Laugh of the Day

I came across the sage advice again today: Under no circumstances should I get soap or detergent anywhere near my cast iron skillet nor should I use anything at all abrasive on it. Treat it as gently as nonstick cookware was the comparison.


My grandmothers and generations of women before them would have found these instructions laughable, even preposterous. Of course, they knew that you NEVER let a cast iron pan sit with water or other liquids soaking in it, and none of them had automatic dishwashers, but they also knew that cleaning the pans well and keeping them seasoned would involve some pretty heavy duty scrubbing at times.

Of course you want to care for these wonderful pans well, but our fore-mothers were even more careful with the few kitchen tools and supplies that they had. Would they do anything to damage their precious “spider?” (If you are old enough and from some parts of the country, that was what you called the workhorse frying pan or skillet.) Of course not. And if you follow their methods, you too can have a pan that develops an almost satiny surface, as nonstick as many more modern materials.

I did not have a cast iron pan for many years but finally bought one about 10 or so years ago. The first was a “pre-seasoned” one, but I have since acquired a couple of others that I had to season myself, and I can tell you that both kinds have taken kindly to the treatment I am about to describe.

When I purchased that first pan, it came with all the warnings and cautions about treating the pan with figurative kid gloves, which puzzled me. After all those years of seeing how my mother cared for her spiders, how did she manage to have such wonderful pans still in the cupboards when we were dividing up her household? So I decided mother knew best–as always–and here is what has worked for me for over a decade:

NEVER leave a cast iron pan soaking in water or filled with water or other liquids. Also, NEVER leave it excessively damp. Yes, iron does rust, even in pans.

NEVER put cast iron pans in the dishwasher. The drying time is too prolonged, the detergent doesn’t really scour, and you won’t be able to re-season it when it is hot and ready to absorb the oils.

Routine cleaning:
When you have finished cooking whatever you are cooking, scrape it out as thoroughly as possible, using a metal spatula if really stuck on, a silicon spatula if that is enough. Though the pans often clean most easily while still a little warm, you should avoid putting a very hot pan into water, as it could be possible to crack the iron if the contrast is too great. Personally, I have never seen this happen, but it does seem to be possible.

Put a small amount of water in the pan and squirt in just a little dishwashing (not dishwasher) detergent. If you were cooking something that didn’t really stick on (sauteed onions for example) and you didn’t manage to burn any of it, you may well be able to wash it clean with just a cloth or gentle plastic scrubber. However, if you were scrambling eggs or if you managed to somehow, somehow let the chicken curry stick on a little–or a lot–you are going to have to go to something stronger to get the pan clean, really clean.

My mother always kept a “Chore-Boy” copper scouring pad by the sink, ready for her cast iron pans, the only ones that would not be ruined by its rough texture.  Steel wool was also used by many homemakers in the past, but my mother didn’t like the way it fragmented into little iron shavings. SOS, the pre-soaped steel wool pads, was a little more controversial in the minds of some of these ladies, since they were more expensive and the soap in them was a little stronger than they liked.

I have found that the Chore-Boy brand still exists, in both copper and steel versions, and there are similar scouring pads available in most supermarkets, so I too have one of these by the sink. Since I am not a cook who manages never to cook things a little too long, I do need to scour my pans at times. When the pan needs a real cleaning, I use the scouring pad to get every last bit of cooked on food off. Then a thorough rinse, a minute or two to drain, and back to the stove I go. Wipe it out with a bit of paper towel if need be, to keep from having standing water in it.

Here is the real secret to keeping your cast iron skillet looking “younger” all the time, one that our fore-mothers with their ever warm cook stoves just took for granted:  Turn a burner on high and place the pan on it. When it is well-dried by the heat, drizzle just a few drops of canola or other light cooking oil in the pan and swirl around. Then, again using a bit of paper towel (enough to avoid burning your fingers), rub the oil into the bottom and sides of the pan. Leave it on the heat for another minute or two and then allow it to cool completely before putting away.

That’s it. You are re-seasoning your pan every time you use it, with the heat “opening the pores” of the iron so that the oil works its way well below the surface. Meanwhile, the scouring will be gradually burnishing the surface to a glossy shine.

If you look closely at the picture above of my favorite skillet (I have a couple of other cast iron pans of different sizes, but this is my “daily use” one), you will see a drop of water beading up on its surface. I had just finished with the regular post clean-up seasoning and thought this might give you a picture of just how wonderful the surface is getting to be.

Oh. And if you happen to miss those “NEVERs” above, and your pan ends up getting a little rusty in spots or starts to lose its shine, all is not lost. Just scour all the crud away, rub all surfaces of the pan with a little more oil than usual, and then put it in the oven at 350 for an hour or so to re-season.  Some sites recommend that you put the pan in upside down for half the seasoning time, and the wisest ones recommend putting a cookie sheet underneath to catch the inevitable drips. When the seasoning time is done, remove from the oven and let cool until just warm. Then give it another rub with some paper towels to soak up the excess oil.

Leave a Reply