How to Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Pan

Read this before you toss your crusty old cast iron.

Got a cast iron pan that's crusted with rust? Don't toss it! Underneath the rust is an almost indestructible pan that will give you a lifetime of cooking pleasure. So, whether it's a thrift shop find or a hand-me-down, here's how to clean cast iron pan rust and bring it back to beautiful life — just like new again. But first: How do you know when cast iron is beyond repair?

How to Know When Cast Iron Is Beyond Repair

We've already established that cast iron can handle a lot. Fortunately, rust is just surface damage, meaning it is reversible with some scrubbing. Light pitting on the surface is okay as well. However, any deep pitting or cracks in your cast iron mean that your cast iron is beyond repair. Unless you're a blacksmith, there's no fix for damage deep below the surface.

How to Clean a Rusty Cast Iron Pan

Neglected Cast Iron Pan
Neglected Cast Iron Pan | Photo by Noel Christmas.

While cast iron pans can get a little scroungy looking, cleaning a rusty cast iron pan is simple; in fact, cast iron frying pans are dead simple to bring back to life. With just a little cast iron skillet care, they'll be back to the fantastic kitchen tools they're touted to be.

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.

Here's What You'll Need:

  • Equal parts water and white vinegar
  • A scouring pad, abrasive sponge, or fine steel wool
  • Dish soap (Yes, you can use soap!)
  • Clean dish towels or paper towels

Instructions:

You can skip this step if all you have is a little surface rust. But for cast iron with a thick layer of rust, you'll need to remove the seasoning entirely.

  1. To do so, submerge your entire pan in a mixture of equal parts white vinegar and water. Allow the pan to soak, checking on it frequently to see if the rust has been removed (this could take up to eight hours).

    It is crucial that you remove your pan as soon as the rust is gone, or else the vinegar could cause irreversible pitting. The vinegar will strip your pan of its seasoning, but that's okay! That's what it's supposed to do. But this makes the reasoning step after the cleaning all the more important.

  2. Now go ahead, scrub-a-dub-dub with mild dish soap and warm water. Scour away all that rust. Your pan can handle it.
It's okay to use soap on cast iron
It's okay to use soap! | Photo by Noel Christmas.
  1. Once your pan is all clean, immediately dry it with a clean dishtowel or paper towels to prevent any future rusting. You can even place the pan on the stove over low heat to help all the moisture evaporate.

How to Care For Your Clean Cast Iron Pan

Now that you've brought your cast iron pan back to life, let's keep it alive! For tips on regular day-to-day care, check out this step-by-step guide for how to clean and season a cast iron pan, which includes washing and caring for your re-claimed cast-iron pan.

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