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Clean Rusty Cast Iron—No Self-cleaning Oven Required

Don’t toss out dirty, rusted cast-iron cookware. Restore pieces to their original luster and usability with this easy cleaning process.

By Lori Rice

Clean Rusty Cast Iron—No Self-cleaning Oven Required - Photo by Stephanie Staton (HobbyFarms.com)

It’s possible to restore the beautiful black sheen of neglected cast-iron cookware without using a self-cleaning oven. It takes patience and some heavy-handed scrubbing, but with the help of oven cleaner and white vinegar, your weathered collection will look like new.

The active ingredient in oven cleaner is lye, which raises some concerns for those who wish to clean chemical-free. Rest assured that your cookware will remain safe after restoration. Lye is a substance that attracts water from its surroundings; in this case, moisture in the air. This begins to dissolve the lye in the oven cleaner and very little is absorbed into the metal. The piece is also washed to remove residue. Rust is removed from cast iron using vinegar, which further neutralizes any remaining lye. Finally, the cast iron is washed, dried and seasoned, making this a food-safe method to restore your cookware.

You Will Need:

  • rubber gloves
  • 1 large disposable aluminum pan (large enough to hold the cast-iron piece)
  • 1 to 2 containers oven cleaner (Aerosol cleaner makes for easier application.)
  • 13-gallon trash bag
  • clean rag
  • dish soap
  • water
  • clean towels
  • distilled white vinegar (5-percent acidity)
  • 5- to 10-gallon bucket or tub (large enough to submerge the piece)
  • #0000 steel wool (or a non-metallic scrubbing pad, if you prefer)
  • cooling rack
  • olive oil
  • paper towels

Step 1
First, the built-up grime needs to be removed from the pan. Follow the instructions on the oven cleaner, and work in a well-ventilated environment. Working over the disposable pan and wearing rubber gloves, spray the cast-iron piece with oven cleaner. Spray until it’s generously and evenly coated. If there’s no buildup, skip to step 5.

Step 2
Place the cast-iron piece in the trash bag, and loosely tie the bag. This prevents the cleaner from evaporating and allows it to work, removing the grime. Let the bag sit in the pan in a well-ventilated area or outside in dry weather for about two days.

Step 3
Check the pan after two days, and spray again if any buildup or grime remains. Repeat the process until the pan is clean. This can take up to a week for some pieces.

Step 4
Wipe the oven cleaner away with a clean rag. Wash the cast iron with warm, soapy water, and towel dry. Discard the used disposable pan.

Step 5
Next, remove any rust. Fill the bucket or tub with a mixture of one part vinegar to eight parts warm water. Use enough to completely submerge the cast iron. Leave the cast iron in the solution for 30 minutes.

Step 6
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.

Step 7
With gloves on, remove the pan from the vinegar. Use the steel wool or scrubbing pad to thoroughly scrub the cast iron, removing any rust. Wash the piece with warm, soapy water, and towel dry.

Step 8
Now it’s time to season the cast-iron piece. Place the cast iron, upside down, in the hot oven. Leave for 30 minutes.

Step 9
Increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees F. Let the cast iron bake for an additional 45 minutes. Carefully remove the hot piece and transfer it to a cooling rack to cool for a few minutes. Turn off the oven.

Step 10
While the cast iron is still hot but cool enough to work with, use paper towels to generously rub it with olive oil. Saturate the surface. Use a clean paper towel to rub off any excess liquid, leaving the surface with a nice sheen.

Step 11
Place the cast iron back in the oven with the heat off and the door cracked. If restoring smooth-surfaced cast iron, wipe away any excess oil that builds up on the pan every 5 minutes until the pan is cool. If restoring a rough-surfaced piece, it can be left in the oven undisturbed until it cools. Once the pan cools it is ready for cooking and continued seasoning.

About the Author: Lori Rice is a nutritionist, freelance writer and author of The Everything Guide to Food Remedies (Adams Media, 2011). She shares her recipes, food photos and travel adventures on her blog, www.fakefoodfree.com.


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Clean Rusty Cast Iron—No Self-cleaning Oven Required

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Reader Comments
Does this method work...I have two cast iron frying pans that are old and have lots of built up on the outside and the inside...I have been doing the oven cleaner which is doing a great job. Now when it comes to seasoning the pans do you coat both the inside and the outside? thanks
Patty, Kenduskeag, ME
Posted: 9/21/2014 3:08:05 PM
Not sure this method of seasoning will work properly. The whole idea is to bake off the oil at very high heat, leaving an imperceptible coating of carbon; the carbon makes it non-stick. So, once the cookware is cleaned and dried, apply a thin, even coat of oil, then bake at the highest heat you can achieve. The oil will smoke off -- your smoke detectors will notice -- and you're left with only carbon.
Paul, Norwalk, CA
Posted: 8/28/2014 11:33:17 AM
Thanks. Amazing
rhonda, ohatchee, AL
Posted: 7/11/2014 7:00:20 PM
Lot of up down going back and forth to the kitchen,but worth it, my cast iron griddle looks great. Thanks for the info.
adela, inglis, FL
Posted: 7/6/2014 3:17:32 PM
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