No doubt many grandmothers will want to scold us, but the truth is, soap isn't going to destroy your cast iron pans.
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washing cast iron with soap
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

For many Southern cooks, the greatest inheritance from a grandmother or beloved aunt is a well-seasoned cast iron pan collection. For example, I have several pans that belonged to my great grandmothers, and I've added to my collection with pans bought at thrift stores and estate sales in recent years.

Well-aged cast iron pans are a truly a treasure. The nonstick surface that develops over years of use is invaluable, and not easy to reproduce. That's why the first time I brought out the dish soap to wash one of my cast iron pans, my grandmother wailed with disapproval.

I assured her I knew the history—older dish soaps were made with lye, which would strip seasoning and even damage pans—but it is perfectly fine to wash cast iron with soap these days.

Here, we'll explain why you can in fact use soap on cast iron—and what else you can do to clean a pan without compromising its hard-earned seasoning.

Can You Use Soap on Cast Iron?

Yes, you can absolutely use soap on cast iron. But before you go squeezing out a deluge of Dawn, you should know a few things about using soap on cast iron.

Cooks for generations didn't use soap on cast iron pans because the soaps were made with lye and vinegar, two ingredients that will absolutely strip seasoning and can even damange the pan's iron.

Today's aerosol oven cleaners are often made with lye, or sodium hydroxide. While these cleaners are great for cleaning messy ovens and even getting burnt-on gunk off Pyrex, they can rapidly destroy seasoning on cast iron pans.

But today's dish soaps just don't have that kind of power. These milder soaps will rinse away surface oil and food debris, but they aren't strong enough to touch the nonstick seasoning. So you can safely use your favorite dish soap to clean up after making Potato-Bacon Hash or Skillet Caramel Apple Pie.

Should I Use Soap to Clean Cast Iron Pans?

While you can use soap on cast iron, you don't have to. So if you're hearing your grandmother's voice warning you against sudsing up that skillet, you can heed her advice and feel perfectly safe.

Once you wipe out a pan (with a paper towel) and heat it back up to dry it, you'll have killed off all the bacteria, so you don't have to worry that the skillet is harboring a colony of sick-making bugs.

How to Clean Cast Iron With Soap

I've been cleaning my cast iron skillets with soap for years, and they're still beautifully nonstick. If you don't trust me, trust the fine folks at Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. They endorse the soap method, too, so if people with more than 120 years of experience making cast iron say it's safe to use soap on cast iron, I think you can feel safe doing it.

Just don't use power cleansers. They are often too caustic and might jeopardize the seasoning. Mild dish soaps are fine to use.

1. After the pan has mostly cooled, use a pan scraper to get rid of stuck-on food and debris.

2. Pour a small amount of soap in the pan. Add a small bit of warm water, and use a nylon brush or sponge to clean the pan, inside and out.

3. Promptly dry the pan with a paper towel or lint-free tea towel.

4. Put the pan back on the stove, and turn the heat to medium. Let the pan heat throughly, about three to five minutes. Then, let pan cool completely.

5. Rub a very light layer of cooking oil—you can use flaxseed, canola, or vegetable oil—on the surface of the skillet. Wipe out any excess, and store the pan until you're ready to use it again.

Frequently Asked Cast Iron Questions

If you're wondering about washing cast iron with soap, you may have a few other common cast iron cleaning questions. These answers might help:

Should I wash a brand-new pan?

Many cast iron makers pre-season pans before they're shipped to store or to you. That makes them immediately ready to use, but if you want to wash the pan before you put food in it, feel free. You can use soap, too.

But before you cook, go ahead and season the skillet. It'll help reduce any sticking on your first go with the new pan and begin the process of building up the nonstick surface.

Can you soak a cast iron pan?

No, do not let cast iron pans sit in water, and do not leave water sitting in a pan. This will likely lead to rusting. Instead, make sure you clean, wash, and immediately dry all cast iron pans.

Can you use steel wool to clean cast iron?

No, steel wool and metal scrubbers are designed for removing rust or uneven surfaces on cast iron. If you use them to clean cast iron pans regularly, you'll lose seasoning, and the pan may not be nonstick.

Instead, use a nylon brush to wash cast iron pans. If you have stuck-on bits, reach for a scraper or chainmail scrubber. These can remove stuck-on food without damaging seasoning.

Can you wash cast iron in the dishwasher?

No, uncovered cast iron should only be washed by hand and immediately dried. Washing cast iron pans in a dishwasher will likely strip seasoning off the pan, and rust can quickly form.

Is there any cast iron that's dishwasher-safe?

If you do love the high-heat cooking abilities of cast iron but don't love how "fussy" it is, consider enamel-coated cast iron pans, from brands like Le Creuset, Lodge, and Staub. Enamel-coated cast iron can do everything uncoated cast iron can do, but the enamel coating makes it safe to wash in the dishwasher. And you won't have to worry about rust if you accidentally leave a wet spot or two.

However, most manufacturers will tell you that you should hand wash enamel-coated cast iron to protect the pan's finish. So use a dishwasher when only in a pinch.