How to Maintain and Revive Cast Iron Pans

If Cast Iron Protective Services was a thing, my two pans would have been taken away from me long ago. I never cooked in them. I stored them in the oven—and kept them there with the heat on. I rarely seasoned them. When I saw Heidi Alvarado’s post on Instagram explaining her clever (and easy!) method to maintain cast iron, I knew I had to try it out and I asked her to write a guest blog post about it.

If you have wanted to ditch your Teflon pans, consider replacing at least a one or two of them with affordable cast iron. Cast iron is practically indestructible and—as you will read in this post—easy to maintain, despite the rumors.

You can follow Heidi on Instagram here. And I highly recommend you do! She packs her feed with useful, practical and delightful zero-waste tips, hacks, recipes and more—written in both English and Spanish.

Cast Iron Care 101

by Heidi Alvarado

When I first purchased a cast iron pan, it sat in the corner of my kitchen for months. I would eyeball it, with slight resentment, because when I began researching the care for my cast iron (after purchasing *sigh*) it was very overwhelming. Some claimed you should NEVER touch soap to your cast iron, while others raved on about what types of oils you HAD to purchase to season it and others about what type of scrubber you absolutely NEEDED. This pan that I had initially bought with the notion that it would be a kitchen beast ended up feeling like this fragile item which seemingly required so many additional purchases to maintain. However, after finally reading through many websites, articles and how-to’s, these are the conclusions I came to. Please note that this is for newbies and slightly less than newbies—if you are intermediate to expert, you don’t need me! 🙂

Cleaning

After you are done cooking, if scraping off the bits leaves the pan relatively clean, that is all I do! The seasoning from your cooking will only add to the next meal, so don’t sweat the small clean ups. If you find that some parts are still caked on, then simply wait until the pan is cool enough to handle to clean with your pot scrubber (mine is made of beechwood and palm leaf fibers) and water. Why do they say no soap? Cast iron is porous so it is thought that the soap will strip seasoning. What if you already washed with soap? I have personally not, but people claim they wash with soap every time so don’t fret—you can do a re-seasoning and get your pan back on track (more information below). There are many scrubbers out there specially designed for cast iron—I own a metal chain link one for the extremely hard-to-scrape-off bits of food, but can honestly say I have only ever used it maybe twice. After you are done washing, towel dry the pan and place it in your oven or on stovetop on low heat. Once it is dry, you can re-season.

Seasoning

While the ideal oil for seasoning is flaxseed oil, not everyone has access (or the money) to obtain cold pressed, unrefined, organic flaxseed oil. I purchased mine from a natural health food store—it is food grade and sold as an omega-3 supplement. I purchased this brand because it came in glass—since it has to be refrigerated (the kind on shelves has fillers)—and I don’t imagine many places have this in bulk. However if flaxseed oil is not in your budget or realm of accessibility, I have found organic canola oil and organic olive oil to work just fine. After you are done heating the pan (while it is still warm) using an oven mitt, bring it to the counter top. Pour a bit of your oil into the pan and with a cloth, rub in the oil ALL over the pan, yes even the handle and underside. After you have rubbed it in, go back and rub OFF until you only have a thin coat of oil. This allows for the oil to seep into the crannies without being overly greasy. Finally heat the pan up again, whether stove top or oven. If you are really interested in the logic behind the types of oils for cast iron, Sheryl Canter has a blog post titled, “Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning: A Science-Based How-To” that goes more in depth for the curious folks.

Rust

It happens to all of us! Never fear, potatoes are here! That’s right, potatoes! Simply cut a potato (I use the small kind so I can grip it better) in half, sprinkle a hearty amount of coarse salt onto the pan and scrub with the potato! I even do this when I burn food on my cast iron (whoops sorry onions :)) Once you have finished scrubbing, rinse with water, pat dry, heat on stove or in oven, reapply oil, reheat, etc. Ta-daaa, you are now a responsible cast iron parent. If this seems like too much work to maintain your cast iron, I should mention that I more often than not leave mine on the stove top for days, throw it in the campfire, bang it on other pans as I go to put it away. It is my most forgiving and versatile kitchen utensil. So much so, that I am now the proud mother of seven different types. #addicted


Heidi’s Method Works!

Check out the before and after pics of my neglected pans. The pictures speak for themselves.

rust cast iron pans
At least my pans had each other…
Before
cast iron maintenance
After
Before
Scrubbing the rust away with salt, using a potato
After cleaning and one seasoning

Heidi Violet Alvarado is a twenty something copper-hoarding, plant-collecting, rustic-item-obsessing Latina living in the Bay Area. @zerowastechica is her name and sustainability is her game!

18 Replies to “How to Maintain and Revive Cast Iron Pans”

  1. Excellent, I’m going to share with with a couple of sourdough groups I belong to who rely on cast iron cookware. Thanks.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Ohhh, great idea Fergie. Thank you so much. ~ Anne Marie

  2. I love my cast iron pans. We lived next to a chef who swore by them when I bought my first pan. It was nice to have his wisdom and encouragement. Best investment I have ever made. We’ve bought expensive and cheap cast iron pans. At this point, you can’t tell which are which. I, always, encourage people to give them a real try. They are not as difficult to maintain as you would think (I was so terrified when I started so I completely understand the fear).

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sara, That’s amazing you can’t tell which are which! I don’t know why they have a reputation for being difficult to maintain but I believed it and they scared me too. ~ Anne Marie

  3. I just use bicarbonate of soda, I’m going to try potato now!

  4. Very helpful, thanks! I’ve had burnt food on mine and keep hoping it will eventually just cook off but the potato is a much better idea to try! I’ve had these two burning questions on cast iron care:
    1. Why don’t you need to really clean the pan other than scrape off any visible food? Is it because it heats so hot any bacteria will die? I feel gross when I cook chicken or bacon and then don’t use soap to wash it!
    2. What do you use to oil it? Do you keep using the same rag and if so, doesn’t it get nasty? You can’t exactly throw oily rags in the wash with your clothes, so I always feel like I have this awkward gross rag hanging in my kitchen.
    These are just two practical things that have stumped me. Thanks for any thoughts!!

    1. I’ve used soap on mine – I have lots of chef friends who use soap on them too. Just don’t get crazy with it.

      1. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Thanks, Becky. I have used a bit of soap on well-seasoned pans. I think you’re right, just don’t go crazy with the soap. ~ Anne Marie

  5. My best seasoned piece of cast iron is a two burner, double sided griddle. Because I didn’t have a good place to store it in my kitchen, it ended up by default in the oven, where I would forget about it until I went to slide something in. However, due to my practice of rubbing it down with oil before putting it “away”, that little bit of heat exposure it received in being in the oven while it was preheating helped season it perfectly.

    I’ve rescued a number of pieces of cast iron from yard sales. I use steel wool on some of the more stubborn rust and found flax oil not only had a smell, but a taste that we didn’t care for. I’ve had great success with peanut oil as well as good old bacon fat in seasoning my cast iron.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      :O That’s brilliant Becky! If I had been seasoning mine back when I stored them in the oven, they would have had such a good layer. Now I am starting from scratch. I would love to have a double-sided griddle. I have used sesame oil and it seems to work well too. Thanks for all these tips.

  6. Thanks! This post is timely since I have several cast-iron skillets I need to clean! I’ve gotten all of them at thrift stores over the years. They are great in our outdoor wood-fired oven because cast iron can withstand the high heat.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Elise, I was amazed at how well this worked. Cast iron pans are great finds at thrift shops. Lucky you! I am jealous of your oven. That sounds dreamy! ~ Anne Marie

  7. Trying this potato salt technique now, and it feels like I’m doing something wrong… granted the pot I’m cleaning is extremely rusty and not the easiest shape to scrub, but still – do you have to let the salt and potato juice sit at all? Or is the rust meant to come off instantaneously as you scrub? And do you scrub more like 3min or 30? So many questions! But I really hope this works in the end, so fingers crossed.

  8. I’m taking a break; looks like no change. Based on your feedback / advice, I’ll try again. Hoping for the best (and this time using my WordPress email so I am notified of comments!)

  9. We use avocado oil to season our cast iron skillet. It’s what my Great Grandma used to season it when it was her skillet so I figure it must be good since it’s lasted long enough to get be used in my kitchen.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the tip, Amy. Someone told me recently they love cooking with avocado oil. How nice you have your great grandma’s pan to use! I wish I had something like that from mine, or even from my grandmother. ~ Anne Marie

  10. This is a really good write up!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I agree. Heidi did a really nice job 🙂

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