The secret weapon for a spotless skillet is sitting in your pantry right now.
Cast iron is like a ferocious grizzly bear with a sensitive soul. It's tough as nails in many ways, able to withstand scorching heat, the thrash of utensils and years of being banged around an oven range or grill top. But this cookware material also requires some gentle care, mainly before and after use, than others on the cookware rack. It doesn't take much: Just the occasional seasoning of your cast-iron skillet and, most importantly, cleaning any cast-iron cookware without the use of harsh soaps that can ruin the slick surface.
After a particularly searing session, you might find your cast iron requires more than just hot water or a tiny dab of soap to come clean. Resist the urge to soak your cast iron in soapy water or run it through the dishwasher. Instead, try these best methods for cleaning cast iron. For really stuck-on bits, a simple pantry staple will have your skillet looking better than new. Give up? It's salt.
Here's how to properly clean cast iron (and how not to) to keep your favorite skillet in tip-top shape. (Make sure you also check out how to perfectly season a cast-iron pan, and the best way to cook bacon.)
You might be wondering if you can toss a piece of cast-iron cookware in the dishwasher in a pinch. While the dishwasher likely won't totally ruin the pan or render it useless, it will strip that important layer of seasoning and nonstick patina from the surface that you're working to build over time. In short: It won't do the pan any favors.
It doesn't take more than a few minutes to clean a cast-iron pan. You also don't need to give your pan a full, deep clean after every use. If you've only fried an egg or reheated some chick breast, for instance, a rag soaked in warm water is likely all you'll need to wipe it clean.
But if you've just seared something with excess grease or there are stuck-on bits of food hanging out, follow these simple steps and your cast iron will stay clean and continue to hold that beautifully seasoned, nonstick surface.
Yes, I know, that sizzling pork chop is ready to eat and the last thing you want to do is clean a pan, but trust me, this will make the job easier. Add some warm water to the skillet a few minutes after removing it from the heat while it's still warm but not scorching hot. That quick simmer will do a lot of the work for you in degunking the pan.
With the hot water having loosened food from the pan's surface, now it's time to use a wooden spoon or soft brush to remove whatever's left.
I like this $10 Oxo cast-iron brush for cast iron. It works great on a classic flat skillet but has separated tufts of bristles so it'll work well on cast-iron grill pans or grates. If you prefer something more natural, a palm scrub brush like this one will work, but it might not last as long. You can always grab a standard soft sponge but just know it'll probably be the final act for that sponge.
Avoid using metal scrubbers that will damage the cast-iron surface. And beware of rubber and plastic spatulas, especially cheap ones, as they may melt against the hot metal.
From a glance at your skillet, you should be able to tell what kind of cleaning task you have on your hands. After most uses, a dousing of warm water should do the trick. But if things are extra-sticky, sprinkle the cast iron with a bit of kosher salt (without water) and scrape it gently with a flat-ended wooden spoon or spatula. Dump the salt and add some water to get things moving.
Read more: 4 Frying Pans I Couldn't Live Without
If you need to scrub harder than you can with a wooden spoon or rag, use a cast-iron safe brush like the ones mentioned above.
Rusting is the most common problem folks face with cast iron, but it's also one that is easily avoided. It's important to dry your cast iron immediately and thoroughly. The best way is to use heat from the stovetop or oven, which will dry your skillet from the inside out, but you can also use a dry rag.
To dry a pan on the stove, just put it over low heat for a few minutes. You'll see it release some steam and possibly some smoke too. When that starts to slow, your skillet is dry. Use medium heat to dry the pan in the oven if it's still on. About 5 minutes at 325 F should be plenty.
After it's dry and while it's still hot, you can (and should) feel free to season it more with a cast-iron seasoning wax (I like Made In's mix of beeswax, canola and flaxseed oil) or some other high-heat cooking oil. For more on that, check out this CNET guide to perfectly seasoning your cast-iron skillet.
The No. 1 cast-iron cookware cleaning question is whether or not you can use soap to clean a skillet or grill pan. The answer is yes, but you should try not to. A little bit of soap -- I mean a real small dab -- won't ruin your cast iron, but certain harsh soaps will erode the nonstick patina and could also affect the flavor your cast iron has developed.