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: