If you think cast-iron skillets are difficult to clean, think again. Three simple steps -- rinse, dry, and oil -- are easily outweighed by cast iron's many attributes. The benefits include even heat distribution and retention, nonstick cooking surface, cooktop-to-oven versatility, and many lifetimes of utility. In fact, a cast-iron skillet and other types of cast-iron pans perform best when frequently used and regularly maintained.
With that said, cast iron's benefits rely on surfaces retaining their seasoned coating (oil that has been baked into the finish at a high temperature), which in turn relies on specific cleaning methods. The methods are not complicated but work best when put into play right away after cooking is done.
Seasoned cast-iron skillets should have smooth, shimmering, rust-free surfaces that quickly release cooking foods and postcooking grime. The idea is to begin cleaning a cast-iron skillet directly after cooking to prevent rust from forming and enhance its nonstick character.
That means no strong detergents, metal scouring pads, or time in the dishwasher. Dish-washing soap removes oiled finishes and might leave a residue that will cause your cooked foods to have a soapy taste. The experts at Lodge Manufacturing, a maker of cast-iron cookware, remind cooks that cast-iron skillets are sterilized during the cooking process, reaching 400 degrees Fahrenheit in 4 minutes at medium heat; at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface becomes sterile so germs should not be an issue.
Place still-warm-from-cooking cast-iron skillets and pans in the sink and rinse with hot water. Wipe all surfaces clean, using a nonabrasive sponge. Rinse surfaces again. Then, thoroughly dry the skillet with a clean cloth. When the pan is completely dry, use a paper towel to apply a thin coat of cooking oil to the interior to restore its sheen and reenergize its quick-release qualities. Be judicious with the application—too much oil can result in sticky surfaces.
For hard-to-remove food bits and rusty patches, grab kosher salt and a wet sponge. The salt will act as a mild abrasive that can be used to gently buff away cooked-on foods and small bits of rust. Stubborn food residue can also be loosened by boiling water in the pan for a few minutes. Rinse the pans under warm water, dry thoroughly, and coat with cooking oil.
Maintain the cleaned and seasoned finish by storing cast-iron pots and skillets without their covers in a moisture-free area away from cooktops, sinks, and dishwashers. If you notice the pan's surface rusting, graying, or dulling or that food is sticking, you will need to reseason the surface.
Regardless of the work involved, it's important to remember (as you handily sear burgers, bake crunchy crusted cornbread, or rinse, dry, and oil the skillet), you're creating an heirloom that your kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids will put to good use.