How to clean a cast iron skillet with burnt on buildup?

Cast iron skillets can be a breeze to clean when you’ve just made a perfectly cooked masterpiece, but when you have a less than optimal outcome, cleanup can be tricky. Cast iron skillets are notoriously complicated to clean properly, especially if they have a lot of burnt residues.

There is no one single way of cleaning a cast iron skillet with burnt on buildup, but there are definitely recommended approaches to do it. We’ll take a look at some great tips for cleaning your cast iron, and how to quickly and easily recover from cooking disasters, so you can get ready to try again.

Cleaning tips for cast iron skillets with burnt on buildup

Hot Cleaning

If you can catch your food before it burns too badly and can remove it from the heat, adding oil to the pan and wiping it out can help eliminate a lot of burned foods that are still somewhat fresh. Adding the oil and working on the burned food before the pan has a chance to fully cool and set helps give you a significant edge in cleaning.

This can also work if you did not catch the food before it burned significantly, but you were able to remove most of it and did not let the rest of the burned residue cool and set. You can add a thin layer of oil in the bottom and gently heat the pan, working at the stuck on food with a spatula or other similar utensil. This and the heat helps the oil work under the debris, loosening it, and allowing you to remove it without significant scrubbing or extensive damage to the seasoning layer.

The Salt Method

One of the most trusted and easiest methods to clean your cast iron skillet, or any other cast iron cookware for that matter, is to use coarse salt and a potato. Get yourself a potato, some coarse salt, and a place to work that you don’t mind getting salt all over. It is worth noting that this method is best used when the pan is cool since you will be holding the pan with your bare hands for most of it.

Add a half cup of your salt to your pan, and cut the potato in half so that you can comfortably hold it with the flat side down on the skillet. Press the potato onto the salt and use it to scour the pan, working it in circles and applying lots of downward pressure to ensure that the salt does its job of scraping the debris off the pan.

The potato provides just enough moisture to soften the leftover food, and the salt helps dislodge it from the pan surface. Once the salt has become significantly dirtier, you can dump it out and replace it, repeating the process until your salt no longer becomes noticeably dirty and the pan is sufficiently clean.

Once you have gone through this process, you will need to grab your seasoning oil or shortening of choice and go through a full seasoning process with your skillet. You scraped off most, if not all of the seasoning that was on it when you did the salt clean, and now you will need to replace that to protect the pan.

To season your pan, heat it gently and coat it with a thin application of your preferred oil or shortening. Then place it on the middle rack of your oven with a baking sheet underneath it, and bake it at 375 for an hour, or until the oil’s smoke point is reached. Then allow the pan to completely cool in the oven. This process can be repeated ad infinitum and it will only increase the effectiveness of the pan and improve the non-stick performance.

Can I clean cast iron with vinegar?

Vinegar is highly effective at cleaning off burnt food and even rust from cast iron skillets because it is so quick to penetrate and dissolve certain substances. If your pan is highly soiled and it has been burned on and left for some time, it can seem impossible to clean it, since the burned food often seems like part of the bottom of the pan.

To clean a cast iron pan with vinegar, you will need water, white vinegar, and a moderately firm brush or sponge pan of some sort, like a copper pad or stiff nylon brush for instance. Make a water and vinegar mix in the proportion of one part water to one part vinegar, and soak the skillet for up to six hours depending on the severity of the burned food residue and how badly it is set.

Once the time has elapsed, remove the pan from the water and vinegar mix, and begin scrubbing with the brush or copper pad, working to remove all of the debris that has been loosened by the soak. It should come off relatively easily, however, sometimes a second soak may be needed. Do not soak in a higher concentration of vinegar, or it may begin to damage the cast iron itself.

How NOT to clean a cast iron skillet

  • Don’t put it in the dishwasher. This is a never ever kind of thing. The damage that a dishwasher can do to cast iron is surprising. Not only will it remove the seasoning, but the heat and water pressure can pit the metal and damage the overall structure of the entire pan. High price for a fast wash.

  • Don’t use sudden extreme heat like placing it in an open fire. This seems like common sense, but people think that since cast iron can be used on an open fire that it is invincible, but it definitely is not. Using open fire to try to burn off the residue is risky and can result in destabilizing the pan’s structure, making it weaker and more prone to failure. If a wet or cold pan is placed in a fire, it can even cause thermal expansion so sudden that the pan itself breaks, shears, or shatters. It is not common, but it has been known to happen.

  • Don’t use lye or any other similar corrosive or oxidizing chemicals. Not only are these dangerous and unnecessary for what is essentially a small cleaning job, but there is also the chance that these will damage your pan’s surface and possibly the metal itself, making the pan unusable.

  • Do not use wire brushes, unless they are a very soft metal like copper or brass, and then only if you plan on re-seasoning your pan. While they may make removing burnt on food and other residues easy, they will also scrape off the seasoning layer and expose your pan to possible rusting and sticking food.

  • Do not try to remove burned on or stuck food by scraping with forks, knives, etc. While cast iron skillets are certainly metal utensil friendly, using tableware or other metal items not designed for cooking can damage not only the seasoning layer but also the cooking surface of the pan itself. Severe misuse by trying to scrape out old or burned food can result in the pan being severely gouged or pitted by the other metals.