How to clean and season a cast iron skillet, the easy way

Dirty cast iron skillet being prepped for cleaning
Yes, you can use soap. Bruce Peter Morin/Getty Images

Cast iron is not as delicate as some might think.

Yes, cleaning a cast iron skillet is unlike cleaning other pans in your kitchen. Yes, there are a few rules to keep in mind. But no, you cannot ruin your cast iron skillet just by cleaning it.

Most cast iron cookware is sold “pre-seasoned,” which means a layer of oil is already baked onto the pan, creating a resilient non-stick chemical bond. But once you bring it home, cast iron requires different care than a typical pot or pan.

General cast iron maintenance tips

Cleaning and maintaing cast iron cookware centers around seasoning. Seasoning is the smooth, black coating that makes your skillet non-stick without the need for a chemical coating. It’s created by adding very thin layers of oil and applying heat, creating a chemical bond with the cast iron.

“The best way to maintain the seasoning on your pan is to use it,” says Kris Stubblefield of Lodge Cast Iron, adding that “the layers of baked-on oil will improve the natural, easy-release surface [of your skillet].”

A little soap and water is safe to use. It’s true that cast iron skillets are susceptible to rust, which is why a lot of people are afraid of using water and soap to clean them. As long as you take the time to dry your skillet afterward, a little water and a squirt of soap will not kill your pan.

Never soak a cast iron skillet. That said, there is one cleaning rule you should always follow: Avoid soaking cast iron in water. You’ll end up with a rusted pan and a rusted sink. Never use a dishwasher to clean your skillet, either. The multiple rinses and slow drying of a dishwasher cycle can cause cast iron to rust.

Don’t be afraid to scrub. There are many specialized tools to help you clean stuck-on food, from chain-mail scrubbers to pan scrapers. A sponge will work, too. Just don’t scrub with full force. A cast iron skillet is considered clean when it has no more food residue. Remember, you don’t want to strip off the seasoning.

Don’t skip the last step – it’s important. Once you clean off the pan, dry it thoroughly with either a cloth or paper towel. You can also dry it on your stove on low heat.

For full instructions, check out the guide below. And remember: Even if you do strip some seasoning from your pan, there’s no need to panic. With a little effort, you can restore it back to its former glory.

Occasionally, you may notice little flecks of black stuff when cooking in your cast iron skillet. “People often assume that any black flecks they see in their cast iron are bits of seasoning coming off. Most of the time that’s just not the case,” explains Copenhaver. The little flakes are often bits of carbonized food left from the last time you used the pan. Since cast iron is seasoned with oil and doesn’t have a chemical nonstick coating, the flecks are harmless.

How to remove rust from cast iron

Removing rust from cast iron with steel wool
If your pan ever rusts, give it a good scrub with soap, water, and steel wool to remove it. Rekeisha Dunlap/Getty Images

If you forget a step or accidentally soak your cast-iron skillet, don’t toss it out! For small amounts of rust, use steel wool to scour any rust from the pan. Wash with soap and warm water and dry completely, then immediately re-season your skillet. If your skillet has a serious rust problem, you can hand it off to a local machine shop to be sand-blasted and then re-season it at home.

How to re-season cast iron

If food is starting to stick in your skillet, it’s time to re-season it. Clean the pan as usual and dry completely. Apply a thin layer of oil, wiping with a paper towel, and either heat it on the stovetop over high heat for several minutes (it should be smoking) or bake in a preheated 450-degree-Fahrenheit oven for an hour. “A well-seasoned skillet is an easy-to-clean skillet. While most cast iron sold today comes ‘pre-seasoned,’ the truth is that your seasoning will get much better over months of use,” Copenhaver says.

Insider’s takeaway

While cast iron pans can’t be tossed in the dishwasher or soaked in the sink overnight, they are easy to clean and maintain. Following a few simple guidelines will ensure that your cast iron will last for years.

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