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Credit: Image: Joe Lingeman; Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 5 Methods for Cleaning Cast Iron Skillets and Found a Clear Winner

updated Sep 5, 2022
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There are a lot of opinions and “rules” when it comes to cleaning cast iron skillets. Don’t ever use soap! Just a little bit of hot water is all you’ll ever need! Use a potato! We, of course, have our own method that we’ve touted for years, but we’ve decided to settle this once and for all.

We did the research to determine five of the most commonly recommended cleaning methods, and then we tried them all out in a side-by-side test. There was a clear winner, and it’s the one we recommend everyone adopt at home. It just involves a bit of salt and a stiff brush.

Note: Once you clean your pan, you always want to make sure to season your pan properly!

Credit: Image: Joe Lingeman; Design: The Kitchn

How We Tested Methods for Cleaning Cast Iron Skillets

To start, we did the research to see how most people clean their cast iron skillets. We looked at other websites, reader letters and comments, and chat rooms. Once we picked our five methods (a few of them are little iterations of themselves, but boy, do they have different results!), we dirtied up five cast iron skillets (yes, we have five cast iron skillets in our studio because that’s just the kind of studio we run here at Kitchn!).

We cooked up lots of chicken and made sure the pans each had some stuck-on bits of food and oil and were as equally dirty as possible.

Most of our cleaning showdowns are rated on how quickly and effectively the method works, but for this test we wanted to also be sensitive to any changes we saw happening to the pan that might affect the perfectly seasoned surface. So that was just one other thing we considered. 

The ratings: Each method received a rating. A one was given to the least effective method, and a five went to the most effective. Along with the rating you’ll find notes on how easy or difficult the method was, how much we liked or disliked it in general, and how much time it took to do its thing. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cast Iron Skillet Cleaning Method: Salt and Paper Towel

  • Total time: 5 minutes
  • Rating: 1/5

The method: Pour 1 cup coarse kosher salt into the still-warm skillet. Use a folded kitchen towel to scour. Discard the salt and rinse the skillet with hot water. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How it went: Although we do call for salt in our trusty method, this was a complete mess. A whole cup of coarse kosher salt is a LOT of salt — too much salt, actually. There was so much salt that we couldn’t see the bottom of the pan well enough to know where to scour.

It did a good job of soaking up any oil left behind from cooking, but the folded-up paper towel didn’t allow for a lot of control and salt ended up spilling over the sides of the pan before doing the job, making even more of a mess than we had to start with. In the end, the pan didn’t come clean enough. Even if we had used less salt, this step wouldn’t be effective enough on its own.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cast Iron Skillet Cleaning Method: Raw Potato with Baking Soda

  • Total time: 2 minutes 
  • Rating: 2/5

The method: Cut a potato in half, lengthwise, and dip the cut side in the baking soda, then rub it around the pan to clean. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How it went: This sounded wacky, so we looked into it. The reason for using a potato is because they contain oxalic acid, which breaks down rust — and if they can break down rust, a little food should be no problem, right? Ehh … sorta.

We had very low expectations, so we were impressed when it kinda-sorta did a little bit of something. The baking soda soaked up all grease and oil quite nicely, but even though it’s a mild abrasive, it wasn’t abrasive enough to clean bits of food that were stuck on to the bottom of the pan. This just seemed like a waste of a potato.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cast Iron Skillet Cleaning Method: Boiling Water

  • Total time: More than five minutes 
  • Rating: 3/5

The method: Fill the pan with a few inches of water and boil over medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to scrape off the burnt-on bits.  

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How it went: This method worked well with removing cooked food bits, however, it only really worked on the bottom of the pan. It was difficult to scrape the sides of the pan in the boiling water with a wooden spoon.

Additionally, this method didn’t seem to remove the oil/grease as well as when another component like salt or baking soda was added. The bottom of the pan came really clean, but the sides were still a bit dirty. This is a bonus step we like with our method, but when used on its own, it didn’t cut it.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cast Iron Skillet Cleaning Method: Eco-Friendly Dish Soap

  • Total time: 1 minute 
  • Rating: 4/5

The method: Add a dime-sized dot of dish soap (we used Ecos dish soap) to the bottom of the pan and clean with hot water and a stiff bristled brush. 

People passionately debate whether or not it’s okay to use dish soap on a cast iron skillet. Most nay-sayers say nay because dish soap obliterates grease, which means it also cuts through that hard-earned seasoning you’ve built up, making the cast iron more susceptible to rust and taking away its nonstick qualities.

Kitchn’s stance is that it’s totally fine, every now and then! Another set says that eco-friendly dish soap isn’t as harsh as other dish soap, and therefore, is best.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How it went: The cast iron skillet we tested had a decent seasoning job and a dime-sized drop of dish soap visibly changed the surface. The pan came clean, but it definitely looked dried out — much more so than after any other wash. Depleted is the word we’re looking for.

With that in mind, we would not make this your everyday cleaning method. Instead, use this method sparingly, and only on a pan that really needs a lot of help. Then season it really, really well.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cast Iron Skillet Cleaning Method: Salt and Stiff Scrub Brush

  • Total time: 2 minutes or less
  • Rating: 5/5

The method: While the pan is still warm, get to cleaning. Wash the skillet by hand using hot water and a stiff brush. To remove stuck-on food, scrub the pan with a paste of coarse kosher salt and water. This is that Kitchn method that we mentioned above. And, yes, it won!

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How it went: Once our pan had a chance to cool a little, we took it to the sink and ran it under a steady stream of hot water, scrubbing the bottom and sides of the pan with a stiff bristle brush. Next, we drained the water from the pan and sprinkled in roughly 2 tablespoons of coarse kosher salt, and scrubbed away at any leftover bits.

It took about a minute or two, but the pan came perfectly clean without too much effort. Once the hot water hit the pan most of the grease and any loose bits came right up. The salt acted as an abrasive and removed anything else that was stuck to the bottom or sides of the pan.

Note: Kitchn editors also recommend this chainmail scrubber or a plastic scraper for those extra-stubborn stuck-on bits. (We also like a ball of aluminum foil in a pinch!) If some crusty bits remain, we recommend boiling water in the pan and using a wooden spoon to scrape them off.

Do you use one of these methods? A combo of any of them? A different method entirely? Discuss in the comments below!