Cleaning & Seasoning Your Cast Iron Skillets the Easy Way

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Don’t Use Soap!!! No you can use soap!! It is the never ending debate when it come to cast iron. Because it’s one of the greatest pieces of cookware in the kitchen, and because it requires some special care, passions can run high. But the truth is that maintaining cast iron cookware isn’t much of a chore at all, and many of the stricter rules that people insist on needn’t be so strict.

3 Steps for Cleaning Your Cast Iron Skillet after Cooking

  1. Wash – Wash your cast iron cookware by hand. You can use a small amount of soap. If needed, use a pan scraper for stuck on food. For stubborn, stuck-on food, simmer a little water for 3-5 minutes, then use the scraper after the pan has cooled.
  2. Dry – Dry promptly and thoroughly with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. If you notice a little black residue on your towel, it’s just seasoning and is perfectly normal.
  3. Oil – Rub a very light layer of cooking oil or Seasoning Spray onto the surface of your cookware. Use a paper towel to wipe the surface until no oil residue remains.
    Then put the pan back over a burner set to high heat, and leave it for a couple of minutes, until the pan is heated through all over and lightly smoking. You could do this in your oven for more even heating, à la the initial seasoning process, but I find that too cumbersome as part of a daily ritual; for just one quick final seasoning step, the stovetop works fine. (Note that if you rub the pan with oil and put it away without heating it, the oil can become sticky and rancid before the pan’s next use, which is a real bummer. If you’ve accidentally let this happen, just wash out the pan with soap and water to get rid of the gunk, then dry it and heat it, and you should be good to go.)

Homemade Seasoning Oil for Cast Iron Cookware

1 tablespoon beeswax melted
1 tablespoon flaxseed oil
1 tablespoon coconut oil

  1. Instructions
    Combine coconut oil, flaxseed, and beeswax in a double boiler over medium heat until melted.
  2. Pour in a jar or tin and allow to cool.
  3. After washing and thoroughly drying your cast iron, rub a little bit of this on using a tea towel to condition it.

Cleaning and Care Tips for Vintage, Rusty, or Damaged Cast Iron Cookware

If you buy a vintage cast iron pan that’s in need of some rehab, or if your old cast iron pan has grown rusty or damaged through neglect, all is not lost. Cast iron is very strong, and with a little effort, you can get your pans into brand-new condition.

Once you have your cast iron, there are generally two things you’ll likely need to do: remove the old layers of seasoning and also get rid of rust. Once a pan is beat up enough, it’s not worth trying to salvage the seasoning that’s on it. For a really beautiful, functional piece, you’re going to want to strip that baby down and then build it back up from scratch.

First, a tip on what not to do. Some sites will tell you to use Naval Jelly, a form of phosphoric acid. The photo above is of a pan that had Naval Jelly painted onto it. It dries on, as you can see, and then becomes very difficult to remove.

How to Remove Old Seasoning: Lye
The seasoning on cast iron is polymerized oil, essentially a plastic-like coating that forms when oil is heated in the presence of the iron and oxygen. Lye, the common name of the alkaline compound sodium hydroxide, can break down that polymerized oil.

Lye is used for all sorts of things, from making soap to giving pretzels their deep brown crust, but it needs to be handled with caution: lye solutions are capable of causing nasty chemical burns and should be treated with the same care as 350°F frying oil. Like hot oil, when handled responsibly, it can be used without trouble—just like frying oil, don’t get it on your skin. Make sure to use heavy-duty rubber gloves and eye protection, and keep the rest of your skin covered.

If you have one or two vintage pans, the easiest thing to do, according to Nick, is to use a product like Easy-Off, an oven cleaner that sprays a lye-based foam. To use it, spray the foam all over the cookware, then seal it in heavy duty garbage bags and let it sit for 24 hours.

Then scrub the pans with a heavy duty scrubber to remove the seasoning and strip the pan down to its original metal surface, which you’ll recognize by its gunmetal gray color. The downside of Easy-Off is that it will often take several applications and scrubbing sessions before all of the seasoning is removed.

For larger jobs, or if you want speedier results, the next best option is to fill a large plastic bucket with a lye solution and submerge the pans in that. Nick buys lye at hardware stores, such as the bottle of drain cleaner you see above (just make sure the product you buy is pure lye). He adds the one-pound bottle of lye to five gallons of water, and again, take note: you should always add lye to water and not pour water onto the lye, since that can cause a violent reaction.

Nick lets the pans soak in the lye solution for 24 hours, then scrubs them. If they need a little more time in the lye solution, he puts them back, checking them and scrubbing from time to time until all the seasoning is removed. The good news is lye won’t harm the metal at all, so there’s no fear of soaking the cookware for too long in the lye.

Removing Rust: Vinegar
Once you’ve removed all of the old seasoning, the next step is to get rid of any rust. Thankfully, removing rust doesn’t require anything as nasty as lye: acetic acid, A.K.A. vinegar, will do the trick. Make sure to buy big jugs of cheap distilled white vinegar for this.

Nick lets his pans soak in the pure distilled white vinegar for six to twelve hours, then scrubs it. But he warns not to ever let this step go longer than 24 hours—vinegar may not present much of a problem to our skin, but it will erode and pit the cast iron if left on for too long.

There’s just a little rust left on the handle, but otherwise this skillet is ready for its new life. Just note that once exposed, the cast iron will begin to rust almost immediately from the air alone. To prevent that, oil the pan as described below right away.

Post-Stripping Care
As I mentioned above, cast iron will start to rust almost immediately once it’s been stripped down to just the pure metal. If you’re not going to season it right away, you can stave off rusting temporarily by rubbing your pan with mineral oil.

Rub the oil well with a cloth until the shine is gone. Then be sure to wash it off with warm soapy water before attempting to season the pan.


Step 1: Wash and Dry Your Pan
It’s hard to say exactly what happened to that skillet between the time it came off the factory line and when it arrived in your kitchen, so you’ll want to wash it before starting to season. Give the pan a good scrub with warm, soapy water, then dry it thoroughly. Even after towel-drying, some surface moisture may remain, so your best bet is to put the pan on a stovetop flame for a minute or two to drive off any lingering water.

Step 2: Rub It All Over With Oil and Buff Well
Now that your pan is clean and dry, rub it all over, inside and out—including the handle—with cooking oil. Here at Serious Eats, we’re fans of unsaturated cooking fats, like vegetable, canola, and corn oil, for seasoning our pans. Not only do we always have them on hand, but they work well and are easier to spread than saturated fats, like shortening or lard. There’s no need to go out and buy any special oils just for seasoning!*

*For the record, we’ve found that the often-suggested flaxseed oil produces a fast layer of seasoning, but it has a tendency to flake off with use. We don’t recommend it.

The key here is to rub the oil all over, but then buff it so thoroughly that the pan no longer looks even the slightest bit greasy. Even a small amount of excess oil on the pan can pool during seasoning, forming little hardened droplets on your cooking surface, or turn sticky if left unused for a few days.

Step 3: Heat It in the Oven
Put the oiled pan in a preheated 450°F oven, and leave it there for 30 minutes. It may get a little smoky, so keep your kitchen well ventilated. It’s during this time that the oil will polymerize and form the first of several hard, plastic-like coatings you’ll be laying down.

The reason we’re using the oven here is because it provides an even heat that will more effectively set the oil all over the pan. Even the best stovetop burners will produce hot and cool spots, which can lead to uneven initial seasoning.

While it’s not essential, especially if you’ve buffed away all the excess oil, I like to turn the pan upside down and put a baking sheet or piece of foil underneath. It’s just added insurance against any excess oil that decides to run and pool, since gravity will pull it out of the pan.

Step 4: Repeat 3 to 4 Times
When the half hour is up, take the pan out. (Remember: It’s hot!) Now rub it once more all over with the oil, buffing it out as before. Then put it back in the oven for another 30-minute spell. All in all, you’ll want to do this oiling-and-heating process three to four times, to set down a good initial layer of your own seasoning.

Once you’re done, just let the pan cool down. It’s now ready for cooking.

Not Sure What to Cook

Check out some of our favorite recipes that we cook in our cast iron skillets-