How to Remove Rust From Cast Iron

If your cast-iron pan has rust due to neglect or exposure to moisture, don’t worry – there’s a solution to salvage it instead of throwing it away. Cast-iron cookware is designed to last a lifetime, so even if you’ve acquired a heavily rusted skillet or Dutch oven, you can bring it back to its best condition. Although some steps may seem counterintuitive, the aim is to completely remove the existing seasoning layers to eliminate rust, allowing you to start afresh with a clean surface. Once you’ve removed the rust, it’s essential to adopt proper cleaning and seasoning habits to prevent a recurrence.

1. Soak in Vinegar

To start, consider soaking your cast iron in vinegar if the rust is serious. Mix equal parts water and distilled white vinegar in a container large enough to hold your pan, ensuring the whole pan, including the handle, is submerged. Check the pan every 15 minutes or so and remove it once the rust easily flakes away.

This can take anywhere from an hour to eight hours, so keep an eye on it to avoid soaking for too long, as the vinegar can damage the pan’s original surface. If the rust persists after this step, it might be time to repurpose your pan as kitchen decor.

2. Scrub and Wash Thoroughly

Give your cast-iron pan a good cleaning to remove any lingering rust. Use a drop of mild dish soap and warm water. Employ a mildly abrasive sponge, such as a green scrub pad or a palm-fiber scrubber like Kamenoko Tawashi, for tougher rust spots. Depending on the severity of the rust, you may need some elbow grease.

Warm water is essential for cleaning after cooking to prevent warping or cracking. At this stage, it’s okay to use a small amount of soapy water since there’s no seasoning to worry about damaging.

Dry the pan immediately and thoroughly using a kitchen or paper towel. For further drying, place it on the stovetop over low heat for a few minutes.

3. Reseason the Cast Iron

To restore the protective layer of fat molecules that create the nonstick surface and dark matte finish, you need to season your clean cast-iron pan.

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Apply a thin layer of neutral cooking oil with a high smoke point, like vegetable oil, inside and outside the entire pan. Wipe off any excess oil and place the pan upside-down in the oven with aluminum foil or a baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch drips. Turn off the heat after an hour and let the pan cool in the oven overnight, or wait at least 45 minutes before using.

After each use, clean the seasoned pan by wiping it or giving it a gentle scrub with warm soapy water. Dry thoroughly and lightly coat it with another layer of oil.

These mini-seasoning sessions build up protective layers, enhancing the cooking surface and preventing future rust. Complete the seasoning process once or twice a year for regular maintenance.

How to Store Cast Iron Correctly

While the above steps serve as a reliable Plan B, preventing rust in the first place is the best approach. Proper cleaning, seasoning, and correct storage are crucial.

Ensure the skillet is completely dry before storing it and keep it in a low-humidity spot. If stacking multiple cast-iron pans, line each one with paper or kitchen towels, or use breathable pan separators to prevent moisture buildup. These steps help keep your cast iron dry, discouraging the return of rust.

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