How To Clean A Rusty Cast Iron Skillet

Rusty Cast Iron

As far as I’m concerned, cast iron cookware is a must-have for off-grid survival. It’s strong, durable, made to go directly over a fire and in the coals, and will last for generations when properly cared for.

New cast iron can be a little pricey, but you can often find old pans for very little money (or even free!) at yard sales or flea markets. We actually salvaged several rusty old skillets from my husband’s grandfather’s house. They looked rough, but since they weren’t rusted through I knew that with a little elbow grease I’d be able to restore them. So read on to find out how to clean a rusty cast iron skillet and bring it back to life!

Restoring Rusty Cast Iron

The first thing you want to do when restoring rusty cast iron cookware is to scrub it out really well with a strong brush or steel wool pad. You can also use a wire pad on the end of a cordless drill to sand off the rust. You want to remove as much dirt and rust as possible.

Rusty Cast Iron

If your pans are really rusty, you can soak them in a solution of half water, half white vinegar to help remove the corrosion. Soak them for an hour and then see if the rust is easily removed. If it’s still bad, continue soaking for up to 4 hours, checking after every hour to prevent over-soaking. The longer the cast iron sits in the solution, the more it wears away at the metal, so less is best. Wipe them dry with a rag.

Once you’ve removed as much of the rust as possible, you’ll need to bake off whatever remains. You can do this by putting the pans directly into a campfire, or by placing them in the oven. I prefer the oven method, because it’s quick and easy, and it works.

Rusty Cast Iron

As an added bonus, you’ll be cleaning your oven as well. Which, as you can see, I was in desperate need of doing anyways. Grease fire. Need I say more.

Move the racks in your oven to the very bottom rows. Place your cast iron upside down on the top rack, and set your oven to self-clean. This cycle on my oven goes for 4 hours. Once the self-clean cycle has finished, allow your pans to remain in the oven until cool.

Tip: Do not line the bottom of your oven with foil, as it can melt during the self-clean cycle.

Restoring Rusty Cast Iron

Before baking, this skillet had an extremely thick layer of black crusted film all around the outside. The self-cleaning process completely disintegrated the gunk, turning it into an ashy layer of dust. Now we’re down to bare bones metal. It still looks bad, but hang with me.

Restore Rusty Cast Iron Cookware

Next you’ll want to scrub it again really well, making sure to get the inside crevices thoroughly cleaned, as well as all around the outside. Then dry it well with a towel.

Restoring Cast Iron

Now that your pan is scrubbed clean, it’s time to season it. You’ll want to grease the pan, inside and out, with vegetable oil, shortening, or some kind of fat. Wipe the excess grease off with a paper towel. You’ll be baking it again, and you don’t want oil dripping off the pan into the bottom of the oven, creating a fire hazard.

Restoring Rusty Cast Iron

Line the bottom rack with a sheet of foil to catch any oil drippings. Place your greased pans upside down on the upper rack, either in the middle or bottom of the oven. Set the oven to 350*, and bake for 1 hour. Allow to mostly cool in the oven before removing.

Restoring Cast Iron Cookware

Before the pans cool completely, you’ll want to spread another layer of oil or fat all around them to finish the cure.  Be sure to grease the inside and out, bottom and all.

And that’s it! Isn’t that amazing?! Completely restored and ready to prepare your next meal. The more you use it, the more seasoned it will become. Never use soap when washing your cast iron, or you’ll lose the non-stick seasoning you’ve worked so hard to build up. I scrub my cast iron with a good brush and rinse in hot water after each use. Always lightly oil your pans before and after each use as well, to keep them in top condition.

If you can’t find any old and rusty pans you can always pick them up new here:Cast Iron Cookware From Amazon

There are many different ways to restore rusty cast iron cookware. This is my favorite way, what’s yours?

About Kendra Lynne

I'm a homeschooling, homesteading mama of four, doing everything I can to help my family live more self-sufficiently on our one country acre here in the Bible Belt South. Although my husband and I grew up as city kids, in 2008 we started feeling the urge to begin pulling ourselves out of the "system" and learning how to provide for our most basic needs. Boy, were we in for a learning curve!! It's been a journey, but we've come a long way. I've been sharing about it all on my website, New Life on a Homestead, and am excited to bring the preparedness aspect of this lifestyle to all of you here as well! Be sure to check out my *NEW* Canning DVD: At Home Canning For Beginners and Beyond

View all posts by Kendra Lynne

30 comments on “How To Clean A Rusty Cast Iron Skillet

  1. Great advice, I’ve been doing this for years. Problem: this summer we visited our daughter for 5 weeks. We bought her brand new un-seasoned cast iron pans. I seasoned them for her using canola oil (I figured it’s probably GMO so instead of wasting it by tossing it out – use it up w/o ingesting it). The pans came out very sticky and thickly coated as if encased in plastic. Has anyone had this problem? This was the 1st time this has ever happened to me.

    • I’ve inherited a few skillets that had a thick, sticky layer like you’ve described. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I’m betting my uncle did the same thing you did to it. Personally, I’ve never seasoned with canola oil before. I think I baked mine off (last step of the above process) and it fixed the problem. :)

    • gerald blizzard on said:

      you have to use either lard or crisco to season the pans…canola or olive oil wont work sorry…use very thin layers when you start the seasoning or you will get discoloration…

    • To truly make a pan Non-Stick you need to use a Drying Oil. Anything above an Iodine level of 130 or higher. Flaxseed Oil is the best, Its in the supplements area of your health food store. Grapeseed oil is my next favorite. I do basically the same as Kendra. I preheat a 200 for 30min then wipe the oil on. Cook at 500 for an hour and let it cool in the oven for 2 hours after. Do this 6 times and you have a great surface. I also sand my cooking surfaces smooth with a orbital sander. I also use electrolysis to remove the rust and other junk. I actually just resurfaced a pan yesterday. I cooked an egg over easy this morning without any oil or butter.

  2. Gina Pocan on said:

    I don’t have a self cleaning oven, I live in an apartment, so using a grill isn’t an option. What would be the appropriate temp to use which would be equivalent to self cleaning, 500 degrees? Thats right before broiling.

  3. Lavonne on said:

    I prefer the old ones to the new ones. New ones are not milled on the inside (meaning the surface is milled smooth) A smooth surface gives you better heat transfer, better color on the food, takes less time to season, and more. The new ones have a rough surface. Try cooking in both and you’ll see what I mean. I’m always on the lookout for an old rusty pan that I can restore!

  4. Never, never use a liquid oil on an iron pan. Only animal fat will do. Otherwise you get the sticky results mentioned here.

  5. Great advice! But what do you do if you don’t have a self-cleaning oven?

  6. I enjoy my cast iron skillets, it’s my skillet of choice and has been for many years. I think peanut oil is the best oil for seasoning in the oven. The peanut oil tolerates hi-heat temps better than most.

  7. LynnRae on said:

    My mother always used Crisco Shortening on her pans and I still do, works the best, and always dry the pans on the stove so they won’t rust.

  8. I have a gas stove and it is manual cleaning. What do I do in this case?

  9. Evelyn on said:

    Hi I love cast iron. I restored some this summer. I used my BBQ grill and it worked perfect. After I brushed off all the dust I put them in a vinegar/water soak for about 30 minutes and then seasoned in the oven.The first 2 skillets I done. I done them wrong, when I put them in to the oven to season them I didn’t turn them upside down. I turned them upright and the seasoning Crisco kinda pooled inside and made ridges. I had to redo them again on the grill to get that off. When I fry/use something in my cast iron and am finished with it. I clean it out with hot water and dry it off then set it on a burner and heat it up to dry it thru and take a paper towel dipped in Crisco and wipe around inside and let it cool. When it is completely cool I wipe it again with a clean paper towel and hang with the rest of my cast iron.

  10. Julie Miklas on said:

    I’m sorry, but I would never attempt to season a cast iron pan that still has rust on it. The rust needs to be completely removed prior to seasoning. Having used cast iron for years and years, and taught classes on cast iron and Dutch oven cooking, it is also my opinion that 350 is not a hot enough oven, and one hour is not long enough. The oven should be at least 425 for at least two to three hours. If you have a brand new cast iron pan with no seasoning, this process should be completed at least three times prior to using the pan. In addition, I would NEVER use any animal fat oils or shortening on my cast iron. They will cause your pan to go rancid. You are much better off using a plant based oil, such as a HIGH QUALITY olive oil. You don’t want to go cheap here, if you want a decent seasoning on your pan.

    To remove a small amount of rust, use a dry SOS pad and the rust will easily come off. For more stubborn rust, soak the item in COKE. Yes, the soda. Just as Coke eats away the acid on a battery, it will eat away at the rust on your cast iron. Once ALL the rust is removed, THEN, you can season it.

  11. I have made the same mistake by putting mine in bottom side down. One problem i have had is after seasoning them i continue to get this black residue in the pans. What is this and what can i do to prevent this. Maybe i am doing something wrong. I do use Crisco or some sort of shortening. My mama always used lard on hers, but back then that is what people used most. There probably was not any Crisco back then. If anyone know why i am getting this black residue please let me know. Sincerely, Wanda

    • gerald blizzard on said:

      wanda it sounds as if your putting too thick a coat of crisco on …use a thinner layer…nevertheless the seasoning coat will be black..thats the color of a well seasoned pan..but it should be smooth and slick…

  12. Kendra, I applaud your endeavor however some of your info is misleading. I’ve been collecting and restoring cast iron for over 50 years and am also a member of several cast iron collecting groups and cooking groups. Among collectors and users there are some fundamental rules concerning restoring, cleaning and seasoning. When using heat to burn off residue you must always use a controllable heat source such as an oven or furnace, never use a fire pit or bon fire to burn off residue or crud as you can not control the heat and that can lead to warping or cracking of your pan. Second no no is to sandblast cast iron as that will damage the patina of the pan and it will not season correctly. Yes, there are those who claim that’s the way the always do it and never had a problem, but, the day will come when they ruin an heirloom to their dismay. The accepted way to clean cast iron is thus: for rusty pieces a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water and scrub till your fingers fall off. For built up crud use a lye bath and soak for 5 to 7 days. Or, to remove rust and crud use an electrolysis tank set up. Electrolysis and Lye bath are both easy to set up and are the approved methods to restore cast iron. You can find the DIY methods by searching on the net. As for which oil or fat to use that is a personal choice, all are good and all will work. The important point to remember is that you have to use high enough heat to polymerize the oil/fat to get that hard carbon surface we call seasoning. Each oil/fat has its own smoking point and you have to exceed that temperature for it to polymerize. I’ve tried many oils/fat and the one I personally now use is PAM, mainly because of the results but also because of the ease of use. I use my gas BBQ, place my bare raw CI in the BBQ at 300 degrees for 20 minutes then take it out and oil it, wipe it down until I have removed “all” the oil leaving just a very thin film, then place it back in the BBQ upside down and turn the heat up to 500 degrees and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour and fifteen minutes. Then turn off the BBQ and leave the CI inside of the BBQ to cool until I can pick it up just using a thin pot holder and then spray it again with PAM and wipe and my pans are ready to use. The more it’s used the better it gets. This is how I now clean and season and it works for me. What oil/fat you use however needs to be done in a similar way, high heat for an hour or more, to get a good hard seasoning that will not flake or chip off. It is also a must to remove all old seasoning when cleaning and especially “any” rust – do not ever season over rust. For more reading and info I recommend the “Wagner and Griswold Society,” the “Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association,” both on the internet, and the “Cast Iron Cooking Group” on facebook. All these groups have a lot of info on cleaning and seasoning – the correct way.

  13. roberta on said:

    my son put my cast iron skillet in the dishwasher, this was his first time using the dish washer and didn’t know that you shouldn’t put cast iron in there.So does that mean that my skillet is ruined? I don’t know if I can use it or not. Would it be safe to use?

    • No – it’s not ruined. Cast iron is resilient stuff. I’d simply wash it well with regular dish soap and water, dry it out, then cover it in grease and season it like Kendra suggests. We’ve done it with really rough cast iron many times.

  14. Hmm….aren’t those pans a little too rusty to be seasoning?

  15. I am using cast iron since many years now and I love them. I restored my skillet this summer. After I brushed off all the dust I put them in a vinegar/water soak for about 30 minutes and then seasoned in the oven.

  16. petsrule on said:

    I have some of my Grandma’s pans. I also have a glass cooktop, that if anything is on the bottom of a pan, it will leave a brown Mark. I spend lots of time cleaning it, but I just love it.

    My question is, will these old pans leave my cooktop a mess?

    • petsrule,

      When you season your cast iron, it should be done inside and out. If you keep the outside of the pan rust free and oiled every now and then, it shouldn’t leave marks on your stovetop. I haven’t had any trouble with mine on my glass cooktop.

  17. Eric Thomas on said:

    will this method work the same for renewing my iron grill grates?

  18. This is a nice idea people, but judging from the photos, not good enough from a health standpoint. Even with the seasoned pans in the last photo, it’s apparent that the rust still exists beneath the oil layer. These pans need to be ground down to bare metal again. If not, all that rust leaches into your food and is very dangerous.

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