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Restoring a Cast Iron Skillet – How to Rescue a Kitchen Workhorse

This post on Restoring a Cast Iron Skillet was originally posted in January 2012, and was updated in May 2017.

There are a few tools that every cook should have in their kitchen – a great seat of knives, a heavy-duty stand mixer, a food processor, stainless steel nesting mixing bowls, a dutch oven, and a cast iron skillet.

Cast iron is one of those things that people either LOVE, or it scares the beejesus out of them because they don’t understand it.  The reasons against cast iron are that:
1) “it rusts”
2) “they’re heavy”
3) “I don’t know how to use it.”

The reasons FOR cast iron far outweigh the reasons against it:
1) they’re durable.  It’s not uncommon to find people using the pans they inherited from their granny.
2) many are made in the USA (Lodge brand)
3) they distribute heat evenly.  And you can (and should) cook on lower heat using cast iron.  Lower heat = lower energy bills.
4) they can help add iron to your diet
5) they cook food beautifully.  Roasted veggies and cornbread are 100% better when cooked in cast iron than something else.
6) they can go from stovetop, to oven, to a campfire if necessary
7) my favorite – once properly seasoned, you don’t REALLY have to wash them.  Oh how I love anything that doesn’t require me to do additional dishes!

We have a 12 inch skillet that we received for Christmas a few years ago.  I learned more about cast iron from screwing up with that skillet than anything.  That sucker is also huge and not what I was necessarily looking for in an “everyday” skillet.

Friday I was at Goodwill, and an 9 inch skillet pretty much leaped off the shelf trying to get my attention.  It practically yelled “buy me Sarah, buy me!”  But at $14.99 for a rusted cast iron skillet when I could buy a new one for that price didn’t tickle my fancy.  Until I saw its blue tag.  Friday was blue tag day, so it was 50% off!  I snuggled that now $7.50 skillet to my overly nursed bosom, and promised to take it home and give it the kind of life it truly deserved. Restoring a cast iron skillet is a worthwhile endeavor that will pay dividends for years to come.

Restoring a cast iron skillet

Poor, poor rusty skillet.  Someone didn’t love you and/or know how to use you.

Restoring a cast iron skilletFirst things, first, I cleaned the skillet with soap and water.  In my humble opinion, this is one of the last times your skillet should need soap.

Then give it a 10-minute steam bath in a 300-degree oven.

Restoring a cast iron skillet

When it is mostly dry, remove from the oven and pour a puddle of oil (I used olive, but any kind will work) and a generous helping of kosher salt into the center.

Restoring a cast iron skillet

Restoring a cast iron skillet

Using a rag you don’t mind getting dirty, paper towels, or pieces of newspaper, work the oil and salt into all parts of the skillet.  Pay special attention to the rusty areas.

Restoring a cast iron skillet

Put it on the stovetop on medium heat with another puddle of your oil of choice and work it around with another rag.  I use a pastry brush.  Let it heat and “cure” for about 5 minutes.  Careful, the oil will be hot!

Pour the oil off, and put just a dab of high-heat oil in the skillet.  Some people prefer vegetable oil for this part.  I’m not a veggie oil fan – including canola – so I used a dab of bacon grease.  You could also use coconut oil, or ghee I guess.  Let the bit of oil melt/get hot, and then work it around to cover the entire surface of the skillet.  Then, using a paper towel or piece of newspaper and remove all excess oil from the pan. Bake for 90 minutes at 300 degrees.

After round one in the oven:

Restoring a cast iron skillet

Then, repeat the bit of oil, rubbing it around, and removing all the excess grease and bake for another 90 minutes at 300 degrees.  And if I have to warn you that the pan will be really hot when you’re doing it, I think you might have bigger issues than a rusted cast iron pan…

After round two in the oven:

Restoring a cast iron skillet

You can keep adding oil and baking as many times as you want.  After two times, this skillet was ready for its big debut in my kitchen.  It made perfect eggs the next day.

Quick and final note on cast iron.  No matter how much seasoning you give it, you’ll always need a pinch of fat (butter, oil, shortening, etc.  It kind of goes without saying that I wouldn’t recommend cooking spray…) in a warm pan prior to adding food to it.  I always add a sliver of butter to the hot pan prior to cooking eggs.

Restoring a cast iron skillet is something that everyone can and should do! May your thrift store adventures bring you a cast iron gem of your own.  The rusty and ugly ones need/deserve our love and help too.  Why Sarah McLaughlin hasn’t made sad commercials about the plight of injured cast iron is beyond me.

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69 comments on “Restoring a Cast Iron Skillet – How to Rescue a Kitchen Workhorse”

  1. Amazing! I would have never known. Thank you for sharing such great information!

  2. I love my cast iron skillets and Dutch oven. I have used a Dutch oven, two skillets and a 6 inch skillet for over 40 years. On Freecycle last year, I was given about a dozen rusty ones that have been fired in the outdoor gas grill, all ready for me to tackle. Two had great chunks of burned on food, hence the grill. I have been cleaning them one at a time, but never use salt even though it seems like a great idea. Maybe the next one?

    • Oh Freecycle, how I love you! My sis said that she read to try salt and half of a potato – use the potato to mush the salt and oil around. It’s worth a shot!

  3. Wow. That is truly amazing. Good find! That’s a beautiful repurposed cast iron skillet. I wonder why they were selling it for so high if it was so poor looking!

  4. I love love my cast iron skillets! I’m always on the look out for some at thrift stores, but never find any that is reasonably priced. Great tips 🙂

    • I would have never bought this one if it wasn’t 50% off. My Goodwill seems to think that cast iron is made from spotted owls or something! Sheesh.

      • ALL Goodwill stores think cast iron, Tupperware, AND Pyrex are on the endangered species list, therefore they should be worth their weight in gold! LOL

  5. THANK YOU for this post! I have passed over so many used cast iron pans because of the rust and general disrepair. No more! I’m going to buy the very next one I see, lol.

  6. Thanks!

    This is my first time here. Came via Food Renegade.

    I have a question: what about a skillet w/ a kind of crust on the exterior? Have you ever experienced this?

    • Do you mean like food crust, or rust crust? Either way, I’d clean it the same, but probably oil it very very lightly. The outside is what comes in to contact with your burners and you don’t want it to be too “greasy”.

  7. This is a great post! I included it on my “Weekend Roundup” post here:


  8. I have an iron skillet just like your own and it’s looking rather like it needs some TLC. Thank you for this great tutorial. I am off to restore my skillet right now but before I do-
    I’m hosting a weekly linky which is all about seasonal celebration and would love it if you popped over and linked this post! It would be great to introduce your blog to my readership! Seasonal Celebration Linky Really hope to see you there! Rebecca x

  9. Thanks for linking your great post to FAT TUESDAY. This was very interesting! Hope to see you next week!

    Be sure to visit on Sunday for Sunday Snippets – your post from Fat Tuesday may be featured there!

  10. Thank you for joining the Frugal Tuesday Tip today! Very important post for folks to read — there is almost always a way if there is a will.

  11. Sarah thank you very much for placing this post on Natural Mothers Network’s linky: Seasonal Celebration! You helped make Seasonal Celebration a wealth of intelligent, creative and resourceful information and it’s been such a pleasure for me and many others to read through each post. I am really looking forward to seeing you again Sunday evening or Monday! Rebecca x PS: Proud owner of newly refurbished skillet!

  12. I have read lots of tutorials on proper care of a cast iron skillet. This is, hands down, the best I’ve ever seen! Thanks for all the great pictures.

  13. This is too funny! Thank you for doing a thorough post on properly seasoning cast iron, I think I can finally fix up my old, sad pan!

  14. I have this one on my to-do list! I would love for you to come share this recipe on my link-up, Make-ahead Mondays, at Raising Isabella!

    Hope to see you there!


  15. Thank you so much for this post! I have never seen such a detailed or lengthy post on cleaning and seasoning a cast iron pan. I have the first of several in the oven right now following your directions. I “know” I’m not supposed to use soap on my pans, but my brain always says yes! Consequently, everything sticks when I use them. I will try my best to do better. Thanks again for this great post!

    • Step away from the soap!!!! ;-D

      Let me know how the “cast iron spa” in your oven turns out. I hope your pans are gleaming and lovely.

    • Yes Sarah ~ my pans are gleaming and lovely. I used one last night to saute veggies and it was amazing, nothing stuck! I even “stepped away from the soap”!!! 3 down, 2 to go. Love it ~ thanks so much.

    • That is AWESOME!!!! So glad to hear it, and even more glad to hear that you stuck to your guns and steered clear of the suds!

  16. This is a great post! The last several years as I’ve been building my hope chest inventory I’ve worked with many a cast-iron uh.. *items* (Pans, muffin tins, grill pan, etc.) This is much simpler, and seemingly more efficient than what I’ve been doing!

  17. Thanks for sharing this post at Make-ahead Monday! I hope to see you again next week!

    Sarah @ Raising Isabella

  18. This is fantastic. I love my cast iron cookware but my kids keep washing it when they do the dishes, so the seasoning disappears. What advise can you give me for cleaning it after the cooking?

    • Well, I honestly don’t clean it after I cook it in. I wait for it to cool down, and then wipe it out with a paper towel. With the seasoning, nothing is sticking to it, and anything raw already cooked off of it.

      That is why I love cast iron so much – one less thing to wash!

  19. I received 3 wonderful cast iron skillets about 10 years ago for a wedding gift. I was so excited, I thought I was seasoning them right, but I didn’t. I saved them because I was not able to let them go. What can I do to fix them? Any tips? Thanks!

  20. We hve 2 cast iron skillets that are completely rusted, inside and out. I was told to burn them until white then clean and season them. I am wondering if this would work for them without the “burn off” that I was told to do or is there something else that I should do with them to get them to a point where they can be used again?

    • Hmmm, I’ve never heard of that tactic, but I guess it could work. Since I have a glass top stove, I’d probably “burn” it on a fire or a BBQ to avoid smoke in the house and a messy stove.

    • Ohh ohh, better idea! “burn” one of them, and try the oil and kosher salt for the other. Then you can have a test and see which way works better!

    • If you google “seasoning cookware” and look at the wikipedia page, it gives you great information on what seasoning if for, why/how it works and there’s also a sentence about getting the old patina (seasoning, aka – the black stuff) off of pans ready to add new seasoning like in your post here.

      I struggled with a pan from Value Village for 2 days before reading the wikipedia page and finally understanding what I should do! I ended up using some drain cleaner (in place of burning or lye) in water in my sink (gloves, ventilation, yadda yadda) and it took less than an hour this way.

      Then I seasoned your way, Sarah, and it’s lovely! I also got the tip from the wikipedia page that you shouldn’t use acidic food (tomatoes, vinegar, etc) in a cast iron pan, as it will take the patina off.

  21. i just picked up my first cast iron pan at the flea market today and it’s being seasoned as we speak! i can’t wait to try eggs in it tomorrow. thanks for the great directions:)

  22. I’ve been on the lookout at the goodwill ever since I read this post! My efforts finally paid off this week. Get this…I only paid $7.99 for a 10 or 12 inch (not sure which and too lazy to measure)cast iron skillet and it is in decent shape. And it was not on sale!! I will be “rehabing” it as soon as I get a semi-cool day here, so I don’t have to turn on the A/C. Thank you so much for the tutorial on the beauty of cast iron!!

  23. I just got a few cast iron pans from my Grandmother- Two skillets, medium and small size, a griddle, and one that looks like a skillet with about 6 in high sides. I am excited to get them back into working shape!

  24. Simply the best way to resurrect anything made out of cast iron is to mix 1 part treacle/molasses with 10 parts water and then submerge the item for a month.
    Leave it, don’t keep dragging it out to see if anything is happening.
    A scum will form and it might stink a little so leave it outside.
    After a month lift the item out and brush lightly.
    It will look like new.
    (The acid in the molasses dissolves the rust much like coke cleans coins).
    It will also clean steel things but not as well – you have to take a steel brush to them after).

  25. Next time you want to go “thrift” shopping, try Salvation Army. Goodwill seems to have… nothing (I ever want) And they always want more than I want for it. But when I go to salvation army, I find things I didn’t know that I needed, for way (by “way” I mean WAYYY) less than I could find in the store. (And way less than you can find at Goodwill.) But, thanks for the tip. I’m going to start watching my salvation army for a cast iron!

    • Sadly, Salvation Army isn’t located in my area. I think the closest one is at least 45 minutes away. In the boonies, at least where I am, my options are Goodwill and garage sales! In the Seattle area, garage sales are rare past October and don’t really start again until April/May.

  26. I just found your blog today via a friend on Facebook. Lots of good stuff here!

    The last time we needed to rescue a rusty, food-and-carbon-coated cast iron pan we used a liter of Coke, the real stuff, not diet. We let it sit in the pan overnight and the next day all the crap just peeled off in hunks. We then finished the cleaning with a green scrubby and did the oil thing. It cleaned up and seasoned perfectly.

    Cast iron is the best! I had always loved it but fell into using teflon pans by accident. We got a parrot and found out right away how toxic teflon is and threw them all away. The parrot is no more (we still miss him more than I can say) but cast iron remains as the main way to cook pretty much everything that doesn’t need water. I will say it’s worth buying the older pans even if they cost more money- the finish on them is much smoother than the modern pans. Seasoning will help this in the long run but the pans I inherited from my Mom as almost as smooth as glass even without seasoning.

  27. Two pans baking in the oven right now. Thank you for such simple directions! I tried to season one of these before and failed and then got scared/pissed off. (That method required putting the oven on cleaning mode and it took the pan back to “beauty zero” and burned off all the seasoning it ever had.) I wasn’t about to use oven cleaner in our apartment. Just saw the can of coke method above, that might have been an option.

    You renewed my courage! Thank you. Hopefully these will come out ready for action. 🙂

  28. I bought a cast iron skillet a few years ago with good intentions and after several misuses it was put in the garage in a slightly rusty state. I’m going to try this today! Quick question, why not cooking spray on the skillet? Would a spray of plain olive oil or other oil work?

    • Do it Sarah, and let me know how it turns out!

      I don’t like cooking spray because the oils that you can find in the store are gross (canola, vegetable, etc.) if you want to use veggie spray on cast iron, you can, but I just don’t like eating them.

      We have a Misto which allows us to turn olive oil in to cooking spray. That I like!

  29. You gave me hope for my old broiler. It was my great grandmothers…not used in at least a generation but my father insisted that I needed to take it home with me. Thanks. I love your blog:)

  30. I want to give you a shoutout for sharing this method, because not only did it restore my garage-sale-treasure cast iron skillet and Dutch oven to their original glory, but it also made a recent camping trip a breeze.

    My boyfriend and I embarked on a week-long camping trip in the Smokies…in my Saturn…pulling a teardrop trailer. Obviously space was of utmost value. We planned meals accordingly, and utilized my cast iron skillet to the max. I’m talking breakfast and dinner, nightly for a week. What a time and space saver!

    I absolutely NEVER let soap touch my cast iron; I prefer warm water and kosher salt to scour away debris and swoosh of olive oil after it’s dry to maintain the seasoning. It was so easy to clean up after meals, and (bonus!) we didn’t have to waste a bunch of water to wash dishes, which is even nicer considering that we had to haul it ourselves.

    Thanks for all of your awesome ideas and this whole blog in general! I look forward to it weekly! Keep on keepin on sistafrand!

  31. I love cast iron too. A local iconic restaurant closed down last week and I was in there for a last meal. I saw a bunch of cast iron pans of all sizes hanging on the wall by wires. Since they were closing shop in an hour, I asked the owner if she would be interested in selling some of the pans. To my delight, she said yes. So I picked out 2 8″ pans and 2 10″ pans. Made sure they had the smooth interior and bought all 4 pans for $20. Yes! Score!!! They were very well used and a little cleaning up I have pans that I can hand down to my kids. Woot!

  32. I followed your directions and now I have a sticky film in my pans. What did I do wrong? I didn’t have liquid oil, only Crisco. Was this bad to use?

  33. Hi,
    Is there some chemistry behind using salt to rid the rust??
    I have two iron skillets I have been putting off restoring because I thought I was going to have to go at it with the steel wool and elbow grease forever.
    The salt way looks too easy–I don’t get it? Chemistry?

  34. I found my answer…..

    “removing rust with a potato involves no magic. It involves oxalic acid, a natural rust remover. Potatoes can be used to remove rust from cast iron, baking pans, nuts and bolts, and other household items. If you really want to impress important people in your life, take a rusty knife and insert it in the potato. Let it set for a while. Remove it. Voila! No rust.”

  35. It sounds like cast iron skillets are the ultimate frugal cookware item… I’ll have to try this on the rusty one that’s in my basement!

  36. I really really want to get comfortable using cast iron and get rid of my non-sticks. I see cast iron at thrift stores but figured if it was rusty that was the end of it. I am going to do this for sure! Wow that cleaned up beautifully! Thanks for the tutorial!

  37. My mom would buy very crustfied cast iron skillets at garage sales and put them in the oven and turn the oven to self-clean. They come out all cleaned up, but you have to re-season them. I have also cleaned my barbecue’s grates and lava rocks several times using this method.

  38. Hi Sarah,

    So it is not so much the restoration that baffles me but rather, the “clean up” or lack thereof. What do you do after you’ve cooked your eggs? Just wipe the skillet off with a paper towel?

    • There are multiple options depending on what kind of mess you’ve made. 🙂 In most instances, a simple paper towel wipe is all you need. For some food that may have gotten stuck on the skillet, I’ll do a quick rinse and scrub in plain water (no soap!) while it is still warm. I put it back on the burner to dry, and then add a bit of butter to re-season it. We love cooking with cast iron, because we know there are fewer dishes to deal with!

  39. I’m kind of confused. It says to put salt and oil in the pan then rinse then scrub the pan with the salt and oil. So do I scrub it and then rinse? Can you please clarify? I have three pans that need to be re-seasoned, which I’ve tried to do from a different persons instructions and they didn’t work. Please help!

  40. Ok… so I had a go at this today. Not a charity shop find but rather two bloody great big camp style Dutch ovens . Now.. these were neglected..I’ve had them from new but was derelict in my ‘seasoning’ duty when they were new. So… after about 6 years of ( Mis) use on Scout camps, I got them out for a proper clean and season.
    I didn’t follow your instructions exactly..for a few reasons, the main one being these bad boys are humongous and o can only fit one in my oven at a time..and my oven eats electricity and that stuff ant cheap.. AND the pots have little feet on them, which is grand if you’re sitting on a campfire but bleeding useless on an electric induction hob. 
    But I cleaned( soap and water) , heated/steamed , scrubbed down with salt and oil, baked, oiled, baked , oiled…roughly ten mins in a very hot oven per ‘piece’.. pots and lids, and I’m really pleased with how they now look.
    Going to be filling with beef and ale stew over the weekend, after I have made a few of your communion leaves to go along side.

  41. My client has iron skellits and needs the out side cleaned . Looks like stuff is caked on

  42. I have a small 8” cast iron fry pan. I’ve used it for over 20 years. I love my pan. I had chemo brain a few months ago and left it on a burner after cooking my burger for dinner. Unfortunately the burner was left on low. Hours later my neighbor knocked on my door and I realized what I had done. Not only did the residue of dinner burn but 20+ years of oil and seasoning bubbled up black, lumpy and crusty. I’ve tried baking soda paste several times but I still cannot get it clean. Do you know of anything that might bring it back to a usable condition? 

    • I am so sorry about the loss of your pan. And the chemo!

      But yes, I do have a way to bring it back! Do you have a self-cleaning oven? Put it in there during a cleaning cycle and it will strip everything off. And I mean everything; even the outside sheen of the pan.

      It’s going to take a lot more seasoning to get it back to normal but it’s totally possible.