The Cast-Iron Skillet Wars: Should You Wash the Pan?

A cast-iron skillet being washed with soap—an act that can really stir the pot at home.
A cast-iron skillet being washed with soap—an act that can really stir the pot at home.


  • Die-hards insist that leaving their cookware alone creates a unique flavor, and they aren’t simmering down. It’s ‘like a religion, almost.’

Cast-iron cookware has recently seen a resurgence. That means a rise in one of the most sizzling household debates around: How should you wash that pan?

Some people have a clear answer: You shouldn’t.

Cast-iron aficionados shudder at the thought of letting soap near their pans. They will leave their beloved skillets unwashed for years, even decades, and will talk at length about the unique flavor that creates. The only thing they hate more than soap is dishwashers.

Farangis Oakley, who grew up in Tajikistan and now lives in Raeford, N.C., is one of those who shuns soap when cleaning her pan, replacing it with good old-fashioned elbow grease. Oakley sometimes has to scrape her pan for 10 minutes to get it clean, particularly after cooking tabaka, a pan-fried chicken dish popular in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

“It’s an additional, unnecessary step," Oakley, 38 years old, said of adding soap.

There’s just one snag. Oakley said her husband, Robert, remains a firm believer in soap, although she added that he is also fairly likely to drop a pan in the sink and leave the washing for later. Robert Oakley didn’t dispute that claim, but said he only uses soap when there is an overabundance of buildup on the pan.

Phan Dinh Tri, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, said he has used soap on his skillet just once during his seven years of cast-iron cooking. “For some reason the smell of soap kind of sticks to the cast iron a little bit," he said. Tri, 26, said he can spend as long as 45 minutes scrubbing his pan and layering it with salt.

Oakley and Tri are among the cast-iron fans who will go the extra length to keep their pans away from the combination of soap and water. Others have been trying to figure out whether to do the same, following an increase in cast-iron sales during the early part of the pandemic.

But is washing a pan with soap really so bad?

The Lodge Museum of Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, Tenn., put that question to visitors. The museum—which includes a 14,360-pound cast-iron skillet big enough to fry roughly 650 eggs—has given visitors a chance to vote for “soap" or “no soap" since opening last October. Votes are cast with poker chips.

The no-soap fans have generally won—but there is reason to believe they have used dirty tricks.

“There have been days that the poker chips far exceeded the admissions that we had," said Shannon Nelms, the museum’s manager.

Stephen Muscarella, co-founder of pan maker Field, said he finds it impossible to convince the no-soap camp.

“They’re the iconoclasts," Muscarella said. “It’s really getting into the belief—like a religion, almost—for people," he added.

The exact answer to the burning question of whether you should wash a cast-iron pan is: It depends.

Much of the stigma about cleaning cast-iron pans goes back years, when soaps contained lye, which can strip off seasoning. “People forget that over time we’re not using the same products that they used back then," said Ashley Jones, who has written books about cast-iron cookware. Some homemade soaps today still contain lye, Jones cautioned.

The official line from manufacturers suggests there is no reason for pandemonium. Both Lodge Cast Iron, the company that operates the museum, and Field have told customers a small amount of soap is no problem.

Cast iron traces its history thousands of years ago to the Iron Age, and the Chinese began regularly producing iron castings as early as 800 B.C., said Doru Stefanescu, emeritus professor of metallurgy and materials science at the University of Alabama and the Ohio State University.

“It’s a big no-no to use detergents on the cast-iron pan," said Stefanescu, who has advised Lodge on product research. He owns multiple cast-iron skillets, including one that has been in his collection for more than 20 years. It has never touched soap.

Stefanescu’s preferred cleaning method after cooking something simple—like french fries—is to spray the pan with hot water until the oil comes off, and dry it with a paper towel. That wouldn’t work right away with food like cake, which can stick to the surface. Stefanescu, 80, said in that case he leaves water in the pan overnight—another method that is at odds with the pan makers’ recommendations.

Stefanescu invited any pan makers who disagree to iron it out with him directly. “They can contact me," he said.

The debate about how to clean pans doesn’t go quite as far back as the Iron Age, said Michael Pennington, a resident of Caldwell, Idaho. “They didn’t do any of that fancy stuff to it," he said of past civilizations. He keeps his cleaning regimen simple: Scrape out the food, add dish soap, scrub the skillet, let it dry.

“A lot of people’s methods are too complicated, especially new people that hear all these different stories and conflicting information," said Pennington, who owns about 60 cast-iron items. “Soap doesn’t do anything except clean," he added.

Khaled Salam, 23, who lives in London, is now on his third cast-iron pan. His cleaning method: Wash the cookware with a tiny bit of soap and water, wipe it off with kitchen cloth, coat it with grapeseed oil and put it on high heat for two to three minutes until the oil fades. Purists might not be happy, but he said it works.

Cast-iron cookware can be an heirloom, handed down from generation to generation.

“It’s a piece of history you can hold in your hands," said Sheryl Maderos, 60, of Modesto, Calif.

It is also a piece of history Maderos sometimes finds in the sink—waiting for her attention—when she visits her daughters.

“I do get mad at my girls because I gifted them a couple of really nice cast irons, and I’ll come over and go, ‘Really? You didn’t clean your pan?’ " she said.

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