Cast iron cookware has been given a bad name in some circles. Much of the criticism has to do with what happens to the surface when it is poorly cared for. Some pots and pans have become bumpy, rusty or start to heat unevenly. However, when a cast iron skillet is properly taken care of, it becomes the perfect cookware for everything from boiling water to frying chicken to baking corn bread.
The three most common mistakes made in cleaning cast iron skillets are all related to the use of soap. When cast iron skillets are seasoned properly over time and use, they develop a wonderful, natural, stick free surface. If they are washed with dish soap after every use, they will lose this seasoned surface. If the skillet has no food particles stuck to the bottom, an overall wipe with a paper towel should be sufficient. The seasoning stays in the skillet.
When food particles are stuck to the bottom of a skillet, the use of an abrasive scrubber or scouring pad can create two problems. Scouring will remove all the food particles, but it will also remove all of the seasoning. If you do not re-season the bottom of the pan, it will continue to stick to the food the next time you use it. There is also the potential for rust to develop on the bare metal if the surface is damp.
It is natural for some foods to adhere to the inside of skillets during cooking. Monitoring the food while cooking, and using the correct temperature should help prevent this. Using a stainless steel or hard rubber spatula is also advised. If there is a lot of sticking, add a half an inch of water to the pan and put it over a low heat on the stove for about 5 minutes. This should help loosen up the stuck food. Do not fill this pan with water and leave it sitting on the sink overnight. That is a perfect recipe for rust.
Besides avoiding soap, scouring, and prolonged soaking in water, here are two other tips for cleaning cast iron skillets. When a skillet needs to be scrubbed and washed with a detergent, it is important to reapply a light coat of vegetable oil after it is dry. Wipe the oil around the inside of the pan with a folded paper towel. If a skillet is brand new, it may be pre-seasoned and covered with a waxy protective coating. This coating needs to be washed off with soap and water before its first use.
Cast iron is an excellent material for cookware when it is cleaned properly. When seasoned, it takes only gentle wiping and washing to keep it stick free and even-cooking. Unless the skillet is in bad shape or crusty, it should not be washed in harsh detergents, scrubbed with a scouring pad or soaked extensively in water. With proper care, cast iron cookware will give years of excellent cooking.