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 scrubber 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.
- Clean the skillet thoroughly after each use. Just recently I discovered stainless steel chain mail scrubbers (especially made for cast iron and stainless steel cookware)… these work incredibly well. 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.
Additional note for people allergic to soy: Much of the cast iron cookware sold today is sold pre-seasoned… with a soy product.
Wow, I thought I was the only one who washed and reseasoned cast iron after every use! Sadly, I have no cast iron pans anymore, and I do miss them. Nothing makes potato pancakes like the trusty cast iron pan! Now I have a cast steel wok that needs reseasoning every use because I wash that with soapy water.
Thanks, I have two cast iron pans that are in dire need of seasoning. I am going to get on this right away
Thanks for the help my dutch oven cought fire on the stove so i had to really scrub and clean it to get the fire extungisher powder and peanut oil out of it. Now i think i can reseason it and use it again. Don’t know what my wife will think. But I think it is ok. Thanks again Gerald
thanks for the great tip , i just got a cast iron frying pan and didn’t know how to season it.
Years ago I was given a set of cast iron pans that were from the turn of the century (1900)I did the usual thing of cleaning them out with a cloth and they stayed fine but I never liked the idea of the old oils and food bits left. One day while watching Julia Child I was thrilled to see that she had a far easier way to deal with her pans and I have used it ever since with great relief!
After cooking I scrub the pan with hot water and soap! I rinse it and put it on the stove (gas) and heat it to dry it. Then hang it up. When I need it again I heat the pan and do not put oil in until the pan it hot.
Julia’s motto was “hot pan, cold oil”. It works wonders and I have wonderful pans that I use every day.
We’ve got several cast iron pans which were in a sorry state when we acquired them. I put them all in a bonfire in which they glowed cherry red at the height of the fire. Once cooled (the next day), they simply needed a quick wash to bring them back to as new condition before seasoning in the usual way.
I do the same as Carl: throw old cast iron pans into a fire or the woodstove and let the fire take care of the crud. It works beautifully and is very easy!
My grandmother always used the bonfire approach to clean the crust off of her skillets as well. She would usually put it into the coals late in the day and let it stay all night. By the next morning, it would be ready. She also never used oil to season her skillet, only lard or shortening. She always did wash hers with soap and water, but never let it soak. I usually just scrub mine out using very hot tap water and a plastic bristle dish brush. I agree with Chastity that making lots of cornbread really helps them season out well.