub the egg gunk out. Rinse well and set the skillet back on the burner over low heat to dry. Continue to use pan with an eye toward further seasoning.

4)While frying chicken in the back yard a hawk drops a dead muskrat into the hot oil. Consider using soap at this point.

This picture shows a Lodge 10.25" skillet after sitting on a burner set to low for 10 minutes. As you can see the temperature of the skillet is at least 50 degrees hotter than any nasty organism can survive. If you dry your cast iron on a burner or in the stove as I recommend they will be just as sanitary and safe as anything in your kitchen.

Seasoning cast iron properly, using it often and cleaning it in the least aggressive manner make up the holy trinity of enjoying your cast iron cookware. Once you master these you can count on your iron cooking well and lasting several lifetimes.

Another article I like re: cast iron care is this one LINK found on Cooking in Cast Iron.


Jeannette said...

This is amazingly helpful... because details are important... thanks a million!

Greg said...

Thanks for the idea for this post.

sweet alyssum said...

Would it be ok to use a wire wisk on a cast iron skillet?

Greg said...

sweet alyssum - No problems on a well seasoned piece. If you are just beginning the seasoning process I'd be careful.

You can always fix any "damage" you do to the seasoning with cast iron.

Jim said...

I'm with you here. I have 4 iron skillets of different sizes and almost never use soap on them. Regular use is indeed the key. I love the simplicity and durability of these marvelous cooking tools.

johanna_lea said...

i was fortunate to inherit granny's
iron skillets. well seasoned...
i love using castiron to cook!
only problem is my mother kept one
and scoured often with dish soap or comet cleanser... not long ago,
she gave it to me complete with
rust scabies and totally unseasoned.
what to do with rusted spots?
cant re-season until gone, i think.

Anonymous said...

I have a large cast iron wok which I love. In case of emergency my list of things to save go 1. Kids 2. Wok 3. Wife 4. Dog In that order.

I always boil water in it to loosen any food that sticks although I rarely have too now that its more seasoned. Then scrape with spatula or scrub with brush. Then place back over the heat until its completely dry, rub with oil and store. Its worked well for me.

Steve H. Graham said...

Great site.

I thought people were nuts when they told me to use salt to clean cast iron, but it works. I pour out most of the grease, dump in a couple of tablespoons of salt, and scrape the pan smooth with a plastic spatula. Then I squirt the pan with just enough water to knock the salt off (probably better to just wipe with a dry paper towel). I don't have to re-oil the pan, and the crud is gone.

The salt doesn't really do anything except act as an abrasive.

Barkcookware said...

I have had a few cast iron skillets over time and tried many methods of cleaning and seasoning. I would be doing it one way and someone would say to try another way, so I never felt like I knew what I was doing. What I have discovered is that cast iron skillets are forgiving. They can be used forever and even survive a house fire. The key is to keep them in good clean seasoned condition. If something happens to the seasoning, you simply take the time to re-season. I like that a variety of ways to clean and season a pan was discussed leading me to believe that I was never wrong, there is more than one right way to clean and/or season your pan. What a great wealth of information and the pictures are great.

Greg said...

Jim - You've got it. When I get a new antique skillet I park it on the stove and try to use it for almost everything.

johanna_lea - It isn't a good idead to try to season over rust so do get rid of it first.

Anonymous - It does get easier to clean cast iron as it gets more seasoned.

Steve - Salt and oil work great. I need to update this post because I've become a big fan of some plastic scrubbers.

Barkcookware - There are certainly a bunch of ways to take care of cast iron. I try to document what has worked for me but I don't claim it to be the only way.

peterskyhws said...

great stuff, thanks said...

Thanks for this great blog!!

I've just recently started using cast iron. I burned the heck out of some spaghetti sauce I was heating up and forgot about. It's left a bunch of black crud on the bottom of the pan that I can't get off. What's the best way to get burned gunk out? Thanks!

Greg said...

Try boiling water in it to soften the gunk up and then scrub it out. You might end up having to use a stainless steel scrubber but you can always redo the seasoning.

I've done the same thing with enameled cast iron. said...

Thanks for the quick response! The stainless steel scrubber worked like a charm and the pot is in the oven being re-seasoned as I write. The bottom is smooth as glass again. Thanks!

Robin said...

I have a cast iron comal and a discada that sometimes (after my sister uses them) have a build up of sticky goo that is impossible to wash/scrub off. I do the best I can to get it off but never entirely remove it. It does appear that less goo is there the more I use it but was curious if you know what is causing this and how to remove it. I think she is leaving oil in the pan or spraying it with PAM. Thanks for a great blog.

Greg said...

Robin, It sounds like she is trying to season it with too much oil and too much heat.

Oil turns to gooey lumps and eventually they get quite hard.

You could knock them down with a stainless steel scrubber and then reseason with a very light coating of oil.

Discadas are very cool.You must live in the Southwest to even know what they are.

carla said...

Hi Greg
My husbands grandparents gave us a dutch oven that belonged to great is probably over 85 years old. We discovered someone spray painted it black. This layer came off easily with sandpaper, but now we see red paint underneath as well. This red is thick. Can we use paint stripper and still cook in this ? Any suggestions? P.S...the paint is only on the exterior of the pot and not inside.

Thank You

grtwteshrk said...

I absolutely love this blog. Cast iron RULES. Show it some love and it'll love you back!!!

Linda Ross said...

I am so pleased and relieved to have found your site. Done Forever with teflon. Done with Stainless, even Revereware. My 4 new cast iron pieces arrived today & I'll be treating them right!Thank You everyone!