The Cleaning Lady

Can you save a rusty cast-iron pan?

Dear Cleaning Lady:

My mom gave me her old cast iron frying pan which is really rusty. I’d like to save it if I can – should I throw it out or is there a way to make is usable again?

Thanks,

Sue C.

Dear Sue C.:

Don’t throw it away – you can clean the rust and bring the pan back to life with the following steps:

1. Place pan over low heat and put a few turns of oil in the pan.

2. Sprinkle a handful of kosher salt over the oil (leave the pan on burner for this entire exercise).

3. With a paper towel, scrub the salt into the bottom of the pan, lifting the rust from the pan bottom. Continue scrubbing until all the rust is gone.

4. Rinse pan thoroughly and place back on burner over low heat and dry thoroughly with a paper towel (while pan is on burner). Then drizzle some oil in the bottom of the pan and rub in with a clean paper towel – this will seal the pan.

Then you are done!


27 Responses to “Can you save a rusty cast-iron pan?”

  1. KAHUNA says:

    wish I would have known this 12 years ago- a friend of mine from North Carolina was renting a room from me up here in NJ and he left his outside by the grill- got rusted up and we tossed it- probably had 10 years of seasoning on it-

    Oh well my Loge’s have been coming along nicely and I swear I really could cook every meal in cast iron

  2. Kimber Caito says:

    My mother always told me NOT to use salt in a cast iron pan, even when cooking (add salt to taste after). Perhaps using the salt will help get off the rust. But afterward, for normal care of cast iron skillets…

    Put a teeny-weeny bit of olive oil, just a drop or three, in the pan and rub inside and out with a paper towel. It should still feel dry but you will see the ‘color’ darken on the pan.

    Put in the oven at 450-degrees for an hour, turn off the oven but leave the pan in to cool gradually. Repeat this process if the pan does not look a uniform color.

    HINT: Use olive oil for all cooking and do NOT use high heat. Cast iron cooks best with medium heat. Let the pan get hot before putting food in it. And when cooking, eggs for example, allow the food to get ready to turn. Do not try to pry up the edges of food until it is ready to turn. The food will ‘let go’ of the pan when it is ready and will slide as easily as if on a no-stick pan.

    I’m of the old school which says, ‘do not wash the skillet each time’. Rather, wipe it out thoroughly with a paper towel and it’s ready for next use.

  3. Karen says:

    I have a dutch oven that is cast iron and it is rusty and also has that “OLD GEASEY” look._will this help that also?the problem is that it is on the outside also.

  4. Thanks for the info on how to clean up my Mother and Grandmothers’ cast-iron pans. Is it only safe to use these pans on gas stoves or electric stove with burners? I have a glass top stove and am afraid to try them without some input. Thanks!

  5. stacie says:

    I love cast iron from anywhere and have revived some of the worst cases, including some that have rusted so bad the rust has created “creaters” or indentions, (none of which affect the cooking ability). My favorite trick for cleaning anything cast iron is a wood burning fire – in a fireplace, a bonfire, or campfire. Be very careful because it is a very HOT procedure but it works. The heat will burn most of the rust off. Just stick the castiron into the fire and let it burn. Use a fire poker or such, to remove it from the fire to check it. (I also use heavy leather gloves.) You will notice the rust starting to come off. As you remove it from time to time to check it, let it cool enough to handle and use a steel brush and steel wool to help it along. Repeat this process until all or most of the rust is gone. Some times I save up several castiron pieces and do them in the same fire, (like when we are camping out or cleaning up after a storm and have a fire going to burn downed tree limbs). The transformation is amazing. When all or most of the rust is gone, start with the oil. I have a silicone basting brush I like to use to apply the oil with because it can withstand the heat. Wipe oil (I use veg. oil or crisco) over the entire piece and stick in the fire again repeat this process until it gets as “seasoned” as you like it. This may sound like a lot of work but I enjoy it. The end result is worth it! I still cook with some pots that are easily 80 to 100 years old. They belonged to our grandmothers. No one else wanted them because they were in such bad shape, but I knew they could be saved. My Grandma Bee had taught me how… God rest her soul. Never toss cast iron, I have yet to find a piece that could not be restored.

  6. stacie says:

    The fire method with help the Old Greasy look also. However if you use your castiron every day they are going to develope what I like to refer to as character, they are not always going to look fresh and new.

  7. Luce says:

    I’ve been cooking with cast iron for many years, most of which were bought at yard sale’s and flea markets. Some were in pretty bad shape (extremely rusted) when I bought them and the best way I learned to clean them was on an open fire; if that wasn’t possible I was told to put the cast iron in your oven and use the’s oven’s self-cleaning method (of course you should make sure windows are open and house is well ventilated because it will smoke up the whole house). I’ve always been under the impression that cooking oil should NOT be used on cast iron so I never use the stuff. I use a tiny amount of lard/shortening/or bacon drippings. Works like a charm, all my cast iron is “non-stick”, I fry/bake and saute in each piece. My 2 quart saucepan makes some interesting looking cakes.

  8. stacie says:

    EXCEPTION – do not put enamel coated cast iron into a fire…

  9. Luce says:

    Good point Stacie. Enamel coated cast iron should never be put on an open fire.

    Enameled cast iron and traditional cast iron are not the same. Enameled has all the benefits of traditional, but doesn’t require as much maintenance.

    The cast iron I own is mostly Griswold or Lodge and some that is not “marked”.

  10. Beatrice says:

    Thanks a LOT! I’ve never been sure how to clean cast iron. I found a skillet that’s about 24 in. at a yard sale that is very rusty and pitted. Now all I need is the confidence to try Dutch Oven baking when camping.

  11. Karen says:

    A friend of mine told me to oven cleaner,spray it all over the dutch oven-inside and out- let set and use a steelwool pad but I’m not sure whether to try this or not.I do want to be able to use it again and NOT ruin it.I don’t have a self cleaning oven and no place to start a fire to burn it off though.

    Karen

  12. susan says:

    Hi, I JUST CLEANED ALL MY RUSTED SKILLETS AND I USED OIL AND THEY STAYED OVER HIGH HEAT, WHICH MY HUSBAND HAS A GRILL FOR THAT, AND AFTER 2 DAYS ON HIGH HEAT, I HAVE PERFECT SKILLETS AND I, AFTER EVERY USE, I WASH, OIL AND PUT AWAY IN THE OVEN FOR STORAGE.

  13. Lydia says:

    great advice all around; thx
    i have RR’s pots
    and they’re enamel coated
    cast iron…

  14. Marilyn says:

    I have a cast iron skillet that has build up on the out side of the pan how do you get it off?

  15. Janice says:

    I’d be reluctant to use any cleaner that is not food safe. Scrubbing with salt moistened with water to remove rust sounds like a great idea, be sure to rinse well and dry the pan. To season a pan I put the pan on the stove eye for a few minutes and let the heat speed drying time. When cooled, coat the pan inside and out with a very thin film of shortening or better yet, peanut oil. Pan should only be shiny. Place the pan upside down on the cooking rack of your gas grill and turn it on to medium heat, close the lid and leave it there for about half an hour. Turn off the grill and allow the pan to cool inside the grill, at least two hours. This keeps all the burning odor outside. Repeat a second time. Then each time you use the pan cook on medium heat, never on higher heat, it isn’t necessary. Always wipe out the pan with a paper towel immediately after using it. If there is crunchy stuff in the pan, put a few cups of water in the pan while it is still hot. Scrape it with a plastic spatula, never metal, to loosen pieces, pour out the water and wipe clean with a paper towel. Then using a paper towel, rub a little dab of bacon grease or peanut oil all over the inside surface to prepare it for the next use. You can also make some gravy in the pan after frying meats. Remove all but just a few tablespoons of grease. Stir a couple of spoons of flour into the leftover grease and crumblies. When the flour has absorbed all the flour, pour in two or three cups of milk/water, or water the potatoes were boiled in. Stir until bubbly and thickened, add salt and pepper to taste. After you pour the gravy into a serving bowl, rinse out the iron skillet while it’s still warm, scrubbing with a paper towel or plastic scrubby, don’t use any detergent. Wipe dry, rub a little oil onto the inside surface and your pan will be clean and ready for the next use. Making gravy is the best way to clean your skillet!!

  16. Janice Bambalere says:

    My daughter uses all her cast iron on her glass top range with a few rules. Hot on hot, cold on cold and NEVER slam your pot or skillet down on the glass top. She’s had her glass top range and uses cast iron almost exclusively. By the way, she got most of her’s passes down from her mom who taught her how to use it. I gave her my big pieces when all my kids left home and kept my small pieces for two. I have an illness which should cause me to struggle with anemia. I keep telling the doctors why I don’t have it, but they don’t believe me. :0)

  17. Robin Erwin says:

    My mother always told me to use corn meal to get anything stuck on an iron skillet to loosen. Probably a good alternative to the salt? And never “soak” it in water.. ok to do a soapy rinse tho.. as long as you dry it good and oil it down. And never “wash” your cornbread skillet! LOL

  18. ANITA says:

    SUE; IF YOU HAVE A SELF CLEANING OVEN BUT YOUR SKILLET IN IT AND TURN IT TO CLEAN FOR 2 TO 3 HRS LET COOL DOWN. RINSE WITH WATER AND WIPE DOWN. BUT CRISCO SHORTENING IN PLACE IN A WARM OVEN (NOT OVER 250) AND LET SHORTENING MELT . COOL AND WIPE DOWN GOOD WITH PAPER TOWEL. WHEN YOU ARE CLEANING USE WATER AND WIPE GOOD . DO NOT WASH WITH DETERGENT EVERY TIME ONLY WHEN EXTREMELY DIRTY IRINSE MINE WITH HOT WATER AND WIPE DOWN. I DONE 2 VERY CRUSTED ONES (GREASE BUILD UP)AMD 2 RUSTED ONES 6 MONTHS AGOAND THEY STILL ARE SEASONED WELL AND CLEAN UP BEAUTFULLY. ALSO VERY GOOD IF YOU HAVE ANEMIA.

  19. Tom says:

    Why would you not use metal utensils in cast iron? That is the traditional material used along with wooden spoons.

    To “start over” with cast iron you can burn in a fire, burn in your grill on the highest heat it can muster, or the oven on “clean” setting.

    NEVER add cold water to a hot cast iron pan unless you like to crack them!

    You can use steel wool, wire brushes, even sand paper to take rust or something nasty off of it. The salt method does work even dry and normal table salt.

    Frying an egg in your skillet will also take crusties out of the pan. Then I just feed the egg to my dog unless it’s really bad.

    Once the pan is back to new condition I either coat with vegetable oil or better yet fry some sausage in it. That pan will take in what ever grease it needs from the sausage!

    I keep mine in the oven upside down and don’t take it out when baking.

  20. Linda says:

    Finding my mothers 50 plus year old rusty cast iron skillet was bittersweet happy that I found it but sad that she was no longer here to help me clean and season it .Then I found this method using Kosher salt and fresh lemons .I used about 6 lemons with the kosher salt just keep rubbing with lemons and salt until all rust is gone ,worked like a charm ,I seasoned it with vegetable oil in the oven 350 degrees for about 1 hour turning off oven and letting pan remain to cool .Beautiful results.

  21. Carole says:

    It is better to wipe using mineral oil than some other type of shortening. Mineral oil does not get “rusty” and old smelling. We have used this for several years and have never had a problem.

  22. Paula says:

    I enjoy my cast iron. I have so many pieces, and they never let me down. I suggest everyone own at least 1. First choice, a 12-16 ” frying pan. I clean and oil right away. Season once a year.

  23. Debbie says:

    Here is another question for you! I have my grandmother’s cast iron, LOVE it! (1) How do you clean it after use? I have always been told that if something burns on the cast iron to put on stove top burner with hot soapy water and boil.
    (2) Now another thing I have not “seasoned” my pans with oil in a long time, is that bad?

  24. Melissa B. says:

    Someone commented that they were afraid to use a cast iron skillet on a glass or “flat” cooktop. The manufacturer will tell you not to, but I use mine all the time. You just have to be careful to not slide it across the surface, only pick it up and put it where you want it.

  25. babe says:

    I grew up with cast iron pans. My parents gave me a set for my high school graduation, 1973, still use them. Back then we would use goose fat to season them, then into a LOW, (250 oven) for 3 hrs. works great. Since I don’t have access to goose fat I use lard. I season a couple times a year.

  26. Zuzannah says:

    Thanks so much! Perfect timing I just aquired 4 different sizes of very very old cast iron skillets. It’ll be interesting to see which one or combination thereof will work the best!!!

  27. Karen says:

    I also collect cast iron cookware. I have a 24″ skillet which belonged to my great, great grandmother. She had eleven children and used this pan daily. My mother gave it to me in 1975, and I still use it. I clean it with hot water and salt, then I wipe it down with oil. I also have a bread stick pan, my father found in a burned out log home in Kentucky in 1921. It makes the best corn bread ever.

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