Cast-Iron Pans Are the Best Damn Pans... if You Treat 'Em Right

Cast-iron cookware -- great for stovetops and campfires, yet so easy to turn into rust-covered garbage if you're lazy -- can be a mystery to those who live in a nonstick world: there is whispered talk of some seasoning process that sounds, frankly, like it might burn the house down and a lot of rules about how -- and how not -- to wash it.

Countless online forum threads have been devoted to the best oil to use for seasoning, the ideal temperature at which cast iron should be heated to in order to develop a perfect nonstick patina, and the correct methods to use to wash the pan after use. It can all be a little overwhelming, especially because cast-iron devotees make the fervor of political conventions seem tepid.

It's not that tough… if it was, these relatively cheap, non-toxic, durable, and essential pieces of kitchenware wouldn't be passed down, intact, from generation to generation. But if you do it wrong, your trustiest cast-iron pot becomes a literal rust bucket. Here's how you can clean your cast iron without destroying it.

The real enemy is water

Conventional wisdom -- at least according to die-hards -- dictates that the use of soap to clean a cast-iron pan will ruin it. That's where a lot of those "grandma always said…" rules come in, as in, "grandma always said to clean a cast-iron pan with salt and water." "Grandma always said to clean a cast-iron pan with water and a hard-bristled brush." "Grandma always said to clean a cast-iron pan with artisanal grasses from the Tennessee hill country."

But actually, damage is far more likely to occur because of exposure to water. Yup, water -- not soap -- will destroy your prized cast-iron cookware.

That's not to say that you shouldn't use water at all! You should. But, once the pan has been cleaned of bits of food and grease, the best and most important thing you can do for the health and good looks of your cast iron is to dry it off immediately. Cast-iron pans, even the most artistically seasoned ones, will develop rust at an alarmingly fast rate.

So! Dry your cast iron exceedingly well after cleaning -- that's your Big Rule.

If you really want to ensure you're doing it right -- and you should -- after drying, pour a small amount of oil for seasoning cast iron into the pan (Cook's Illustrated likes flaxseed oil, Lodge brand recommends vegetable oil), rub it in vigorously with a paper towel until the pan appears to be dry, and then set it on a medium flame for five minutes or so. That quick mini-seasoning effort will help to dry the pan, as well as bolster the layer of seasoning which, in turn, will help to prevent moisture in the air from causing the pan to rust.

Sure, you can use soap…

You may absolutely use dish soap to wash a cast-iron pan. If you're a cast-iron newbie, know that there are people who will go all red in the face if you merely suggest using dish soap on a cast-iron pan, their blood pressure will rise at such heresy. It's insane, obviously -- there is truly no need in this world to get so upset over a skillet -- but it should also give you, the cast-iron newbie, a sense of how good cast iron can be. People love it enough to get heart attack-level mad at the mere suggestion of maltreatment.

But you, the cast-iron newbie, should not pay them too much mind; soap is A-OK. And here's why: the idea behind the anti-soap directive is that the soap will erode the layer of oil-based seasoning that protects the pan and gives it its nonstick property. Which makes sense! Except for the pesky fact that when the oil used to season the pan is exposed to heat for a prolonged time, its chemistry changes and, as this explainer from Serious Eats details, it becomes polymerized. That means that you can wash your well-seasoned cast iron using soap after all, oh my God!

… but soap isn't necessary

Maybe, though, you're curious about the how to clean a cast-iron pan without the use of detergent. Go with God. It's your cookware, and you should do to it what you want -- plus, there are loads of good ways to clean a cast-iron pan without using soap, such as the slightly medieval CM Scrubber ("CM" stands for chain mail). The CM Scrubber is made from stainless steel and is used with warm water to scour grease and bits of food off of your cast iron.

But maybe you want to be a lil' more folksy about things. Sure, there are loads of cleaning methods when it comes to caring for cast-iron cookware. One of the most popular ones is to use coarse kosher salt to scour your pan. To perform this operation, pour about a cup of the salt into the pan (the amount of salt needed will depend on the size of the pan, so use your judgment) and use a dishrag or paper towel to scrub away grease and bits of food. Rinse the pan well with warm water, dry the pan thoroughly, and re-season if you so choose.

If your cast-iron cookware does develop rust, you can use that salt method or a very fine steel wool to scrub it away. After removing the rust, re-season the pan, which will help to prevent more rust from developing and will leave you with a happy and healthy cast-iron skillet… one that'll probably still be in your family centuries from now.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter @joliekerr.