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Bringing Cast Iron Pans Back To Life

Got a cast iron pan that's crusted with rust? Don't toss it! Underneath the rust is an almost indestructible pan that'll give you a lifetime of cooking pleasure. So, whether it's a thrift shop find or a hand-me-down, here's how to bust the rust and make that cast iron pan like new again.

 

Stack of Old Cast Iron Pans

Stack of Old Cast Iron Pans | Photo by Meredith

How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

It happens. You wound up with Grandma’s amazing cast iron pan (which everyone raves about), but after a few uses, you put it away. And now it’s...it’s...not so great. It might even look like this:

 

Neglected Cast Iron Pan

Neglected Cast Iron Pan | Photo by Noel Christmas

Yes, that’s my pan. It was once my Mom’s. She would not be pleased with what I’ve let happen. Especially that little bit of burnt cheese that's been there for a long, long time.

The good news? While cast iron pans can get a little scrungy looking, they are dead simple to bring back to life. With just a little cast iron skillet care, they'll be back to the amazing kitchen tools they’re touted to be.

How to Remove Rust from Cast Iron

You may have heard that cleaning cast iron is difficult, because of water and rust and how soap isn’t good for it. Those both could be concerns, but they’re easily dealt with.

This pan has both rust and baked on food residue (Sorry, Mom!). So it’s going to take a little doing. Break out the scrubbie-sponge and some soap. You can also use fine steel wool to remove rust or very stubborn burnt on food.

Yes, you can use soap! It’s the 21st century, people. If your pan can’t handle a little soap every once in awhile, it's time to get a new pan.

 

It's okay to use soap on cast iron

It's okay to use soap! | Photo by Noel Christmas

How to Clean Burnt-On Food from Cast Iron

Besides soap and steel wool, you can also use some really hot water and a spatula to take off seriously cooked-on food. It’s how cooks clean flat-top grills in a restaurant, so it’ll work for you, too.

 

For really baked-on residue, scrape

For really baked-on residue, scrape with boiling water | Photo by Noel Christmas

How to Dry a Cast Iron Pan

It’s cleaned and rinsed, now make sure the rust doesn't come back. It’s easy: just turn the burner to high, set the pan on it, and wait for the water to boil out. That cast iron is practically parched now.

 

Dry the pan on the stove

Dry the pan on the stove to make sure all the water is gone | Photo by Noel Christmas

How to Season or Reseason a Cast Iron Skillet

Now, it’s clean and dry, but you want it seasoned. “Seasoning” is, basically, oil bonding to the iron (there’s more to it than that, but once the scientists say “long-chain polymers” I start looking out the window and just want some lunch). So, in lieu of a class on metallurgy, just follow these 2 easy steps:

1. Heat your clean cast iron pan on the stove until it's crazy hot.

2. Pour a little canola oil or flaxseed oil on a wad of paper towel and rub it all over the pan. Do not touch that hot pan with your unprotected hand. Then wipe the surface with a clean paper towel to remove excess oil. You do NOT want a thick slick of oil on your pan, otherwise you'll end up with a sticky, gummy mess. Let the pan cool.

 

Wiping Oil on a Clean Cast Iron Pan

Wiping Oil on a Clean Cast Iron Pan | Photo by Meredith

And that's how to season a cast iron pan! NOTE: If you've totally stripped down your pan with steel wool and you're seasoning from scratch, you'll want to repeat these steps a half dozen times until the pan looks shiny and smooth. But don't be tempted to slather on the oil to speed up the process; you'll just end up with a gummy pan. If you're doing routine maintenance on your pan, one round of seasoning should do it.

 

 Stack of Seasoned Cast Iron Pans

 Stack of Seasoned Cast Iron Pans | Photo by Meredith


Taking Care of Your Cast Iron Pan

If your pan is really rusty—like you wondered if it could ever be used again rusty—then you may want to repeat the heating/oiling/cooling process 2 or 3 times before you use it.

What you’ll find is that every time you do this—clean it, dry it on the stove, then oil it and cool it—it'll clean easier, become increasingly non-stick, and even get less prone to any rust appearing on it.


Cast Iron FAQ

Why is my cast iron pan sticky and gummy?

Using too much oil when you're seasoning your pan will make your pan sticky. You'll need to wash the pan with soap and hot water to remove the excess oil, then reseason it using just a thin, thin, thin coating of oil.

What kind of oil should I use to season my cast iron pan?

Many fans of cast iron cooking swear by flaxseed oil, as it builds up a smooth, hard finish every time you properly season your pan. But because flaxseed oil can be very expensive and fragile (you have to refrigerate it), canola oil is often the next best choice.

My new pan says it's already seasoned. Do I still have to season it?

It's a good idea to give your pre-seasoned cast iron pan a little more protection before you use it for the first time, and always season it again after you use it.

Can I season my cast iron pan in the oven?

Yes, in fact many people do. This short video shows you how to season your cast iron pan in the oven.

Can I soak my cast iron pan in water to soften up crusted-on food before I wash it?

What? No! What you can do is heat the pan on the stove with water in it and scrape off the bits with a wooden spatula as it comes to a boil. Never soak your cast iron pan. Geez.


Now Start Cooking

Honestly, what are you waiting for? This pan is going to be your go-to for eggs, potatoes, cornbread, or just about anything you want.

Related:

 

About Noel Christmas

Noel would really like that with some extra ranch dressing on it.