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, from making homemade pizzas utterly restaurant-worthy to frying up the best-you’ve-ever-had grilled cheese sandwich to serving as the perfect stovetop to oven roasting pan for a weeknight dinner, not to mention its strength as a baking dish for sweet or savory baked goods.

But owning a cast iron skillet is like owning a somewhat high-maintenance house plant—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.

Here's everything you need to know about cleaning and restoring your cast iron pans.

Your Everyday Cast Iron Cleaning Regimen

chocolate chip cookie skillet
Melanie Makes

Before we jump into the big overhaul of cleaning and re-seasoning a rusty cast iron pan, let’s talk about the daily maintenance—the things you should be doing after every use of your trusty cast iron companion. 

  1. Wash Your Pan: Always wash your cast iron pan by hand. Putting your pan in the dishwasher is one great way to cause it to rust and remove all that hard-earned, extremely helpful seasoning. Don’t be afraid to use a little drop of soap if needed, and feel free to use a sponge or dish brush to help you scrape off any stuck on food. For really tough stuck-on foods, add a bit of water to the pan over medium-high heat and let it simmer for up to 5 minutes before letting it cool down and using a dish brush to scrape off the food at that point.
  2. Dry Your Pan: After washing your pan, don’t just set it on a towel to air dry—dry it promptly and thoroughly with a kitchen towel, or set it over medium-low heat and let it dry completely that way (you can also pop it into a warm oven to dry).
  3. Oil Your Pan: After your cast iron pan is completely dry, use a paper towel to rub a small amount of vegetable oil all over the pan—inside and out. Keep rubbing the oil in until very little to no oil residue remains on the pan. This step helps your pan maintain the coat of seasoning that creates a non-stick effect.
  4. Store Your Pan: Keep your pans in a dry place with, if possible, low humidity and heat.

If you have a small stack of cast iron pans, layer a few pieces of paper towel in between each pan.

How to Clean and Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Pan

how to clean cast iron skillet
Half Baked Harvest

Even if you do everything right, it’s important to know that a bit of rust on a cast iron pan doesn’t render that pan useless forever more. Removing the rust and re-seasoning the pan is totally doable and, as you’ll soon see, not all that difficult. So feel free to scour the antique store or your grandparents’ basement and save that cast iron pan from its rusty coat—here are two techniques to give it a new life.

Option 1: A Vinegar Soak

To get the process of removing rust from your pan a jumpstart, you want to remove both the rust and the seasoning so you can start from scratch. In order to do that, 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.

Option 2: A Salty Scrub

To remove the rust from your pan, you can also scrub it with coarse salt. Generously sprinkle the inside of the pan with salt, then use a halved potato or lemon to thoroughly scrub the salt into the pan. 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 too.

Next Steps

After soaking or salting and scrubbing away the rust, wash your pan with a bit of soap and warm water, using the rough side of a sponge or a dish brush, then dry it completely.

If you use a towel to dry your pan, you may notice some black residue leftover on the fabric, but don’t be alarmed—that’s just the “seasoning” and is totally normal.

Preheat your oven to 450˚F, and lay a sheet of aluminum foil underneath the oven rack. Rub your pan all over—inside and out—with vegetable oil using a paper towel, then place the pan upside down on the oven rack. Bake for about one hour, then turn off the oven, prop it open, and let it cool for at least another hour. The pan should be matte and black, and all re-seasoned, rust-free, and ready for use. You can repeat the oiling and baking process a few more times, as needed, to fully restore the seasoning.

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