How to clean a cast iron skillet properly to restore it to its best - without damaging it

A cast iron skillet is a dream for cooking, but knowing how to take care of it properly can be really tricky

cast iron skillet
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Taking care of your cast iron, and knowing how to clean your cast iron skillet properly, involves a little more love and care than you have to give to other cookware since cast iron is easily damaged. But it's also so much more beneficial for you to have in the kitchen. 

Among the many reasons, it's sturdy, lasts almost forever, and you don't have to worry about scratches ruining its value. The good news is, owning and taking care of a cast iron pan isn't as hard as you'd think! As long as you know how to clean a cast iron skillet, you'll be able to enjoy all the rewards, without the hassle. 

Cleaning a cast iron skillet is similar to knowing how to cleaning a washing machine, how to descale a kettle, or how to clean an oven - once you do know how, it really is simple to do. But finding out the correct way to clean yours thoroughly, and without causing the pan any damage, is the key. 

How to clean a cast iron skillet/pan in three simple steps

Cleaning your cast iron pan/skillet just takes a bit of know-how. As our steps below will lay out, doing it properly involves washing it as soon as you can after use.

Then, we share tips for cleaning burnt-on food, and how to give your pan an overall clean. Much like cleaning a kitchen, following this step-by-step process will mean you can get the job done in a flash, and without too much sweating over the sink...

1. Clean your cast iron immediately after cooking

After a long, hard day, it can be hard to resist letting your pan soak while you eat dinner. Sometimes the temptation can lead to soaking your pan all night (something we often do with our best food processor, or our best blender), but don't give in! If there were only one thing you needed to know about cleaning a cast iron pan, it would be to clean it as soon as possible after using it, and don't let it soak for too long. Your cast iron pan is not rust-proof, so if you let it soak, it will certainly rust.

What’s more, if you have it soaking in dish soap, the porous cast iron will absorb all the scents, and nobody wants to cook on a pan that always smells like dish soap.

With that being said, when you get the urge to procrastinate washing your cast iron (like most of us do), push through it and get the job done.

2. Use salt and paper towel to get burnt food off

Chances are, you've been faced with an ugly, pan-seared blend of food stuck to the bottom of your pan — and not the kind that's easy to scrape off. No, we're talking about the kind that makes you want to throw your whole pan out...but never fear. It's something that happens to all pans - even our best induction pans, which are meant to be easier to clean! Thankfully though, there is a fairly easy solution to the problem.

Before you begin to give your cast iron skillet a general clean, it's important to get these burnt bits of food off. To do this, simply bunch up a piece or two of paper towel and use Kosher salt to rub the burnt food stuff off - it should start to come off fairly easily, with a little bit of force.

If that doesn't work for you, or you prefer to try other methods, there is one that involves only hot water and a wooden spoon. 

cast iron skillet

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Then, clean it while it's hot and use a wooden spoon

Before jumping into this great cleaning method, you need to know that hot water and a hot iron pan will make steam. Therefore, you need to be very alert and careful when combining the two.

Additionally, don’t try to cut corners and use cold water to clean a hot cast iron pan. The difference in temperature will damage and crack the pan. You don't want to ruin your precious cast iron before you had the chance to enjoy its life-long benefits!

So, to give your cast iron skillet a proper clean, make sure it is hot itself, and gently place it under hot running water. Scrub at it (gently), with a wooden spoon - or a rubber spatula if you don't have a wooden spoon. The food and any excess dirt on your pan should rub right off. 

If you let your iron cool off after cooking, don't worry. You can easily put the pan back on the stove burner to heat it back up while you're warming up your running water. 

How to restore your cast iron skillet to its best

If you're anything like the majority of cast iron cooks (especially new ones), then you may have already made a mistake or two, and now your frying pan is seemingly rusty beyond repair. The good news is that it isn't! Cast iron may rust easily, but it can also be restored easily. 

Much like when you clean your stainless steel sink, your cast iron pan just needs a bit of love and attention to help it look its best again. 

cast iron skillet

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • The solution to restoring your cast iron is to soak in an even mixture of water and distilled vinegar for about an hour
  • Then sprinkle your pan with baking soda and scrub it down with steel wool or a metal scouring pad.
  • Don’t use the scented ones from the grocery store that come with detergents already in them. Just use plain steel wool.
  • Keep rinsing until all the rust is off and immediately dry with a paper towel until the grime stops coming off.
  • Then, bake your pan in your oven, set at 350, for about 10 minutes, to cure it. 

As you may be starting to realize by now, cleaning your cast iron cookware isn't nearly as bad as you may have imagined. When you actually know how to clean a cast iron skillet/pan oven, the process can be fairly quick and easy. And when cleaned correctly, your cast iron pan can last a lifetime.