Cast Iron Set

How To Clean And Restore Cast Iron Pans

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Have you wondered how to clean and restore cast iron pans? If so, I have you covered today. This post is a few years old, but we can always use a reminder on how to take care of cast iron pans, right? I’m updating this post from 2019 because I feel strongly that people should invest in cast-iron cookware if they haven’t already, particularly if they plan to do some camping, but also to help them be better prepared.

Please remember those beautiful enameled cast iron Dutch Ovens are designed for cooking inside on the stovetop or in your oven but not outside. The enamel products are more “touchy” and could get damaged with outside use. I have a beautiful red one I use for Sour Dough Bread, soup, and chili. Red Dutch Oven

How To Clean And Restore Cast Iron Pans

Mark and I were at a friend’s home the other day and she said she was giving an old rusty Dutch oven to the thrift store in town. Then I said, “You’ll be sorry if you do!”

I explained to her how awesome it is if you have one Dutch oven that’s cleaned and ready to go. It’s one of the best emergency items you can store for cooking or just boiling water. Then we talked about storing charcoal briquettes in air-tight containers to be used when she puts that Dutch oven to work. Just think, when it comes to cooking she will be set for almost any disaster. Of course, you’ll need some matches.

Related: Why You Need Cast Iron Pans

Scrub With Soapy Water

Here’s the deal, you can scrub them with warm or soapy hot water using dish soap, rinse, then pat them dry, and season them before “baking” them. If there is a thin layer of “crud” to get clean, a scrub brush or small scrubber may do the trick. When there are layers of residue or some rust, you may need to use some fine steel wool to get them smooth, or what I like to call getting down to the raw cast iron. They will look like new, I promise. Consider using rubber gloves during these steps to protect your hands, and possibly that last manicure.

I bought some used units, including a rusty cast iron skillet, and they were so rusty, but I used some elbow grease and they were ready to restore to like new condition. The ones I purchased looked like they had been left in the sink to soak. That’s not a good thing to do. Yes, they will rust if you do that, and I mean big-time rust.

Some Cast Iron Cookware Needs Special Cleaning

Please be aware you may find some that will need to be sand-blasted. You may want to compare the price of that to buying brand-new ones or just buying some rusty ones from a garage sale or thrift store. It was luck that I found some really bad rusty ones, but they were not flaked. I guess that’s how I would describe it. So, what I’m saying is don’t be afraid of the rust, that’s fixable, in most cases.

I remember when I was a little girl my mom always had a cast iron pan on the stove for scrambled eggs and bacon. Oh yes, we saved that bacon grease in the refrigerator, too! I’ve been on the lookout for additional used cast iron pans, Dutch ovens, griddles, etc. for a few years. They are getting harder and harder to find at thrift stores. I enjoy sharing them with family and friends, can cleaning them brings me joy!

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Fire Pit

We have slowly been buying a few pieces of cast iron here and there. My goal is to build a fire pit when it gets warmer, right here in northern Utah near my new home. I have a Lodge tripod to hold a cooking pot over the fire. Can you just picture that, or is it just me? I can hardly wait to build my fire pit.

Oh, I want it for roasted marshmallows, but I really want to be able to cook outside over a fire. Yes, my family will smell like we have been camping. I suppose you could call it wishful thinking on my end.

I love having some cast iron to cook with, especially outside because I don’t want to drag my other pans outside. A few years ago I was out in Hurricane, Utah at one of my favorite antique stores looking at treasures. The store has some great finds because at one time all those items were a treasure to someone.

They told me one lady came in and bought all the cast iron pots and Dutch ovens in the store a few days before I came to visit them. We are talking about filling the back of her car. Then I asked the owner if they were Lodge or another American-made cast iron. He said he had some made in China, but this lady only wanted American-made cast iron pieces. That’s all I want as well in my cast iron pans or pots.

How To Restore Cast Iron Pans:

Lightly sand the cast iron with fine steel wool, if needed, as explained above.

Wash the cast iron pans in warm soapy water

The second thing you will do with your cast iron is to wash it in warm soapy water. You’ll need to dry it before we do the next step. The towel I used to dry the cast iron pieces had some residue on it after wiping down the cast iron lid. So I re-washed the lid a little more. It had some black residue that was wiped off. I washed it until it no longer left that little black stuff on the towel.

Some people like to use a white vinegar solution to help clean their cast iron. Vinegar is a safe cleaning solution and is not harmful to humans in small amounts. Others have tried to use oven cleaners like Easy Off or a lye bath. I worry about the environmental effects of these approaches on me and my family, so I haven’t taken either of those approaches.

Don’t ever put your cast iron cookware in your dishwasher. The chemicals in the dishwasher soaps and cleaners can do harm to the surface.

Washing Cast Iron Pans

Foil on the bottom oven rack

Next, take all the racks out of your oven but the two bottom ones. Lay a large piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack. It will catch the drips, if any, from the vegetable oil if it happens to drip down from the seasoning step. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Spray or wipe the cast iron pans with vegetable oil

Now you can wipe with vegetable oil, or as in my case, I used a vegetable spray. The Lodge book showed using some type of spray product, so that’s how I seasoned mine. Make sure you spread the oil all over the pan, including the legs, lid handle, and pan handle. The next step is to place the cast iron items with the vegetable spray side down.

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You can use other oil-based products for this step, like Crisco, shortening, cooking oil, or even pure butter. If you do use butter, remember it has a lower smoke point than most cooking oils. It’s suggested you use low heat to season with butter and wait until the butter has disappeared. You can use a small brush or even a sponge for this step.

Although I sprayed the inside and outside and on every crevice, I still turned the pan upside down. This is where the foil is needed on the lower shelf of the oven to catch any drips.

Cast Iron Being Oiled

Bake the cast iron pans at (350°F) = (176°C) degrees

Bake the cast iron for 60 minutes, turn off the oven, and let them cool down overnight. Be careful when handling those hot pans as they come out of the oven. After this initial seasoning, you should be able to take these camping or use them outside and wipe out the residue from your meal while the pan is hot and it is good to go until the next time you use it. They almost act like they have a non-stick cooking surface when properly seasoned.

Bake The Cast Iron In The Oven

Paper Towels

I did learn a few things we need to do to keep our cast iron looking good and keep it from rusting. Place a few sheets of paper towels between the lid and the pan when storing them. Add a few sheets of paper towels in the bottom of the pan as well. I bought covers for all of my Dutch ovens, or at least the ones I use most often. Those Dutch ovens I store in the garage ready to grab and take anywhere to go camping or use at parties.

Easy Peasy Steps

  1. wash with warm soapy water if the food sticks (hopefully, you won’t have to do this if you keep the cast iron seasoned)
  2. pat dry
  3. oil them
  4. bake them
  5. store them

They will last a lifetime if you take proper care of them. I only buy Lodge cast iron products. That may sound snotty, but they’re made in the USA! May God bless you for being better prepared. I also try to shy away from using too many acidic foods like tomatoes when cooking in my cast iron products. The acid can deteriorate the pan’s seasoning, adding to my cleanup efforts.

Final Word

There is something awesome about having cast iron pans, skillets, Dutch ovens, and griddles. They will last a lifetime, if you take proper care of them. If you can restore cast iron pans back to near their original state, why not do it? You’ll have pans you can use inside and outside your home. It’s all about being prepared for the unexpected. May God bless this world, Linda

Copyright Images: Cast Iron Frying Pans Depositphotos_285747808_S, Large Black Cast Iron Pan Depositphotos_560369894_S, Cast Iron Set, Cast Iron Being Oiled AdobeStock_340763380 By Bruce Peter MorinAdobeStock_315635036 By arinahabich

Readers comments:

Janet: I use kosher salt and a fresh potato to get mine clean. I always have salt and a potato, I don’t always have steel wool. I then season them with coconut oil and put them in the oven. I also use coconut oil, to keep my cutting boards from cracking after I wash them.

Beth: Linda, you’re apparently in love with Lodge. But don’t pass up Griswold, if you run across some in a thrift or antique shop. They are older than the Lodge brand but stopped production before or around the time of World War II. I still have and use Mother’s. It’s like the Fire King items, the original is better.

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28 Comments

  1. Hi Linda,
    I love cast iron,although I don’t use it everyday due to the weight and my arthritic hands. I have 2 durch ovens, 2 different sized frying pans, a corn bread pan, a griddle, and 2 loaf pans. I use lard to season mine and never use cooking spray on them. The seasoning lasts much longer than vegetable oil. I also have a cast iron wood cookstove and a firepit. Everyone needs a Dutch oven as they are so versitle.

    1. HI Liz, it sounds like you are equipped with many cast iron pans! My mom used lard to season hers. You are so lucky to have a cast iron stove and a firepit! You can survive anything! I love it! Linda

  2. Hi Linda,

    Great article.

    The absolute easiest way I have found to clean cast iron (not the rust, just burned on gunk, like what you find with used pans), is to put them in the oven on the oven cleaning setting. The pans come out looking like brand new and are then ready to season.

    Jennifer (PrepSchoolDaily dot blogspot dot com)

  3. I agree with Janet regarding the potato and salt. I gave my daughter a frying pan that was too large for me (1 person household). It was well seasoned and I told her how to care for it but unfortunately, she didn’t heed my instructions! She finally reseasoned hers and it is now good as gold.

    I was out at a friend’s home the other day. He is a cast iron fanatic and goes to a lot of estate sales and auctions. He buys up ALL the cast iron! He must have 60-70 pieces at this time and I don’t know how many he has sold or given away. Anyway, long story short, he had a DO (without the legs and with a lid) that I thought my daughter could use in her oven. He also had a flat griddle (round tortilla cooker) that I thought she would use as well. So, I asked him what he wanted for them. He hmmd and hawed for a while and said nothing. We continued to have conversation and finally I asked again. He quoted me $15 for both!!!!! Then as we were talking, he wanted me to teach him a skill that I have so I have traded my skill for his cast iron. I may have gotten the worst of the deal, however!!

    I was at a store a couple of years ago and was looking at new Lodge cast iron. I noticed that Lodge has or had at the time, a spray seasoning. So, I looked at the ingredients and it is/was the same as PAM. So I use PAM to keep my cast iron seasoned.

    Also, if you are out camping and something gets really stuck to the cast iron, add some wood ash from the fire to the pot and some oil. Bring all of that to a boil and it will come clean. Be sure to have something to reseason the pots/pans though as the ash/water/oil will make soap in the pot! I have done this and to reseason it while camping, I simply cooked bacon and after it was cooked, used the bacon grease to reseason it. On another quick note, if you have cooking utensils that have stubborn cooked on gunk, you can do the same thing with a pan/water/ash/oil and soak the utensils to clean them.

    1. Hi Leanne, wow your friend has a lot of cast iron pans! That was a great deal for your daughter. It’s nice to have a DO with legs and one without. The tortilla maker would be awesome too! Linda

  4. I have a problem with the outside of my cast iron frying pan – it has become coated with something, I assume that I have not always properly scrubbed the outside of the pan, and now it has a crust of something – burned grease? I would like to remove it, but scrubbing doesn’t have any effect, at this time.

    1. Hi Janet, you may want to try what Jennifer said and clean it with your oven? I haven’t tried it that but you may want to look into that. Those pans can be hard to scrub. Linda

  5. I’ve had a couple of skillets that had never been cleaned on the outside. I put a steel brush in my drill and scrubbed 30 years of campfire crud off the bottom. then I seasoned it as usual. After that there were no more “hot spots” or not so hot spots. The inside had been cared for properly, because they were used frequently. If you are desperate enough to use the steel brush, be sure to wear eye protection and long sleeves because that crust comes off in chunks sometimes, at high speed.

  6. Hi Linda,
    I do so enjoy all of your wonderful information and advice! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    As for this post, I am wondering if there is such a thing as light weight cast iron cooking vessels?!?!

    I have a large cast iron skillet that is so heavy I have never used it. I can barely lift the thing, but perhaps this is where I could get my husband involved in the cooking process! Hmmm, that is a pretty good idea! I will be sure to get it well seasoned even though it says it is already seasoned.

    1. Hi Kathleen, only the small cast iron pans are somewhat lightweight. I can’t buy anything bigger than a 6-quart Dutch Oven. Once filled I cannot lift it. I have a 12-inch skillet with small handles on two sides. It is heavy but boy does it make the food taste good! I keep it out on my stove every day ready to use. When I was younger I didn’t think about the weight of the pans, now I do. But my pizza one makes the best pizza in the oven or on the barbecue. The small frying pans are not too heavy, but I use hot pads on both sides. Linda

  7. Linda,
    Just a comment for those who find cast iron too heavy to handle. While we do have cast iron Dutch ovens and fry pans, we also have carbon steel fry pans that are cleaned and treated just like cast iron, only they are much lighter. Lodge makes them in 8, 10 and 12 inch sizes. There are several other reputable companies that make them as well. Just do a search for “carbon steel fry pan” to see what is available. I can’t remember off hand the brand, but we also have a carbon steel 10 inch wok depth fry pan as well. These are great and work just like cast iron.

  8. Linda,

    Superb article and a great tip by Harry as well.

    Jane finds cast iron too heavy to use, but I refuse to get rid of it because, among other reasons, cornbread just doesn’t taste as good if it isn’t baked in a cast iron pan.

    1. Hi Ray, there are some foods that have to be cooked in cast iron pans/skillets. LOL! It is heavy so I leave the large fry pan on the stove top. I can’t get rid of mine either. Linda

      1. When I was in my 20’s I had bought a single wide trailer home for $200. No stove in it so I stopped at a garage sale where they had an electric stove. They said it worked (it did). I didn’t really look that hard at it. It was only $10! We wedged it in my trunk of my hulking old car, lol. When I got it home, I found a huge cast iron skillet in the oven, a smaller one in the bottom drawer. Not nice of me but I didn’t return these skillets. My 24 yr old son is using the smaller skillet as he didn’t want the New one I’d bought for him, giggle. Wierd but it was bright shiny silver with instructions to season and bake. Oh, it then blackened, and works great. It was $10 at Dollar General. Just wanted to share this purchase with others because cast iron is pricey. Gotta say, this skillet is great, no different than my old ones.

        1. HI Wendy, thank you for sharing this awesome story! I can visualize you trying to get an electric stove in the back of your car. LOL! Oh these memories are the best thing ever! BONUS, to get two cast iron skillets in the stove! Squeal! The Dollar stores are the best! Love this! Linda

  9. One of my cast iron skillets belonged to my grandmother who was born in 1901. I have a whole set. Such oven, skillets, sauce pans and griddle. I have a shallow skillet that is my cornbread pan. Love my cast iron. One skillet is 4-inches tall. Chicken fried. LOL

  10. Hi Linda, Are you saying, if after you have cooked something and you didn’t wipe the residue out
    and you have to re-wash the pot, does that mean you have to go through all the steps again ie
    washing the pot, drying it, oiling it and baking it again or do you just wash it. I have several cast
    iron pieces but have never used them. I guess I should get them ready for use for whatever comes
    along if you know what I mean!

    1. Hi Sharon, ONCE your pans are “seasoned” you should be able to just wipe them out with hot water and a rag. I place paper towels between them when I store them. It just depends on how often they are used. The more you use them they become more seasoned and need very little cleaning. (within reason) It you let the pan sit after cooking it’s a lot harder to just wipe it clean with hot water and a rag. I hope this helps, Linda

  11. Linda:

    You forget my handy hint. Of course my husband said that you should do that only to really scuzzy pans you buy at yard sales or resale shops,

    1. HI Jackie, oh some really bad cast iron pans are not fixable. One time someone brought one over to me to look at and it was do damaged I said it would have to be sand blasted or whatever they call it. It was not flat either, that’s a problem. I’m not sure what happened to that skillet. Linda

  12. Linda:

    The thing about Jacks method is that it is so easy that you don’t have a problem. Dig a hole put a old trunk hood in the bottom and then put wood in and start a fire. Make sure it is deep enough and then put the pan (s) in on top of wood put the hood of the old car on top of the pans and leave it for 24 hours. I have seen some really scuzzy pans come out looking new. Then you take a piece of sandstone and scrape anything left on the pan off. Then follow the instructions you said. Make sure the hole is about 2 1/2 feet down and do not do it anywhere you have trees because you can cause problems big time. But I still have pans that I use that my husband did that way and they are still fantastic to use.

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