Guide to Cleaning a Sticky Cast Iron Skillet

There’s nothing worse, when cooking in your kitchen, than a sticky cast iron skillet — you know your skillet is clean but it just doesn’t feel clean if it’s sticky.

A cast iron skillet that feels sticky can be a by-product of improper seasoning.

Using too much oil to season a skillet in a single step rather than using a thin-layered multi-step process can leave you with an almost tacky touch to the skillet’s surface.

Surface buildup from foods or cooking residue left on the skillet and then coated-over with more cooking oil, the next time you use it, can also lead to your cast iron skillet sticking.

Best Tips to Remove Sticky Cast Iron Buildup

There are certain types of food that have a tendency to stick to cast iron more than others — like eggs, for example. How the skillet is heated and when to add oil or butter before cracking those eggs is key to them sliding out of the pan rather than sticking. This will be covered in a different post.

For purposes of removing the most common offenders after cooking — here are some guidelines:

The “Works for most Cast Iron Skillets” Method

A common problem with sticky cast iron skillets is how to remove burned food. When the food is scraped out of the skillet, it often leaves a residue that looks like a stain. This is fairly easy to correct, for the aftermath of most burned foods try these steps:

  • Boiling Water in Cast Iron SkilletPut about half an inch of water in the bottom of the pan and bring to a gentle boil — this will loosen any food stuck on the skillet surface
  • Scrub or scrape the loosened food with a non-metal scrubbing pad or with a plastic spatula or wood spoon — repeat the process, if necessary
  • Wash the skillet with warm, soapy water and rinse — dry the skillet with a clean towel or paper towels
  • Return the skillet to the stove and heat for a minute or two to evaporate any remaining moisture – a very dry skillet is not prone to rust
  • Spread a very thin coating of oil on the skillet while still warm – wipe the surface again with a paper towel and store after the skillet has cooled

 The Stubborn Egg Removal Method

The serial sticky cast iron offender, in terms of stubborn residues, is egg. If the General Works-For-Most Method doesn’t get you the results you want, roll up your sleeves — here is Plan B:

  • Remove Eggs from Cast IronWhile we love Kosher salt for cooking, you can mix a couple of tablespoons of Kosher salt with some cooking oil to form an abrasive-type cleanser
  • Slightly warm this mixture in your sticking cast iron skillet (on the stove) but keep it cool enough that you can touch it
  • Take a dry paper towel and use it to scrub the warmed oil/salt cleanser into the remaining egg residue (this assumes you tried the General Method first)
  • When the offending residue is gone, rinse the skillet, clean with warm, soapy water and repeat the last 2 steps of the General Method above

The How To Remove Sticking Paint Method

The process for cleaning a sticky cast iron skillet with paint spatters will vary based on the user’s comfort level but the only sure, safe way to get rid of paint is by completely stripping the skillet — here’s why.

If you purchased your skillet at a garage or yard sale and don’t know the history of that skillet’s use, then complete stripping of the skillet inside and out may be the best option.

Removing Paint from Cast Iron SkilletDepending on the age of the skillet, the paints used may have been lead-based paints that we know today to be toxic.

The type of paint used on the surface of the skillet is not a question frequently asked at a yard sale or auction — so why take a chance?

Similarly, the paint removers or thinners that are generally used in getting rid of unwanted paint are harmful as well.

Who would want to chance leaving any toxic residue from paint thinners when removing any offending paint spatters?

The safest (while not the easiest or the least expensive) way to remove paint from sticky cast iron cookware is to have it sandblasted. Glass beads or river sand are typically used to take the cookware or a skillet back to its natural, unseasoned condition.

Because in sandblasting, a skillet is stripped down to bare metal — you will need to season the skillet as if you purchased it brand new and unseasoned.

The “What is that smell!” Removal Method

What is that SmellA sticky cast iron pan can soak up some of the flavors and odors from the food you cook —  people often wonder how to remove one of the smelliest — fish odors from cast iron skillets. Try the few simple steps below:

  • Cut a lemon in half
  • Add a couple of teaspoons of salt to your skillet and squeeze the lemon juice from one half the lemon into the pan and over the salt
  • Use the squeezed lemon half as your scrubber and scour the skillet for just a minute or two — any longer and the acid from the lemon will start to cut through your seasoning layers
  • Discard the lemon and wipe the salt/lemon mixture from the pan with paper towels
  • Rinse the skillet in warm water, dry with paper towels and heat on the stove for a minute to evaporate and remaining moisture before you put your skillet away