Learn how to restore and season a cast iron pan. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to easily remove rust and get that old pan back on the stove!
I love a good challenge.
Especially in the kitchen!
So Handan and I were out at our favorite antique shop the other day looking for props for my food posts. As we prepare to launch a dedicated food blog, I’m starting to up my food photography game. It’s an ultra-competitive field, and great photos are a must to succeed.
You’ve already seen some of the new-style photos. The first picture I took with my new props was to update my blue cheese dressing recipe.
I had to update that post first, because my recent buffalo chicken salad recipe calls for my blue cheese dressing. Couldn’t have such stylistic discord by keeping my crappy old blue cheese dressing photos!
And now, before I get to the cast iron pan restoration, I will leave you with the latest food photo I took with my new props. These are the brownies I made in The Giving Dish. This photo is nothing more than a teaser to whet your appetite for the recipe. 🙂
Okay, back to the cast iron pan…
As I said, my babes and I were out antiquing (anyone else not like that term?), and I spied this forlorn and forgotten cast iron pan in the corner of one of the consignment booths.
I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure the last time this pan saw action, the Mid-Atlantic accent was still in fashion, and The National Horse Shoe Company was the darling stock of cigar-chomping Wall Street Banksters.
Of course, I knew immediately that I had to own such a useless artifact, rust, dust and all! I snatched my prize from its table and placed it atop the teetering prop-heap in our shopping cart.
My babes cast an eyeball in my direction.
“What?” I said. “I’m gonna restore it!”
Her eyeball slid down to my rusty treasure, then back up to me.
“Okay, my babes,” she said, and left it at that.
How to Restore a Cast Iron Pan
Once home, I set to work. For most rusty cast iron pans, a simple scrubbing with salt and an abrasive sponge will do the trick. But this wasn’t “most rusty pans.” This particular pan looked to have been corroding since the Coolidge administration.
Still, I gave it a go with some coarse sea salt and a regular-duty green scrubby.
After 5 minutes, I knew I was on the wrong track, so I upgraded my weaponry. This copper scrubby should have the power I required.
A little more salt to help my endeavor.
And after 10 minutes of grueling arm-work that would have made Popeye proud, I was still faced with this.
Worlds better, but still worlds away from being useful for anything other than a photo prop. And really, as a photo prop for a food blog, I don’t think it would work. Who wants to see food perched on or next to a rusty pan?
Whenever I’m stumped with a problem, I usually find the answer in a jug of distilled vinegar. This stuff is pure magic. As a dilute acid, it can work miracles on rust and other nasty buildups around the house.
I set my pan in a baking dish large enough to hold it.
Then I filled the pan and baking dish with vinegar until the pan was completely submerged.
I’ve heard some say to leave a pan for 1 to 2 hours. This pan wasn’t a normal case. I left it all afternoon and overnight.
The next morning, it looked like this.
I pulled it out of its acidic bath, and to my dismay…it looked the same!
I figured I’d just rinse off the vinegar and give up, but then I decided to try scrubbing one more time.
Holy cow! The rust fell off with each scrub!
Chalk up another win for vinegar!
Soon, I had the pan looking almost as good as new. The decades of corrosion had left the cooking surface pitted and pockmarked – those imperfections can’t be fixed, but the rust was gone. Just to make sure I got all the pits cleaned out, I gave it another 2-hour bath and then a final scrubbing.
In the future, I would skip the initial scrubbing and go directly to the vinegar bath. If after 24 hours and scrub, it still needed more, I’d give it another bath. I’d prefer to give time rather than energy to my next cast iron pan restoration!
You can see all the iron dust in the sink.
This pan is as restored as it’s going to get without bringing in power tools.
But it’s not ready for cooking. First this cast iron pan needs to be seasoned.
Seasoning Cast Iron Pans
Why Season Cast Iron Pans?
Seasoning cast iron accomplishes two things:
- It prevents rust. Cast iron is not stainless steel – it rusts when exposed to water or humidity.
- Over time, regular seasoning will produce a nearly-non-stick cooking surface.
Now, this particular pan will probably never be non-stick again due to the corrosive pitting, but that’s okay. It’s main job from here on out is as a photo prop.
How Does Seasoning Work?
Seasoning simply means wiping a very thin coat of oil all over the pan and then baking it. The heat polymerizes the oil – that is, it hardens it into a protective shell. Certain oils like walnut oil and linseed oil polymerize without baking – that’s why they are used as finishes in woodworking. But for cooking, vegetable oils are best, and they are easily polymerized with heat.
The Enemies of Seasoned Cast Iron
Acid is the number one enemy of seasoned cast iron pans, and if you’re not inclined to be seasoning on a regular basis, it’s best to avoid cooking acidic foods for prolonged periods. This means tomato sauces, anything with lime or lemon juice or vinegar. But even simmering or braising non-acidic foods will eventually take its toll on a seasoned pan. Also, the protective polymer shell will break down after prolonged exposure to ultra-high temperatures, like those achieved when searing meat.
How Often Should You Season Your Cast Iron Pans?
As often as needed, and that is going to differ from cook to cook. I need to season often, because I don’t follow the rules, and I’m always cooking tomato-based sauces and other acidic foods in my cast iron pans. But that’s okay, I don’t mind the process! A well-seasoned pan will have a glossy black finish, with no dull or flat areas. You’ll often find the flat area in the middle of the pan, and over time, it will spread outward. Best to season before that happens.
How to Season a Cast Iron Pan
Step 1 – Preheat oven
Preheat oven to 375 f (190 c), and cover the bottom of the over with aluminum foil.
Step 2 – Oil the pan
To season a cast iron pan, add a spoonful of vegetable/canola/sunflower oil to the pan (don’t use olive oil, as it has a smoke point of about 350 degrees – below the temp you’ll be seasoning at) and wipe it around with a paper towel. Be sure to oil every bit of the pan, including the handle. Wipe off any excess oil – you don’t want to see it running or pooling anywhere. Too much oil will leave your pan tacky.
This is the amount of oil you want.
Place the pan upside down in the oven and bake for 1 hour. After an hour, turn off the heat, and let the pan cool in the oven.
Step 3 – Repeat, if necessary
Most places will tell you that your pan is ready after one seasoning – and if you’re just doing a maintenance seasoning on your pan, that may be the case. But I’ve found for pans that have needed to be restored first – that is, they needed rust removal and deep scrubbing – 3 and sometimes 4 seasoning are necessary to bring the pan back to where it needs to be.
For this little disaster, I seasoned it 5 times. I probably could have stopped after 3 or 4, but I had the time, so I kept going. The picture below is how it looked after the first seasoning. You can see the sidewalls of the pan are blotchy with dull areas – indicative of a need for further seasoning.
What a difference!
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