Lay Off the Soap

Is There a Wrong Way to Clean a Skillet? Cast Iron Experts Weigh In

April 15, 2020 Home By Photo by Chase Pellerin
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Is there any activity in the kitchen more stress-inducing than cleaning a cast-iron skillet? No other pot, pan, knife or appliance demands as many overwritten how-tos, way-too-long seasoning videos and ritualistic cleaning routines. But the people who make cast-iron skillets want you to know something: you’re overthinking it. Here, two pros weigh in.

A Little Water Is Perfectly Fine

Everybody is afraid of rust but the risk with cast iron is overblown. Will Copenhaver of Smithey Ironware says a splash of water in a warm skillet pulls off most hard-stuck food bits, and recommends adding a fingertip’s depth of water into the pan and placing it over the burner on low until it’s entirely evaporated and the skillet is bone-dry. Stargazer Cast Iron’s Stuart Shank also says water, should you need it, is totally fine, and advocates for stovetop drying as well. “Save yourself some time and let the range dry your pans for you,” Shank says. The takeaway: unless you’re exposing bare, unseasoned iron to water, you shouldn’t have an issue. Just get it dry afterward.

A Chainmail Scrubber Is the Only Accessory You Need

“There are plenty of specialized brushes and custom methods out there for cast iron cleaning but we don’t find those necessary,” Copenhaver says. For food that won’t come off with a little water and paper towel, he recommends a chain mail scrubber, which have hard, rounded edges, so you can apply force to the pan without scraping up bits of seasoning. “It’s kind of like a Brillo pad that never wears out.” If you don’t have a chainmail scrubber on hand, feel free to use your everyday sponge — just don’t don’t overscrub, as the bristles will dislodge easily on stickier foods.

Soap Isn’t Necessary, But It Doesn’t Hurt

Though Shank and Copenhaver both say soap in moderation won’t hurt your skillet’s seasoning, they don’t think you need it. A skillet will be plenty clean after some water and a chainmail scrubber. “People obsess over removing every stain, spot and weirdly colored line. These skillets aren’t gunning to win a beauty contest,” Shank says. “As long as you’ve got the food residue out of the pan, it is clean.”

Always Finish with Oil

Even if you’ve just cooked a bunch of bacon, it’s best to apply a very thin layer of oil after cleaning the skillet. It acts as a failsafe against any water or bare iron you may have missed when cleaning off the pan.

You Can’t “Ruin” a Pan By Cleaning It

Can you strip the seasoning by soaping it overnight? Sure, but all that’s needed is another round of seasoning. “Americans have been using cast iron for generations,” Copenhaver says, “and those settlers and cowboys on the range weren’t using specialized cleaning tools and scrubs to clean their skillets. Keep on using it and you’ll be fine.”

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Will Price

Will Price is Gear Patrol's home and drinks editor. He's from Atlanta and lives in Brooklyn. He's interested in bourbon, houseplants, cheap Japanese pens, and cast-iron skillets — maybe a little too much.

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