The BEST Method for Cleaning Cast Iron After Cooking

I love my cast iron.  For many years I liked the idea of owning cast iron but never had any of my own. Then last year I confided my secret longing to The Man, and he responded by combing Ebay to find me several skillets in different sizes. Isn’t that so sweet?

Thus began my crash course in re-seasoning cast iron pans, cooking with them and caring for them. I won’t go into the seasoning process today (guess what — I did it wrong the first few times), and cooking with them is something I haven’t completely mastered yet… but I HAVE discovered what I think is the BEST method for cleaning cast iron, especially after you’ve cooked with it and have some hardened, stuck-on food to deal with. So that is the topic of today’s post.

Frustrated with cleaning cast iron after you've cooked with it? This method is the BEST and easiest way to get it clean without damaging the seasoning.

Just as a side note before we get started: Did you know that cast iron is one of the most inexpensive choices for outfitting your kitchen with quality pans? The best ones are the old ones that were made with processes that are no longer utilized. Older pans are lighter and smoother, and they’ve proven that they will last basically forever. I love knowing that I am cooking with a pan that another woman used in her own kitchen perhaps 80 years ago! The initial purchase price for these is usually less than what you would pay for a new high-quality brand-name pan (of any kind) in the store, and you have something that you can pass down to your granddaughters. Gotta love that!

The whole key with cast iron pans is the seasoning. Seasoning is a layer of baked on grease that will theoretically make your cast iron pan almost as non-stick as teflon. Once you have a good one built up, you don’t want to ruin it. The cleaning process I recommend will keep your lovely seasoning layer intact and slippery. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, let me tell ya.

[UPDATE: When I first wrote this post, I had been using this method of cleaning cast iron for a couple of months. Now that it has been another 4 months beyond that, I find that I RARELY have to do Step 3 any more. Somewhere along the way my seasoning became even more solid, smooth and slippery enough that ALL the “stuck-on” food, even egg, scrapes off easily in Steps 1 & 2 — and then I can skip straight to Step 4. Which makes my cast iron pans one of the easiest things to clean in my entire kitchen! To me, this is the ultimate proof that this method is the BEST way to clean cast iron. The seasoning is where it’s at, y’all!  Protect. The. Seasoning.]

Cleaning Cast Iron

OK, so you’ve cooked your eggs or your ground beef or whatever in your cast iron pan, and you have bits of stuff stuck to the bottom and lots of grease and you wish you didn’t have to mess with it.  It will take just a few minutes to get that puppy clean, y’all, so don’t despair.

Frustrated with cleaning cast iron after you've cooked with it? This method is the BEST and easiest way to get it clean without damaging the seasoning.
Here I am with my newly-opened gifts — three Griswold skillets, one from pre-1912, the other two from 1920-1940. Gotta love it!!

1) First, scrape off as much of the stuck-on stuff as you can.  (I know what you’re thinking: if it’s seasoned well, you shouldn’t have stuck-on stuff.  But in my world, I still do.  Eggs are always a toughie.  But it’s no biggie — as you’ll see in half a mo.)  Use a metal spatula or a plastic scraper, but don’t spend a lot of time or effort on this step.  Get what you can get easily and then move on.  Trust me.

2) Then rinse in COLD water.  DO NOT use hot water.  Hot water would start to break down the lovely grease layer of the seasoning and damage the smoothness.  The purpose of the water is merely to get all the leftover liquidy grease, plus the little bits you just scraped, out of the pan and out of the way.  So just do a quick rinse and dump everything back out.  Don’t leave any standing water.  You now have a wet pan.

I actually do #1 and #2 simultaneously.  I hold the pan under running COLD water and scrape it at the same time.  This way the scraped bits get washed away immediately, and you can easily see what still needs to be scraped.

3) Here’s the crucial step:  Dump about a tablespoon (give or take — use your best judgment) of KOSHER SALT into the pan.  Take a scrubby sponge and use the kosher salt as a cleanser to get the rest of the stuck-on stuff off of your pan.  You will be amazed at how well this works!!! Sometimes it takes a little bit of elbow grease, but the salt really does a good job at unsticking stuff.

4) Once your pan is smooth again with no stuck-on stuff (this is a technical term, y’all), rinse again in COLD water.   You now have a wet but CLEAN pan.

5) Dry IMMEDIATELY.  This is another key step.  DO NOT put a cast iron pan in the rack to dry, or the water sitting on it may cause it to start rusting.  Just bite the bullet and grab a towel.  Sometimes I will use paper towels to make sure it is completely dry, but my frugal self isn’t too happy about that.  A regular towel should be fine as long as you are careful to be thorough.

Did you notice through this whole process there is NO SOAP involved?  NEVER use soap on cast iron.  I have read articles that say it’s OK, but I think they don’t know what they are talking about.  Soap will eat through the seasoning.  You can always tell when you have damaged the seasoning, because the pan is no longer shiny when it is dry.  With the method I have explained here, you have a nice shiny pan when you are done.

In fact, many people recommend a sort of re-seasoning process after every washing, where you put a few drops of oil in the clean pan and wipe it all over the pan with a paper towel before storing it.  But I don’t think that’s necessary when you clean it with cold water and kosher salt.  Why waste oil and another paper towel if you don’t have to?

So try this method of cleaning cast iron for yourself.  It’s easy and it’s cheap — my two favorite things!!

Do you love cast iron?  What is your favorite way to use it?

8 thoughts on “The BEST Method for Cleaning Cast Iron After Cooking”

  1. Using salt sounds like a recipe for rust. I just scrape, rinse (I’ve even washed it with soap & hot water–gasp!), dry with a quarter of a piece of paper towel & wipe it with my leftover grease drippings (just the inside, the outside doesn’t need it), which is cheaper than salt. Personally, I think most people are too fixated on keeping the seasoning on their cast iron. I’ve been using it for over 20 years and never worried about it. If the pan isn’t very dirty, I just scrape it a bit and don’t even wash it with water at all.

    1. Hi Cindy, Thanks for the comment! Actually, water is all that is needed for rust formation. Salt can make it happen more quickly, it’s true. But when cleaning cast iron, you are rinsing off all of the salt, so there is no time for rust to develop. The key is to make sure to COMPLETELY DRY the pan after cleaning it. Water left on it will start to form rust, whether salt was used to clean it or not. If you can get all of the sticky stuff off just by scraping, then more power to you! :-) I rarely seem to be able to — so then kosher salt makes a great scrub. I like the idea of wiping with leftover grease drippings; my frugal self does not want to use fresh oil every time… Thanks for stopping by! :-)

  2. I collect and refinish vintage cast iron skillets. I use them daily. After years of trial and error, I have found the easiest way to clean them is to wash the skillet while its still hot with water and a scrubie. Dry them immediate, then heat them back up on the stove for a couple minutes. Turn heat off, then season with a small amount of oil and a paper towel. My skillets are like glass and eggs just slide out.

    1. I’m glad that works for you, Irene! But that would be too much bother for me. Cold water and a short scrub (if necessary) are much faster for me. I’m all about reducing as many steps as I can! :-)

  3. I use a bit of dish soap every time I wash out my cast iron pans. It sure helps to wash away the food and grease from cooking, and it doesn’t hurt the baked-on seasoning at all. Dish soap, a plastic scrubbie, and hot water, rinse well, turn it upside down to dry, and that’s it.
    My understanding is that when the oil is baked on to form the seasoning, it *polymerizes*, and becomes similar to plastic, and bonded to the pan, so it’s nothing like having a layer of oil in the pan. So the dish soap gets rid of the oil you just used for cooking, without disturbing the seasoning. Anyway, it works great for me and it’s easy.

    1. For me, both dish soap and hot water will affect the seasoning so it’s not as slick any more. But I’m glad you found a method that works for you! Thanks for stopping by!

    1. YEP I do it all the time, LOL. However, the quicker you can get to cleaning it, the easier it is to clean. But taking time to eat won’t make much of a difference. Great question!

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