Rescuing Cast Iron





Introduction: Rescuing Cast Iron

Cast iron is an amazing cooking surface. Heavy and thick, it acts as an amazing heat reservoir and is excellent for searing steaks and other fine meats at your disposal. 

Many a time, an unskilled, forgetful, or uninformed aspiring chef will let the pan soak, leave it in a moist place, or even accidentally run it through the dishwasher. Lo! Ruin and shame! Avert thine eyes!

But no longer!

Bring out the maimed and sad pans from deep within your cabinets! Cast (iron) away your shame! 
We can fix this. It'll take some elbow grease, and time. But you'll be back on the cast iron horse in no time.

(This particular pan met its rusty fate when a wet mixing bowl was left on top of it and ignored for a week or so. View my shame, and learn from my mistake!)

Step 1: What You'll Need

You'll need a solution to loosen the dirt/debris, something to buff away the portions where rust has eaten away at the metal, and something to restore the cast iron seasoning. 
  • Vinegar
  • Lard or Shortening 
  • Scouring pad
  • Cast iron pan in need of restoration
  • Elbow grease (Now with 100% more elbow!)

Step 2: Soak

If you have a self cleaning oven, and a pan with some serious gunk or buildup, run your pan through the self clean cycle. Any debris will be annihilated, and you can continue on with the following steps to restore your pan to its former glory.

Depending on the extent of rust damage to your pan, you'll want to soak just the inside, or the whole pan in a vinegar solution. Anything from an hour to about six hours or so will work wonders to release any caked on muck and loosen the surface rust/damage. Leaving your pan in an acid soak for longer may start to eat away at your pan, so be careful. I used 50/50 vinegar to water, but I've seen solutions that go with a lower vinegar solution and a longer soak- I don't mind the smell, personally, so I went with the 50/50 solution.

Step 3: Scrub

Let your pan dry before getting to this bit, or you can try scrubbing in the solution as well to pick up any debris. The main idea to this step is to get rid of ALL the rust that has eaten away at your pan. Scrub like mad, until you can't make out the region of damage on your pan. I used a copper scrubber, but depending on the severity of damage, you can use anything from rock salt for spot touches to a drill mounted metal scour for those heavy duty jobs. Try to be as thorough as possible- you've already lost the seasoning in those patches, so scrub to your heart's content. 

Step 4: Grease

Time to fatten your baby up.

Get a nice thick and even coating of your fat of choice all over your pan. Since my pan only had damage on the inside, I didn't coat the bottom of my pan, but if it's necessary for your job, do one surface (inner/ outer) at a time. Pay attention to the smoking point of lard or the shortening you're using! Lard can stomach from 370ºF to 400ºF, while many vegetable based shortenings will only tolerate a lower range, say 350ºF to 370ºF. Use a higher smoking point fat if you can. 

Step 5: Bake

Pre-heat your oven until about 275ºF, and place your pan in. Use a baking sheet to catch any drippings- you may find that flipping your pan upside down and putting the cast iron directly on your oven rack (dripping pan underneath) will work better, depending on the extent of lard-ification you sent your pan through. After letting your pan warm up for 10-15 minutes or so, crank up the heat up to near the smoking point of your fat. This gradual heating allows for the iron to slowly expand, preventing any cracks or fractures. Let your pan bake at full temperature for 45 minutes, and let cool. 

Step 6: Repeat?

Depending on the appearance of your pan after this baking cycle, you may want to repeat the scrubbing process once again. Repeat the greasing and baking as needed. Ideally you'd repeat the re-seasoning step at least 4 times to let the seasoning take hold, but if you're feeling good about its appearance, it should be ready to go after one cycle. If food proceeds to stick to the bottom during use, you'll definitely know that the seasoning layer did not properly form and you'll have to repeat this process. 

Restoring cast iron is a pain, but maintaining it is quite simple- remember to scrape any food debris away, dry, and coat with a layer of fat while still warm. Stay away from detergents, metal scrubbers, long soaks, and dishwashers and you'll have a great, heavy duty pan for all of your frying needs. Have fun!



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    88 Discussions

    OK so once you grease it? Where do you store it??? I mean, it have grease on it, Its a bug party environment...

    2 replies

    You need to wipe all the grease off. I've been using cast iron cookware for almost 60 years and have never noticed bugs being the least bit interested.

    I usually just keep mine on the stove-top ready to use. Also instead of using lard as a final coat I usually just do a light coating of vegetable oil and I haven't had any bug problems as of yet. Even if you do...protein! Yum!

    Okay everyone, I have a couple of questions for you. I've read a few 'how to season' etc, cast iron cookware. I have 6"&10" skillets (not even sure where I got them). I took them out and they were seasoned but I did a little more just to be sure. What's the point of all the work and energy used(electric oven) to season and maintain them. I have non-stick coated cookware I've used for years that work just fine. And I'm not interested in health issues with them at the moment. My mom cooked with Teflon cookware since it first came out and at 89 when she passed, it didn't cause her health problem. The sizes of my cast iron skillets are not very good for most of the daily cooking I do. But I did fry sausage patties in the 10" and you know the darkish grease that seem to follow cooking them, I wiped and wiped but still I get that dark grease on my paper towels. Not sure if I would want to use it for anything else. Also, I used the 6" to melt butter(very handy might I add) but even after wiping the pan out, what's to keep from the excess butter from seeping out and going rancid? I won't be using these every day and I wonder if the grease/butter/lard will go rancid and make us sick eventually. Sorry this is so long, no other way to explain. Thanks!

    2 replies

    I don't know what the big deal is about detergents on cast iron. I grew up using cast iron and we always just plopped it into the dishwater and washed it. (Drying it afterwards is a good idea, as is recoating it with your seasoning fat, but if you've been frying in it for years and treating it well, you can get away with a lot.) If it's well seasoned, it's not a problem. I, too, don't like the idea of one dish continuing on to the next.

    If you have a pan that is seasoned, DON'T put it in the oven cleaning cycle or into a fire to clean, as it will take ALL the seasoning out and you'll be starting back as if you just bought a new pan. Put up with the crust on the outside and think of all the lovely meals that pan has given you.

    One other suggestion: season with bacon grease. It's mostly just lard with salt, and perhaps a preservative, depending upon what bacon you buy. In either case, it never seems to go rancid on your pan. Vegetable oils, on the other hand, seem to leave a gooey residue and go rancid quickly. Some oils may be better than others (I haven't made a study); if I was guessing, I would try coconut or palm oil. If you're not a vegetarian, definitely go with the lard or bacon grease.

    OMG! the oven cleaner worked a miracle on my old Gris - had lots of built up junk on the outside of the pan! thanks a mil!

    Help!!! I put my cast iron dutch oven in and ran through my clean oven cycle. It removed my rust but I still had burnt on grease on the outside so I put it in again on the clean cycle. Yikes! it came out with rust all over the pan. What do I do now?

    1 reply

    Pour a small pile of course sea salt into it, then pour a decent amount of vegetable oil over the salt. Now use a DRY dish rag to rub the salt into the cast iron. It will remove the rust at the same time that it coats it with oil, prevent additional rust from forming. If you've ever had a completely unseasoned cast iron pan, you probably know how amazingly fast rust will form on it - - right before your eyes, and with so much as merely humid air as the catalyst.

    This is such an interesting article. I would love to try this on my old rusty pan!! I was frustrated on how to get rid of the rust that I was thinking to put it inside a self cleaning oven and see the result?? Lol... Judging by this article I read about ( I think i can put my pan there???

    Hello all,

    Please take this advice from someone who cares about your cooking and your pans that you treasure. Pans CAN be warped, cracked or otherwise rendered unusable by subjecting them to high heat!! The best way to clean and remove the gunk from cast iron (CI) is to use a method called 'electrolysis', which takes a battery, a bath for the pan and some scrap iron (see the Wagner and Griswold Society pages for this).

    The second-best way which I use is to use plain old Lye-based spray on oven cleaner, wrap your pans in plastic and store them for a time (in a plastic tub with a lid) where kids and pets cannot get to the lye, then wash them out (yes, with SOAP) and season them. I get the cleanest, most beautiful finish from the lye cleaning method.

    Your pans are worth it, be gentle. No more putting pans in the fire. Look up the Wagner and Griswold Society. If you have a true antique pan and you ruin it, can you go to the manufacture and get a 'new' one? NO. They are literally irreplaceable. Treat them that way.

    from one who cares,

    Titano B.

    2 replies

    electrolysis is great if you do it a lot, not really worth building for one pan.

    Lye doesn't remove rust either, FYI.

    Vinegar is great for rust.

    I just wanted to mention that my brother recently gave me some beautiful old iron skillets and had I not read your comment about how to clean them, I might have resorted to polishing them with a drill or something. Thanks so much for sharing your opinion.I wonder if vinegar would be OK. Have a wonderful day~


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    I tried this method out last night, and one of the more gunked-up pans I was working on burst into flame inside of the oven. We had to call the fire department and have the oven moved outside to cool down.

    Admittedly, once we were able to reopen the oven, the pans had been cleaned as promised, but the risk of fire is VERY HIGH.

    Alternative recommendations: 1) burning off debris inside of an outdoor grill on high, or 2) burning off debris using an open, outdoor fire.

    Also, on a side note, I recommend using flax oil for seasoning. It leaves a nice, shiny, durable finish, and is easier to apply onto the pan without winding up with excess oil.

    2 replies

    You do know, that an ovens self cleaning cycle essentially burns everything out? And that in a gas oven, large flames are common? Unless smoke escapes your stove I'm sure its fine. It is made for heat after all.


    I always have. My mom says it can discolor but I never have noticed it in mine. I sometimes put my iron skillets or corn bread stick cast iron pans in the oven on the shelves. I have 25 years of doing this if it helps put your mind at ease.

    can you leave the racks in the oven when you are cleaning a skillet with the self cleaning oven