How to clean cast iron and other important skillet questions answered

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Cast iron is so versatile, and because of that, it can take quite a beating. In my house, it's what i use to cook pork chops, but it also serves as a weight for butterflied chicken on the grill. In fact, I often use it on the grill surface to hold vegetable sides such as mushrooms or small potatoes so I can cook everything in one place. 

If it's durable enough to do all that, why do we act like it's going to explode under a few drops of soap? Cast iron can handle almost anything you throw at it, and even if it looks rusted and busted, you can fix it. You can even use soap. It'll all be fine.

Here, your cast-iron questions are answered.

What can't I cook in cast iron?

Not much. But you'll want to skip acidic foods, including tomato sauce and anything with lots of vinegar or citrus juice. Not only will your food taste metallic after a bit, but the acid can eventually pit the surface of your pan.

Delicate things can be tricky if you're not an expert chef. You'll also have more luck with an omelet pan if you're making a nice omelet, for example, though I make frittata in my skillet nearly every weekend with no ill effects.

Cast iron pound cake

On the go:Adaptable frittatas and overnight oats: Make-ahead breakfast ideas for the morning rush

How do I get rid of stuck-on food?

Salt. Kosher salt is a natural abrasive, and it does a wonderful job picking up any grease and food particles. Simply pour a couple of tablespoons or more into your warm skillet and scrub with a kitchen towel. A little elbow grease will help remove any stuck food detritus.

How do I get rid of smelly grease?

Soap. If I've cooked something that's not very fragrant or messy, I generally just wipe the skillet out with a paper towel. But bacon grease is tenacious. I've been using small amounts of gentle soap to remove meat grease from my skillet for years and it's just fine. Unless you're using lye soap, you're good to go as long as you’re using hot water and you’re not soaking the pan overnight.

Can I just wash and air dry?

Nope. Cast iron is porous, so rust happens fast. Once you’ve wiped off all of the visible water, it's not a bad idea to place your pan over low heat and let it sit for a spell to dry until any excess water evaporates.

Am I done?

Not yet. You’ll want to reapply a bit of seasoning. Rub your still-warm skillet down (inside and out!) with a thin layer of vegetable oil with a paper towel. Good spray oil makes this task even easier. Once you're all cooled down, you should be good to cook again. 

How do the pros do it? Four Southern chefs share their tips for seasoning a cast-iron skillet

What should I cook now? 

The sky's the limit. You could try this cast-iron skillet corn, this charred okra, or this fried-chicken skillet pizza. Here's a great method for pork chops with red-eye gravy and another classic fried chicken recipe that you'll love. You can even make dessert. Try this cast-iron cookie, a perfect recipe to make even if your skillet is new and hasn't developed that perfect patina from years of use. Here are some other cast iron skillet recipes to try: 

Bang Bang Broccoli: Try this crispy, Asian-inspired, sweet and spicy vegan treat

Taste of a Place: Cast iron pound cake

This apple clafoutis with bourbon caramel sauce comes together in one skillet

How to cook the perfect steak on a grill or cast iron, the Southern Kitchen way

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com