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How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

For centuries cast iron has been the material of choice for the thrifty and now for the health conscious. Why for the health conscious? Because cast iron uses less oil as a well-seasoned skillet becomes non-stick. Small amount of iron are released from cast iron but not enough to make up for an iron deficiency – stick with taking the iron-tablets or eating steak, mussels and strawberries – all high in iron and much better tasting than liver!

Cast iron lasts a lifetime and more if treated with common sense. It is not the type of cookware that needs high maintenance – many of us crave those beautiful shiny copper pots with their anti-microbial properties and the warm glow they add to the kitchen – but who wants to spend their time polishing them? One cast iron skillet can be used in multiple locations – over a fire in the bush, on your gas top, in the oven (if it doesn’t have a wooden handle) and on an electric stove.

What’s the difference between a pan and a skillet?

Not a huge amount – the pan has straight sides (as in the photo below) making it suitable for containing liquids while the skillet has sides that flare outwards, making it easier to get in there with a spatula and turn items like pancakes, crumpets, or omelets.

cast iron pan pixabay

Seasoning a Cast Iron Skillet

When you take your brand new cast iron skillet from its packaging don’t imagine it is ready to use –even if it is advertised as “pre-seasoned”. The longer you have the skillet the better it will be seasoned. Take a look at this skillet in the photo above – it’s been around for nearly forty years doing daily duty. That black glow comes with seasoning.

People have different ideas for seasoning a skillet. Some say you’ll need to coat it with a vegetable based cooking oil – corn and sunflower oil are good – inside and outside and bake it in an oven of 350 degrees Fahrenheit placed upside down for an hour. If it has a wooden handle you will need to put it on the stove top with a layer of kosher salt and a ½ inch layer of oil and heat until the oil is smoking – then tip out the mix and allow the skillet to cool a bit before wiping with paper towels.

Some people advise boiling some sheep fat in the skillet with water – personally I’d pass on that one though – tried it once on a Dutch oven, but prefer the vegetable oil, as it is much less messy. Each layer of oil added when you cook bonds to the cast iron creating a layer that protects the skillet from contact with the air that would cause it to rust. The more layers you have as the skillet ages the better it is protected.

Cast Iron Is Healthy to Cook With

Once a skillet is seasoned is becomes non-stick with out any of the chemicals that are used in the coatings of non-stick cookware.  The PFCs (Perfluorocarbons) used in non-stick coatings have been linked to cancer and liver damage in studies with animals given large amounts. This fact sheet by the Center  for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that although levels of PFC’s are relatively high in the US population there isn’t major cause for concern. However, using cast-iron is a no-risk alternative.

Cleaning the Skillet After Normal Use

Cleaning a cast iron skillet isn’t difficult – it is just a bit different to the way you would treat a skillet made of aluminum or steel – this is because you don’t want to ruin the seasoning of the skillet.

There are two schools of though on this and each will support their point of view tenaciously – one school believes you do not bring  detergent or any kind of soap near your cast iron skillet. They advise washing with a sponge and warm water then wiping dry. Most times this is fine but what if food did stick to the skillet? A little gentle detergent isn’t going to remove the layers of seasoning as basically the oil/fat layers have been polymerized – i.e. changed through heat and have bonded with the cast iron. So go ahead, a kitchen sponge and a little mild detergent will have it clean in no time – but no harsh scrubbing!

 

What isn’t advised is taking to your skillet with steel wool, a brass scourer, soaking in lye (aka sodium hydroxide or bleach) or putting it in the dishwasher. It isn’t advised to leave your skillet soaking in water for extended periods either as it will start to rust.

Drying and Storing

It’s all very well to clean the skillet – but that’s not the end of it – drying it is very important if you don’t want it to rust.  If you have left it to drip dry then run a cloth or paper towel over it before storing. Just remember cast iron cookware is never going to be as “clean” as stainless steel – so have an old cloth for drying to avoid marks on brand new dishtowels.

Any moisture is left on the skillet will react with the iron causing oxidization  – this is when iron loses electrons to oxygen present in water and the air. This process results in rust forming. So dry properly and store in a cool dry place – some people choose to wipe down the skillet with oil – but after it is really well seasoned this won’t be necessary. Remember water and cast-iron are enemies – the water wants to reduce it to a mass of red rusty metal no self respecting person would want to cook with. Having said that there is a way to resurrect rusty skillets – as long as it hasn’t gone so far that pitting has occurred.

Cleaning an Old Rusty Skillet

Many people are finding old skillets made by well known manufacturers such as Wagner, Griswold and others and lovingly restore them to practical use. Vintage cast  iron skillets had quite smooth interiors compared to many skillets today. Find old skillets at auctions, garage sales and on sites like eBay.

First decide whether you want it for practical use or for decoration. If it’s for practical use you need a handle that is well fixed. Check carefully as this is the place most skillets experience damage and you don’t want an accidental burn when using it. You may also want to check for cracks and that it hasn’t been treated with some kind of paint finish to make it look shiny – if you try to cook with one that has been treated in this way you are asking for trouble.

Decide whether you prefer a thick or thin walled skillet. Thick walls take longer to heat, make the skillet heavier to handle, and require a higher cooking temperature whereas the thinner ones heat up quicker, are not so heavy on the wrists and can be used at lower temperatures. The next step is to look for pitting on the surface of the interior of the skillet. Don’t buy it if it is pitted as food will stick. If is only has some surface rust this can be cleaned off.

Removing Surface Rust

This can be done by soaking in vinegar. Make a half and half mixture of vinegar and water and submerge the skillet in the mix. Do not leave it for too long because if you do once the mixture has eaten up the surface rust it will cause pitting on the surface of the cast iron and that is the last thing you want – so check every hour or so on how it is going. If the rust isn’t bad use some steel wool to get rid of it – this restoration process is the only time you will use steel wool on a skillet! Then using detergent to clean the rest of the rust off with an abrasive kitchen sponge. Once it is clean you will have to re-season the skillet.

Watch this video on restoring rusty skillets:

Why Cast Iron For Preppers?

When camping and in bug out locations you’re going to be using the skillet over an open flame and because it is black to start with you are not going to have to spend hours cleaning the outside.

Avoid buying cast iron with an exterior enamel finish – it’s attractive and fashionable but the enamel isn’t going to stand up to prolonged use over open fires and repeated bumping.

The inside only needs a wipe out with warm water – no detergent necessary meaning one less thing to carry.

If some food has burnt onto the skillet a piece of cloth with a bit of medium coarse sand works in camping situations. I discovered this with a cast iron pot and no means to clean it on a camping trip when a very practical chap fetched a cloth and some sand and proceeded to sort it out.

Cast iron lasts for many decades and can take some hard knocks. Many years ago I used aluminum skillets on camping and fishing trips simply because they were light – they came back destroyed.  And the food stuck to them – so out they went and the daily use skillets from home went into the 4×4 for trips.

Even if your cast iron comes into contact with water during a flood situation and starts to rust you can re-season it. Rust flakes will provide a little extra iron in the diet – often necessary when you are surviving on what is available and meals are not that well balanced.

Once cast iron is warm it retains the heat – so even if people arrive later than expected from their excursions a tiny fire will keep the food warm.

Plunging a skillet straight form the fire into an icy stream or bucket of water can cause cracks. Don’t be in a tearing hurry to clean your skillet.

Because a seasoned skillet is non-stick there isn’t a need to carry loads of oil with you. If it is very well seasoned it won’t even need rubbing over with oil after drying.

It also doubles as a very effective survival weapon – hit someone properly with it and they won’t be harassing you.

What to Cook In It

The shape doesn’t make it suitable for boiling water and remember water and iron are enemies  – so repeatedly doing that will make it rust. But if you have to, you can boil water in a survival situation. It is best to avoid cooking acidic foods like tomatoes and oranges – but only if you are making tomato jam or marmalade in quantity – there’s no problem if your skillet is well seasoned and you are frying up some tomatoes for breakfast. Only if the skillet is new will tomatoes gain a metallic taste from a reaction with the iron.

Go ahead and have fun with your skillet as it will only get better with age but take note of the African proverb,   “Even the best cooking pot will not produce food,” so start experimenting with recipes. Remember cast iron has stood the test of time – you’re unlikely to destroy it.

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About Jeanie Beales

Jeanie Beales

Traveler, photographer, writer. I’m eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices.
Over the years on numerous trips to wild places and cities I’ve learned all sorts of survival hacks, but there is always someone out there who can teach you a new trick so I remain an eternal student and forever humble.

5 comments

  1. Loved this article! Informative & answered my questions quite nicely! Thank you! I haven’t gotten around to watching the video yet so I’m curious about what kind of utensils are best with cast iron… Wood? Metal? Something else?
    A gf gave me her cast iron & I love them! 3 different sized pans & a flat smooth griddle I use for fried eggs, pancakes or to set on top* of my big pan to reduce splatter & to keep something on top warm while cooking something else.
    *Do you have any cautionary advise about this?
    Thanks again! ;0)~

  2. How do you get the rust off cast iron?

    • Richard, When I get rust ring on one of mine,( usually because i left something with too much water in it…or put it in a dishpan and got side tracked)… I use stainless steel scrubber, lightly, no soap.. clean thoroughly, but gently… wipe clean with moist cloth. and apply olive oil, set in oven on very low heat for a few hours… to re season.. then I try to be very careful about use for several weekss til seasoning is back up to par.

  3. Dan,
    ( Just so you know.).. I have a comment on your article on Iron.
    People who have problems absorbing iron…should know… not all iron sources are equal. Even tho it may not taste as good as strawberries, the iron in liver is more absorbable, because it contains everything, including the intrinsic fator, that is required to absorb it.
    People who have had gastric surgery often have this issue as do people with pernicious anemia.It is available in a pill form in natural supplements two of them are dessicated calf liver and dessicated buffalo calf liver capsules… they both are organic. I had an internist once tell me liver is the perfect food.
    There are recipes that can be utilized to change the flavor to more acceptable. One of my family’s favorites is to make a high protein patty using basic salmon patty recipe..(same seasonings) adding eggs and protein powder( have used both chocolate flavored and vanilla with good results)- cooked in an iron skillet they need very tiny amounts of oil.

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