removing rust from cast ironA rusty cast iron skillet is not the end of the world — actually, removing rust from cast iron is pretty easy with the right steps and keeping it rust-free can be just as easy.

Cast iron skillets have been around for centuries and that’s a pretty good indication they can survive a little rust.

The primary cause for rust on any iron surface is moisture.

If moisture can penetrate an iron surface, in the right conditions, it will start the rusting process and will not be readily visible. You see, rust is a chemical reaction caused by the combination of iron and oxygen in a moisture or water-rich environment.

This chemical reaction, if not stopped, will continue to eat away at the skillet metal like an untreated disease.

Causes for Cast Iron Skillet Rust

If you see rust damage forming on your cast iron skillet then it can be due to several different reasons that are noted below.

Through the process of elimination, you should be able to narrow down what the offending cause is, in your situation, and then take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again:


  • The seasoned surface of a cast iron skillet has become scratched through use, allowing water to come in contact with the iron. The seasoning is no longer providing protection by sealing the cast iron from moisture.
  • Pitting on the cast iron skillet surface is largely due to rust in today’s skillets and can be found in older skillets from excessive exposure to the sulfur found in natural gas at high heat.
  • Putting a cast iron skillet away clean but still damp, without proper drying or air circulation, can also promote the development of rust.

Tips for Removing Rust from Cast Iron

The Baking Soda Option

removing rust from cast iron with baking sodaPlain household baking soda and water is an option to remove light spot rusting on a skillet.

Rinse the skillet first to remove any surface rust and then liberally sprinkle baking soda over the offending areas like an abrasive cleanser.

Use a non-metallic scrubber to remove the rust. If you use a metal scouring pad or brush, you run the risk of scratching any seasoned surface still bonding to the skillet.

When the rust has been removed, thoroughly dry the skillet because the next step is re-seasoning. You do not want to start the re-seasoning process until you are sure the skillet is completely dry.

You may need to heat your skillet for a minute or two to evaporate any remaining dampness following the baking soda scrub.

The White Vinegar Option

Another option for removing rust from cast iron, using a readily available household product, is to mix equal parts of white vinegar and water. This solution is more for moderate rusting over a larger portion of the cast iron skillet surface – top or bottom.

removing rust from cast iron with vinegarThis method involves submerging your entire skillet in a vinegar and water bath. Remember, equal parts vinegar and water.

Only spot applying this solution to a specific area of your cast iron cookware may cause discoloration.

Leave the skillet submerged for 30 minutes to start. Based on the severity of the rust, more soaking time may be needed.

After soaking, remove any offending rust using a metal scouring pad like steel wool. In this instance, the entire skillet it being treated and not spot areas as in The Baking Soda Option so metal scrubbers are okay to use.

When you’ve successfully removed all the rust, then completely dry the skillet, heating it if necessary to ensure no moisture remains. Then re-season the entire skillet, inside and out.

The Lye Option

lye to remove rust from cast ironThen there’s the dreaded lye option for removing rust from cast iron — the process for using lye can be found elsewhere on the internet and will not be detailed here.

Be prepared to suit up if you are going to undertake this method for removing major rust from cast iron cookware.

You’ll be up to your elbows in chemicals and fumes, and at more risk for injury than what it’s worth (in my opinion).

If you’ve come to this stage in removing rust, you’re likely someone who wants to experiment or you have a fearless curiosity about the process itself. For most, buying a new skillet may be the better option.

The 4 Most Important Keys to Rust-Free Cast Iron

  • Keep your cast iron very, very dry. If you’re unsure, heat your skillet following cleaning for a minute or two to evaporate any remaining moisture.
  • Flip those burgers with something other than a metal spatula or turn that fried chicken with something other than a two-pronged metal fork or metal tongs. Don’t run the risk of slicing through any non-stick layers. Moisture will find a way to get in.
  • Re-season your skillet with some frequency – seasoning will wear with washing and skillet use. Keep the non-stick layers intact to protect the raw iron below.
  • Don’t stack your cast iron cookware without having a paper plate or paper towel between the pans — this will keep the skillets from scratching each other and prematurely wearing down layers of your non-stick seasoning.

Removing rust from cast iron is a very manageable process but keeping your cast iron rust-free is even easier with the tips above.

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