What I Know About Cleaning and Seasoning Cast-Iron Skillets

Having cleaned and seasoned hundreds of cast-iron skillets, these are the best tips I've learned.

Published July 28, 2021.

Cast-iron cookware seems to spawn a lot of conflicting advice. After years of reviewing cast-iron skillets and pans, I can confidently say you can ignore most of it.

Here's my advice in a nutshell: Do less. Stop worrying that you can mess it up. You can’t. Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the years.

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1. You almost never have to fully strip a cast-iron pan.

I’ve never had to do it, and I’ve restored some pretty bad pans. Instead of fully stripping it, try just giving it a good hard scrub with soap and steel wool. Scrub what’s there down to a level surface (not necessarily all the way back to bare iron) and reseason. It will be fine. 

2. Most of the time, you’ll never even have to “reseason” your pan.

Just use it often. (And on the rare occasion that you do have to reseason, don't use bacon. It sounds tasty, but it's not a good idea—the sugar can burn onto a lightly seasoned pan.)

3. If the pan looks dry and/or gets small rusty spots, just touch up the seasoning.

Think of cast iron like your skin. If it’s dry, you moisturize. Make it part of your cleaning routine after using the pan.

4. Use less oil when you do touch-ups.

A half teaspoon for a 12-inch skillet, max. You never want the surface to be glossy and oily; if you can see oily traces on a finger swiped over the interior, there’s too much—wipe it again. As you heat the pan to bond the oil to the surface, wipe it yet again to remove any oil that beads up. It might smoke a little, and that’s fine. When it’s finished bonding, the pan should look deep, solid, and matte black—not shiny.

5. Can you use soap to clean the pan? Yes, a little.

It’s not going to be the end of the world. But you really don’t have to. Rinse and scrub the pan with steamy hot tap water and the oil will mostly dissolve away, leaving the merest trace. Wipe it dry. Then heat it and let that trace of oil bond to the surface.

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6. A rough-surfaced pan is fine.

It will eventually gain seasoning as you use it, though it may take a couple extra months to be as slick as a pan with a smoother interior. You really don’t need to consider power sanding or other extreme measures.

That’s because the main benefit of cast-iron cookware is its thick, heat-retaining material, not its slickness or lack thereof. You will always need to use a little fat (butter, oil, etc.) in your pan to get food to release well. It’s not a Teflon pan. So stop worrying about slickness. Take advantage of the heat retention to sear meats and vegetables; shallow-fry chicken, french fries, or doughnuts (your pan keeps the oil at a steady temperature); and bake or roast cornbread or chicken until golden brown. When you do all these things in cast iron, the pan’s surface slickness will automatically build and improve. All you need to do is enjoy delicious food.

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