Ask the Test Cooks

Ask Matthew: What's the Best Way to Properly Clean and Season My Cast Iron?

This series answers all your cooking questions. And yes, by “all” we mean the wild, silly, and “stupid” ones, too.

Published Feb. 15, 2019.

Before Matthew Fairman joined Cook’s Country as a test cook, he cooked in many restaurants and taught college literature and writing. When hes not pitching a new take on fried rice to his editors or whispering to his slow cookers, Matthew is usually scaling plastic mountains at the climbing gym or running food experiments on his wife, Lauren, and cat, Daisy. He hopes to one day pay for climbing trips by selling fried rice from a food truck to hungry people stumbling out of bars after last call.

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Dear Matthew, I've been reading about all these great cast iron recipes lately, so I asked for a cast-iron skillet for Christmas. And I got one! So now I've been reading all about how they're so hard to keep clean and seasoned and everything else. Now I'm scared to even use it. It sits there, taunting me and looking gorgeous. I don't want to screw it up. Can you help me get over my fears and take the leap?

— Cast Iron Outcast

Dear Cast Iron Outcast, 

Take heart! I was once like you, and I understand your fears. But now I cherish my cast iron and use it every chance I get, knowing that it’s basically indestructible. With the exception of my sharpest chef’s knife, Louise II (yes, I named my knife Louise II—we’ll talk about that some other time), my cast iron might be my most beloved kitchen tool. But how did I get here? How did I go from cast iron outcast to cast iron iron chef? Let me tell you the story.

It was a dreary afternoon in September of 2015, and the Cook’s Country kitchens smelled like Beef Empanadas and Chocolate Crinkle Cookies. I had just finished my internship and been hired as an assistant test cook, and I was a green banana, literally (well, not literally). I was unseasoned, as it were. My boss, a bespectacled man with a ginger beard, was in the middle of telling me about a new Cook’s Country book we’d be working on: Cook It in Cast Iron. He was blabbering on, saying things like, “We’re gonna be making hundreds of recipes, from pies to paellas, all in cast iron.” He was excited. His cast-iron pan was named Bert. Maybe I made that up. Anyway, he loved cast iron.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Me, I was sweating. Not only had I not named my cast-iron pan, I also didn’t have one; I’d never even cooked in one! He kept talking, and I kept shvitzing. My mind sizzled with questions. Don’t you have to season cast iron? What does “seasoning” even mean? Is it true you can’t wash it with soap? Where am I gonna work after I’ve ruined all these pans and my boss finds out I’m a fraud?

Unripe fruit that I was, it was my job to just cook the food for the photos in the magazine and on the web while my test cook superiors did the rigorous testing. Luckily, by the time I had to use my first cast-iron pan for the book, they’d already developed an exhaustive primer to put my mind at ease.

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And here’s what I learned in those early days. Here’s the lovely, calming bottom line about cast-iron pans:

1. Almost every cast-iron pan now comes preseasoned, and the seasoning isn’t really that fragile. In fact, following a few simple guidelines means that the more you cook in your cast iron, the better it gets.

If your skillet doesn't come preseasoned, read “Seasoning Cast Iron” and follow the instructions for restoring a neglected skillet. Also, next Christmas, consider asking for the test kitchen’s winning cast-iron pan, the Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12", which comes preseasoned.

2. Even in a preseasoned skillet, food might stick a little bit at first, so choose recipes that don’t rely on the pan being completely nonstick (frying eggs might not be a good choice) for your first couple of forays with your new cast iron. Here’s a great one for Cast Iron Baked Chicken.

3. Lastly, if you follow all these rules to clean your cast iron, you'll be able to maintain it:       

While the skillet is still warm, wipe it clean with paper towels to remove excess food bits and oil.

Rinse the skillet under hot running water, scrubbing with a brush or nonabrasive scrub pad to remove traces of food. Use a small amount of soap if you like, but make sure to rinse it all off.

Dry the skillet thoroughly and put it back on the burner over medium-low heat until all moisture has evaporated. (Never put away a wet cast-iron pan or stack anything on a skillet that isn’t totally dry. It will rust.)

Add ½ teaspoon of vegetable oil to the warm, dry skillet and wipe the interior with a wad of paper towels until it is lightly covered with oil, holding the paper towels with tongs to protect your hands.

Continue to rub the oil into the skillet, replacing the paper towels as needed, until the skillet looks dark and shiny and doesn’t have any remaining oil residue.

Turn off the heat and let the skillet cool before putting it away.

If this green banana could do it, you’ve got nothing to fear.

And it’s really that simple. Though I’ve yet to name my skillet, I’ve come to genuinely enjoy taking care of it in this way. And I don’t go through this whole checklist while my food is getting cold either; I casually eat and even let food sit in the skillet during dinner. Afterward, I wipe it out, heat it back up a little, essentially deglaze it with water, and rub on a little oil. The only exception is highly acidic foods such as tomato, wine, or lemon sauces. They can sometimes take on an unpleasant metallic taste if left in the cast-iron pan for too long. Dealing with these is easy, though. Read “Can You Cook Acidic Ingredients in Cast Iron?” to see just how easy it is.

So, cast off your burden of cast iron fears and turn on the flame under your new skillet. It’s virtually indestructible; it retains heat better than your stainless-steel or aluminum pans and will sear a steak like no other; and if you treat it right, it’ll just become more and more nonstick. But if you’ve still got lingering concerns, do what I did and learn from the pros: buy our definitive guide to cooking in cast iron and you’ll feel like a seasoned expert after a few recipes. And while you’re at it, check out the beautiful cast iron roast chicken on the front cover, made by yours truly only weeks after cooking in cast iron for the first time. If this green banana could do it, you’ve got nothing to fear.

Until next time, may fried eggs slide easily out of your skillet for generations to come, and may your grandchildren fight over it like an heirloom jewel when you pass it on.  

Matthew Fairman

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