How To Clean and Restore Rusty Cast Iron Skillets

October, 2015 · By Coryanne Ettiene

I’ve spent the last few years falling in love with junking, and always pass by those old rusty cast iron pots and pans when I meander through a junk yard and wonder…. are those kitchen heirlooms really worth all the trouble?  To be honest, I never knew how to restore rusty cast iron skillets so I assumed it was just a lost cause.  Most often, they are pilled high, nearly leaning over looking as if they are there more for aesthetics than as trinkets to buy.  The slight shift of wind hints at a plume of rusty dust, and if you get too close, the rust practically jumps at you to get your attention.  Does anyone ever buy them? I have never seen anyone walking through a junk yard, or a vintage market with rusty cast iron pots, I see everyone looking, gazing and swooning, but never buying….   so I did what any moderately logical person wearing a brand new white T-shirt would do this summer: I bought a few dozen pots for a small fortune and marched out with a rusty, once white T-shirt with hands, arms, legs and shorts to match grinning from ear to ear with my new treasure.

Soaking a cast iron pot by Coryanne Ettiene

The junker who sold me these pots said, “oh it is so easy, just soak them in vinegar, and they will wipe clean with little effort”.  I love this guy, he has the best stuff, but I’m pretty sure that he also sold a few beans to Jack last year.  15 gallons of vinegar, 4 huge plastic bins, 3 dozen rags and a few pairs of gloves later…  oh wait, did I mention the vinegar wafting through the 100F Dallas heat on the one day where there was a slight breeze?  Our neighbors smiled at me, and then walked inside and cursed me for a few days (this I am certain of even though they are the best neighbors you could ask for, I for this reason, am not). 

Yes it is easy.  There, really is very little to do other than fill the tubs, submerge the pots, soak them for a few days, wipe them clean and then repeat until they vinegar runs clear.  But the smell, I cannot mention that enough because, frankly, there will be a smell, a very strong smell, especially if like me you decided that you need to refinish a few dozen really large cauldrons.  But in the end it is worth it.

Scrubbing a cast iron pot by Coryanne Ettiene

A few tips on How To Clean and Restore Rusty Cast Iron Skillets:

  1. Do not do this in a garage or a closed space. Let your neighbors curse you for a few days.  Trust me, you will need air flow around you while you do this, because everything you touch will smell of vinegar to the point that you yourself start smelling of vinegar.  Or maybe, just do a single pot at a time, and start with a frying pan and not a trunk load of them like I did.
  2. Rinse those vinegar jugs out after you pour them into your plastic tub to keep your recycling bin from stinking of vinegar, then seal the cap back on.  See the trend here?
  3. Wear gloves, nice thick gloves as long as you can find them.  It is amazing how far rust can fly and spray when you are scrubbing.
  4. Just toss the rags.  I thought I would be ecological about this, rinse them with a hose, air dry them and start again.  But no.  Just toss them.  It is not worth it, the rust will get everywhere. And avoid the urge to use a rusty rag to wipe them clean, that will only move the rust around.
  5. If you want them aged and slightly rusty but not fully clear of rust, watch them carefully. Then gently scrub them and then oil them even after they are dry to keep the rust from spreading.  You can always remove more rust later, but adding  rust is not possible  if you are looking for an authentic age; old rust has a certain patina to it that can easily be identified, just as ‘new rust’ can be easily spotted.  Once the old rust is gone, it is gone so work carefully.  And if you are using your new slightly rusty pots for display, make sure that the bottom is rust free and well oiled around the base and an inch from the base to prevent anything it sits on from rusting.
  6. If you want them good as new, restored and ready to cook with, keep rinsing them in vinegar until they are free from rust, then dry them really well, then season them really well.  I know that it seems like a waste, but buy cheap ground meat (or onions if you prefer), and cook them in your restored pot a few times before you actually use it to cook a meal with.  Once you smell the season of your pan and not the vinegar, you are all set bring them into your kitchen.

Oh and the small fortune.  My cast iron pans were between $10 and $20 a piece, my meat grinder and my big cauldrons that I will use for display in the new Ettiene Market opening this Fall, were $60 a piece.  I hope this quick guide on how to restore rusty cast iron skillets has inspired you to collect a few more kitchen treasures.  Happy junking!


How to clean a cast iron pots by Coryanne Ettiene

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