Cast iron cookware is incredibly durable and will last you a lifetime if correctly maintained. However, looking after it is a little different to the way you look after other kitchen items. To ensure you keep your cast iron skillet, pan, Dutch oven or griddle rust-free and ready for use at all times, check out our tips below to find out how to wash cast iron, and how to season a cast iron skillet or pan with vegetable oil to protect it.
Here's an easy way to remember how to clean a cast iron skillet (or pan, Dutch oven, griddle etc). Think of it as a 3 stage process.
Now the important bit - you need to know how to season a cast iron pan or skillet. This protects it during storage and helps build the non-stick layer. Start by rubbing a thin layer of oil into the cooking surface, bake it for an hour or two placed upside down in a hot oven, and then turn off the heat and leave it in the oven until it's cool enough to put away.
You can use various types of nut or vegetable oil, but you should always choose one with a high smoke point and without a discernible flavor. Olive oil and butter have low smoke points. Coconut or avocado oil both have quite strong flavors, which can affect the taste of the food you cook. The best choices are sunflower, canola, peanut or vegetable oil.
Let's sum up with a list of the obvious dos and don'ts when it comes to cast iron cookware.
To keep your cookware in the best possible condition, you should avoid using it for cooking any foods which will damage the natural non-stick surface. The worst offenders are highly acidic foods, for example, tomatoes and citrus fruits, any dish which requires the addition of wine or spirits, large amounts of vinegar, and so on.
The other problem group is foods which will stick to the surface, and which will, therefore, force you to damage the surface yourself by soaking or scrubbing the cookware to remove stuck-on food. Examples include omelets and other egg-heavy dishes, as well as very flaky fish.
You may also want to avoid cooking dessert items in your cast iron cookware if you've previously been using it for savory food, although this is not really an issue of cleaning, it's more that a cast iron skillet or pan can naturally retain some flavors after use, and potentially transfer them to your next dish. It's not really an issue when you're switching from beefsteak to chicken, but potentially disastrous if your tart or flan turns out to taste slightly of garlic.
Cleaning cast iron shouldn't usually require soap, but it's okay to use a little if you have a particularly stubborn layer of grease or burnt on food. Cleaning cast iron with salt is a recommended option if you'd rather avoid soap altogether. Just grab a handful of kosher salt and scrub at any difficult areas in a circular pattern.
For really tough stuck-on food, you may need to use a ball of steel wool for extra abrasion. Cast iron cleaning gets easier the more you use your cookware, as the non/stick qualities of the surface increase with each seasoning.
Not really. Although it depends where it is. If it's on the handle of your pan or skillet, or on the exterior it's less of a problem than if it's on the actual cooking surface. While rust isn't poisonous, it provides plenty of microscopic fissures and cracks which can harbor bacteria, so it's not a good idea to cook on a rusty surface.
For minor rust spots you should be able to remove it with a good scrub with steel wool. Once you've removed the rust, you'll need to dust down the area with a paper towel, and then thoroughly clean and reseason your pan before using it for cooking, as there may otherwise still be tiny metal particles as well as steel wool fibers on the surface.
Yes and no. You can't really do anything to a cast iron skillet or pan that would destroy it totally - they're pretty robust. But it is possible to destroy the surface to such an extent that it would take a lot of time and effort to repair it to the point where it could be used for cooking once again.
Even extremely rusty pans have been professionally restored to their former glory by enthusiasts - there are several videos on YouTube about exactly this kind of thing - but you don't want to put yourself in that position if you can help it.
Very few home cooks have the equipment and skills, let alone the time, to work on a huge restoration program before they can fry a steak. You're much better following the tips in this guide to keep your cast iron skillet or pan in top condition, so it's ready to use whenever you need it.