How to Fix Your Rusty Cast Iron

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After Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters receded, my cast-iron cookware was covered in rust. Is it a total loss?

—Amy F., Texas

THE SOLUTION:

A little surface rust on a cast-iron skillet can often be remedied with steel wool and some elbow grease. But for removing serious rust, Jeff Rogers offers these tips:

What you’ll need:

A large disposable aluminum pan

1 gallon or more distilled white vinegar

Rubber gloves

A stiff-bristled brush

1. Soak each piece of rusty cast iron in a solution of one part vinegar and one part water.

2. Using the brush, test each piece after 30 minutes to an hour to see if the rust is coming off. Let the skillet soak a little longer if needed, but don’t get taken in by the idea that if one hour is good, ten hours is ten times better. “With vinegar, you don’t want to go longer than necessary,” Jeff says. “After it gets done eating the rust, it will start eating the iron.”

3. Once you have scrubbed the skillet clean of rust, rinse it thoroughly with water.

4. Dry skillet completely, and reseason.

Use a disposable aluminum pan for soaking and cleaning your cast iron to protect your sink.

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. I have some old dutch oven types that are very covered in rust as they were found out in NM desert area. I was told to put them in an oven that is cleaning itself. That the high heat in the oven would make the rust fall off. True or false?

    • Hi James, thanks for reaching out with this question. We haven’t tried this method ourselves, so we’re hesitant to say it’ll work for sure. As always, researching different methods is the most helpful. Check and see if anyone else is giving that a try and if so, maybe they can share their tips and tricks. Sorry we weren’t able to give you more information, but let us know how it goes!

    • False. Use heat to remove old seasoning. Rust can be removed through electrolysis or a 30-45 minute soak in 50-50 vinegar and water.

    • True. I’ve actually burned rust off by leaving it on the burner on low for a couple of hours (with the stove fan on high) and it totally took care of it.

    • Some ovens go to a high enough temp to damage the iron. If you can get to 500 degrees that’s all you need. That will cook off carbon buildup and do all that heat can do on rust. The remainder can be removed with half vinegar and half water solution. NEVER use steel brush or power tool wire wheel on cast iron. That would ruin it. There are people who restore valuable pieces By electrolysis but you can do it with some work just as well.

  2. Too much heat can damage the Dutch oven or skillet. Heat won’t take rust off but will take off old seasoning. Use a short vinegar/water 50/50 mix for 30 minutes and scrub. You can also use coarse salt and a bit of cooking oil and scrub with a stainless scrub pad.

  3. So 50/50 water and vinegar is like 2 cups of each or whatever the amount takes to emerge the skillet. Is vegetable oil good to use? My mom always used bacon grease .

  4. I have read all of these comments and feel compelled to offer my two cents into the mix. I know there are all kinds of “best” ways to restore cast iron but there are a few things to stay away from if you want to keep your iron useable for years to come.

    First of all, do you use your iron on a daily basis or more than twice a week? Or do you bring it out whenever the urge strikes, cook something in it, and store it for another 4 to 6 months before pulling it out again? The difference will make a difference in what kind of oil you use to season your pan. I have used bacon fat [my favorite choice] or good ol’ Crisco [my 2nd favorite choice]before putting the pan away. if you use your iron on a regularl basis, there should be no problem with either of these or with lard or any other animal based fats if you are heating the pan more than once every few weeks or months. The problem comes from using the pan to cook a meal on January 1st and then not dragging out the iron again until the 4th of July! Leaving a cast iron pan or Dutch oven or any other cast iron kitchen utensil, for that matter, in the closet for that long with most any animal based fat for seasoning will probably encourage the coating to turn rancid the same way that a jelly jar of bacon fat sitting on the counter for months will probably get pretty ripe from not using it or storing it improperly for that long of a time.

    Regarding removing rust by putting the cast iron in the oven on a “cleaning” cycle, keep in mind that should that iron warp from the extended length of time at up to 550 F. during the cleaning cycle, you will not be able to “unwarp” it once the bottom is round. That was one of the reasons why many old cast iron manufacturers would put a raised “ring” around the bottom of their iron to minimize the amount of direct contact with certain types of heat sources. Lodge, I noticed, still has a raised ring on most of their cast iron made today. Remember that the cleaning cycle’s purpose is to incinerate to ash everything of an organic origin that has dripped, flaked off, or otherwise arrived in the bottom of the oven or hanging from the racks.

    I am sure that there will be those who will argue my tactics so I will close by saying that my family, going back to my grandparents [to my knowledge], have passed down these tips to keep cast iron serviceable. I am 77 as I type this so that spans a couple of long generations to use what worked for them and for me also.

  5. I have removed years of seasoning/ patina, rust and everything else that has found it way to a cast iron cookware item by putting it in high heat until like Jean said it turns grey, that is the natural raw iron state, from there you MUST re-season the item. I have tested every food grade oil, lard, grease there is and found that Crisco butter flavor gets the item the richest darkest black.
    – The item must get hot enough that the patina starts to break down and fall or burn off.
    – I use insulated welding gloves to handle the item as it cools, never go from hot to cold or it will crack the item.
    – As David Henrickson says above heat can damage an item so be careful.
    – I usually use a 000 or 0000 steel wool to take the rust that I can get off as well as the burnt patina or whatever is left.
    – When the pan gets cool enough to handle the pan with bare hands wash it with vinegar, soap, salt and lemon or whatever you use.
    – Warm the pan to about 150 degrees and apply the 1st coat of oil/ lard/ grease.
    – Place the pan upside down and heat the pan to 400 degrees for 30 minutes and repeat until you have the desired patina built back up.

    I have done this on campfires, BBQ pits, on the stove or in the oven. I have hundreds of pieces with some older than most people on here. I have messed up a couple as well but that is because I put them in extreme heat so be careful, learn, and be willing to make mistakes.

  6. Lots of rust, use and electrolysis tank. Easy to set up, easy to use, and fantastic results! I swear my mine for the deepest gunk, to the worst rust bucket pieces I’ve restored. Search YouTube for Electrolysis tanks or cast iron restoration using electrolysis!

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