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Cast iron is a tried-and-true cooking material thanks to its even heating, nonstick surface and long-lasting nature. But one downside to using cast iron is that it can rust easily if not well cared for.
Seasoned veterans of cast-iron cooking know that a little bit of proper care goes a long way. But a smudge of rust can still pop up on your favorite pot or skillet from time to time. After all, this is cookware that lasts a lifetime!
So, exactly how do you clean a rusty cast-iron skillet? Here are some of the tools you can use and how to use them.
Lodge Rust Eraser
One of the most trusted cast-iron lines out there created its own rust remover — which is good news for the many cooks who own one of their cast-iron skillets. The Lodge Rust Eraser is $9.95 and claims to “remove surface rust and tarnish with precision.” YouTube reviewer Stephen Strawn of Cast Iron Cookware demonstrated the eraser in a video, showing how it has a bit of a rubbery flex to it.
The eraser takes away rust down to the cast-iron surface, which will need to be re-seasoned afterward. Strawn said he thinks the Lodge rust eraser is best for spot removal of rust rather than trying to do the entire surface of a rusty cast-iron item.
Also, speaking of erasers: Magic Erasers can also help with spot-removal of rust on cast iron.
Strawn and many others recommend using vinegar to easily remove rust from a cast-iron skillet, grill, pot or dutch oven. Strawn has a vinegar-water spray bottle method.
Bon Appétit explains that soaking a rusty cast-iron skillet in equal parts vinegar and water and then watching the pan to make sure it’s removed as soon as the rust starts to flake away is the way to go. Soaking cast iron in vinegar for too long will start pitting the surface and make it worse.
Experts say you should not use steel wool in the normal course of cleaning your cast iron pan, as it’s too harsh. However, in cases of rust or abrasion, steel wool and soap can be used to scrub away the rust and get down to a new base level of the cast iron. Some steel wool pads like Brillo and S.O.S come with soap already in them.
Good arm strength and patience can be needed to get a really rusty cast-iron item smooth again, and you’ll have to season your cast-iron skillet again afterward.
Yes, the thing that knights wore as body armor, chainmail, is also a favored tool for getting tough gunk off cast iron, including rust. Chainmail scrubbers are apparently pretty indestructible, so you won’t need to buy them as often as steel wool — which is good because they are also more expensive.
A Potato And Salt
If you’re wondering if there’s a more “au natural” way to clean a rusty cast-iron skillet, you might wan to try the potato and coarse salt method. Sprinkle a cast iron pan with a generous amount of kosher or other coarse salt. Then cut a raw potato in half and use it as a scrubbing tool to work the salt around the pan and rub off rust.
A decidedly less “natural” way to clean rusty cast-iron skillets and the like is to spray them with oven cleaner. The lye-based cleaner is harsh and needs to be handled with care (and gloves on) while not being inhaled. Letting the cleaner sit and do its work on cast iron may take a few rounds, as a Kitchn tester found.
It’ll also likely remove most of the seasoning from cast iron, so you’ll have some extra re-seasoning to do afterward. Make sure to thoroughly wash the rust-free cast iron with soap and water after using oven cleaner, since it is toxic.
Not everybody has a sandblaster, but if you can access one, it’s a quick way to remove rust from cast iron. An expert at What’s Cooking America advises that, if you’re going this route, glass beads are less harsh than sand in a blaster. Sandpaper is another good scrubber to get at rust spots but will require more elbow grease.
Is it magic or science? Reading about electrolysis on cast iron will bring you back to high school science. You’ll need a large plastic bucket, a battery charger, washing soda, and an “anode” like a grill top. Proceed with caution and follow the tips that Weber Kettle Club gives in this post on the process.
Burn It Off
If you want to see a bunch of different methods used to remove rust from cast iron, YouTuber BushcraftOnFire uses foil as a scrubber for a pan that was kept outside for years. She also wipes it with a newspaper, soaks the pan in vinegar, and sprays on oven cleaner. Then, she seasons it with vegetable shortening.
Re-season Your Cast Iron
After thoroughly removing the rust from inside, outside and on the handle of a cast-iron skillet or pot, you need to re-coat it with oil and season it by baking the newly oiled pan in the oven. Oils with a high smoke point are the best for this; many prefer grapeseed oil for this job.
Other oils you can use for this purpose include almond, avocado, canola, corn, peanut, safflower, sesame and sunflower. Lard and oil bars are also good. You may want to repeat the seasoning process a few times depending on how much of the original coating is left after the rust removal process.
Prevent Rust On Cast Iron
To avoid rust forming on your cast iron in the future, don’t cook acidic foods and liquids like tomatoes or wine in your cast-iron pots and pans. Clean them only with kosher salt and a cloth or water and a non-abrasive scrub brush.
Make sure you thoroughly dry the cast iron, top and bottom, and then brush or rub on a new coat of oil all over, including on the handle. Put a paper towel on the top and bottom of your cast-iron skillet before storing it with other pans to protect the surface.
And remember that with all these techniques to remove rust, almost any cast iron skillet, pot or oven can be saved — unless you can see through the bottom of them. After that, you can recycle them. Or, repurpose them in your crafting projects or as decor.