Should I avoid using soap on my cast iron pan?

About a week before I am writing this post, the official Twitter for Lodge Cast Iron posted a simple question: “Soap or no soap?”

About fifty people weighed in on the debate, asserting a broad range of opinions from both Team Soap and Team No Soap.

For the uninitiated the argument goes something like this:

For much of the long history of cast iron cookware, soap was a harsh chemical usually derived from a process involving lye. These natural soaps would chew through the seasoning of a cast iron pan. Soap-free techniques for salting, scrubbing, cleaning, heating, and oiling a recently-used pan have long been refined and shared among cast iron users, passed down as general means of care and tending of cookware.

But soaps are now mostly gentle chemical concoctions that bear little resemblance to the soaps of our great-grandparent’s era. Couple that with an overall aversion for most people to use something that hasn’t been scrubbed clean with a squirt of lemon-scented goo, and many people will tell you that no, actually soap isn’t going to harm your pan.

Team Soap asserts that almost all modern dish soaps are fine, and so long as you dry and oil your cast iron your pans will be just fine.

Team No Soap argues back that soaps, harsh or not, are unnecessary as there are techniques and tools to clean a pan without that product. And, oh-by-the-way anything that doesn’t help your seasoning is possibly hurting it.

Personally, I don’t use soap.

I fall into the Team No Soap camp because I stick to the core rule that whatever I put in my pans is either improving or degrading the seasoning.

Soap, in my opinion, no matter how gentle is not helping the seasoning so thus it is degrading it.

If I’m going to degrade my seasoning, it’s going to be from cooking something delicious to eat, not for taking a cleaning shortcut.

That said I will invoke my other rule, that is my Rule of Participation: anyone who participates in something should be encouraged to do so even if it means shortcutting or bending the rules of best practice at the beginning because eventually they will grow their knowledge and either change themselves towards the norm, or shift the normal to something better.

In other words, if a little soap is going to get more people into cooking with cast iron, great! As they learn, invest, and practice they will either see things with a different eye or will bring new evidence to the table for the rest of us.

Should you avoid soap on your cast iron pan? I think so… but don’t get so hung up on the question that you switch back to aluminum. A little soap is probably just fine.

Can I use an outdoor grill or campfire to season my cast iron pan?

Iron. Oil. Heat.

These are the three foundational ingredients needed to season any cast iron pan.

If you have a cast iron pan, a bit of oil, and a heat source then you should be able to season that pan. And so the simple answer is, yes, if your heat source is a campfire or a gas grill this would count and you should, most definitely, be able to season cast iron outdoors on a grill or other open flame.

In fact, in my own experience, I’ve had some great luck seasoning cast iron both on the barbecue and over the fire while out camping. There are many practical benefits including dispersal of smoke, efficiency of the process, and the honest-to-goodness joy of sitting around a fire doing something as practical as seasoning your cookware.

I’ve also had a couple bad experiences. So, a caveat

Cast Iron Guy Caveat: Fire and flame are less predictable than electric heat sources. And unpredictable heat can mean things might get a little too hot or too cool as you work to find the just right level of heat to achieve the best seasoning results.

Too low heat means that the chemical reactions to create seasoning won’t happen and the oil will likely just get gummy and sticky and fail to properly polymerize to become seasoning.

Too high heat means the oil and any established seasoning will likely burn and disintegrate leaving bare iron behind.

Check out my article on using a self-cleaning oven to strip seasoning for a refresher on how different levels of high heat affect the seasoning on a pan. I wrote about some of the chemical properties of seasoning and how the blast furnace temperatures of self-cleaning modes torch seasoning to ash.

Finding that just right heat in an oven somewhere in the middle of that too high and too low value is a matter of setting the knob to the just right number.

Finding that just right heat on a campfire or over a gas flame is a trickier prospect and requires attention and care above the heat source, and definitely not just throwing it into the flames or coals and hoping for the best!

While many things can go right, there is more wiggle room for things to go wrong: uneven seasoning, soot and ash contamination, over-heating and burning off the seasoning you’ve already created, increased difficulty to season handles or edges, or even in the extreme, possible cracking of your pan by moving it through too much temperature variation too quickly.

So, with a good steady-burning bed of coals or a medium flame on your grill, a rack or grate to rest your pan above the heat, the right tools, the right oil, and with work and care, yes, you can season cast iron on a campfire or outdoor grill… but maybe start with a practice pan to learn.

Season

Three months into writing daily missives here on this blog and it occurred to me that there is one particular word woven through my stories to which I have not given much thought. It is a word with multiple, distinct meanings, and that fact should have been obvious for a guy who writes about the outdoors, cooking, and cast iron cookware.

SEE - zunn

Simply, to flavour or preserve food with salt and spices.

Or… simply, to ready a cooking surface through the application of heat and oils.

Or… simply, the delineation of winter from spring, spring from summer, summer from autumn, and autumn back into winter.

Maybe not so simple?

The etymology of the word season seems to come from the Latin satio, which is itself entwined in the word to sow, or to make something ready.

One readies food to be eaten or a pan to be cooked upon.

Nature readies the world to grow, blossom, produce, and come to life …and then resets itself to make ready all over the next year.

Seasoning is an act of maturation and preparation.

It is purposeful conditioning.

To season is to make something richer and more ready.

These concepts strung together clearly form a broader theme for the things I’ve been thinking about and writing about and sharing here. Three months in, ninety disconnected posts, and some forty thousand words spent has distilled down to one not so simple word: season.

To season. To be seasoned. To welcome the changing seasons. To ready the heart and mind. To sow a space for good food in one’s home. To mellow the harsh cold iron of a skillet against the delicate organic surface of food. To flavour life as one ages one’s mind and soul against the cyclical reset of the universe. To season.

How do I know when I need to re-season a cast iron pan?

You get a new pan from the store, or an old, new-to-you pan from a family member, and the first thing you’re likely to do is spend some time re-seasoning. Fresh from the factory, or stale from neglect, obviously is a great time to put in the effort.

But what about the pans you already own and are using regularly? How do you know if they need some intensive cast iron care or even a full seasoning restart?

I was cooking a batch of buttermilk pancakes this morning and noticed a chip on my twenty inch grill, the same pan that had given me some trouble a couple months back (but in a different spot on the pan!) That blemish had likewise started as a small chip and I’d let it fester for a few months only to watch it grow from a dime-sized divot into a scar that rendered a quarter of the large pan basically useless.

Now this new pit has me pondering my pan options: to push through, spot-repair, or fully re-season?

So, how do you know when it’s time to start the re-seasoning process?

It’s Wearing Out

Seasoning is just layers and layers of carbon built up over time and effort. Maybe those layers are just getting old, or thinning out in various places. Maybe you’ve been cooking too many delicious tomato sauce-based recipes and the acid and lack of fresh oil is leaving those layers a bit lacklustre. Or maybe you’ve built up so many layers that the actual shape of your pan is starting to change. Seasoning does get old and wear out, and a once-amazing pan might just need a refresh.

It’s Chipping Off

Like my morning dilemma, sometimes you pull a pan from the shelf and either from rough use or being bumped in the cupboard, a bit of the seasoning has actually cracked and chipped away. This creates an unwelcome uneven surface and over time is simply going to get bigger and rougher and make your pan less useful. A full re-seasoning on a big chip or a chip in the main part of the pan is probably the best course, but try a spot re-seasoning first. Scrub the spot down with some steel wool or an abrasive sandpaper, then re-season like it’s a new pan. If that doesn’t work, strip the whole piece to bare metal and start fresh. Plus, you don’t want any of those stray seasoning chips mixed in with your morning hashbrowns.

It’s Rusting Up

The worst cast cast iron scenario is rust. Stored wet, or maybe having been through a long cold winter (accidentally, I swear) left inside the barbecue, rust damages the iron at a molecular level and loosens your seasoning. Also, it tastes awful with eggs. A full cleaning and do-over is probably the best way to get back on the right foot with a pan that’s got a case of rust.

Most of all, you’ll likely just know when you need to re-season. A well-seasoned pan is a great tool. A pan that needs some care and attention from years of use, wear and tear is just …less so.