Thursday, October 23, 2008

Care of Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron clean up involves: hot water, a plastic scrubber, heat, and oil

Caring for cast iron is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Your cast iron skillet or dutch oven wants to remain seasoned. The best way to keep your cast iron cookware seasoned is to use it often and follow these simple steps afterwards:

1. Wash the pan with hot water
2. Scrubbing off any stuck-on crust with plastic bristles
3. Dry the pan with heat
4. Lightly oil the pan while it is hot

Here are the steps explained in a bit more detail:

Washing with Hot Water
Some folks keep their cast iron dirty. They finish cooking in their skillet, and literally throw the thing—full of food residue—into the oven until next time. This doesn't make sense to me.

For starters, in our house we use a cast iron skillet for something every day. When I'm getting ready to cook the boys scrambled eggs at 7:00 am the last thing I need is to start with a skillet reeking of last night's pan-seared salmon. I get lots of questions about flavor carryover from one dish to the next in cast iron, and failing to clean up your skillet makes this problem worse.

Second, cast iron is made of iron. It is susceptible to pitting and other damage from acidic foods. Most human food is acidic. After all, one of only five flavors the human palette is capable of detecting is acidity or sourness. Leaving this acid sitting in your cast iron skillet for days, weeks, or months is just plain silly.

Wash your pans with hot water!

Plastic Scrubbers
I use a Dobie scrubber pad for my cast iron
I wash my cast iron using a "Dobie" plastic scrubber pad. Some folks claim that steel wool or green "Scotch" pads are the cat's meow. To my mind these scrubbers just erode away your hard-earned seasoning and leave little bits of steel or plastic embedded in the seasoning that's left.

Steel wool and Scotch pads can be useful if you've ruined your cast iron through neglect, and need to rescue it. Otherwise stick to plastic.

For heavy soil or for the good of the planet, you can also use the plastic mesh bags that produce comes in to clean your cast iron.

Soaking Cast Iron Pans
If you have encountered sticking while cooking (this is tough to avoid in the early years of your pan with scrambled eggs), it is perfectly acceptable to soak the pan for a few hours. Do NOT soak it overnight or it will rust. The more you use your pan, the more non-stick it will get—and clean-up will get easier and easier.

Using Soap on Cast Iron
Applying soap to a well-seasoned cast iron pan isn't the end of the world, but this course of action is generally frowned upon. The key to healthy cast iron is a deep coat of seasoning and a shiny non-stick surface. While soap won't harm your seasoning, it works against you in the second regard because it cuts grease. Soap can also contribute off flavors to your food at high heat, and adds unsavory chemicals to your culinary projects.

Drying with Heat and Oiling
Always dry your cast iron with stovetop or oven heat
Once cleaned with hot water and scrubbing, place your cast iron on the stovetop on low heat, or in the oven on 250 degrees F or so.

Once your cast iron pan has dried completely (generally just a few minutes on the stovetop, or 10 minutes in the oven), lightly oil it with some canola or other essentially flavorless oil using a paper towel or rag.

Leave it on the burner or in the oven until it cools... and put it away with its light coating of oil.

If your cast iron pan gets too hot during drying and loses that sheen of oil, simply turn off the heat re-oil it until the oil stays shiny and unblemished (no longer burns off or mottles). This heating and re-oiling helps contribute to the ongoing seasoning of the pan... so feel free to do this from time to time for the sheer sake of your pan's seasoning development.

My paper towel after oiling a skillet
To take this an extra step (not a bad idea periodically), follow the directions for seasoning cast iron to help bring your pan ahead of its peers, and a step closer to heirloom status.

52 comments:

  1. Thanks for the quick, easy steps!

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  2. My mom gave me an enamel coated cast iron pan (or dutch oven?). It's oval shaped. Is it to be seasoned the same way?

    When searching for info I found various opinions that the enamel itself might be carcinogenic. What do you think? I don't want to use it if that's the case.

    Thanks for the recipes and info.

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  3. Thanks for your question. Enameled cast iron is cast iron coated with a thin layer of powdered glass or porcelain. While some of the manufacturing techniques include adding things like cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese, or titanium dioxide for adhesion or color, generally speaking, enameled cast iron is considered very safe to use as cookware due to its low reactivity and absence of noxious chemicals in the finished product. I would recommend brands made in Europe (where food and cookware safety has been important for much longer than in the U.S.). I would specifically avoid any cookware manufactured in China, due to a spotty track record with product safety. Le Creuset (made in France) is probably the gold standard.

    As far as seasoning goes... enameled cast iron does not require the same seasoning that bare cast iron does. You'll need to scrub it with soap and water, but don't need to oil it or oven-season it.

    Hope that helps!

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  4. Thanks for the information. Of course, mine is "Made in China"! That had been my main concern when I saw that...I don't trust them! It's "Technique" and I'm pretty sure she bought it through one of those shopping channels. It's gorgeous, but I don't think I'll use it again. Maybe there's some way I can test it, like what can be done with lead paint etc.

    Anyway, thanks again. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  5. From what I've read, lead is the main concern.

    It would be an interesting experiment to boil water in the dutch oven for an hour or two, let it sit overnight, and test that water with a drinking water lead test kit.

    Would love to hear the results if you do it...

    Happy thanksgiving to you as well!

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  6. Hi there! I'm wondering why you say not to use a scotch pad. I'm relatively new to cast iron skillets (about 5 months), have been using my skillet regularly, and I always clean it with a scotch pad! Am I ruining the seasoning? Thanks for any help!

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  7. Hi Christine,

    Thanks for stopping by... and welcome to the club!

    The Scotch (or other abrasive "Brillo"-type pads) can remove the seasoning from the high spots in the metal. You could probably overcome this if you didn't scrub often or heavily, and always re-oiled your pans after use.

    I think you'll be quicker to build up an "heirloom quality" seasoning if you go with a gentler scrubber... but it may also be that gentle use of a Scotch pad roughs up the surface--and allows subsequent oil coatings to adhere better to the base layers. Kind of like sanding between coats of polyurethane on your floor.

    If you're finding the pans to be non-stick and easy to clean after use... I say keep doing what you're doing!

    Hope that helps.

    -Derek

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  8. Hi -- My pan is rusting on the bottom -- it has been put away for 2 years and was well seasoned but the bottom (underside -- not the cooking side) is rusted -- any suggestions for cleaning the noncooking underside without ruining the good seasoning on the top?

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  9. Hi Theresa,

    Bottom-side rust is fairly common, since the heat of a stove tends to burn off the seasoning on many pans.

    If it is very light rust, I'd say don't worry about it. With regular use the rust will likely burn off.

    If the rust is heavier, I'd recommend using oil and salt with an abrasive pad (Scotch, or even steel wool) to remove the rust. Once all rust has been removed, rinse the pan with hot water and dry it immediately in the oven. Then give it a coating of oil and season it in the oven on 350 degrees F for an hour.

    If the rust is so heavy that this doesn't work either, then you may need to remove the seasoning (using your oven's "clean" cycle, or in a fire) and start over. Hopefully the rust isn't that bad!

    I wrote an article on Rescuing Abused Cast Iron, which mostly covers the above, but in case it is helpful:
    http://www.derekoncastiron.com/2009/02/article-rescuing-abused-cast-iron.html

    Please let me know if you have any other questions, or if you have results (good or bad) to report.

    Thanks!

    -Derek

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  10. Derek, thanks for a great site. I cooked a berry crisp in my cast iron dutch oven over (and under) an open fire. Try as I might, I can't seem to get the worst of the crusty food off the cast iron. I've baked it, seasoned it, boiled water in it, soaked it for a few hours, scrubbed it, and re-heated it in the fire. Still crusty. Any tips for getting that off?

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  11. Hey Dana, thanks for stopping by.

    Any chance you can share a picture?

    Without knowing more, I think I'd try to scrape it off with a stiff metal spatula, or perhaps even some coarse-grained sandpaper. Then, of course, re-season it in the oven for an hour on 350 F.

    Hope that helps!

    -Derek

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  12. So, what about scrubbing the pans with steel wool?

    Naima

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  13. Hi Naima,

    I know folks who swear by the steel wool method for everyday cleanup, but I find that steel wool removes too much seasoning. I prefer using plastic scrubbers (e.g. a "Dobie" pad) and hot water for everyday cleanup. If you have some light rust on the pan, then steel wool is a good option for removing the rust.

    Does that help?

    -Derek

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  14. HI Derek, I am very much enjoying your site! I have been using cast iron since the early 70's and have some nice, smooth as glass cast iron cookware. I love it! I clean my skillets while still warm enough to need a pot holder. I stand in up in the sink at an angle while running a slow stream of hot water on it, while brushing it with a cheap, dollar isle medium-feeling nylon bristle brush. The ones that fit in the palm of your hand are great.
    I brush and clean quickly and get the still warm skillet out of the running hot water and it just about dries on its own, but I do pat dry the outside and return to low heat setting on the stove top (or if the oven is still warm, put it in there.) Little bit of oil or crisco on a paper towel while still warm, makes it shine like glass.
    I just picked up 3 new/hardly used pieces at the flea market this past weekend and I'm seasoning them to give as gifts.
    Do you have any place to post photos?
    Keep up the good work...the meatball recipe looks GREAT! Can't wait to try them!
    Thanks!

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  15. Hi There,

    I don't have a place to post photos... guess I should get to work on that!

    I love giving cast iron as gifts as well, and really like rescuing old and abused cast iron. Keep it up!

    Your cleaning method sounds great. I usually let them cool a bit to make sure I don't deglaze them with the water... but they are often hot enough to practically dry themselves. And I totally agree that the key is to put them away shiny as glass!

    Please let us know how the meatball recipe goes.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    -Derek

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  16. Hi Derek,
    Thank you (I am previous commenter - January 17, 2011 5:30 PM )
    If this link works, you should see a photo of my vintage covered fryer. It has no stamping underneath, the cover has rows of teeth inside to help moisture drop back into the cooking food. The tight fitting lid can be rotated to vent through the pouring spouts or closed to retain all moisture. This is my favorite piece.
    I can cook a covered pot roast in the oven or on the stove burner.
    http://i276.photobucket.com/albums/kk12/plsD200/6476Sm.jpg
    Thanks, I have your site bookmarked!

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  17. Hi,

    That sounds like a great piece of cookware. I love the open and close venting system. Smart.

    I wasn't able to make the link to your photo a clickable link in your comment... but am hoping it will show in my reply. Thanks!

    -Derek

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  18. Thanks Derek!
    I have Boston Bakes Beans in a slow oven all day in my covered skillet; it's a damp, overcast day here in Dixie and I'm looking forward to some beans! (next to the fried "poke chops")
    :)

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  19. Hey Derek, I learned awhile back to clean my skillet with salt and oil/butter and a paper towel... essentially heat the oil/butter add salt to entire surface and then scrub the salt with the paper towel..add more salt as necessary until its not black anymore. then rinse off salt with water and heat dry. is this a right way of doing it? or maybe only when its get a lot of bits stuck to it or something?

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  20. That sounds more like what I'd do to take off rust. For everyday cleaning, I use hot water and a plastic scrubber. If things are really crusty, I'd try soaking it for a few hours before giving it the salt treatment. Hope that helps!

    -Derek

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  21. If you rub a paper towel on a cleaned and properly seasoned cast iron skillet, would the paper towel be black or stay white?

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  22. Hey Matt and Meagan,

    Great question! The short answer is "stay white."

    In reality, the paper towel will carry the color of the oil (yellowish for canola oil), and may also pick up some very light gray from the seasoning sloughing off and/or a small amount of food residue.

    Of course, after using your cast iron on an open fire you'll have plenty of soot to work through.

    Does that help? I've also updated this post with a bit more detail... in hopes that it answers more questions.

    -Derek

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  23. So if it turns black, what do i do? My first cast iron skillet. It's a lodge, so it came preseasoned, but I seasoned it as well. To tell you the truth, I don't use it often because the black paper towel scares me. Also it's definitely not what I would call non stick. So I assume it's not properly seasoned. But I have coated in oil and baked, so I'm not sure what I might have done wrong. Any ideas?

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  24. Well let's see.

    I'd try this: scrub the skillet with hot water and a plastic (non-abrasive) scrubber. Make sure the water runs clear when you rinse it. Then put it in the oven on 350 degrees F to dry it (maybe 10 minutes). Then, coat it inside and out with canola oil and use a paper towel to wipe off any oil that's coated heavy enough to drip. Is your paper towel still black? It will be a little dingy... but should mostly remain the color of the oil (clear-ish yellow). Put the oiled skillet back in the oven for an hour on 350 degrees F. After an hour, turn off the oven, and let the skillet cool in the oven (takes several hours). If the oil is mottled from the heat, give it a few gentle wipes with your (same) paper towel to give it an even sheen. You may need to do this a few times as the skillet cools.

    I've added a picture at the bottom of the post (above) that shows my paper towel after I oil my skillet. It's a little dirty... but nothing much.

    Please let me know how it goes! If you're still getting blackness, we'll take the next step...

    -Derek

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  25. Hey Derek,
    I normally wash my skillet under running hot water immediately after cooking with it. Is that a no no?

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  26. Great question. I generally let the skillet cool down a bit before hitting it with water. If the pan is too hot, you risk deglazing (removing) the seasoning with the shock from the temperature difference. It helps to use hot water instead of cold water.... but there's still a risk that you'll crack or remove the seasoning. Hope that helps!

    -Derek

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  27. Replies
    1. Hi Derek, I have a small kitchen and permanently store my cast iron pans in the oven even when cooking in another vessel, sometimes at temps up to 450F. Is this ok?

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    2. Howdy,

      This is actually a great way to keep your cast iron "perma-seasoned." I often do the same. You can't hurt the cast iron by doing this.

      The only drawback is that the un-cured oil on the cast iron can create extra smoke in the oven that can smell up your house and/or create off flavors in sensitive baked dishes. If you don't mind the smokey smell and don't have any issues with baked goods tasting funny, by all means... keep it up!

      -Derek

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  28. Hi Derek,

    Great site! I just picked up my very first cast iron skillets last week and have been working on restoring a pre-1890 skillet made for a woodburning stove (that's all I was able to find out about it, no company or date). After cleaning off the residue and rust and giving it its first oil-down (researched off several sites for methods), I found an article which said dark residue from a stripped skillet on the paper towel is normal the first time you oil it down.

    So my question to you is, how much black residue should be on the paper towel from oiling down the skillet before the first seasoning? Right now, the paper towel is coming away completely black. You sort of answered it when you answered Matt's question, but I am working off a freshly stripped skillet, whereas his was already seasoned. Thanks!

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  29. Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for the kudos. Welcome to cast iron cooking!

    I have a few questions:

    1) How did you strip your skillet? I know some folks like lye... others high heat, and still others abrasives like steel wool or sandpaper.

    2) Did you rinse it in hot water after the strip?

    3) Have you oiled it and baked it in the oven a few times? If so, is the paper towel still staying black?

    4) Have you gotten to the point where you've tried cooking in it? I'm wondering if you are noticing any off flavors.

    Thanks!

    -Derek

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  30. Thanks for the reply! I kept working on it after submitting the post, and here's how it went:

    I used a combination of methods. First, I coated it in oven cleaner and left it overnight in a sealed garbage bag. Then I used 100 grain sandpaper, fine steel wool, and a stainless steel brush in turns to get as much rust off as possible. Then I coated the worst parts on the bottom with vinegar for a few minutes and used the a stiff nylon brush and the stainless brush under running water a few times, dried it over the stove, and again used the sandpaper/steel wool/stainless steel brush. After that, I again used the vinegar and water method with a small brass brush, stiff nylon brush, soap, and running hot water until the soap was no longer rust-colored when I scrubbed the pan on all its surfaces and it was the gray/silver/black of bare iron. I'm in a small apartment without access to power sanding tools or the ability to set up a lye or vinegar bath, so it was all elbow grease!

    After all that, I dried it over the stove and sprayed it all over with canola oil and rubbed it in with a paper towel, and that's when the towel started coming away black. Based on something else on your site I found after making that post, I went ahead and seasoned it for the first time and stuck it in the oven. I took it out today and put another layer of oil on it, and did not get the black residue that time. It's now in the oven again for another round of seasoning. I don't intend to try cooking in it until seasoning in it another three or four times. I'll send before/after pictures after it's all done, because I'm rather proud of this effort!

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  31. Hey Amanda,

    Wow! Sounds like you gave that pan the royal treatment! Nice work.

    Would LOVE to see before and after pictures. Not sure how well Blogger supports that in comments, but if you can put them up at flickr or something, we can make it happen.

    Thanks for the update!

    -Derek

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  32. Hi Derek!
    I just received a set of cast iron skillets for Christmas, not pre seasoned like lodge skillets, so I had to do an initial seasoning, I stopped halfway through because the smoke and smell had filled the entire house.... so I scrubbed them with steel wool to remove the coating, than re oiled them with a Crisco/lard mix and put them outside on the grill for a little over an hour, the turned almost a brownish color, as if the oil had burned, I had them upside down as well.... what am I doing wrong??
    Thanks, Colleen

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    Replies
    1. Hi Colleen,

      Welcome to the world of cast iron! It's true that an oven seasoning will generate smoke, but it shouldn't fill your house! Is it possible that oil dripped onto the heating elements in your oven? You only need a thin coating of oil.

      As for the grilling/brownish color… I'm not sure what to say. Did they seem to come out seasoned? Or was the seasoning burned off by the heat of the grill (in which case it was probably too hot)?

      Thanks!

      -Derek

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  33. hi Derek, I just bought my first 8-in Lodge and am finding your site very informative. One question about cleaning and maintenance -- does the skillet have to be dried over heat? What about just drying with a kitchen towel and skipping the minutes in/over the heat? thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Amy,

      Welcome to cast iron cooking! I'm glad you're finding this site helpful. I do think that it's important to dry your cast iron with heat. And then give it a light coat of oil once it is all the way dry. This actually helps to build up a dense layer of seasoning over time with the heat of drying, the coat of oil, and then the heat of warm-up next time you use the skillet. Using a towel won't remove water from the little crevices (some microscopic) of the metal… and you'll get rust in there that can affect the flavor of food, and also compromise your seasoning build-up. Hope that helps!

      -Derek

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    2. Thanks Derek for your prompt response! I just used the skillet for the first time this morning to fry an egg, and have encountered another question -- If I can't remove some food completely (egg residue), can I just go ahead with the wash and care as you've explained, and hope that at some point, either from repeated cooking or washing, the food residue will eventually come off? Or will this just result in layers of food build-up that I will eventually need to really scrub off hard with metal scrubs or something?

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    3. Hey Amy,

      You bet!

      I am not a fan of leaving food stuck to my pans. I know there are some that let all sorts of food bits build up over time… but I find that this can affect the flavor of subsequent meals, and also the appearance (no one wants a bunch of black bits of burnt seasoning crud marring their otherwise lovely omelet!).

      The additional texture of stuck-on food bits makes it harder to slide eggs out of the pan as well (once you've achieved a true non-stick surface).

      For eggs, it is fairly common (especially after scrambled eggs) for the pan to need a soak afterwards. Soaking it for 1-2 hours should soften this stuff up enough to where you can scrape it off with a plastic scraper, and then finish the job with a plastic scrubber (those mesh bags that oranges and other citrus fruits come in work great for this). Then dry it with heat, and always give it a light coating of oil so it's shiny before putting it away. That light coating of oil will help eggs not stick as much next time.

      Enjoy!

      -Derek

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    4. Just wanted to let you know -- my cast iron skillet now works like a non-stick! Scrambling or frying eggs has become a cinch. Thanks for all your help!

      (Besides following your instructions, I also made a dish of braised pork where I seared pork belly chunks with the cast iron. That might also have helped do the trick.)

      Delete
    5. Hey Amy,

      Great to hear! Searing pork can't hurt!

      -Derek

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  34. I have a set of cast iron cookware.. When ever I make spaghetti sauce or simmer anything in the skillet, the seasoning comes off and I have to redo it... Am I not suppose to use the pans for that? I also have sauce pans of cast iron... should they be seasoned also? thanks,, Sue

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sue,

      High acid foods like spaghetti sauce can affect the seasoning… often turning the skillet a dull black or brown color after washing with hot water and drying with heat. This is usually solved with a quick re-oiling and perhaps an oven re-seasoning. Is the pan actually being stripped down to bare (rustable) metal? If so, it sounds like the initial seasoning never really "took." In that case, I'd recommend oven-seasoning the pans 3-4 times in a row (for an hour each time at 350 degrees F) using canola oil.

      You mentioned having cast iron sauce pans as well. If they are bare (black) cast iron, they should be seasoned per the above. If they are enameled cast iron, only the rim needs to be seasoned.

      Hope that helps!

      -Derek

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  35. Hello Derek,
    Thanks for the great site. I have a question for you: I recently found a Wagner cast iron skillet at an old store and purchased it. Once home, I washed it in warm water with a light brush and then seasoned it per the guidelines on the back of the pan (350 F for 1 hour with a little bit of Crisco rubbed all over). Once done I noticed that most of the pan is shiny black with a few spots that are a shiny grayish brown. What is the remedy? Can I ignore those spots and start cooking?

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    Replies
    1. Howdy,

      You should be all set to cook. Some mottling is normal on a newly-seasoned pan... those gray/brown spots will darken over time (and be covered up by new layers of seasoning). Enjoy that skillet!

      Thanks for stopping by.

      -Derek

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    2. Thank you so much! That is reassuring. Love your site.

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    3. You bet! Thanks for the kind words.

      -Derek

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  36. Hey love your site! So my room-mate uses my cast iron to cook scrambled eggs in the morning and doesn't usually clean it till the evening after work. I feel like accordingly they end up needing to scrub more vigorously (with steel wool) to get it cleaned in the evening. I'm noticing that my pan isn't as non-stick as it used to be. I think by using the pan like that they're slowly ruining my seasoning/non-stickiness. I'm a big proponent of cleaning it shortly after usage (using your cleaning technique) so maybe I'm just being a stickler or OCD, but am I right to think that they may be ruining my non-stickiness/seasoning or I am just being spiteful and probably imagining it? Should I confront them or chill haha?

    Thanks

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    Replies
    1. Hey there,

      You should kick your roommate out of your house immediately and sever all contact.

      No, just kidding!

      There shouldn't be anything inherently seasoning-killing about waiting until evening to clean up the morning's scrambled eggs. One thing that may help is instead of using steel wool (which if used daily will tend to wear away the seasoning), soak the pan for an hour or two, and then use a hard plastic scrubber to get the big chunks, and finish with a plastic "Dobie" type scrubber.

      Finally, make sure your roommate is drying the pan with heat and oiling it until shiny!

      Hope that helps.

      -Derek

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Howdy! Thanks for visiting, and thanks even more for leaving a comment. I'll respond as soon as the kids are asleep.