The Beginner’s Guide to Maintaining Your Cast-Iron Skillet
It's one of the most versatile, long-lasting tools in your kitchen—take care of it.
In every home cook’s life, a major milestone is acquiring your very first cast-iron skillet, whether it’s been purchased brand-new, plucked off a thrift store shelf, or inherited from a relative.
After all, no kitchen is truly complete without one of these classic pans known for their ability to withstand the test of time. Not only are cast-iron skillets versatile—able to handle pretty much any heating situation, ranging from ovens and stovetops to grills and campfires—but they can also last for generations when treated properly.
While a cast-iron skillet can be a beloved lifelong staple of the kitchen, it can also be an intimidating tool to master, with its own unique rules and requirements. When I was given my first cast-iron as an apartment warming gift, I admittedly let it sit for many months without use, worried I was going to mishandle and irreparably damage it.
But the fact of the matter is, the more you use your cast-iron, the stronger and more reliable it becomes. And as I began to research how to properly care for my skillet, I realized that the key to maintaining an impeccable cast-iron can be broken down into three simple factors: cooking, cleaning, and seasoning.
When cooking with your cast-iron on the stove, allow the heat to build slowly on a lower setting before adding food, rather than turning the burners on full blast. This will help to distribute the heat more evenly, and avoid food burning or sticking to the pan. Be careful while handling the skillet, as the entire surface—including the handle—becomes extremely hot during cooking.
Ingredients with a high acid content, like citrus and tomatoes, can be a surprising set of detriments to the cast iron’s hard-earned seasoning. These acidic foods are most likely to affect newer skillets that haven’t developed a sturdy coating yet, so if your pan is brand-new, approach super-lemony dishes and tomato sauces with caution.
The essential rules of cast iron cleaning boil down to: Don’t use soap, don’t use abrasive textures like steel wool, and definitely don’t put it in the dishwasher. All of these are likely to strip the pan of its naturally nonstick coating.
For the best results, clean your skillet while it’s still warm, filling it with hot water and using a soap-free sponge or stiff nylon brush to gently scrub the pan. If the water or pan are too hot to make contact with, use a set of tongs to control the sponge. Once all food residue has been scrubbed off, rinse the skillet again in warm water.
For particularly stuck-on foods, combine a quarter cup of kosher salt and a few tablespoons of water in the pan, and use a wooden spoon to scrape the burnt on bits of food from the surface. Another option for removing burnt food is to fill the pan with water and bring it to a full boil, allowing the bits to loosen from the pan before scraping them off with your wooden spoon.
Once the cast-iron is clean, wipe off the excess moisture and dry it over a low temperature on the stove. While you can also opt to dry your pan with a dishtowel, it’s important to remember that cast-iron—due to its porous nature and ability to absorb water—is particularly susceptible to rust, and must be thoroughly dried before being stored. A little blast of heat on the stovetop will allow any remaining liquid to evaporate from the pan’s pores, reducing the likeliness of your skillet developing rust.
This sensitivity to rust also means that cast-iron shouldn’t be left in water to soak for extended periods of time, but rather cleaned shortly after use.
In the cast-iron skillet world, “seasoning” refers to the process of developing a permanent coating of fat to act as a natural nonstick surface. While many new cast-iron skillets will come “pre-seasoned,” some may require an initial seasoning, or a re-seasoning if the pan has been mistreated in the past.
This process comes down to two essential elements: oil and heat. While some swear by vegetable oil for this process, others use olive oil, butter, shortening, Pam spray, and pretty much every other form of fat you could imagine.
According to one chemistry-focused blogger, oils higher in omega-3 fatty acids are the best for the job, because “drying oils,” which create the hardest, more durable coatings, are high in these forms of acid. For the best result, she recommends using organic flaxseed oil, which can typically be found at health food stores with the supplements.
Whether you decide to use flaxseed oil or another oil or shortening, the seasoning process remains the same. Pour a few tablespoons of oil into your dry pan and spread it around the inside and outside of the skillet using a paper towel, cloth, or your hands—making sure that oil is scrubbed into every bit of the surface. Then, wipe off the excess oil, leaving just a thin layer over the entire pan, and bake the skillet upside down for an hour at 375 degrees, lining the bottom rack of the oven in foil to catch any oil drippings.
Let the skillet cool completely before removing, and repeat this process a few more times for the best, most long-lasting results. When the surface of the cast-iron appears slightly glossy when dry, you know you’ve hit your seasoning sweet spot.
You can typically tell if a cast-iron skillet needs to be re-seasoned if food tends to easily stick to the pan during cooking, or if the surface appears dull or rusted. In top shape, the skillet should appear shiny and smooth.
Now that you feel confident in your ability to care for your cast-iron, it’s time to dive in and put your pan to work. With amazing recipes like Cumin-Coriander Sirloin Steak, Quick Buttermilk Corn Bread, and a Sunny Skillet Breakfast, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to rely on cast-iron for your everyday cooking adventures.