You’ve no doubt heard the stories of pizzerias who never wash their pans, and the avid bakers who do likewise. They do (or rather, don’t do) this, the legend goes, because the years of flavor baked into those pans is imparted to each new batch of baked goods, making them magically taste better than any new pan ever could.
Surprise! This is all a bunch of horse shit.
Well… the flavor part. It’s true that some people don’t wash their pans, but according to Lisa McManus, executive editor of tastings and testings at America’s Test Kitchen, and Julie Hearne, author of The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook, unwashed pans are good for a completely different reason.
So, uh, why would I purposefully not wash a pan?
First, it’s important to understand that there are only really two types of pans that are better off unwashed: Cast iron pans and carbon steel pans. That’s because both of these pans require a layer of so-called “seasoning.”
“Seasoning is a thin layer — or layers — of oil that’s been heated to a point where it changes its nature: It polymerizes,” McManus explains. “It sticks to the pan, seals it up so the pan isn’t exposed to oxygen — and therefore, doesn’t turn rusty — and gives you a non-stick layer on top. It’s almost like a natural non-stick coating.”
Alternatively, you could just buy a non-stick pan, although some people argue that cast iron and carbon steel pans transmit heat better, and therefore, provide a nice crust when cooking (something we’ll talk about more shortly).
Okay, but where does the whole not washing thing come into play?
“The point of all those things you hear — not using soap, not scrubbing hard and all that stuff — is to baby that surface [seasoning] and keep building on it, rather than stripping it down every time you wash the pan,” says McManus.
And that makes the food taste better, right? That’s why it’s called “seasoning.”
Er… no. “It doesn’t flavor the pan,” McManus emphasizes. Like I said, it’s all about making the pan work better. “You can use any kind of fat — people talk a lot about flaxseed oil and lard. But when you buy cast iron now, they actually come pre-seasoned,” says McManus. “They don’t come completely seasoned when you buy them, but you can stick one in the stove and start cooking with it. As the oils build up, continues to polymerize and bonds to the pan — and the previous layers of oil — the pan becomes more non-stick and sealed off from becoming rusty.”
Why this process is called “seasoning” isn’t totally clear — it might simply be because you’re adding something to the pan to, in essence, make it better. Yes, this is confusing.
Is there no scenario in which my filthy pan makes the food taste better?
Wellll… maybe. “In the South, people who do fish frying often have a fish-frying cast iron skillet and a skillet for everything else, because fish oils can get in there and make the pan smell and maybe impart some fishy flavor to the next thing you cook,” McManus says.
Besides fish, there are no flavor benefits at all, then?
Well, there are, just not in the way that people tend to think. “Because cast iron provides a dry, even heat — and holds that heat — these pans caramelize like no other,” Hearne explains. “The crust that forms on cornbreads and cakes… you can’t get from any other pan. That’s where the extra flavor happens.” In other words, these pans aren’t imparting an actual flavor — they simply heat up in a way that makes it more likely for a tasty, caramelized crust to form on your food.
Say I get such a pan — how should I go about not washing it?
“Many times, after cooking, you can pretty much just wipe out your skillet,” Hearne explains. “But after cooking meat of fish, I’ll rinse with hot water. If it has an odor from cooking fish or onions, and I want to cook a Tarte Tatin or something sweet in my pan, I like to use about one or two teaspoons of kosher salt with one or two teaspoons of olive or canola oil with a paper towel to lightly scour the pan. After that, rinse with hot water and dry over heat or with a towel. Then, wipe again with vegetable or canola oil. If things start to stick, I just rinse with hot water, use a plastic scrub brush to scrub the pan and dry on the burner over medium-low heat. Finally, remove from heat and add two teaspoons of oil, and use a paper towel to cover the bottom and sides of the pan.”
Finally, if your pan looks extra funky, you can always start over. “You can, if you feel like the seasoning has gotten kinda gunky or weird, or if you buy an old pan that doesn’t look good, just scrub it out with steel wool and start over,” McManus says. “Cast iron is a very forgiving substance.”
What’s to stop me from just not washing any of my pans ever again?
You could argue, I suppose, that washing all pans is unnecessary, since a raging hot pan really is the ultimate weapon against the bacteria that causes food poisoning. After all, would you wash a grill after every steak you cook on it? Additionally, when it comes to non-stick pans, the heat from the dishwasher — along with harsh detergents — can cause the coating to degrade over time (although you can prevent this by gently hand washing your cookware instead).
That said, pans that have lingering food particles in them can certainly attract bacteria, and of course, those particles will inevitably begin to burn over time, which can impart a burnt flavor onto everything you cook. All of which means, even though you’d probably be fine without thoroughly washing your pans, there’s really no good reason not to wash them in between uses, unless, as we’ve already covered, they have a non-stick seasoning on them.
Plus, c’mon, that’s just grody.