How to remove rust from cast iron and save your favorite skillet

So you haven’t seasoned your cast iron skillet—or worse, let it sit in a soaking tub—and now it’s full of rust. Fortunately, there is an answer to how to remove rust from cast iron, so don’t throw it away. Cast iron cookware is meant to last a lifetime, so even if you opt for a remote skillet or Dutch oven on selling cards, it’s possible to restore it to its highest level. Some of the steps may seem counterintuitive, but the goal here is to remove the layers of spice completely, and eliminate rust so you can start over with a fresh, new surface. Once your skillet is rust-free, make sure you get in the habit of cleaning and seasoning your cast iron properly so we don’t have to go through this again.

1. Soak your cast iron in vinegar (or don’t).

If you’re dealing with minor surface rust, you can probably skip this step, opting instead to use a scouring pad or kitchen towel to rub about 1/2 cup of kosher salt onto the surface of the pan until the rust stains are removed. For more serious cases, start with a vinegar soak. If you’re a *seasoned* cast iron user and know that immersion in liquid is a major issue, this might shock you, but don’t worry—you’ll be re-seasoning the pan before cooking in it again.

Mix equal parts water and distilled white vinegar and add it to a container that will fit into a rusty cast iron skillet, such as a bucket or deep fryer. Make sure the pan is completely submerged in the batter, with the handle included. Check the pan every 15 minutes or so, and remove it from the solution as soon as the rust flakes off easily. This process can take as little as an hour or as long as eight hours; Frequent check-ins are important to ensure that the pan is not soaked for longer than necessary. The vinegar solution will dissolve the rust, but once that is gone, it can penetrate further and start eating away at the original mold surface of the pan, which is the ultimate death sentence for the pan. If that happens, tuck it into a piece of chic farmhouse kitchen decor.

2. Scrub it and wash it well.

Wash the pan with a drop of mild dish soap and warm water, and scrub off any lingering rust with a mild abrasive sponge, such as the Green Scrub Pad or the Kamenoko Tawashi Palm Fiber Scrubber. It may require some elbow grease, depending on the severity of the rust in your cast iron. Always use warm water to clean cast iron after cooking, so it doesn’t warp or crack from cold shock, and here it will help speed up the drying process as well. Despite the myths, it’s okay to use a small amount of soapy water on cast iron at any time, especially at this point, since there’s no seasoning to spoil.

Dry the pan immediately and completely with kitchen or paper towels. Place it on the stove over low heat for a few minutes to dry out even more.

3. Cast iron re-detailing.

Now you’ll need to season your clean cast iron skillet to restore the protective layer of fat particles that stick to the pan, creating a nonstick cast iron surface and a dark, matte finish.