When asked if it’s ever appropriate to clean a piece of cast iron with soap, the chef Ming Pu, who has spent the last decade cooking in and around Louisville, Kentucky, puts it concisely: “Never.” A native of Taiwan, he grew up on cast-iron stir fry and wouldn’t dream of dousing his mother’s beloved wok in Dawn. He’s not alone in this belief. It’s a widely held dogma in both home and professional kitchens across the South and beyond, rooted in tradition and passed down through the generations like cast iron itself.
“Never ever put soap in cast iron,” warns Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery in New Orleans. In fact, Toups doesn’t even like to use water. “Soap and water will make it rust and you will not be happy.” In addition to rust, many believe that soap suds remove the seasoning, or the layers of polymerized oil that have built up over years of use to create a smooth, protected, non-stick surface.
“It shouldn’t need soap,” says Karl Worley of Nashville’s Biscuit Love. “If something is really stuck, use more fat. Fat is your friend.” John Lewis, of Charleston’s Lewis Barbecue advises rubbing down the pan with a mixture of salt and oil to clean it. Nina Compton of Compère Lapin in New Orleans recommends a quick rinse and thorough dry before wiping it down with an oiled towel. “The more layers that develop on a cast iron the better,” she says.
But other chefs opine that this handed-down edict is a myth, born more of preference than necessity.
“I know a lot of people think you should never put soap on it,” says Shuai Wang of Jackrabbit Filly in North Charleston, South Carolina. “But it’s not the end of the world if you do. Just make sure you never soak it for a long time, dry it off right away, and re-season it right after.”
Katie Button, who helms Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina, keeps an open mind on the subject. “If I’m cooking fish or something with a sauce that would impart flavor on the next dish, I do use soap,” she says. “I just use a soft sponge and don’t scrub too hard, and then dry it thoroughly and oil it. But if I’m just searing a steak or something like that, I scrub it out with just water. And if I’m making a grilled cheese, I’ll just wipe it out and put it right back on the stove.”
And for the Georgia chef Virginia Willis, when it comes to caring for her grandmother’s seventy-five-year-old skillet—so prized that when Willis moved back to the South after living in New York, it rode not in a box in the moving van with the other kitchen supplies, but in her passenger seat—her stance is founded in tradition. “My grandmother washed her skillet with warm soapy water, and I do, too,” she says. “I use it for everything from cornbread and biscuits to baked chicken to roasted vegetables, and I believe pots need washing. But if someone else’s grandmother taught them otherwise, who am I to tell them their grandmother was wrong?”
Read more about strategies for the caring and keeping of cast iron here.