Do It Yourself: Reconditioning Cast Iron~Rust-ic Treasures

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Can rusted cast iron be saved and restored? Is it worth the time and trouble? How much time and trouble does it actually take to restore cast iron to a seasoned, rust-free, nonstick coating?  Read on and learn….

The Yard Sale Eyesore

How many times have you been at a yard sale or thrift store and seen nasty, rusted cast-ironware?  You might wonder why someone bothered to even try to sell it or pass it on.  With eyebrows raised, you passed it by and thought to yourself that having cast iron someday *would* be nice.  After all, it heats evenly, never loses its coating like commercial non-stick surfaces and is pretty rugged.  You could even build up your arm muscles while you cooked.  Some people say they hate cast iron because everything sticks on it – well, their experience has been with improperly seasoned pans.  If things stick – the pan has not been properly seasoned!  My purpose in this article is to walk you through the steps to re-season any old cast iron pan.  As long as there are no nicks and cracks, no matter how much gunk or rust, you can get it like new!  I just did it for the first time this past fall and was amazed!

Hidden Value

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In case you’re still not sold on the effort being worth it, let me tell you some more about cast iron.  First, it’s iron and you’re cooking on it.  That means the food you are cooking is getting some of this essential mineral absorbed into it.  For most of us, that is good.  However, if you have an iron overload in your body, obviously you’ll want to cook with something else!  Cast iron conducts heat evenly without hot spots, while holding heat longer so you use less fuel!  It is great for maintaining a constant temperature while cooking.  Cast iron pans can go from stovetop to oven with no problem!  You can even use it on a barbeque or open flame.  When you get it seasoned properly, a cast iron pan will not stick at all – and so you will have a nonstick surface without all the health hazards of the patented nonstick coatings – which, I might add, all have a limited life span.  Cast iron can outlive you!  You also don’t need any special implements when using cast iron.  Finally, cast iron is a cinch to clean.  With hot water and a scouring tool, you can clean your properly seasoned cast iron pans.

So What is Seasoning or Curing Cast Iron?

Seasoning cast iron means simply filling in the pores found in the surface of iron with oil to seal off the iron from air and create a nonstick surface.  Those rusty pans you passed by were not kept seasoned and so, the oxidation was caused by the air getting into the pores.  If you keep your pans sealed, they will not rust.  I also make sure mine are good and dry before storing.  Sometimes if I’ve had the oven on, I’ll just pop them in for a few minutes before I rub them with a light coating of oil and then store them with a paper towel inside to absorb any possible moisture left.  So far so good!  I have not had a pan re-rust on me yet.

About New Cast Iron Products
One note: some new cast iron cookware is coated with a wax to keep it from rusting before it is purchased.  You will want to scour that wax off in very hot water to get down to the iron so you can condition your pan well.

The Process
Alright. So let’s get started.  I recently scarfed up 3 graduated sized pans at a yard sale that were about as rusty as you can imagine.  I made sure to check there were no cracks or holes.  Unfortunately I did not get a photo at this stage, but use your imagination and think crusty orange!  After I was finished, I realized that these pans were not very high quality pans – they were very textured, making the curing difficult and I’m sorry to say, my results were not non-stick on these 3.  I will be re-curing them yet again because I do like the two smaller pan sizes in the set.  (Fortunately I already have an amazing 10 inch skillet that is very finely made and cured.)  I may do the second cure on an open flame and see how that goes…

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Though this isn’t my pans, it is a photo of a pan in the same state of rust my pans were in.

Obviously my first objective was to eliminate the rust crust.  I chose to use oven cleaner, coating the pans and then placing them inside plastic bags for a few days. (I think it actually wound up being a week.)  I’m not sure where my brains were when I chose this method, but as I was spraying, it kinda hit me that it might not be the healthiest choice for eliminating rust.  Supposedly you can just use steel wool and good ol’ elbow grease.  I’m not sure that would’ve worked on these pans, though.  They were *really* bad!

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The Next Step

Using some steel wool and good dish soap and scouring all that residue and rust away was next in the process.  It was nice to actually see it all gone!  After scouring, I realized it was important to get a coating of oil all over these pans as quickly as possible.  Any exposure to air and the oxidation starts. I dried those pans as best I could possibly get them and then coated them. I chose lard because I had some on hand, but probably better is a vegetable oil, since lard can go rancid.  You never want to coat with anything that contains any milk products (like butter) or any salt.  Once you have your pan coated, it is then ready to go into the heat.

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Into the Fire

Put the pan into a 400̊˚oven and turn it upside down to avoid pooling of the oil.  Line your oven with a cookie sheet or foil to catch drips.  After one hour, pull it out, wipe it off and let it cool down.  Re-coat it with oil and repeat the process, letting the pan cool in the oven as it cools the second time.  Two rounds should give your pan a good non-stick surface.  I’ve read that when you first cook with your newly seasoned pan, you should only use it on the stovetop rather than in the oven to allow it to completely finish the seasoning process.  I’ve never taken a newly seasoned pan and used it to bake in the oven right out the gate, but I guess maybe it might make your food taste a little funny or something.  I’ve read that you can reheat the pan a third time in a cold oven, bring it up to 500˚ and let it cure another 2 hours or more.  A finely seasoned pan will be a smoothe black.

Here are my 3 pans after their first seasoning -Aren’t they pretty?

Now this is my old pan - well-seasoned and oh, so smoothe!

Now this is my old pan – well-seasoned and oh, so smoothe!

Some Final Tips

When using cast iron for cooking remember to let your pan heat up gradually on lower heat before you turn up the heat, never put it into cold water while it is hot and, if you have stuck on food – just boil some water in it to loosen things up. Don’t cook high acid foods in your plain cast iron – there will be a very unpleasant reaction between the acid and the iron which will ruin your food.  Enameled cast iron is good for tomato-based soups and sauces and other high acid creations.  Finally, always give it a new coat of oil before putting it away again and your pan will serve you for many years!

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5 Responses to “Do It Yourself: Reconditioning Cast Iron~Rust-ic Treasures”

  • Hi, I have a sand blaster. I blast the pots and pans, so they come out as if new, – then season them. If you season them four times BEFORE use, they go forever with a little care.
    If you do not have a sandblaster, you can always get a contractor to do them VERY cheaply.

  • MrPotatoHead

    You can use vinegar and salt to remove rust. For severely rusted parts, soak the pan in 1 part molasses to 9 parts water. It may take a week or two, but it will come out good as new eventually.

    Also, never use vegetable oil to season a cast iron pan. It will create a sticky film which is the antithesis of what you’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t have or want to use lard, use shortening (Crisco). It won’t leave the same film that vegetable oil will.

    • Carin

      Wow – thanks for these tips! Now I want to go and find something really rusty to try the molasses trick on! I just saw a YouTube video where someone set up an electrolysis tub to soak really rusty cast iron in. It seemed a bit complicated to set up but worked for him amazingly!

  • Sergeant Major

    To dry cast iron heat it on the stove until dry. Taught to me by my mother passed on from my grandmother. I own 29 pieces of cast iron cookware, redundancy wins!

  • Tim Hansen

    The Chinese use salt and cooking oil to clean up heavily rusted woks. It’s also non toxic. Generous amount of salt and enough oil to make a gritty paste. Works good. I never use dish soap on my cast iron pans or woks. I just get my cook ware very hot before cooking.

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