Can You Clean A Cast-Iron Skillet With Soap?

Want to pan-fry the perfect fried chicken? Need to make a skillet cornbread with crispy, caramelized crust? Setting out to sear a ribeye steak? Flipping flapjacks? Frying eggs? What versatile kitchen workhorse do you reach for, who can handle these varied tasks with aplomb?

Cast iron, generally in skillet form, is beloved by chefs the world over for a plethora of reasons. Writing in Serious Eats, chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt — and shouldn't his endorsement be enough? — outlines the reasons cast iron should be in your kitchen collection. From their tough construction to their even heating to the fact that, with proper seasoning, they're essentially non-stick, Lopez-Alt busts myths and makes an air-tight case for cast iron's use in many cooking circumstances.

One myth that routinely resurfaces, one that cast-iron cookware seems unable to shake, is the idea that cleaning with soap is tantamount to destroying the very soul of your cast iron skillet. So, what's the verdict? Will a sudsy bath strip away hard-earned seasoning?

What is cast iron?

What exactly is cast iron? According to Engineering Choice, it is an iron-carbon alloy containing at least 2-4% carbon, along with elements that can include silicon, manganese, sulfur, and phosphorus. Upon smelting from ore, iron is poured into ingot molds. Those ingots are then re-fired, usually with scrap metal, and, from there, molded into the final form of the end product, such as skillet. Cast iron is also used to make parts for the automobile industry, and in construction, such as The Iron Bridge of England, completed in 1779, per Shropshire Star.

As a medium for cooking, cast iron has long been prized, and the industrialization of the 1800s allowed for mass-production, noted Cooking Issues. While cast iron is a much poorer conductor of heat than aluminum and copper, its density means that once it is properly heated, it holds on to that heat for much longer, providing for a steadier cook.

To soap or not?

If you talk to any owner of cast-iron cookware for an extended period of time about said cookware, you'll almost invariably hear some take on the old adage that soap is verboten with cast iron. Some will tell you that the rule is not true, some will tell you that the rule is only partially true, but the great majority will tell you that it's an — pardon the pun — iron-clad rule.

It's all dependent on your understanding of seasoning. Cast iron itself is a porous, rough metal that can be difficult to cook on in isolation. As cast-iron cookware manufacturer Lodge explained, it is important to make sure that your skillet — or other non-enameled cast-iron item — is properly seasoned before cooking, in order to create a conducive surface. To do that, a thin layer of oil must be applied over the entire surface of the item, and heated to a temperature adequate for a process called polymerization to occur. That is the conversion of oils from a liquid state to that of a durable, virtually non-stick network — or polymer.

The fear, the non-soap crowd claims, is that soap will strip away the polymer surface. But America's Test Kitchen has found that soap is not the enemy. A gentle — and we stress, gentle — scrub with soap isn't enough to kill your seasoning, but it will whisk away bits of food and cooking oil left behind.