How to clean cast iron skillets

Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

Say hello to my little friend: interior of well seasoned Lodge 12 inch cast iron skillet

In my home are a number of cast iron skillets in various states of repair. The picture is my 12 inch Lodge. I use it all the time for steaks and other seared meats. I crank it up high, sprinkle a liberal amount of Kosher salt on the surface, slap in the steak and off I go. Afterwards I pour in some boiling water, give it a few minutes to dislodge the scraps, then dump the water and wipe it out with a paper towel. The residual heat dries the skillet and I’m good till next time. That’s how I clean cast iron skillets—with water permitted but not detergent.

I also have a couple of Lodge Dutch ovens I use for baking bread, which doesn’t leave a residue. A couple of times a year I make chili in them. I boil some water with the lid on, dump it out, and wipe the interior with a scrubby pad containing just a bit of soap in case there’s food contamination. I then rinse and dry them over the heat (including the lid). And that’s how I clean my cast iron Dutch ovens.

I was prompted to write the above by a few recent articles that suggest a/it’s incredibly difficult to season a cast iron pan and b/once you get one, you must never ever let water touch it. As for seasoning, it’s been awhile but the process I recall was to start with a battered specimen that had been poorly seasoned, scrape off as much of the residual char and sticky oil as I could with a single edge razor or other device, and finish the cleansing by putting it in a self-cleaning oven on the clean cycle.

Having a fresh surface to work with, I then rubbed the interior thoroughly with oil with a high smoke point (I used generic vegetable oil I think, though I’ve read avocado oil is highest while sesame oil and olive oil have dangerously low smoke points for this purpose) and put them in a 500 degree oven, inverted over a cookie sheet so the oil drips off and doesn’t pool, heated 15 minutes then turned off, cooled and repeated. You eventually end up with something like my picture. The oil gets into the nooks and crannies and, while not a smooth as glass surface, is perfectly adequate for my cooking needs.

You don’t have cast iron skillets, you say? Start going to garage sales. They’re a favorite item for disposal by folks who’ve been unsuccessful in seasoning them or allowed them to rust (easy to remove) so for 5 bucks or less you can pick up a $50 skillet ready for your magic. I would also feel fine about buying a vintage* skillet or pan from IronSpoon on eBay, who also has some good tips on care. And if you’re feeling like treating yourself, consider the Finex skillet which may seem expensive at $165 but is a relative bargain compared to some of the kitchen tchotchkes people spend their money on. It is octagonal (which means it has 8 pouring spouts) and is made by the traditional* method in which the iron is poured into a mold then polished by hand.

Read more: Kenj over at Serious Eats did a good article which echoes the above and more. Also see Cast Iron Collector for some good seasoning tips.

  • Today’s Lodge skillets are mass produced and pre-seasoned, but they perform very well. There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for the skillets which were made by Griswold and Wagner up through the 1950s which were sand-cast then hand finished. Maybe you will be lucky enough to find one of these at an estate sale or online. If so, check for wobble, an artifact of hand manufacturing that does not exist with a quality factory produced skillet; this is irritating in any context and makes the skillet unusable for induction cooking, a popular application.
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