If you’re moving into your first home, or you just got married, or for some other reason you have decided it is time for you to start Acting Like an Adult, then chances are good you have recently acquired a cast iron pan.
The cast-iron pan, along with the Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a set of matching dishes, is a hallmark of home-ownership and adulthood. It is both a practical, durable kitchen utensil and a totem of the past, sometimes handed down through generations. Because of this, there is a lot of mythology about cast-iron skillets, which Serious Eats tackles well here.
But the biggest cast-iron myth, the one most people just can’t let go, is the myth that you can’t use soap and water to clean a cast-iron pan.
We know. We know. Grandma never touched hers with soap and it lasted 800 years and practically jumped into your refrigerator and cooked the steaks on its own and by golly you’re not changing for nobody. Get it all out. If you don’t want to clean your cast iron with soap and water, you don’t have to.
But if you want to clean your cast iron with soap and water, you won’t hurt it.
But what about the seasoning?
The reason you’ve been told not to use soap on your cast iron is that the soap will eat into the layer of fine oil “seasoning” on the metal, damaging the pan’s non-stick characteristic. This conventional wisdom is based on a misconception about what the seasoning actually is.
See, as Good Eats points out, “Seasoning is actually not a thin layer of oil, it’s a thin layer of polymerized oil, a key distinction.” The long and short of it is that the process of seasoning your pan left it with a plastic-like surface that is bonded to the metal itself. This layer is not invincible, but it won’t be damaged with dish soap.
So I can just soak the thing?
No. Don’t let the pan soak in water. Use the water to help get the gunk out, then get the water out. This is because, even with a good seasoning on your cast iron, there is a good chance your pan has some exposed metal somewhere in there, and that metal should spend as little time hanging out with water as possible.
It’s clean. Now what?
For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll assume your cast-iron pan could use a fresh dose of seasoning. It’s a good thing to do from time to time anyway, especially if the pan has recently come into contact with a lot of water or acidic food, such as tomato sauce.
There is more than one way to improve the seasoning on your cast-iron pan. They all come down to coating it in a thin layer of oil and getting it hot. You can do this with the stove-top burner or you can do itinside a hot oven, but any combination of heat and oil is having a seasoning effect on your pan.
And then, of course, use it! Fry some chicken, sauté some shrimp, sear up a burger. Those oils will help too.