Restore Rusty Cast Iron (Without a Self-Cleaning Oven)

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
PHOTO: Stephanie Staton

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.

What You 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: Remove the Grime

First, the built-up grime needs to be removed from the cast iron. Follow the instructions on the oven cleaner, and work in a well-ventilated environment. Working over the disposable aluminum 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: Bag It

Place the cast iron piece and aluminum pan 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 cookware sit in the bag in a well-ventilated area or outside in dry weather for about two days.

Step 3: Repeat if Needed

Check the cookware piece after two days, and spray again if any buildup or grime remains. Repeat the process until the cookware is clean. This can take as long as a week for some pieces.

Step 4: Wipe and Wash

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

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Step 5: Remove the Rust

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

Step 6: Prepare the Oven

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.

Step 7: Scrub the Cookware

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: Season the Cookware

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: Turn Up the Heat

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: Apply Olive Oil

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: Gradually Cool It Down

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.

To learn more about cast iron, see Hobby Farms stories including 8 Foods That Taste Better in Cast Iron, 3 Recipes that Flaunt Cast Iron’s Versatility, Clean and Refurbish Cast Iron, and 4 Cast Iron Kitchen Accessories.

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