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If I were banished to a desert island and allowed to bring only a single piece of cookware, I’d choose a cast-iron skillet. It can work for just about anything—baking cornbread or cakes, roasting vegetables, searing steaks, or frying chicken. It’s versatile and affordable, and it boasts superior heat retention. What’s not to love?
Oh, right, it requires maintenance—you can’t just throw it in the dishwasher and forget about it. But with proper care, your cast-iron cookware will last a lifetime (or more). I’ve been cooking with cast iron for years, and I’ve tested dozens of methods and products for cleaning it to find out what works best.
Here’s a primer on how to strip, season, clean, and store your cast-iron cookware so it will last for generations. Trust me, whoever inherits it will thank you.
For everyday cleaning, set aside one to two minutes. If you need to re-season your pan, plan for two to three hours. Deeper cleans, such as removing layers of stuck-on buildup, removing rust, or removing stains from enameled cast iron, can take five minutes to 24 hours.
The most important thing to remember about cast iron is that it can’t go in the dishwasher or stay in a sinkful of water overnight, as it will rust. (All is not lost if it does—we offer some tips for removing rust below.) In addition, cast iron is quite brittle, so don’t “shock” a hot pan by running it under cold water, or the drastic temperature change could cause it to warp or crack.
Contrary to popular belief, washing your pans with mild dish soap will not hurt them, as long as they’re well seasoned. Even Lodge endorses the use of a small amount of soap on its website, as do cleaning experts such as Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House.
Gently scrub the pan using mild dish soap, hot water, and a non-abrasive sponge (such as a Dobie sponge or the soft side of a Scotch-Brite sponge) or a scrub brush.
Rinse it clean and then dry it completely with a dish towel. You can also put it over low heat on the stovetop or in the oven (at 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit) to be sure all of the moisture evaporates. It’s important to get your pan bone dry before storing it, otherwise it may rust.
After drying, coat the pan in a very thin layer of the same neutral oil (like canola) that you use for seasoning the pan (a couple of drops is all you need). Using a paper towel or clean rag, rub the oil all over the inside and outside of the pan (including the handle).
Occasionally small patches of the cast iron’s seasoning will wear down and become thin, causing food to stick to the pan. If you’re struggling to remove stuck-on food, next time, while the pan is warm (not hot), add ¼ cup kosher salt and a few drops of warm water. Use a Dobie sponge, a Scotch-Brite sponge, or a scrub brush to gently remove the gunk. The salt will dissolve as you scrub and won’t damage the seasoning (it’s like a facial for your pan!). Wash, dry, and wipe the pan with oil as usual.
Add 1 to 2 cups of water to the pan and bring it to a boil over high heat until the gunk loosens. If the food bits don’t come off on their own after a couple of minutes, you can use a wooden spatula to scrape them up. I’ve tested the Lodge pan scrapers, which are made exclusively for this purpose, but I’ve found that a wooden spatula works just as well. Afterward, wash, dry, and wipe the pan with oil as usual.
Whether a well-intentioned houseguest leaves your pan to air dry after washing or a few errant drops of water or moisture in the air seek out your lovingly cared-for pan, rust happens. The simplest way to remove rust is using the rough side of a dry Scotch-Brite sponge to gently rub it off. You can add a little water and a drop of dish soap if necessary. Rinse the pan, dry it thoroughly, and then re-season it.
If your cast iron has more than a few rust spots, a rust eraser will help remove rust from a large area. I tested two: the Dalstrong Rust Eraser and the Lodge Rust Eraser. The Lodge eraser, which is made of rubber and silicon carbide, costs less, worked a bit faster in my tests, and didn’t need to be soaked in water before use like the Dalstrong eraser.
Simply rub the rust eraser, gently, on rusty spots to remove them. But be sure to apply only light to medium pressure when using a rust eraser, or it can cause microcracking, according to Kun Wang, an assistant professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Alfred University. These invisible surface cracks make the pan more susceptible to breakage later.
Once you’ve removed the rust, wash and thoroughly dry the pan. Follow the steps to re-season your pan.
If you accidentally leave your pan in the sink overnight and it rusts all over, or if you pick one up secondhand and it’s covered in rust, don’t fret.
The simplest way to remove a lot of rust from cast iron is to make a slurry of Bar Keepers Friend and a couple of tablespoons of water in the pan and scrub the rust off using a stainless steel scrubber. We recommend wearing rubber gloves. Again, wash, dry, and re-season your pan afterward.
If the pan is coated in a thick layer of rust that’s too difficult to scrub off by hand, you can remove it by submerging the pan in a solution of vinegar and water. This method is very fast and effective, but Wang cautioned that leaving the pan in the solution for too long can damage the pan. Keep an eye on the pan and remove it as soon as most of the rust is gone or when the rust looks manageable enough to scrub off.
Start by filling a container large enough to completely submerge the pan with equal parts distilled white vinegar and water. A plastic bin works well, but you can also use a large casserole dish depending on the size of your pan. If you have rust only on the interior of your pan, you can instead fill it with the vinegar solution rather than submerging the whole pan.
Add the pan to the solution. Eventually you’ll hear the solution fizzing a bit, which means it’s working its magic. Check the pan after an hour to see if the rust has been mostly removed or has become thin enough to scrub off. If the pan needs more time, return it to the solution until most of the rust is gone, but do not leave it submerged for more than 24 hours, or you could cause permanent damage to the pan.
Remove the pan from the solution and immediately rinse it with running water. If flash rust (a thin layer of rust that develops as soon as you remove the cast iron from the vinegar solution) appears, don’t worry.
Make a slurry of Bar Keepers Friend and a couple of tablespoons of water in the pan and scrub any remaining rust off using a stainless steel scrubber.
Wash, dry, and re-season the pan afterward.
Bare cast iron is highly susceptible to corrosion, so if you’ve stripped away any of the seasoning (the black protective layer of polymerized oil) in the process of cleaning or just normal use, you need to re-season your pan to prevent rust and restore its naturally nonstick cooking surface.
Most brand-new pans, including the Lodge skillets we recommend in our guide to the best cast-iron skillet, come pre-seasoned and are ready for use, but you can add more layers of seasoning if you prefer. We recommend adding more layers of seasoning to a new pan (or waiting for them to build up naturally over time by cooking fatty foods such as bacon) before cooking acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus, otherwise your food may end up tasting metallic.
Place the pan in the oven and preheat it to 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
After five to 10 minutes, carefully remove the pan and use a paper towel or a clean rag to rub a very small amount of oil all over the entire surface inside and out (don’t forget the handle). We have used canola, soybean, sunflower, and other neutral oils for this step.
You can use a cotton swab to get into the nooks and crannies if you need to. With a separate, clean towel, wipe all of the excess oil off the pan (it should look nearly dry). Too much oil produces a blotchy, uneven seasoning and can generate a lot of smoke during the baking step, which comes next.
Bake your pan, inverted, in the preheated oven for one hour, and then turn off the oven and let your pan cool completely inside it. The high heat may cause some light smoke during the seasoning process, so be sure to use your range hood or open a window to ventilate.
Repeat the above steps several times (or as necessary) until you’ve built up multiple layers of seasoning and the coating is sufficiently nonstick (you should be able to fry an egg in butter or oil without it sticking).
The best way to maintain the seasoning on cast iron is to use the pan often. I leave my skillet on the stove so that it’s always at hand. Cooking bacon and other fatty foods in it from time to time also helps develop a strong seasoning.
In our tests over the years, we’ve used a variety of neutral oils to season cast iron, including canola (rapeseed), soybean, sunflower, linseed (flax), grapeseed, refined coconut, vegetable oil blends, and vegetable shortening. They all work well to create a durable seasoning. According to Eric Decker, professor and department head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, oils with increased levels of unsaturation will oxidize faster and make more polymers. So avoid using saturated fats, such as butter, which won’t season properly.
Some cast-iron experts we spoke to also said to avoid extra virgin olive oil because it begins to degrade at a lower temperature and can become sticky or develop off-flavors.
If you’ve picked up a vintage pan that has decades of carbon buildup from burnt-on grease, you have a few ways to remove all that crud so that you can start fresh. But some of these methods are very time consuming, and others are outright dangerous. In our experience, we’ve found that the easiest way to strip cast iron is to use an oven cleaner solution, since it’s mostly hands-off.
However, oven cleaners are highly toxic, and you should use them for this purpose only outside or in a well-ventilated space such as a garage. And you must wear rubber gloves, as oven cleaner can cause chemical burns. Most oven cleaners are lye-based (it contains sodium hydroxide), so their effect is similar to soaking your pan in a lye bath (which is what many pros do), but they’re easier and safer to use, and they require less equipment and setup.
Wearing rubber gloves and a respirator mask, place the pan in a large trash bag. Carefully spray the oven cleaner over the entire surface of the pan inside and out, including the handle.
Invert the pan and tie the bag closed. Let the pan rest for several hours, or up to 24 hours depending on the severity of the crud you’re trying to remove.
Wearing rubber gloves, carefully remove the pan from the bag. Rinse the pan and thoroughly scrub it inside and out using dish soap and a stainless steel scrubber. For good measure, scrub it with dish soap a second time and rinse it just to be sure you’ve removed all of the oven cleaner.
Dry the pan thoroughly with a towel; you can then place it in a warm oven or over low heat on your stovetop to remove any remaining moisture. Follow the steps above to re-season the pan.
Most cast-iron collectors who restore vintage pieces use a lye bath or electrolysis (some also use sandblasting, but that can cause microcracking, which makes the pan more susceptible to damage) to strip old pans. However, these methods can be relatively dangerous, require specific equipment, and are overkill if you plan to strip only one pan.
A more hands-off method for stripping a pan is placing it in an oven and running the self-cleaning cycle (if your oven has that feature). However, the self-cleaning cycle has been known to cause damage to some ovens, so we’re hesitant to recommend this method.
I tested three ways to strip a pan: using Easy-Off Professional Oven and Grill Cleaner, ammonia, and Bar Keepers Friend. Ammonia stinks and does not remove nearly as much crud as the other methods. (I placed the pan in a trash bag along with ½ cup ammonia in an open container, sealed the bag, and let it rest for 24 hours. Unfortunately, not much happened.)
Scrubbing the pan with Bar Keepers Friend and a stainless steel scrubber stripped the pan well. It’s a good option if you’re averse to using oven cleaner (which requires numerous safety precautions), but it requires a lot of elbow grease.
Enameled cast iron is easier to care for than unfinished cast iron because it doesn’t need seasoning. Though most enameled cast iron is dishwasher-safe, many manufacturers recommend washing such pieces by hand to avoid wearing down the enamel finish.
Be sure to let the cast iron cool first to avoid damage from thermal shock, which could warp or crack either the pot or the enamel. For everyday cleaning, use a non-abrasive sponge such as a Dobie sponge with hot water and regular dish soap. According to Lodge: “Citrus juices and citrus-based cleaners (including some dishwasher detergents) should not be used, as they can dull the exterior gloss.”
Stuck-on food should come off if you boil 1 to 2 cups of water in the pan for several minutes and then scrape up the gunk with a wooden spatula. Never use steel wool, abrasive scrubbing pads, or harsh detergents that could scratch the enamel.
Keep in mind that the enamel will dull with age and some staining is normal, but neither occurrence will impair the performance of your cookware.
If the interior of your enameled cast-iron cookware is lightly stained or the outside of the pot is covered in grease stains, you can remove them by making a slurry of a couple of tablespoons of Bar Keepers Friend or baking soda and warm water. Use a non-abrasive sponge (such as a Dobie sponge) to gently scrub away the stains. Bar Keepers Friend can also remove metal scuffs from the enamel (though you should use cooking utensils made only from wood, silicone, or other soft materials to avoid scratching the enamel in the first place).
For dark, stubborn stains, fill the pot or pan with one part bleach to three parts water and let the solution sit for several hours, or up to 24 hours depending on the severity of the discoloration. Rinse and thoroughly wash the pot with a non-abrasive sponge, dish soap, and hot water—no scrubbing required.
In writing this guide, we tested many cleaning methods and products that were specifically marketed to extend the life of cast iron or make cleaning easier. But we found that most of them were not worth your money.
You can find special cast-iron soaps, but after testing both the Camp Chef Cast-Iron Cleaner and the Caron & Doucet Cast Iron Soap, I don’t recommend them. Both formulations contain oils and/or wax, which left a greasy film on my pans. I found it much more effective to use regular dish soap and then oil the pan after.
You’ll also find items sold specifically to remove stuck-on food from cast-iron pans, such as the pricey Caron & Doucet Cast Iron Scrub, which is just salt combined with coconut oil and essential oils. Regular kosher salt is just as effective as removing caked-on food, and it’s way less expensive.
You can use any scrub brush to clean cast-iron pans as long as the bristles aren’t too stiff or rough, which could wear down the seasoning.
I tested a few brushes advertised specifically for use on cast-iron pans, and I liked both the Full Circle Tenacious C Cast Iron Brush, and the Lodge Care Scrub Brush. The Lodge has softer bristles if you’re concerned about being too rough on your seasoning, but in my tests the two brushes worked equally well.
Some people like to use chainmail scrubbers to remove bits of stuck-on food from their pans, but in testing two, the Knapp Made CM Scrubber and the Lodge ACM10R41 Scrubbing Pad, I didn’t find them to be more effective than the methods described above. If you apply too much pressure, you can actually scratch off your seasoning (as I did, woe is me!). For that reason, I found the chainmail scrubbers more useful for removing the crackly carbon buildup that can develop on the bottom of pans after years of use than for everyday cleaning.
Online cast-iron forums and blog posts are full of varying advice about the best oil to use for seasoning.
You can find some oils marketed specifically for seasoning cast iron, but these are just blends of regular cooking oils with fancy labels, so there’s no reason to spend more money on them.
One alternative I tested, the Knapp Made Cast Iron Wax, contains beeswax, but it didn’t season any better than the other oils I tested. It’s expensive, and it smelled strongly of beeswax (which gave an off-taste to our fried eggs), so I recommend sticking with the regular oils listed above.
Seasoning sprays are oils in an aerosol can. They don’t save you time or make seasoning the pan easier since you still have to use a paper towel or rag to distribute the oil over the surface of the pan to create an even coating. You should also avoid using nonstick cooking sprays, such as Pam, which have additives that are not suitable for seasoning.
Eric Decker, professor and department head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, email interview, July 29, 2020
Kun Wang, assistant professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Alfred University, Zoom interview, August 5, 2020
Cheryl Mendelson, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House (pp. 559, 560), November 4, 1999
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (p. 790), November 23, 2004
Frequently Asked Questions, Lodge Cast Iron
How to Clean Enameled Cast Iron, Lodge Cast Iron
Rachel Elmkies, How To: Clean Stove Burners, BobVila.com
Sheryl Canter, Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning: A Science-Based How-To, Sheryl’s Blog, January 28, 2010
Sheryl Canter, Perfect Popovers (& How to Clean and Reseason Cast Iron), Sheryl’s Blog, January 7, 2010
Cleaning and Restoration Methods, Wagner and Griswold Society
Michael Sullivan has been a staff writer on the kitchen team at Wirecutter since 2016. Previously, he was an editor at the International Culinary Center in New York. He has worked in various facets of the food and restaurant industry for over a decade.
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