How to Care for a Cast Iron Skillet





Introduction: How to Care for a Cast Iron Skillet

This is written for the La Follette High School Culinary Basics class in Madison, Wisconsin, but all are welcome to see it. It is intended to be a simple, straight forward tutorial.

In following this tutorial on caring for a cast iron skillet, students will have the opportunity to a) remember that there is a special way to care for cast iron, and that they have means to access similar information for future reference, b) practice proper care and maintenance of equipment, c) more deeply connect the written word to "real life" in a meaningful way.

Step 1: Let Your Cast Iron Skillet Cool to Room Temperature.

Let your skillet, or other cast iron implement, cool to room temperature.

Putting anything hot into water can crack or warp it, so don't.

Step 2: Wash, Using No Soap.

Wash the inside of your skillet. You shouldn't need to use any soap, but do scrub it very well. Make sure there isn't any food on the cooking surface.

Rinse your skillet thoroughly, inside and out.

Note: Don't soak your skillet before you wash it. If you have a rusty skillet.

If you have a rusty skillet, try washing it with a scrubby sponge. If that doesn't work, use steel wool. Follow the seasoning instructions for new pans as I've detailed in step 5.

Step 3: Towel Dry Your Skillet

Using a clean towel, dry the skillet inside and out.

Step 4: Finish Drying, and Heat

Finish drying your skillet by putting it over medium heat. This will also heat your skillet for the next step.

Don't walk away from your skillet, it could overheat and warp, which ruins it. It should be dry in just 30 seconds or so.

Step 5: Oil, or "season" Your Pan

You're embarking on the mysterious "seasoning" step.

Here it is:
1) Your pan has to be hot (not over-heating and giving off the smell of a foundry, just hot enough to evaporate water)
2) Dampen a paper towel with food oil (olive oil is good), and rub it around on the inside of the pan.
3) Do this until all of the metal is glossy. If you pour it right on the pan that works, too, but putting too much on makes the surface of the pan sticky, instead of non-stick.
4) Compost your oily paper towel if no one else needs it.

If your pan is new, or hasn't been seasoned in a while, you can do this steps a few times. Let it cool between steps, and you'll build up a coating will make it easy to clean. 

Be efficient: Next time you bake you can heat your skillet in the oven while you preheat and season it then.

Step 6: Let Cool, and Put Away

Let your pan cool to room temperature on the stove top, and then put it away. 

At home people often store them in the oven, or hang them on hooks, so that they don't have to wait before putting them away.



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    My story and my $.02

    Several years ago, when I was just getting out on my own I inherited two cast iron skillets. I had come home on leave and my great grandmother had them sitting on top of the trash can when I walked into the kitchen. A couple of simple questions and I found out what was wrong. She had gotten them from her mother somewhere back in the 1930's, they were old then, but they were good for a young woman starting her own home. They were old enough then that they were handed down, but as to when they were made, I wouldn't even want to venture a guess. If you talk to people who like cast iron, they will tell you to throw your cast into a fire periodically to burn off scale. and that's what my great grandmother did, for 60 years and her mother before her for who knows how long. The fire burns off most of the scale, and leaves behind a thin hard film. Over time that hard film had built up a solid pourous crust, in some places half an inch thick. When my great grandmother washed her skillets, the dirty dish water soaked into the outer crust. When she put it on the stove to cook, the liquid inside heated up and stunk horribly as it cooked off. It didn't affect the taste of the food, and the interior of the skillet was pretty well perfect but it made the act of cooking unpleasant.

    I'm sure I'm going to make anyone who likes cast iron gasp in horror with the next part but here goes.

    I didn't have the wonder of the internet to help me out, (this was in the mid 90's) so I asked around and got told the fire trick. So I built what can only be described as a bonfire, hucked the skillets in and walked away. The next day I come back and the skillets are laying in the middle of a still warm pile of ashes. I pull them out, only to realize that the crust is slightly thinner and still there. At a loss for what to do I head back to my workshop I try the classic green scrubby, then a brillo pad, with no luck. I started wire brushing, with little effect. I turned to a chisel and hammer. I managed to shave the crust down to maybe a 16/th thick, and threw the thing on the wire wheel. I stripped it to shiny silver metal.

    Again I didn't have a good research resource at my disposal so afterward I filled the skillets with vegetable oil and put them in the oven at 175 for something like 4 days, pulling them out periodically to recoat the exterior. They both ended up turning a rather pretty gold color with a sticky finish. They weren't rusting, but they didn't look right, So I tossed them back in the fire. Finally it came out pretty well close to what it should look like.

    The actual seasoning layer took a bit of time to get right, but since then I've learned a few things. First, soap and water are no big deal (unless you have 6 plus decades of crusty buildup). Second you can even use a brillo pad to scrub them. Third if you live in a humid area, no matter how seasoned the skillet is, it will rust in a matter of days if you hang it up dry. instead of oiling it and immediately re-heating it, I oil it and hang, the act of heating the skillet before the next use works fine. Finally, and this will probably drive the last nail in the coffin for cast iron purists, but I actually throw mine in the dishwasher on occasion, I will say that this does wear on the seasoning, and I wouldn't do it every time.

    The most important and last thing that I've learned, is even if you think you have ruined your cast iron you haven't thrown it in a bon fire, scrubbied, brillo'ed, wire brushed, hammer and chiseled, and wire wheeled yours down to bare shiny metal. Unless you physically deform it, it can be brought back to usable.

    So what does one do if they *gasp*, neglected a fairly new cast iron skillet and there is rust?

    I haven't read your whole ible yet, so I apologize if you have already answered this question in your step-by-step.

    2 replies

    Really, it isn't a problem :) It happens!

    Get as much of the rust off as you can with steel wool or a green scrubby and follow the directions in the instructable.

    Good job on your ible.However,I have been using cast iron cookware(from fry pans,griddles,you name it I've used).My point is that I agree with your every step except I have no problem using dish soap to clean them.After cleaning them I rinse well with hot water.After that I do the same as you.Been doing this for 35 plus years with no problems at all.That is just my 2 cents worth.

    2 replies


    To soap or not to soap is a debate in our house, too. More than anything I didn't want students to over-use the soap. I was wondering how long it would take to come up here :)

    Thanks, again!

    In a properly seasoned pan, the oil polymerizes into a hard, nonstick layer that is no longer oil. A little soap will not take this layer off.

    My understanding is that olive oil has a low smoke point (compared to many other oils/fats). This might produce -- you guessed it -- smoke when you start to really heat it up.

    I think Alton Brown has done quite a bit of good work in advocating cast iron cookware. He suggests (amongst many other things) that you can season it with shortening (a thin layer -- a sheen, really) and putting it cooking-surface down in your oven with a cookie sheet with foil beneath to catch any drips. I won't attempt to misquote him on the temperature and time, but I do believe it's a low temp for quite a while.

    Also, if you have the fortune of picking up some used (and abused) and built-up crusty cast iron cookware, you can bring it back to life! Put it in your oven during self-cleaning mode and watch all the residue turn to ash. You'll be able to wipe it all off, wash and re-season. I've done this with a dutch oven and was very pleased with the results.

    2 replies

    Oh, I love the self-cleaning oven trick, thanks! We live in a college town, and will often find cast iron thrown away during move-out week. Now I won't burn through so many Brillo pads making them usable again.

    I've heard about the smoke-point issue with olive, but I've never run into it as a problem seasoning the pans. For my classes I'm trying to keep it simple "olive oil=good, solid fats=bad". I don't even have shortening in the classroom, except for special occasions because I'm always talking about how the solid fats aren't as good for us. Some kids can handle the nuance, others not so much.

    It's safe to say that when you properly season a pan, your choice of lubricant (fat/oil - either is a hydrocarbon) will break down in the heat, laying down a thin layer of carbon on the steel... and this is really what makes it non-stick. By the time the pan is seasoned, there really shouldn't be any of it that you're actually consuming.

    And yes, I know where you're at from your post. I'm only a 20min drive from downtown as well. If I were brave enough to take a drive on the moving weekend, I'd grab some cast iron, too! :)

    My observations have shown that soaking for few hours does not make them rust, even when I do no seasoning after that, but dishwashing liquid makes it rust really easy when the whole process is not completed straight after. On the other hand I always use a remarkable amount of oil with the food and seldom need to do seasoning, I can imagine not everyone pours plenty of oil in with food. That may influence the rusting issue with soaking.

    Aren't there any other types of vegetable oil used besides olive where you live? Due to the low smoking point it seems a bit unhealthy to burn olive oil on skillet. But there are rapeseed oil and sunflower oil and many other more expensive ones (walnut etc) that have higher smoking point.

    Thank you.
    I've seen the results if someone doesn't know how.
    They scrubbed it clean, and I spent the next two days seasoning a large set. lol

    1 reply

    I have an electric stove that can take a while to dry a pan so I turn the pan upside down over the burner. I store my pans and griddles in the oven, I think they help regulate the heat when using the oven

    1 reply

    Great idea. Some of the stoves in my classroom are electric, and I hadn't thought of that. Thanks!