We don’t like to play favorites, but our cast iron pan is our number one go-to in the kitchen. Why? It conducts heat like nobody’s business, cooks all of your favorite recipes and basically lasts forever… as long as you take good care of it, that is. But don’t fret if you (or someone you know) did not properly care for a piece of cast iron cookware and your once-gleaming pan is now looking worse for wear. These kitchen workhorses really are built to last—just follow this guide on how to remove rust from cast iron pans and you’ll be golden.
How to Remove Rust from a Cast Iron Pan
The rust you see on your cast iron pan is a drag, but fortunately it’s a superficial problem with an easy fix. The solution involves removing and then restoring the seasoning of the pan—a simple five step process you can complete with only a few basic supplies that you likely already have at home.
What you’ll need:
Step 1: Soak
Before you get started, assess the damage: If the amount of rust on your cast iron pan is minimal you should skip this vinegar soak step entirely. Vinegar is pretty hard on cast iron—if you leave your pan soaking too long in the stuff, you’ll have bigger problems than rust. That said, the pros at Southern Cast Iron tell us that vinegar is remarkably good at breaking up surface rust and minimizing the amount of elbow grease you have to put into the job. If the condition of your pan calls for a vinegar soak, simply fill a sink or a bucket with a solution of equal parts distilled white vinegar and warm water and submerge the pan in it; check on the pan frequently and remove it from the solution as soon as you notice the rust can be easily banished with gentle abrasion. (Note: You definitely don’t want your pan soaking in the stuff for more than a couple of hours.)
Step 2: Scrub
It doesn’t matter if this is step one or step two for you (i.e., your pan just emerged from a vinegar soak)—either way, the cast iron experts at Lodge recommend you grab some dish detergent and steel wool, and start scrubbing your pan in warm soapy water. The amount of damage will determine how hard you have to scrub, but in general just do what it takes to get rid of the rust and then rinse away the soap. (Harsh scrubbing of cast iron is typically frowned upon, but that’s why re-seasoning is the final step in this process.)
Step 3: Dry
We’ll be driving this one home later, but it’s very important to thoroughly dry your cast iron with a dish cloth or lint-free paper towel when you’re done soaping and scrubbing.
Step 4: Season
Congratulations, your cast iron is now rust-free and dry...but it’s still not ready for primetime (or prime rib, as it were). Along with the rust, you removed the seasoning, so now it’s time to correct that. Grease the pan with a thin layer of cooking oil (good old canola works great), but don’t overdo it; the folks at Lodge say you should use just enough to thoroughly coat the pan, but not so much that it drips when you tilt it. Pro tip: Paper towel comes in handy here—saturate a wad of it in the oil and use that to season the pan, as opposed to a free-pour method.
Step 5: Bake
Your cast iron pan is now well on its way to being seasoned and ready for use, but it’s time to seal the deal. Line the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil—this catches dripping grease, so you don’t get smoked out—and preheat to 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the oven is piping hot, place the cast iron pan face down on the center rack and bake for one hour. Turn the heat off and allow the cast iron skillet to cool in the oven in order to allow the seasoning to further cure and adhere to the iron, the pros tell us.
How to Store and Care for Cast Iron
OK, so that wasn’t so bad...but it’s definitely not a process you want to repeat on the regular. Good news: You don’t have to. A little conscientiousness goes a long way when it comes to cast iron. (Read: It won’t rust if you treat it right.) The number one thing to know about keeping cast iron rust-free is that moisture is the enemy...so do not leave that pan hanging out in the sink. Don’t put it in the dishwasher or the drying rack either, for that matter. Seriously, if you don’t feel like washing a heavy dinner dish at the end of a long day (we’ve all been there), the best practical advice we can give you is to simply let it sit on the stove until you’re ready to deal with it.
When you do decide to tackle that dirty cast iron dish, hand wash it with a soft-bristled brush in hot water, without soap. Both dish detergent and super abrasive scrubbing pads do a good job at removing oil, and that’s exactly what you don’t want when it comes to a seasoned piece of cast iron cookware. (Hint: Seasoning = oil.) The last thing you need to know—and we touched on this already—is that even a very well-seasoned cast iron pan will rust if exposed to moisture for a prolonged period of time. The takeaway? To keep a cast iron pan in prime condition, give it a gentle, water-only scrub before promptly and thoroughly drying.
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