Reader question… “Last month I inherited a cast iron skillet from a great-aunt. My problem is, I don’t know what to do with it. It looks like it’s in pretty poor shape with rust and a lot of black ‘gunk’ crusted on all the surfaces of the skillet, so I’m assuming I can’t just season it as is. What can I do to bring this skillet back to usable condition?” –Thelma J.

You’re right… your skillet can’t just be seasoned in the shape it is in. Fortunately, cast iron cookware is very durable, and once all that rust and gunk has been removed and the skillet has been re-seasoned, you probably will be surprised at what great shape the skillet is in.

  • The first step is to scrape off all the crusty build-up you can. Then use steel wool or a metal scrubby to remove any remaining build-up and any rust. This may take some time if the skillet is in especially poor condition, but it is very important to clean down to the actual cast iron surface.
  • An an alternative to scrubbing, some people spray the skillet with oven cleaner and seal it inside a plastic garbage bag for a couple of days. I personally don’t like this idea and don’t recommend it because I don’t like to use toxic chemicals in my kitchen, and I especially don’t like the idea of spraying oven cleaner on any surface that will eventually come into contact with food.
  • Once all the rust and gunk have been scrubbed off, wash the skillet by hand in hot water with a small amount of dish detergent. Scrub it vigorously. Remember that you will be eating food prepared in this skillet and you want it to be very, very clean. Do NOT try to wash the skillet in a dishwasher, and do NOT let it soak in the wash water.
  • If any water is left on the skillet, the skillet will rust again, so dry it IMMEDIATELY and thoroughly inside and out. Use an old towel or cloth you don’t care about because the iron in the pan will cause some discoloration… this happens with cast iron. To make sure the skillet is absolutely dry, I usually leave it on a stove burner for a few minutes with the heat turned on low.
  • Once the pan is dry, it should be seasoned right away, so preheat your oven to about 350°F. Apply a light, even coating of shortening, lard, or vegetable oil to every surface of the skillet. Oil especially can create a “sticky” residue if too much is left on any surface, so place the skillet upside down on the top rack of the oven and put a baking pan or cookie sheet directly under it on the bottom rack so any extra oil can drip off. Leave the skillet in the oven for at least an hour, then turn the oven off and let the oven and the skillet cool.
  • To clean the skillet after each use, wipe it out with a clean cloth. Wipe it thoroughly… make sure the pan isn’t greasy and that there isn’t any food residue left. Many people never actually wash their cast iron skillets after they are seasoned. I prefer to quickly wash mine with hot, soapy water, rinse them well, and do a light re-seasoning each time I use them. After that, a few minutes on a medium burner keeps the Teflon-like finish in great condition.