Rust might be the greatest fear of anyone who owns cast iron, but luckily it’s almost certainly not the end of your skillet. Cast iron can be pretty resilient, and even very rusty, damaged pans can be rehabilitated—and in most cases, the rust they’re facing is pretty minor.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t use your skillet while it still has rust on it. (This might seem obvious, but for people who haven’t used cast iron cookware before, this can be an unfamiliar issue!) If your cast iron skillet does develop rust, there are a few easy steps you can take to remove it, and then you can resume cooking. We’ll dive even deeper into how to remove rust from cast iron below, but first let’s talk about why rust forms, and how to prevent it.

Rust (iron oxide) forms when iron reacts with oxygen and water. Simply put, cast iron can rust if you leave water on it for too long. You can absolutely still use water (and soap!) to cook in or clean your cast iron, but you don’t want to let water just sit on your pan for an extended period of time. When it comes to cleaning your skillet, this means that you can’t let cast iron soak for more than a couple of minutes (instead, use a chain mail scrubber to remove any stuck-on food), but there are also other sources of moisture that can cause your pan to rust.

After washing a cast iron skillet, we always recommend drying the pan over medium-low heat on the stove, to evaporate any lingering water that might not be clearly visible to the naked eye. Since cast iron is porous, there can be some remaining moisture that’s not super obvious if you just dry your pan with a towel.

Once your skillet has been washed and thoroughly dried, you should coat it all over with a thin layer of seasoning oil (both on the inside and the outside of the pan). Not only will this turn into a nice, non-stick layer of seasoning the next time you heat your skillet up, but it will also protect your pan from rusting while it’s not in use.

How to remove rust from a cast iron skillet

In most cases, the rust you’re trying to remove from cast iron will only be on the surface, and can be addressed fairly easily. Even if you think you need to completely strip your pan, chances are these steps will take care of your rust:

1.

Using something lightly abrasive, like a stiff brush or a scouring pad scrub away the rust under cold water. (A cold temperature helps prevent the rust from reforming quickly.)

2.

Immediately after washing off the rust, dry the skillet with a paper towel, then heat it on the stovetop to evaporate any remaining moisture. (You’re looking to heat the pan for about five minutes over medium low heat)

3.

Oil a paper towel or rag with seasoning oil and wipe down the pan until rust is no longer visible on its surface.

4.

If you can see or smell rust, repeat the steps above until you’re no longer seeing surface rust on the pan.  If the rust was only in a few spots, just keep cooking. If it was more widespread over the surface of your pan we recommend to re-season the skillet in the oven. Follow our instructions here and do one or two rounds of oven seasoning.

Now you’re ready to keep cooking! Just make sure you always dry your pan thoroughly after use, oil it lightly, and store it in a dry area to prevent any future rust.

Cast Iron Care Kit

More serious case of rust?

Note that these steps are ideal for mild to serious cases of rust. On rare occasions (or more often, if you’re into vintage cookware and restoring cast iron), you’ll have a skillet with very severe rust all over it. For situations like these, you may need to immerse your skillet in a vinegar bath to fully strip off the rust. It's straightforward. Immerse your pan in a solution of 50:50  white vinegar to water for about 1 hour. When it comes out, scrub any remaining rust off with something abrasive like a scotch brite pad or steel wool. (Nine times out of ten you won’t need to seriously strip your pan like this. Not sure how bad your rust is? Send us an email to help@fieldcompany.com and we will be happy to advise you!)

Now, let’s talk tools. You don’t need much to remove rust from your cast iron skillet, but the tools you use do matter. While we love to use a chain mail scrubber for regular cleaning, it’s not necessarily the best choice for scouring rust. Instead, you should use something with a finer surface area, which will remove the rust particles more efficiently. That’s why we suggest using something like our natural fiber brush or a scouring pad when scrubbing off rust. If you really need to, you can also use steel wool for scrubbing away rust—the key here is to make sure you don’t abrade the actual iron itself too much. Steel wool can sand down your pan, and a pan that’s too smooth won’t be able to develop and hold well-bonded seasoning.

 

Other common problems for cast iron skillets

When it comes to cast iron care, there are two other issues we commonly see. First, a lot of people write to us about flaking seasoning. If a skillet builds up too many thick layers of seasoning, or if you cook an acidic dish or do a salty, liquidy braise, then some patches of seasoning can start to flake off your skillet. (Even if you don’t do anything wrong, this can happen from time to time.) But there’s no need to worry, this is a pretty easy fix!

You don’t want to build new seasoning on top of anything that’s loose or unstable; when faced with flaking, we recommend using a chain mail scrubber to lightly scour the surface of your skillet, focusing on any visibly flaking areas. The goal here is to remove anything that will easily come away from the surface of the pan. Once any loose seasoning has been released, you can wash and dry your skillet as normal.

After this process, it’s likely that you’ll see some light spots or bare patches in your seasoning—the solution from there is to just keep cooking. With time and plenty of use, new layers of seasoning will develop on your cast iron, filling in any bare spots and gradually evening the surface back out.

The other problem people most often face is cast iron that becomes sticky after seasoning. If your pan is sticky after either cooking and cleaning or a round of oven seasoning, then you’re most likely dealing with some baked-on oil residue. If oil doesn’t fully polymerize and bond with the surface of your skillet, then it can leave behind a sticky, and often raised, residue. When dealing with minor oil residue, the best things to do is just keep cooking with your pan. New layers of seasoning will incorporate these sticky areas, and the problem will resolve itself. But if you have raised areas of oil residue, then you don’t want to build up uneven seasoning on top of that.

To remove serious stickiness on the surface of your skillet, try heating your pan up; while it’s warm, gently scrape at any oil spots with the edge of a wooden spoon or wooden spatula. You can apply a little pressure to remove the oil residue, but you don’t want to gouge your skillet. Once you’ve removed any noticeably uneven or sticky spots, wash and dry your pan, then coat all over with a thin layer of seasoning oil.

After these steps, the best thing to do is just start cooking with your pan. Any residual stickiness will gradually become part of new layers of seasoning, and after several uses you’ll notice the surface of your skillet returning to normal. To prevent any future stickiness, make sure you’re not applying too much oil when you season or wipe down your pan; excess oil can contribute to the formation of sticky residue.

If there’s one thing we hope you take away, it’s that rust (and most other cast iron care issues) can be fixed with a little extra maintenance and plenty of cooking. Always dry your pan thoroughly, coat it with a thin layer of seasoning oil, then use it to make your next meal—this will prevent rust from forming, and solve any seasoning issues.