Think Your Cast-Iron Pan Won’t Ever Get Clean? Think Again

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

We’ve got a way to bring even the most food-and-rust-encrusted pan back to life.

We love a good cast-iron pan, but when it comes to stir-fries, you’re better off sticking to nonstick (as it were). However, if you didn’t happen to read our advice on the subject before you got cooking and now have a gunked-up cast iron pan, we’re here to help with some tips and tricks to bring it back from the brink of disaster.

HEAVY-DUTY CLEANING

If food seems to have fused itself permanently to your pan, or if you've inherited a piece of cast-iron cookware that’s rusty or gummy, scrub it with kosher salt. Here's how: Pour vegetable oil into a depth of 1/4 inch, then place the pan on a stove set to medium-low for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add a 1/4 cup kosher salt. Using a potholder to grip the hot handle, use a thick cushion of paper towels to scrub the pan. The warm oil will loosen food or rust, and the kosher salt will have an abrading effect. Rinse the pan under hot running water, dry it well, and repeat, if necessary.


 Cast Iron Skillet

RESEASONING

If you’re cooking acidic foods or if improper cleaning has removed the seasoning from your pan, it will look dull, patchy, and dry instead of a smooth, rich black. This means you need to restore the seasoning. We’ve found this stovetop method (rather than the usual oven method) to be the most effective way to season a cast-iron pan. Heat the pan over medium-high heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Wipe the inside with a wad of paper towels dipped in vegetable oil (hold towels with tongs to protect yourself), and wipe out the excess oil. Repeat as needed until the pan is slick.

ROUTINE MAINTENANCE

If you buy a preseasoned pan (and you should), you can use the pan with little fuss. But whatever you do, don't wash it with soap or leave it in the sink to soak. Rinse it out under hot running water and scrub it with a brush to remove traces of food. (This is easiest if done while the pan is still warm.) Dry the pan thoroughly and put it back on the burner on low heat until all traces of moisture disappear (this will keep rusting at bay). Put a few drops of vegetable oil in the warm, dry pan and wipe the interior with a wad of paper towels until it is lightly covered with oil. Then, using fresh paper towels, rub the pan more firmly to burnish the surface and remove all of the excess oil. The pan shouldn't look or feel oily to the touch. Turn off the heat and allow the pan to cool before putting it away.

  Cornbread

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Fresh Corn Cornbread

For cornbread that’s packed with fresh, concentrated corn flavor, we puree fresh corn kernels and cook them down into a “corn butter” that is incorporated into the batter. Buttermilk adds tang, while egg yolks and a little bit of extra butter ensure that the bread is moist. And it bakes right in your newly cleaned, beautiful cast-iron pan.

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