Cleaning cast iron is one of the most intimidating factors of using cast iron cookware. But truth be told, it’s not that hard to learn how to clean cast iron cookware.
Once you’ve learned to cook a great meal in your cast iron, the clean-up is key.
Don’t do this… don’t use that… be sure you always do this… psshhh. Some people like to overthink things.
I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about how to properly clean your cast iron cookware like an old pro! Trust me when I say it’s not nearly as daunting a task as you may have been led to believe.
There’s a lot of controversy in the cast iron universe about how to “properly” clean your cookware. Some folks will tell you to never use soap. Others say you can’t scrub a cast iron skillet with anything. Still others insist that all you have to do is wipe your pan out when you’re finished cooking.
You know what? They’re all right — every single one of them.
They’re right because they’ve been working with their cast iron in their specific climate for a long, long time. Their parents and grandparents probably taught them how to do it, and it’s been working for their family for generations. Why try to change it?
What I want to do is teach you how to clean your cast iron cookware in case you’ve never been taught. Maybe you’re new to cast iron and don’t have anyone to show you their method.
After reading this article, you should have all the knowledge you need to make sure your cast iron is good and clean after every use.
How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware
You’ve cooked a lovely meal in your cast iron, and now it’s time to clean up the mess. You’ve got stuck-on bits of food in one pan, gravy caked to the sides of another, and a layer of grease in the bottom of the third.
Sounds like a nightmare, right?
Nah… it’s not as bad as it sounds. I’ll tell you how I would clean those pans first, then I’ll tell you other methods other people use.
You want to clean the pans as soon as you can. I’m not saying you need to miss a hot meal with your family, but if you do sit down to eat first, you should get right on the dishes afterward — and start with the cast iron.
My Method for Cleaning Cast Iron
- I empty the pan of any loose bits, grease, or leftover food. Put the leftover food into a storage container in the fridge, dump the grease into a grease container for the trash (a metal coffee can or something that will withstand the heat is preferable), and wipe the pan out into the trash can.
- If there is nothing at all stuck to the inside of the pan, I just wipe it out with a clean dish towel (I like to use a microfiber cleaning cloth because it’s lint-free) and store it. You’re done. (Yes, it’s really that easy.) This usually happens when you’ve fried (or deep fried) something in a layer of oil in the pan (like fried okra, fried green tomatoes, or french fries).
- If you need to take your cleanup a step further, turn the water on as hot as it will go. I use hot water for a couple of reasons. Hot water helps clean the pans easier than cold water would. Also, if the pans are still hot (or really, really warm), you should avoid putting it into cold water. A hot pan in cold water could cause it to crack from thermal shock (See “Tips for Cooking in Cast Iron” in The Beginner’s Guide to Cast Iron Cookware).
- I’ll let the water run in the pan while I scrub the cast iron with a nylon scrub brush (Lodge makes a good scrub brush specifically for cast iron). The stiff nylon bristles are hard enough to get anything stuck onto the pan loose, but gentle enough that it won’t scrape and scratch the seasoning.
- Once I’ve finished scrubbing the pan, I wipe it dry (again, with a microfiber towel). Here’s where you want to reapply heat to ensure the piece of cast iron is completely dry (and gets warmed back up for the next step). If the oven has been used, it should still be pretty hot, so you can put the pan into the cooling oven (there’s no need to leave it on for this). If the oven isn’t warm, put your pan on the stove and turn it on a medium-low heat.
- When the pan is completely dry (and warmed up again), rub in a thin layer of oil. I typically only go over the inside during cleaning (but I do go over the outside when I’m seasoning or reseasoning a pan). I generally use olive oil or Crisco for this step, but I have been known to use coconut oil or bacon grease, as well… and then wipe it out completely. You don’t want any more than just a very thin layer of oil in the cookware.
- Then I put the cast iron into the oven to let the oil dry. The oven doesn’t even have to be warm at this point. I put mine in upside down just in case there is any oil runoff, but I’ve never had any drippage. To be honest, if you wipe the pan out well enough, you can skip this step and just put your cast iron away… I just do it because it’s what I’ve always done. When I’m ready to cook another meal, I either use the cast iron or put it away then.
Now let’s discuss some other cleaning methods.
Clean Your Cast Iron with a Potato and Salt (or baking soda)
If you want to be “all natural” when you scrub your cookware, you can use a potato and salt to scrub your cast iron. All you have to do is cut the potato in half, sprinkle some salt (usually coarse sea salt or Kosher salt) into the pan, and scrub.
As the loose particles of food come loose, rinse your cast iron skillet with warm water, and repeat the scrubbing as necessary.
If you don’t have enough salt to spare, substitute baking soda, if you’d like. Baking soda is actually a milder (and finer) abrasive, so it won’t be as prone to scratch up the seasoning if you’re scrubbing too hard.
Alternatively, you could start he cleaning process with a potato and salt, and finish with a potato and baking soda… or you could just combine the salt and baking soda at the same time.
Soap and a Scrubby Sponge Won’t Hurt Your Cast Iron
This is a controversial method as some people think dish soap will ruin the seasoning — especially when scrubbing it like this.
I can honestly say that I have done this before and never had any issues with the seasoning.
Yes, I have actually used a scrubby sponge and Dawn. With just a drop or two of original blue Dawn dish soap (which is about the only dish soap we keep in the house) on the scrubby side of a Scotch-Brite sponge, you can gently scrub out any burnt-on particles.
Once you’ve got the stuck bits off, turn the sponge over to the gentle side — if you want — to clean it up further. I usually don’t when doing this method. I simply get the bits unstuck, then rinse, wipe dry, and heat.
Loosen the Stuck On Bits from Cast Iron with a Plastic Scraper
Lodge makes a plastic scraper that will get out any stubborn bits stuck to the pan. It’s strong enough to get the bits, but gentle enough not to scratch-up the seasoning in the pan.
The scraper is rounded on the corners so they fit perfectly into the bottom edges of the cookware. The scrapers also have ridged edges for grill pans.
Get Medieval on Your Cast Iron
There is even a chainmail-type scrubber on the market that is supposed to be easy on the seasoned surface. I’ve never used it before, but my friend Gaye from Backdoor Survival has. Read Gaye’s article on cleaning cast iron with “the Ringer” here.
Personally, I would imagine they’d work pretty nicely as long as you’re not scrubbing too hard. Although, it never hurts to re-season your cast iron from time to time if you do take the scrubbing too far.
Clean Your Camp Cast Iron with Sand
If you’re using your cast iron at a campsite, and you need to be sparing with your salt, you can use a handful of sand and creek water to clean up your mess. Don’t worry — when you put it back on the fire, the intense heat will kill any microscopic creepy crawlies!
Dave Canterbury shows you how to use sand in this video to clean a bush pot… but the same method can be used to clean cast iron.
Actually, most people who carry cast iron with them into the field typically carry along a green Scotch-Brite pad or two. They weigh virtually nothing, and they’re great for cleaning everything!
Boil Your Cast Iron Skillet Clean
If you have let your cast iron cookware sit for too long with bits of food in it, and they’re just stuck beyond belief, there’s another method to help get them clean.
- Remove any loose bits of food from your skillet.
- Add some hot water to the pan — about half an inch — and heat the pan until the water boils.
- Allow the water to boil for 3 to 5 minutes, but don’t let the water completely boil out.
- Take your pan off the heat and scrub it with a stiff-bristled brush or one of those plastic scrapers with the screaming hot water still in it. Be careful not to burn the mess out of your hand, though.
- Wipe dry and season.
Using Vinegar to Clean Your Cast Iron
Vinegar is an acid, so you want to dilute it if you’re going to clean your cast iron cookware with it. As a bonus, the vinegar acts like a mild antiseptic and will somewhat sterilize your cast iron.
- Mix 1/4 cup vinegar (any vinegar will do but we love Bragg’s organic raw apple cider vinegar) with 1 cup water in a spray bottle. If you’re using raw or homemade apple cider vinegar, be sure you filter out any sediment before mixing.
- Remove any loose bits of food from the cookware.
- Spray the vinegar mixture in the cookware and let it soak in for a minute.
- Use a plastic scraper or scrub brush to loosen and remove the crusty stuff.
- Wipe dry and season.
Be sure your cast iron is still warm (but not screaming hot) when using this method.
About Using Other Scrubbers in Cast Iron
Ok, here’s the part where I say “DON’T DO THAT!”
Steel wool and stainless steel scrubbers should not be used for daily cleaning of cast iron. About the only time you ever want to use them is when you’re restoring old cast iron. Leave the steel scrubbers for your stainless steel and glass cookware.
How do you clean your cast iron cookware?
Which of the methods listed do you use? Do you do something altogether different? Leave me a comment below to tell me how you clean your cast iron cookware, and if it’s a method I’ve never heard of, I’ll add it to the article and give you credit!