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How to Clean Cast Iron Pans, Skillets, and More — Even When They Get Rusty

Attempting to find the definitive answer on how to clean cast iron pans, skillets and other cookware is dicey territory. The subject has caused countless kitchen squabbles over the years. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to learn this debate is what actually sparked the legendary feud between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s way back in the day.

The divide boils down to those who believe cleaning cast iron with a little soap won’t do any harm… and those who react as if you’re threatening a beloved family member at the mere idea of any suds touching their perfectly seasoned skillet. Although one side might feel a bit more dramatic, they’re both understandable.

Most people who are strongly against using soap on cast iron products had the lesson passed down to them from a parent or grandparent. There was a good reason for that, according to Ashley L. Jones, author of Modern Cast Iron: The Complete Guide to Selecting, Seasoning, Cooking, and More ($22, Amazon).

“Our grandmothers told us to never, ever use soap or it would remove the pan’s seasoning,” Jones tells FIRST. “They were right, because the soap used back then contained lye which will strip a cast iron pan down to the silver.” However, Jones explains that today’s dish soap is a much milder detergent that she claims is perfectly safe to use on cast iron. “And if you’re cooking up a pan full of shrimp alfredo, you’re definitely going to want to wash it before baking a cobbler for dessert!”

There are some important factors to bear in mind, though. Keep reading for tips on how to clean cast iron pans, skillets, and other products.

Cast iron skillet with scraper, brush, and salt
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How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan or Skillet

In her book, Jones recommends simply making sure you remove any stuck-on bits from cast iron pans and skillets as soon as you’re done cooking your food.

She’s a fan of using the Lodge polycarbonate Pan Scraper ($1.95, Lodge) and Scrub Brush ($6.95, Lodge) to get the job done. Chainmail scrubbers, like The Ringer Stainless Steel Cast Iron Cleaner ($21.99, Amazon), are also great for cleaning up annoying stuck-on food. You can then use tongs to hold paper towels (so you don’t burn your hands) and wipe down the remaining oil and food crumbs while it’s still hot.

If food is being extra stubborn, Jones suggests pouring warm water (never cold, which can cause it to crack) directly into the pan, then let it heat on your stove for a few minutes to loosen things up. The quicker you act, the easier your cleanup will be — and in most cases, you won’t have to worry about using soap or water to rinse it off. Just wait for it to cool down and dry completely before storing.

How to Clean Cast Iron With Salt

Cleaning cast iron with salt is another popular method for those who hate the idea of suds getting anywhere near their precious pots and pans. The experts at Food52 suggest sprinkling “a nice big pinch” (about a teaspoon or two) of coarse salt, like kosher or sea salt, into the still-warm pan and using a paper towel to scrub away oil and crumbs, then wipe that all off into your trash.

If none of those methods can get the job done, then it’s probably time to wash your cast iron with soap.

Can you wash cast iron with soap?

Before anyone gets upset at the suggestion, you might be surprised to learn that Lodge Cast Iron — the oldest and arguably most beloved cast iron company in the United States — says using a small amount (just a couple squirts) to clean your pan is totally fine. You can also use a scrub brush or scraper while you wash to help get all the gunk off.

Whether or not you use soap, the most important thing is to make sure your cast iron gets completely dry after any contact with water. “A wet cast iron can rust virtually overnight,” Jones says. “After you towel dry the pan, place it back on the stove over medium heat until it’s completely dry.”

You might also want to consider a light re-seasoning at this point by adding a teaspoon of oil to the warm pan and rubbing it around inside. Just be careful to wipe away all of oil and, again, let it cool before storing.

Rusty cast iron pan
Getty Images

How to Remove Rust from Cast Iron

Don’t panic if you accidentally failed to dry off your pan or skillet completely and a little rust shows up. According to cast iron aficionado Jeffrey B. Rogers, steel wool and elbow grease can erase any light surface rust.

For more intense rust coverage, Rogers recommends mixing a one-to-one mixture of enough water and white vinegar to completely cover your cast iron, like one gallon of each for larger pieces. Let the rusty pan or skillet soak for 30 minutes and then test whether you can wipe the rust away.

Keep soaking in half hour increments until it’s totally rust-free. “With vinegar, you don’t want to go longer than necessary,” Rogers warns. “After it gets done eating the rust, it will start eating the iron.” Once all the rust is off, rinse with water, let it dry completely, and then re-season.

Ready to tackle a few more clean-up projects around the house? Check our our tips for how to clean an oven quickly and painlessly and how to deep clean a carpet without a steam cleaner.

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