This Is Exactly How to Clean and Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Pan

how to clean cast iron skillet

Half Baked Harvest

A good, well-seasoned cast iron pan can do just about anything in the kitchen. Whether it's making homemade pizzas utterly restaurant-worthy, frying up a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, or serving as the perfect stovetop-to-oven roasting pan for a weeknight dinner, these pans are versatile and long-lasting. They're also excellent options to use as a baking dish for sweet or savory baked goods.

But owning a cast iron skillet is like owning a somewhat high-maintenance houseplant: You have to treat it right and know how to take of it for it to survive and thrive. While the so-called rules and regulations for maintaining a cast iron pan might seem a bit tricky at first, once you get in the habit of cleaning and seasoning your skillet, you’ll wonder what you were ever worried about in the first place.

Below, read on to learn everything you need to know about cleaning and restoring your cast iron pans.

How Often Should You Clean Cast Iron Pans?

You should clean your cast iron pan after every use. For pans that have caked-on food or rust stuck to the surface, opt for deep cleaning with the salt and oil method, then re-season the pan to restore it to its original condition.

Things You'll Need

  • Hot water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Scrub brush
  • Paper towels
  • Kitchen tongs
  • Vinegar (optional)
  • Aluminum foil (optional)

How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan With Hot Water

chocolate chip cookie skillet
Melanie Makes

Step 1: Heat Up the Pan

First, heat up your pan on the stovetop to dislodge any caked-on grease or food from the last time you cooked. This step is important to ensure no grease will be rinsed down your kitchen sink.

Step 2: Wipe Out and Dispose of Grease

After heating it up, wipe down your pan with paper towels. Since the surface will be hot, hold the paper towels with kitchen tools like a pair of tongs to protect your hands from burns. Pour excess grease into a glass container (and store it for future cooking, if you please), then dispose of the paper towels in the trash.

Step 3: Rinse Under Hot Water

It may seem counterproductive since you're trying to prevent rust, but it's safe to rinse your pan under hot water in the sink to clean it. Do not use soap—this can remove the pan's natural seasoning on its surface. Clean the inside with a scrub brush until all food and grime are washed away.

Step 4: Thoroughly Dry Your Pan

This step may be the most important of all: Be sure to dry your cast iron pan completely after rinsing it with water. Wipe the entirety of the pan—top, bottom, and sides—with paper towels until every area is dry. If you're unsure whether it's actually dry, it's safe to put it back on the stovetop or in a clean oven to evaporate any remaining water.

Step 5: Season With Vegetable Oil

Once your pan is clean and dry, add a dollop of vegetable oil to its interior and wipe it around with a paper towel to fully coat the surface. Continue wiping away the oil with fresh paper towels as needed until no oil visibly remains.

How to Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Pan With Salt and Vegetable Oil

cast iron pan cleaning

Sugar and Charm

Even if you do everything right, it’s important to know that a bit of rust on a cast iron pan doesn’t render it useless. Removing the rust and re-seasoning the pan is easy to do—so feel free to scour the antique store or your grandparents’ basement and save that cast iron pan from its rusty coat. Here are a few easy steps to give it a new life.

Step 1: Start With a Vinegar Soak

This step is optional, and it's best for use only on especially rusty pans that need an extra cleaning boost to be restored. Submerge and soak your pan in a mix of equal parts distilled white vinegar and water. Check your pan after one hour—if the rust easily flakes away, pull it out. If the rust is still stuck on, check it again after another hour. Dry the pan thoroughly when finished.

Step 2: Add Vegetable Oil and Heat

Next, place your pan on the stovetop and add enough vegetable oil to fully coat the surface (and submerge any caked-on pieces of food or rust). Turn on the heat and let the oil begin to warm up the residue.

Step 3: Add Kosher Salt

Now it's time to scrub: Add one-fourth cup to one-half cup of kosher salt to the pan depending on its size, then mix it in thoroughly with the oil. Scrub the surface with either a scrub brush or a handful of paper towels held with kitchen tongs. Once the majority of the food residue and rust has loosened from the pan, wipe it down and dispose of the paper towels.

You can also use a halved potato or lemon to thoroughly scrub the salt into a cooled-down pan with less vegetable oil. Use plenty of pressure and rub the potato or lemon in a circular motion. Once the inside of the pan has been scrubbed, don’t forget to get the sides, bottom, and handle as well.

Step 4: Rinse and Dry

Rinse the pan, now empty of grease and rust, in the sink under hot water. Scrub it again if needed, then dry it thoroughly. If any small spots of rust or food residue remain, repeat the steps until fully clean.

If you use a towel to dry your pan, you may notice some black residue on the fabric—but don’t be alarmed. That’s just the cookware's seasoning, and the process is normal.

Step 5: Re-Season Your Pan

After removing the rust from your pan, re-season it before using it to cook. Heat the pan on the stove, then coat the surface with vegetable oil. Again using paper towels held with tongs, coat the entirety of the surface. Continue wiping it down until all visible oil has soaked in, then let it cool. To fully season the pan, repeat this process up to five times for a fresh nonstick surface ready for preparing meals.

To re-season the pan in the oven, preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil underneath the oven rack. Coat the entire pan in oil, then bake it upside down on the rack for one hour. After letting it cool, repeat the oiling and baking process up to five times to fully restore the seasoning.

Tips to Keep Your Cast Iron Pan Clean Longer

how to clean cast iron skillet
Half Baked Harvest

After cleaning and re-seasoning your cast iron pan, it's important to keep up with daily maintenance—the things you should be doing after every use of your trusty cast iron companion. 

Cooking with acidic foods can cause a buildup of greasy spots on the pan's surface, so after preparing meals with acidic ingredients, always clean and re-season it before its next use.

Always wash your cast iron pan by hand without soap, as putting it in the dishwasher can cause it to rust or remove its seasoning. Never air-dry the pan—use a kitchen towel, paper towels, or low heat on the stovetop or in the oven to evaporate excess moisture.

Regularly oiling your pan after cleaning maintains the coat of seasoning that creates a non-stick effect. Store your pan in a dry, warm place with low humidity, and if you have a stack of multiple cast iron pans, place paper towels between them to prevent them from sticking together or grinding against each surface.

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