The Great Soap Debate: The World Will Not End if You Use a Drop of Soap to Clean Your Vintage Cast Iron Pans.
In collecting information around the world about vintage cast iron cookware, I keep running across the great “soap \ no soap” debate. Just do a google search for “soap cast iron” and a myriad of articles will pop up. Many sources routinely emphasize that use of soap will destroy your carefully-built up seasoning.
Nonsense. Using a drop of soap when you want to use a drop of soap is not going to remove the seasoning from a pan that has been properly seasoned. I use soap when I feel like my pan needs soap. Just use your common sense! Don’t soak your cast iron pan in hot soapy water, don’t scrub heartily with stainless steel (moderate is fine – just don’t go nuts), and use your chain mail scrubber when wanting to remove bits of food. Some folks use kosher salt – whatever works. And of course, never ever put your cast iron in the dishwasher!
After cleaning to bare iron, we heat-season most all of our pans with either one coat of Crisco vegetable shortening or one coat of a mixture of coconut and canola oils and beeswax. Our process is discussed in the FAQs section of the site. When I use my pans, I clean it of all food debris (using a drop of soap if I feel like it), dry it thoroughly with paper towels (sometimes I also put it into a warm oven), spray some Pam on a paper towel, and wipe it down. My pans are beautiful, seasoned well, and the soap doesn’t hurt the seasoning one bit. You can see my process on my youtube channel.
The misconception about soap use arises, I think, because people think that the “seasoning” is just a thin layer of oil put onto the pan. It is more than that – the heating process changes the chemical structure of the oil and it polymerizes and bonds to the iron. Continued use builds up more layers of that polymerized oil, eventually resulting in the almost-non-stick surface that is so desired on vintage cast iron pieces. A drop of soap is not going to remove that polymerized coating as it would a simple layer of vegetable oil that has just been smeared onto the pan.
As long as your pan has been properly seasoned, feel free to use a drop of soap to clean it when your common sense tells you that you should. Just be smart about it!