A cast iron skillet is a must-own piece of cookware, and if you take proper care of it, it'll last you your entire life, and can actually improve over time as its seasoning becomes more nonstick.
But taking proper care of your pan is a bit more complicated than just throwing it in the dishwasher. Cast iron is more finicky than most cookware materials, and requires special care. But with the right tools, you'll be able to clean your pan in minutes, no matter how big the mess.
It's Okay to Use Soap...In Moderation
A common urban legend about cleaning a cast iron pan is that you can't use dish soap. And it's true that soaking your pan in soapy water or using a giant dollop of Dawn won't be great for the pan's seasoning (the top layer of the pan that gives it nonstick properties). But for really bad messes, it's okay to use a dab of dish soap, as long as you quickly and thoroughly rinse it out.
But in most cases, with the right equipment, you'll be able to thouroughly clean out your pan without using any soap at all, which is always preferable.
Level 1 Messes - A Cast Iron Brush
Lodge is the biggest manufacturer of cast iron cookware, and the brand's stiff-bristled scrub brush is the first tool you should pull out. Run your pan under warm water (don't soak it, because that's how you get rust), ideally while it's still warm from cooking, and use the leverage of the brush to scrape away food debris.
Level 2 Messes - Scrub Daddy
Scrub Daddy scouring pads are what I usually reach for to clean my pan. They're rough enough to grab onto stuck-on food, but won't damage your pan's seasoning. You can even make them rougher by running them under cold water, if you have any particularly stubborn spots.
Level 3 Messes - Chainmail
Chainmail scrubbers use a latticework of interlocking metal rings that you slide across the surface of the pan, picking up food debris as you scrape. They make for an excellent cleaning tool with nothing but warm water, but for particulary tough messes, you can sprinkle some coarse sea salt onto the pan as well for added grit.
Level 4 Messes - Scrapers
For the most stubborn messes--the stuck-on food debris that feels impossible to get off–you'll want to pull out Lodge's cast iron scrapers. They require plenty of elbow grease, but will let you get underneath thin layers of burnt food that can't be broken up with surface-level scrubbing. And if you have a Lodge pan, the corners of these scrapers are actually designed to fit perfectly into the contours of the pan.
It's absolutely critical that you quickly and thoroughly dry your pan after you finish cleaning it; leaving water in a pan even overnight can lead to rust. I prefer to wipe mine down with a paper towel, put it onto the a hot stove for a minute or two to evaporate any extra water, and then rub the whole thing down with vegetable oil and another paper towel, which helps to restore any seasoning that was lost during the cooking or cleaning process.
A good cast iron skillet only costs about $15, and if you take proper care of it, it'll probably offer the best bang-for-the-buck of any kitchen item you ever buy.
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