How to Clean and Season a Cast Iron Skillet

Cast iron cookware is one of the best additions to a camper’s kitchen. Or really, any kitchen. It can do double-duty at home and at the campsite. And you don’t have to worry about accumulating a collection; a single cast iron Dutch oven or skillet is all you need to make a variety of meals and recipes.

Some home cooks are understandably intimidated by cast iron cookware. There are several myths about its care and use that make it seem less user-friendly than it is. But caring for cast iron is easier than it seems. Here’s how to clean and season a cast iron skillet.

How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

How To Clean A Cast Iron Skillet With Soap and Water

First things first. You may have heard that you should never wash a cast iron skillet with soap and water. Yet there’s at least one instance when you should break this “rule.” Whenever you buy cast-iron cookware, either new or used, you should wash it before use. (Then once it’s clean, you should season it, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

Before Seasoning

If your cast iron skillet is new (or at least, new to you), wash it thoroughly before you season it or use it for the first time. Using a sponge or a soft non-metal bristle brush, gently scrub the skillet with hot, soapy water. (Regular dish soap is fine.) Then rinse with water and dry thoroughly. Don’t soak a skillet in water or let it stay wet. This will cause it to rust.

Scrubbing A Cast Iron Skillet With A Non-Metal Brush

After Seasoning

Once your skillet has been seasoned and used, you’ll use a slightly different cleaning method. Simply rinse the skillet with water and wipe away any food or residue. (Don’t use soap at this point.) If there is any residue that won’t rinse or wipe away, you can use coarse salt and a soft non-metal bristle brush to scrub it. Make sure to thoroughly dry the skillet after cleaning.

How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet

All cast iron cookware should be seasoned before use. What is seasoning? It’s a layer of cooking oil or fat that’s been cooked onto the surface of the cast iron. It’s what makes cast iron nonstick and keeps it from rusting. Some skillets come pre-seasoned, but it’s still a good idea to season it yourself too.

Every time you cook with oil or fat in cast iron, you’re building up the layer of seasoning. That’s why you don’t want to use soap or scrub a skillet too much after the first cleaning and seasoning.

Here’s how to season cast iron for the first time.

1. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of an oven to catch any oil drips. Then preheat the oven to 450°F.

2. Clean the skillet according to the above cleaning instructions and make sure it’s dry.

3. Use a paper towel or lint-free dishtowel to rub a layer of cooking oil or fat all over the surface of the skillet, inside and out. Any butter or cooking oil will work—such as vegetable oil—but we recommend ghee (clarified butter) because of its high smoke point.

Apply enough oil so that the surface is shiny but not sticky or overly wet. Then buff the skillet with a different dry towel.

Seasoning A Cast Iron Skillet With a Thin Layer of Ghee

4. Set the skillet upside down on the top oven rack and bake for 30 minutes. Depending on the oil you use, it may get a little smoky so turn on a fan or open a window.

How To Season A Cast Iron Skillet - Place Foil In The Bottom Of The Oven

5. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and let it cool. Repeat steps 3-5 at least two more times. This helps build up a good layer of seasoning. Once the seasoned skillet is cool, it’s ready to use or to store.

If you cook with your cast iron skillet regularly, you don’t have to worry about seasoning it again. Each time you cook with oil, you’re building up the layers of seasoning.

At times, you may notice black flakes in a cast iron pan. These are just layers of seasoning that haven’t bonded to the metal. Gently scrub the pan to remove the loose flakes, rinse, dry, and apply another layer of cooking oil.

Benefits of Cast Iron

Why should you consider cooking with cast iron and why is it a longtime favorite among campers? There are a few reasons.

1. It’s tough. Cast iron cookware is nearly indestructible and lasts for a long time. This is one piece of cooking equipment you could actually pass down to your grandchildren! And if cast iron gets rusty or damaged, there are ways to repair and restore it.

2. It’s nonstick. The layer of seasoning gives it a natural nonstick surface.

3. It gets better with age. The more you use it, the more seasoned the cast iron becomes. Unlike other nonstick pans, the nonstick surface of cast iron doesn’t wear away.

4. It retains heat well. Cast iron cookware is good for high-heat cooking like searing meat because once it reaches temperature, it stays that way.

5. It’s versatile. Cast iron can be used to saute, bake, sear, simmer, braise, and fry. It can also be used indoors and outdoors.

Our Favorite Cast Iron Skillets

Cast iron cookware lasts for a long time and can be restored if it gets damaged or rusty. That’s why it’s perfectly fine to buy it from antique stores or secondhand stores. If you buy a used cast iron skillet that needs some restoration work, here’s how to do it.

But if you’re in the market for a new cast iron skillet, here are a few we recommend:

Lodge is one of the biggest names in cast iron cookware—they’ve been in business since 1896 and still have two foundries in Tennessee where the company began. This basic 10″ skillet is a great choice for anyone who’s new to cast iron cooking. The style is also available in 8 other sizes from 3.5″ to 15″. And while it comes pre-seasoned, we recommend you still season it yourself to give it an extra protective coating.

Utopia Kitchen’s 12.5″ cast iron skillet is another option that can be used for a variety of meals. Like all cast iron, it’s versatile too. Use it on the stove at home, in the oven, on the grill, or over the campfire. If you can’t settle on a size, Utopia Kitchen also has a 3-piece cast iron cookware set at a reasonable price.

This 12″ cast iron skillet from Legend comes with a couple bonus accessories. Although the glass-and-silicone lid isn’t safe for campfire cooking, it’s a nice option to have when you’re cooking on the stove. The skillet also comes with a removable silicone handle holder so you can safely take the skillet out of the oven or off the campfire.