Cast iron cookware is a lot like gas stoves. Both are less common than their alternatives, and both require a bit more upkeep to use correctly. But for those who use them, there is simply no other way to cook.
If you’re a frequent cast-iron user, you likely fall into two categories. You’re either a seasoned skillet purist, or you’re not. The former would have you believe that letting sudsy soap touch your cast iron is a cardinal sin, but we’re here to set the record straight.
As it turns out, the “never wash your cast iron” rule should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
Where The Myth Started
According to some cast-iron diehards, using soap to wash your cookware damages its seasoning. Seasoning refers to a layer of carbonized oil that gives cast-iron its crowd-favorite, non-stick surface. It naturally builds up on the cookware’s surface after prolonged use. However, some cookware comes pre-seasoned.
Seasoning your cast-iron cookware has several benefits. Not only is the non-stick surface comparable to Teflon without any of the harmful chemicals. But the thin layer of oil also acts as a natural defense against rust, which will ruin a cast-iron pan.
The no-soap myth likely originated when soap was a much harsher mixture of lye and vinegar. This type of soap would be more likely to disintegrate the cast-iron’s seasoning. But as far as the dish soap on your counter right now? Well, that’s a little less harmful.
You Don’t Need To, But You Can
To be clear, there are multiple ways to clean a cast-iron pot or pan—soap just happens to be one of them. Generally speaking, using a bit of kosher salt and oil to break up any stuck-on bits of food should do the trick. Any leftover, cooked-on oil becomes another layer of seasoning.
However, sometimes a little soap is necessary to remove pungent odors from foods like fish, mushrooms, and garlic. If you need to wash your cast-iron with soap, use sparing amounts of a gentle formula with a non-abrasive cleaning tool.
Cast-iron seasoning isn’t just oil; it’s oil that has fused to the surface of the metal via prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Unless you’re using harsh lye soap, it’s going to take considerably more than elbow grease to scrub that layer off.
While it’s unlikely that you’ll scour off all of your seasoning, it is possible to create small scratches on the cast-iron’s surface that will harbor water and rust. So, the main idea is to avoid scratching the pots and pans’ surface.
Caring For Cast Iron Your Way
To avoid scratching your cast-iron, don’t use rough or metal scrubbing utensils to remove stubborn food bits. Instead, add just enough water to coat the bottom of the pan and place over medium-high heat for 5-10 minutes. Then, use a washcloth or soft sponge to remove the food.
After washing, dry the cast iron thoroughly before storing it in a safe place where it won’t get nicked or dropped. You can also re-season the cookware with oil as an added precaution. Though, this step isn’t entirely necessary.
Another alternative to the strict rules of cast-iron care is enamel-coated cast-iron cookware. This cookware has the same heat-conducting and non-stick properties as cast iron. Plus, thanks to a durable ceramic coating, clean-up is a cinch, and it requires no extra maintenance.
Of course, we’re not here to stand in the way of anybody’s Grandma’s kitchen rules. If you prefer to never use soap, then that’s okay. But rest assured, there is no cast-iron crime task force to stop you if you do.