Can you wash cast iron pans?


So asks reader Cindy. Cindy, the short answer is: yes. Oh yes I know that the cast iron cognoscenti claim that a properly seasoned cast iron pan can’t be allowed within a yard of a bottle of dish soap, but the fact is that a well-seasoned pan can absolutely tolerate a washing with soap. So enough with the home-fashioned scrubbers made of kosher salt and lemon halves, go ahead and break out the Palmolive.

But Joe! Seasoning on a pan is made from fat and detergents disperse fat! You know not what you say! Au contraire, my good friend. The seasoning layer on a pan may be made from fat, but it ceased being fat when you heated it to a zillion degrees Fahrenheit. At that point the lipid molecules in the fat were literally torn apart, and the pieces reorganized into a hard and shiny polymer that is absolutely not fat. Just how soap resistant is this non-fat polymer? If you’ve ever tried to scrub burned oil off of the lovely chrome finish on the outside of an expensive saucepan, you know how soap resistant it is: maddeningly so.

So go ahead and scrub. Not a lot, just a little. If your pan was only recently seasoned, and then at low heat, maybe you do want to baby it some. But once the surface turns a nice shiny black (after, say, half a dozen uses), feel free to apply the suds. I wash mine out probably three times a week with some form of detergent, and they remain slick and lovely.

But I can hear the objection: Joe, why, if your pan is seasoned to the point that it’s virtually non-stick, would you ever want to wash it versus just wiping it out? Because tarte tatin shouldn’t taste like liver and onions, it’s that simple.

Thanks for the question, Cindy!

11 thoughts on “Can you wash cast iron pans?”

  1. Yes. Yes. And Yes. Washing an iron skillet that has been seasoned will not ruin it. Not using it for 30 or 49 years will.
    I just bought an old really old, ugly, rusty cast iron popover pan and it looks beautiful with a couple of wipes of oil baked back on. Took two days but I can’t wait to put it back in service. No rust anywhere.

  2. My cast iron dutch oven gets frequent use and always reminds me of how durable it is. About 50 years ago I forgot it (illness, busyness, whatever) for several days, with a concoction of whatever I’d cooked corned beef in. Lots of water, the salty beef, what have you. It was rusty red inside and I thought I’d ruined it. So my husband took the wire brush on his drill to it, thinking we’d get back to bare metal and I could start over with the seasoning process. What he got back to was the seasoning! It’s been just fine ever since–and I’m not so absent-minded now.

    1. Fascinating. I’d have thought the salt and soaking would have wrecked the seasoning layer too. Amazing stuff, cast iron. Many thanks, Sally!

      – Joe

  3. Oh, since you’ve ventured into the world of cast iron pans, maybe you can give us the bottom line on seasoning them? I read so much contradictory stuff. I messed up my 12-inch cast iron. I’ve been reluctant to re-season it because (1) I didn’t do such a hot-shot job the first time, and (2) I can barely lift the thing anyway. But it looks so pathetic, I have to do something.

    1. Hey Chana!

      Yeah there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo out there on the subject of seasoning. You can do it one of two ways. First just wash it thoroughly and if necessary scour it out. Use soap, steel wool, everything to get it more or less smooth again. Wipe it thoroughly and let it air dry for a few minutes. Here are the two methods.

      1. Wipe it with vegetable oil and bake it in a 325-degree oven for about an hour. Done. This is the “light” version that gives you a nice starter base for more cooking. It’s not as hard and durable as the burnt oil sort of seasoning, but that will come with use, and it’s amazing how fast it happens.

      2. Wash and scour and dry as in the above example. Wipe then with vegetable oil and put it over a burner on high heat until your kitchen is filled with smoke. Open the windows, turn off the stove and let the pan cool down completely. Done. This creates that thicker seasoning layer I mentioned earlier.

      In either case, when the pan is completely cool, wipe out any remaining drops of oil, then wipe on a thin layer of vegetable oil. Cook with the pan once or twice, wipe it out and inspect the surface. If it doesn’t seem to be building up a coating, repeat the seasoning process (but without scoring it out first). The idea is just to keep adding on those cooked-on laters. After a few weeks of regular cooking you won’t think twice about it.

      And that is really all there is to that.

      – Joe

      1. Thank you. I’ll go with Door #1. (I have no windows in my kitchen.) It’s close to what I did the first time, which was quite a few years ago. I messed it up trying to make English muffins, and I think the uneven heat distribution you mentioned played a part in it. But the biggest problem is that I don’t use this pan enough, partially because it’s so large. Well, that can change. (Not that it’s so large, but that I don’t use it enough.)

        1. Just keep a little oil rubbed on it as well. That will help. Make a rule to always put it away shiny.


          – Joe

  4. Just make sure you dry it properly before you put it away But that salt does more harm to your seasoning than the soap does.

    1. Fair point, Michael. Soaking also isn’t a great thing for even the most well-seasoned pans. So that should be avoided as well.

      Many thanks!

      – Joe

  5. Joe:
    I have my grandmother’s cast iron pan. She (the pan not my grandmother) was sitting around doing a lot of nothing for probably a good 20 years. Then I decided to put her back into service. A little bit of scrubbing and oil and she was back in prime shape. She is now one of my go-to pans.

    1. Some grandmothers do sit around doing nothing (except maybe sudoku or 7 Little Words) for 20 years or more, but still I’m glad you clarified the point. Cheers,

      – Joe

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