Caring for Cast-Iron Pans–Seasoning and Mythbusting

Filed under:Food,It's My Life — posted by Anwyn on May 20, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

Almost everywhere I look up information about caring for cast-iron pans, people are hollering at you not to put soap in your pans. They say in the most definite terms that this is extremely undesirable for your pans and will ruin the seasoning. This just isn’t true–I wash my pans with soap after every use, like my mother before me, and our pans are in perfect condition. Dish soap does not destroy the seasoning–it merely removes the layer of grease that you just cooked in, which is the point of washing something to begin with. As long as you oil the pan after every washing, at least for the first few months after the initial seasoning, you will build up a fine layer of season and your pan will last you indefinitely. You should see the way wash-water rolls off my most frequently used pan–the seasoning is almost waterproof at this point.

How do you get it seasoned like that in the first place? Easy: wipe it with a thin layer of lard or shortening (I use lard; I tried liquid vegetable oil the first time and it gummed up and I had to start over) and put it in the oven for an hour. Some people recommend an extremely high oven temp for this (450-500); others say 350 is fine. Both will work, but the key is a thin layer of grease–if the grease pools it will harden into a stubborn little nodule on your pan. Check the pan 20 minutes into the process and again at 40 (these times are for 350 degrees; if you use higher heat, check at shorter intervals), and if there are grease beads standing on it, wipe them away with a paper towel. Then, each time you cook in the pan, wash and thoroughly dry, then set the pan on a burner to heat for a couple minutes, put more lard or shortening in, wipe it all over the pan (again, thinly) and let the pan sit on the burner a couple more minutes, until the grease is very hot and well soaked into the pan. Turn the burner off, wipe pan with paper towel, and let it sit until cool. It’s okay if the pan remains slightly greasy to the touch.

For especially crusty, old, or rusty pans (or to clear off a botched seasoning job): I cleaned all the gunk of the ages off all my heirloom pans by putting them in the oven during a cleaning cycle–put the pans in the oven while cold, then turn on the cleaning cycle and leave them alone until many hours after the cycle is over, so that they cool gradually. Warning–some people say their pans have warped or cracked during this process, but mine withstood the heat and came out clean as a whistle–well, clean under the flaky ashy stuff, the remains of the formerly crusted-on stuff. From there, just wash, dry, and season. If they’re rusty, take some fine-grain sandpaper or a sanding sponge, sand on them for a bit, rub them with your seasoning medium, then wash with soap and dry thoroughly. Repeat sanding, oiling, and washing until rust-free. Then follow seasoning procedure outlined above.

This is what has worked like a charm for my pans–your mileage may vary.


  1. Way too much trouble. I wash my cast iron and coat with clean oil. Or sometimes not. And when it rusts, I wipe it out until it’s mostly gone. Sanding? Not unless I was out of Brillo.

    Comment by Anne — May 21, 2008 @ 6:11 am

  2. I disagree about using soap. 9 out of 10 people who use cast iron will tell you never to use soap on cast iron. My mother disagrees with me, and she too claims her pan is in perfect condition. However, it does not have near the seasoning or the non-stick surface after forty years of use that my pan has after merely 15 years of use. My cast iron puts hers to shame, but I know not to argue with my mother.

    However, I can taste the soap in the foods that she cooks in her cast iron skillet. She says she cannot which means that she’s either used to it, or has just lost some of her sense of taste over the years.

    I never use soap on any of my cast iron and I do the majority of my cooking using some kind of cast iron pan or dutch oven. Most of the time, I simply wipe out the pan with a paper towel. If I need to clean it more than that, hot water and a good stiff brush do fine. It’s not a matter of having a pan with bacteria building up in it because (1) cast iron cooks best when heated first and 350 degree medium stovetop heat will kill anything still living in it, and (2) I use my cast iron multiple times during the week so no amount of oil ever has time to go rancid.

    If you want to truly perfect the seasoning of a cast iron pan, keep the soap away from it.

    Comment by Rick Mansfield — May 21, 2008 @ 6:54 am

  3. I do the same thing with my coffee cup. =D

    Comment by Allen — May 21, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  4. Hi Rick–I’m not surprised to get disagreement, as I said almost every source I look up yells about the soap. Whatever the condition of your mother’s pan, mine *does*, as I mentioned, have a near-waterproof layer of seasoning and is doing well on the non-stick side too. Sorry you taste soap in your mother’s pans. That doesn’t happen in mine, and it doesn’t mean I can’t taste.

    Leaving the remains of what I cook–various types of grease as well as particulates and sometimes water-thinned gravy–to find itself only wiped by a paper towel would be quite unacceptable to me. I prefer to get the cooking grease out and continually add to the seasoning layer with only one type of grease–the lard.

    In the same way that just because this is working for me doesn’t mean it would work for you, just because you don’t like soap (and can supposedly taste it in others’ pans) doesn’t mean the rest of us should keep it away. My pans are in great shape and will cook eggs without sticking them.

    Comment by Anwyn — May 21, 2008 @ 7:58 am

  5. Well, clarification… I wouldn’t simply wipe gravy out of pan with a paper towel and be done with it. For that, I would use hot water and a brush. But for many things, such as cooking a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches in butter the other day, simply a good wipe with a paper towel was sufficient to clean the pan. Same goes for bacon unless it gets overcooked.

    Anytime that I do clean one of my pans with hot water and a brush, I let it dry out and then I coat it with olive oil so that it’s ready for the next use.

    To each his (or her) own, I suppose, but I’ve never seen the need in my experience to use soap with cast iron.

    Comment by Rick Mansfield — May 21, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  6. Certainly, if I could attend to cleaning the pan immediately after I make something like grilled cheese in butter, I agree wiping-out would be sufficient, as long as the whole thing was still hot. But if I’m cooking it’s because I need to eat … not time to wipe pans, time to eat. :) My other objection is that, as I said, I prefer just the one type of grease to be the seasoning build-up. Butter burns easily and I don’t want it hanging around in the pan when I’m cooking something else that requires high heat.

    As for the brush and water … no doubt it removes the particulates, but I guess for me it comes down to the grease as mentioned above. I like to start with the one-grease seasoning and put that session’s cooking grease on top and then get rid of it again. I’ve never tasted soap and while I am not trying to be disrespectful to your mother, I suggest that thorough rinsing in the hottest of water, through drying, reheating and greasing the pan might make the difference.

    Comment by Anwyn — May 21, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  7. No disrespect to my mother taken. I’ll tell you the problem with my mother (and hope that she never reads this): she is so much of a cleanliness freak that she can’t stand to think of not using soap and giving a pan a thorough scrubbing.

    Anwyn, you and I may not be all that different after all. While I may not use soap, I do have one primary oil I use in my pans most of the time, and for me, that is olive oil. For instance, last night, we cooked green beans and shallots in the skillet in olive oil. Although nothing was stuck to the skillet, and I could have just wiped it out, I cleaned it with hot water and a brush anyway so that it would not have an oniony flavor for the next thing we cook in it. Afterwards, I dried it in the oven and then rubbed it down with olive oil to prepare it for the next use.

    I would say that probably nine times out of ten, I use olive oil in my skillet. And other than its initial seasoning which I did with crisco, the majority of its seasoning built up since then has been with olive oil. Occasionally I cook with butter and on rare occasion–usually if I’m out of olive oil–I will use Canola or peanut oil. Asian dishes taste better with sesame oil.

    I took some pictures of the meal we made last night. Everything except the mashed potatoes were made with cast iron. You can see the pictures here:

    Comment by Rick Mansfield — May 22, 2008 @ 6:01 am

  8. Maybe the trick is in the soap you use. My mother certainly washed her cast iron with soap, but because she was a good Southern cook most of the cooking she did in her cast iron was frying. (She did her non-frying in aluminum pots — and now she has Alzheimer’s so we don’t own aluminum cookware.) Anyway, She washed her cast iron with less efficient soaps than we have today (no Dawn or oil-busting soaps) so she probably never truly cut the grease off, though the pans were washed in hot, soapy water. They stayed seasoned.

    Comment by Anne — May 22, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  9. I too use soap with absolutly no ill effects on the seasoning. That seasoning is added to each time you cook with it, so the idea that you are taking it off each time doesn’t work with me. Some people do recommend putting dishsoap on the outside to make woodsmoke residue easier to remove, but I just wash the whole thing and nary a problem, inside or out!

    Comment by Longbowman — June 2, 2008 @ 9:45 am

  10. Rick, that’s certainly a good-looking meal. My mother has a corn-stick pan like that. Yum.

    Longbowman–that’s exactly it, some of the grease you cook with gets absorbed by the heat into the pan/seasoning, and the soap only takes off the remainder, with the cooking detritus in it. My pan with the best seasoning has been put into a 500-degree oven many times with ribeye steaks in it, and that will season a pan like nobody’s business, soap or no soap. I should probably cook a few steaks in the others, too, just to let them catch up.

    Comment by Anwyn — June 2, 2008 @ 9:59 am

  11. Anwyn, thought you might be interested to know that I and a few others have started a new website dedicated to cast iron. If you’re interested, visit us at


    Comment by Rick Mansfield — June 28, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  12. Hello, I’m a regular visitor to your site so i finally decided its time to sign your guestbook, so here i sign !

    Comment by reviews — December 4, 2008 @ 12:42 am

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace