Can You Use Soap on Cast Iron? Experts Say You Should Rethink This Cleaning Myth

When it comes to cleaning cast iron cookware, experts say it’s time to throw the old rules out the window.

<p>Brie Goldman</p>

Brie Goldman

Cast iron cookware is beloved by home cooks and professional chefs alike for its ability to retain heat and maintain its temperature. Thanks to its density, this resilient and durable cooking material can turn out everything from a perfectly-seared steak to cornbread that is crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

Durable and versatile though it may be, cast iron cookware also comes with its own set of rules and regulations. There are certain foods, particularly those that are highly acidic, that should not be cooked in cast iron pots and pans. And, of course, there are the famous directives about the deva and cleaning of cast iron—most notably, a rule passed down through generations that says you are never to wash cast iron cookware with soap.

But is the no-soap rule as iron-clad as people would have you believe? It turns out, that in the case of caring for cast iron cookware, rules are meant to be broken.

Related: How to Season Cast Iron, According to Chefs Who Use Their Skillets Daily

Yes, You Can Wash Cast Iron with Soap

The prevailing theory about washing cast iron says to avoid soap so as not to compromise the layer of nonstick coating created by applying, then heating, a thin layer of neutral cooking oil. Since soap and oil are natural enemies, this makes sense—except for one important thing. When the thin layer of oil is heated on the surface of cast iron, its nature changes, thanks to a process called polymerization.

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Once the oil has polymerized, it’s not actually at risk of being stripped away by a gentle wash with soap and water—meaning it’s safe to use. Lodge, the maker of cast iron skillets and other cookware, also recommends using a small amount of soap to wash cast iron.

Not only is it safe for your cookware, it’s a smart way to remove bacteria that can form on your pots and pans, especially if you use them to cook meat.

Related: How to Clean and Disinfect Cutting Boards for Safe Meal Prep

How to Wash Cast Iron with Soap

Using soap and water is a good way to wash cast iron cookware, despite what traditional rules may say. However, there are still other rules of caring for cast iron you’ll want to follow. These tips will ensure that the layer of polymerized fat coating that gives cast iron its nonstick properties is not compromised, and will help to prevent rust from forming on the metal.

Use a small amount of soap: While it is absolutely fine to use soap to wash cast iron pots and pans, take deva to use only a sparing amount. A drop of dish soap is all that’s needed to wash out food and residue from cooking; using too much soap will require extensive rinsing, and therefore excess exposure to water—which can leave behind residue that will affect the taste of your food.

Avoid the use of abrasive cleaning agents: Soap and water won’t compromise cast iron’s polymerized coating, but the use of abrasive cleaning agents will. Avoid using any cleaning products that have microabrasives, including Bar Keepers Friend and The Pink Stuff. These products are popular for cleaning and restoring stainless steel, brass, copper, and enameled pots and pans, but are not intended for use on uncoated cast iron.

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Never use metal scouring pads, scrapers, or other abrasive cleaning tools: Just as with abrasive cleaning agents, abrasive cleaning tools—including metal scouring pads or scrapers—should be avoided when cleaning cast iron. Metal tools, pads, sponges can scrape away cast iron’s protective, nonstick coating, leaving the pan susceptible to rust.

Dry cast iron immediately after washing: Rust (not soap!) is the biggest enemy of cast iron pots and pans, and avoiding it should be your primary focus when caring for this type of cookware. One of the best things you can do for the longevity of your cast iron is to dry it immediately after washing to ensure no moisture is left behind, as that can cause spots of rust to form on the metal.

Never soak cast iron cookware: To avoid rust, you should never let your cast iron soak in water, and it should never be put in the dishwasher. Another preventative measure you can take is to store cast iron cookware in a cool, dry place away from any moisture, including steam and humidity.

How to Keep Your Cast Iron Seasoned (Even After Washing)

The coating of polymerized oil on cast iron is colloquially referred to as “seasoning,” but this type of seasoning isn’t intended to impart flavor. Rather, the coating of seasoning helps to give cast iron cookware its nonstick properties. The coating also helps to protect cast iron cookware against rust formation.

After washing and drying cast iron cookware, use a paper towel to apply a thin coating of neutral cooking oil to the interior and exterior of the pan, then set it over a low flame or place it in a warm oven. Vegetable, canola, or and high-quality extra virgin olive oil are all acceptable oils for seasoning cast iron.

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The exposure to low heat serves two purposes: First, the heat will evaporate any residual moisture from washing. Then, applying and heating a thin layer of oil will add another layer of non-stick seasoning to the cast iron, helping to protect it against damage and rust.

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