This Pro Makes Cast Iron Skillets for a Living — These Are His 5 Non-Negotiable Rules

published Jul 9, 2021
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Credit: Faith Durand

Stephen McClellan at Smithey Ironware Co., a small-but-mighty cookware company located in Charleston, South Carolina, knows more than a thing or two about cast iron. He’s been with Smithey for three years, working directly with the material in the shop, but he’s also a prodigious home cook and former restaurant chef. Oh — and he owns more than 30 vintage and new cast iron pans, some of which are in storage and some of which are irritating his wife as accumulated clutter in their kitchen.

McClellan, who begins and ends almost every sentence with “ma’am,” and has a Southern accent as thick as sorghum syrup, spends an immeasurable amount of time working on and cooking with cast iron. But when it comes to cleaning and maintenance, his routine barely clocks in at five minutes.

Here are five non-negotiable rules of pan maintenance from McClellan, a bonafide cast iron expert. 

1. You barely need to clean it.

McClellan uses his Smithey 10-inch skillet regularly for dinner. How does he clean it? Just barely. “Grapeseed oil and a napkin,” he says. “That’s all you need to take care of cast iron, in my opinion.”

After dinner, he cranks the oven to 500 degrees and wipes the pan clean with a paper towel. Any crusted-on residue gets pried away with a cheap bamboo utensil. If the sticky bits are really stubborn, he’ll use a scant amount of water (“As little as possible,” he says). The pan is rubbed down with a thin layer of grapeseed oil, favored for its high smoke point, and put in the hot oven. McClellan turns the oven off and forgets about it until the next time. Done and done.

2. Sometimes, you can even skip the cleaning entirely.

For personal reasons (read: laziness), I asked McClellan if he’s ever skipped the cleaning routine full-stop and just chucked the pan back in the oven after using it. His response: “Oh, absolutely! That’s how you build up seasoning — there’s no shame in that game.” 

This makes sense. Unless the pan needs dire attention, leaving a thin layer of bacon grease or rendered chicken fat is only going to make things better. After all, each time you cook with the pan, you’re adding a layer of seasoning. And each time you clean it, you strip a bit away. That’s why it’s ideal to use it often and clean it minimally. 

Credit: Erika Tracy

3. A rusted cast iron pan can (and should!) always be saved.

Although McClellan claims he’s never personally ruined a cast iron pan (he honestly sounded a little horrified at the idea, and explained his grandmother would come back to haunt him), he has plenty of friends who’ve left their pans in the rain and had to do damage control. “In that instance, I’d strip it down with an orbital sander then start the seasoning process from scratch again.” 

If the idea of taking a power tool to your cast iron sounds unnerving, rest assured: A quality cast iron pan can take that kind of trauma. Once the pan is stripped down to the bare iron, rub it down with an oil with a high-smoke point and leave it in the oven for an hour at 425˚F. It won’t have as glorious a seasoning as, say, one that’s been cooked with daily for the last few years, but it’ll get the job done. Each time you cook with it, you’ll be rehabbing the pan with another layer of seasoning.

Try Kitchn’s method: How To Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet

If you don’t have an orbital sander on hand, you can always outsource the job to an expert, like the company you bought it from. Or, just go to town with a chain mail scrubber. These tools are quite abrasive, which brings us to the next point.

4. Skip those popular chain mail scrubbers for everyday use.

You actually won’t catch McClellan anywhere near a chain mail scrubber, even though Smithey does sell one and professional food media (myself included!) touts its praise. “They’re too abrasive for everyday use,” he says. So while they may be great at scraping away stuck-on chicken skin from a pan, they can also potentially scratch the pan’s surface and lift away hard-earned seasoning. Use them sparingly. Instead, for regular use, McClellan swears by bamboo utensils to lift the crud. “You can buy them anywhere, and they’re cheap,” he says.

5. Be patient with a new pan.

Although McClellan uses his pans for just about everything, it takes years to build up the kind of seasoning that can handle scrambled eggs and delicate fish. If you’re using a new cast iron pan, or have stripped one and are just starting to reseason it, don’t add acidic ingredients straight away. Roast a few chickens and then think about tomato sauce. 

What are your tips for taking care of a cast iron pan? Share them in the comments below.