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.

Running: What is Hill Training?

Sunday Runday and while the weekends are reserved for distance training, the springtime has rebooted our training schedule and put us back into proper-training-mode. This includes regular and progressively longer hill training runs.

If you happen to live beside a hill where runners train maybe you’ve seen folks like my running friends and I, climbing and descending on repeat, week after week. Perhaps you wondered what the heck why were were torturing ourselves so…

So, what is hill training?

Running is running, and the longer you run the further you’ll be able to go… eventually.

More serious, focused run training tends to pry apart the various aspects of running and portion them into dedicated types of runs meant to isolate enhancing various pieces of the running puzzle: speed, endurance, longevity, pace, and strength.

Hill repeats are meant to build strength. They add a very specific element of resistance to a run, building stronger muscles and generally agreed upon to improve overall performance.

Our hill is roughly a 7% – 9% grade leading into and out of a creek valley near our meeting point. Our Wednesday runs turn into hill training sessions in the spring and early summer, building back up that foundational strength that usually dwindled over the winter months.

There are many different approaches to training on hills as there are runners, but here’s what my crew does:

A brief warm-up run leads us down to our start point.

A single repeat includes a steady climbing run up to a designated point roughly four hundred meters from the base of the hill. As we crest this distance, we do a short recovery walk, turn around, and jog at an easy pace back down to the bottom of the hill.

Starting in early March we begin with three repeats, building by one each week until we reach a maximum. That maximum count depends on the type of race for which we are training, but usually somewhere between twelve and fifteen repeats total by the time we enter June.

(After June we switch to speed training mixed with “hilly runs” which are things I’ll get around to writing about then!)

It’s a tough session. It’s a tough spring. But it’s been working for us for a long time.

Hill training is a slower, deliberate isolation of run training meant to build strength, train muscles in ways not targeted on flat trails, and make runners better at their sport. We grumble a lot, but the spring pain has payoffs for a great summer.

How should you dress to run in spring thaw conditions?

Here in the western prairies of Canada winter is usually a deep, frozen trio of months shouldered by an unpredictable autumn at the front end and a sloppy, scattered mess of thawing weather on the tail.

It’s Sunday, Runday, and this morning we ran a ten kilometer spring run through that some of that scattered mess of weather.

The thing is, I know how to dress for cold. And I know how to dress for summer. But this Spring thing is so unpredictable I still almost always get it wrong. So what’s my (modest) advice?

Flexible Headwear. I have this spring hat trick using a buff, one of those thin and multipurpose tubes of fabric. You can make a half-twist in the middle, invert one end over the other, and voila: you have a light touque. And then half way into the run when the touque is too hot, you can untwist it, make it into a single layer tube. Or if the wind picks up, you can pull it down around your neck. If you’re still too hot, you can scrunch or fold it up and stuff it into a pocket. And when you all stop for coffee at the end of the run, you can double it up again and pull it over your face for a makeshift pandemic facemask. The point is, it’s a flexible piece of clothing. The borderline weather of spring requires you to be ready to add, remove, add, then remove again anything and everything you’re wearing.

Waterproof Traction. Today our run wasn’t too wet, but last weekend the temperatures were a just the right temperatures that the paths were about one-third packed snow, one third overnight ice slicks, and one third ankle-deep puddles (in the sunshiny spots). This means if our feet weren’t slipping on slick patches of mirror-finished frozen puddles, we were sloshing through their thawed cousins. The thaw season is too short to buy special shoes for this, but double layer socks help, and it doesn’t hurt to keep the “winter tires” (those shoes with a little extra traction and a little less venting) out for another couple weeks until things dry up.

Light Gloves. No one ever regrets a pair of light gloves this time of year. What else is there to say? Warm hands are the best and no matter hot warmed up you get, the fingers are usually the last to benefit from increased circulation. And more importantly running with your hands in your pockets down icy trails is the quickest way to smacking your face into the still-frozen ground. You’re going to need those hands ready (and warm) to catch you when you inevitably fall.

Vents & Zippers. Long pants or shorts? Long sleeves or jacket? The temperature changed by five degrees during our one hour run this morning, and then between the sunshine and the shade it was another five degrees. Factor in body heat and that’s a lot of temperature variation. Jackets with zippers that can be unzipped and re-zipped are useful. Clothing with breathable air vents are handy. Light coats with big old armpit zipper vents are amazing and were made for mornings like today. It you can find a pair of running pants that somehow become shorts half way through your outing, you’ve struck it rich for a spring run.

Sunglasses. It can be sunny (and thus sunglass season) for much of the year, but there is something about that low spring sun poking between the tree branches that just begs for eye protection. Also, if you’re anything like me, you wear a brimmed hat in the summer which helps with the high sun, or you run mostly in the dark in winter when a headlamp is more useful. In the spring, especially at our latitude, the sun has just poked up out of the east when we’re setting out on the trails, and it takes the better part of the morning to climb out of that annoying band of the horizon where looking forward somehow also means you’re staring at the blinding glare of our nearest star. I could go without shades for ten months of the year, but spring has one of the months when I don’t run without them.