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caramelized green beans in cast iron pan

Can You Really Wash a Cast Iron Pan? A Clean Up Primer

With all of the recipes floating around the internet, one topic that never gets discussed is clean up. As someone who loathes washing the dishes on most days, I think about this a lot.

So, when I posted that sweet potato gratin recipe last week, it got me thinking about cleaning… Maybe you also noticed that cast iron pan and just how gooey {in a delicious way} that gratin left it.

Deep-dish sweet potato gratin recipe at lynnecurry.com.

See what I mean?

With most pans like that I’d stick it in the sink and let it soak for a bit in hot water, maybe with some baking soda. But you can’t ever soak a cast iron pan.

So, how do you clean sticky, baked on, cooked on cast iron?

Cleaning & Maintaining Cast Iron

You wash it!

I know, I know…everyone says that you should never, ever wash a cast iron pan. But really, after that gratin, or a skillet of pork chops or sea scallops? Man, I am so going to wash that pan.

A seared and sauced pork chop in a pan for a how to sear at lynnecurry.com

But I’m going to do it in a very specific way that respects the properties of cast iron and preserves the pan’s seasoning. {More on seasoning down below.}

Of course, not every use means a full-on scrubbing session. One of the benefits of cast iron is that it’s so easy to maintain once you learn how. Here’s what I do from the lightest cleaning to the toughest:

Light cleaning: For general maintenance, I simply wipe the pan out with a dry cloth or paper towel after use. If there are any bits of cooked-on foods, I sprinkle in some kosher salt as a scouring aid. Wipe clean and store.

Moderate cleaning: For cooked-on foods, I simmer one inch of water in the pan for about one minutes, then scrape the pan with a metal spatula to release the foods. Then, I dump the gray water rinse it out with water. Since any water droplets will cause rust spots, I either heat the pan over low heat or put it in a warm oven upside down. Once dry, I oil it lightly and store.

Heavy cleaning: These are the occasions mentioned above when I want to clean the residual aromas and foods from a very messy cast iron pan. Here’s the clincher: I leave the pan on the stove until I’m ready to deal with it. In other words, the cast iron stays away from the sink so that it does not come into contact with water. That is an important point because long contact with moisture is cast iron’s undoing.

raw burger in a cast iron pan ready to cook

So, when all the other dishes are handled, I heat some water in the pan and let it simmer and scrape out all the food bits as described above. Then, under scalding hot water, I give it a quick wash with dish soap before rinsing thoroughly.

After shaking out all the water I can, I then heat the pan in the oven or on the stove top until bone dry. Finally, I give it a good massage with oil and let it cool before storing. While it’s rarely necessary, I should note that I could also put the clean and oiled pan in the oven at 350 degrees F for about an hour {the way you do with a new cast iron pan}, just to keep that seasoning in tip-top shape.

What’s That About Seasoning?

You probably know that when it comes to cast iron, seasoning has nothing to do with salt and pepper. But what is it, exactly?

Seasoning cast iron involves applying a thin layer of oil and then heating it so that the oil becomes polymerized and chemically bonds to the metal. {Heavy geek science talk.}

This is the property that darkens cast iron pans and makes them smooth and relatively non stick.

Caramelized green beans in a cast iron skillet at lynnecurry.com.Mind you, cast iron, no matter how well seasoned, will never be as nonstick as your nonstick cookware. But you can cook eggs, pancakes and other delicate items in cast iron without fear of sticking. {Full disclosure: I own no non-stick cookware.}

So, to keep your cast iron pans “seasoned” simply use them often. The more you use your cast iron, the more seasoned it will become and the better it will perform.

And so will you.

Before I go, here are 3 of my favorite techniques for cooking with cast iron all pictured in this post:

I wish you lots of good eating with easy clean ups!

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