How to clean a rusty cast iron skillet with salt

If you’ve gone into a vintage store, no doubt you’ve come across an old cast iron skillet.

You look it over and see there is a little rust on it, but overall it seems in tact and solid. Can it be revived? Should you get it? I’d say, most definitely!

Now, if there are holes, it’s warped or cracked, I would say forgo buying it, but if it’s free of these issues that cast iron skillet can be brought back to life.

Cast iron has been around for years and families even have skillets that have been passed down from generation to generation. Rust is really a minor issue and can be easily remedied.

Cast iron will last for years, and if you know the basics of maintenance can be revived in very little time with a few items you have around your house. So purchase that old cast iron skillet, and let’s bring it back to life!

Lodge Cast Iron 10.25" Skillet

Hard Bristle Brushes

How Rust Happens

You have a rusty cast iron skillet, now what?

Before I get into how to revive it, let’s chat about how it got into this condition in the first place, so hopefully you can avoid being in this position in the future. Cast iron and water don’t mix, it’s as simple as this. When water is left in a cast iron skillet, rust can develop.

This means you may leave other pans and dishes in the sink to soak, but you should not do this with your cast iron. Using the dishwasher for your cast iron is also a “no-no”. How quickly it rusts and the severity depend on a number of factors, but the bottom line is leaving water in your cast iron skillet will create rust.

That is why when you are seasoning your cast iron skillet, it’s important to dry it fully after washing it and before adding oil. It’s also important to limit the amount of soap you use, so you don’t break down the protective barrier of oil on your cast iron.

When you know the culprit, it’s often easier to avoid the rust even forming.

Typical Cleaning Routine of Cast Iron

Before we jump into the specifics of how to clean rust off your cast iron skillet, we need to cover how you season your cast iron as well as a typical cleaning routine. I want to make sure you have all the basics down and the know-how to maintain your cast iron before we tackle the issue of rust. 

If you know how to properly care for your cast iron skillet, you will have a better chance of avoiding rust in the future!

    1. Clean your cast iron skillet. Make sure all bits of food are removed from the skillet. I like to use a hard-bristled brush to do this with some water. I avoid using soap since it has a tendency to dry out the cast iron and strip what oils are coating my skillet.
    2. Dry it out. Dry your cast iron skillet with a hand towel or paper towel. It doesn’t matter what type of towel you use, just get it dry!
    3. Apply a thin layer of oil on your skillet. This can be whatever kind of oil you have on hand; I’d suggest avocado oil for it’s high smoke point and neutral flavor. I like to use my hand to smear it all around and make sure the entire pan is coated.
    4. Place your skillet in the oven at 375°F upside down for an hour. Make sure to place a pan underneath to catch any drips.
    5. Allow your pan to cool fully and then store it in your cupboard or on your oven if you use it often. Mine stays on the stove, because I use it on a daily basis.

You don’t need to do all these steps every time you clean your cast iron skillet. Most often, you just need to do steps 1-3 and can store it with a paper towel inside to soak up any extra oil.

Cleaning Rust with Salt

Alright, the moment you’ve been waiting for and the reason you’re here. You CAN clean rust off your cast iron skillet with salt and a potato! It sounds a bit bizarre, but it works great and is very easy to do.

    1. Coat your skillet with a thin layer of coarse sea salt. The coarser the salt, the less work you will have to do.
    2. Cut the end off a potato. Hold the potato with the cut end pointing down and on your pan. So flat side against the pan and the curved end will be in your palm.
    3. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Use the moisture from the potato and grit of the salt to scrub away any rust on your cast iron pan.
    4. Rinse and dry your cast iron. (Repeat steps 1-3 if necessary)
    5. Finally, season your cast iron pan, and you are ready to use it!

This is another reason cast iron is a great option. You can revive it with things you have around the house! No need to buy a special cleaner, just grab your salt and a potato. No doubt this is one of the reason cast iron has been around for so long!

Cleaning Cast Iron with Salt and Lemon (and other options)

If you don’t have a potato and salt lying around, there are other ways to get rid of rust from your cast iron pan.

    • Steel wool and soap

      Steel wool works great to get really thick rust off cast iron. Use a steel wool scrubby and a little mild soap to scrub off any rust. Then, rinse, dry and season.

    • Soak in water and vinegar

      Fill your sink with equal parts vinegar and water. If the rust is only on the inside of your skillet, I would just pour equal parts water and vinegar into the skillet. Let it soak, and the vinegar will get the rust off the pan. Then, scrub it clean. You can use a little mild dish soap to get rid of any vinegar scent if you want. Then, dry and season.

    • Soap, water and scrub brush

      If for some reason, you do not have a potato, you can sue a scrub brush and water. Coat the pan with coarse salt, then put a little water and mild dish soap in the pan and scrub until the rust is removed. Once again, rinse, dry and season your pan.

Any of these options will work without using soap, but if you have a hard time with the no-soap rule for cast iron using a mild dish soap is a great option. I personally avoid dish soap because I don’t want to strip oils from my skillet.

Thrift Store Cast Iron: knowing if it’s still good

While rust is not an issue when it comes to cast iron, there are a few issues that can make buying that vintage cast iron a bad idea.

    • Warping

      If the cast iron is warped, I would forego buying it. While this is more of a minor issue, it does mean the cast iron will heat very unevenly which is not ideal for cooking.

    • Cracks

      If a cast iron skillet has a crack, don’t buy it or if you own one throw it away. The crack will only get worse with the heating and cooling of the pan, and it could be dangerous if it cracked completely or even more while you were using it.

    • Holes

      Some vintage cast iron skillets you will find have holes in them. While they appear in great condition in every other way, this is not a pan you want to be using. First of all, how do you cook with a pan with a hole in it? Second, the hole indicates it was most likely used in an automotive shop.

Cast iron, most of the time, can be restored and brought back to it’s former glory, but if it has any of these three issues don’t buy it. If you own a skillet with one of these issues, throw it out. It’s cheaper and better in the long run to just get a new one.

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Wrapping Up:

Using Salt to Clean Cast Iron Rust

I’ve heard the question: can you cook with a rusty cast iron skillet?

The answer is a little rust is not going to hurt you, but why would you want to cook with a rusty pan when it can be brought back to life and the rust can be removed?

I would suggest taking the extra time, which is really only ten to fifteen minutes of work, to revive your cast iron pan back to it’s glossy-black color.

It will make maintenance easier, will hopefully take care of the rust issue for good and will ensure your cast iron skillet lasts for many years to come.

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