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Repairing a Cast Iron Skillet

by Nick

One of the very first pieces of kitchen equipment I purchased with my own money was a cast iron skillet. The above skillet is the same one that I bought almost six years ago. POOR POOR SKILLET!

As you can see, it has seen better days. Generally, if you treat your cast iron skillet well, it won’t get like mine above. But after a few moves and years of use (some improper), mine just got a bit worn. A few months ago I noticed that it was starting to rust pretty badly and by the time I got around to fixing the problem, my skillet was almost entirely rusted out!

Now, some people might say that this means I need a new skillet, but oh no. One of the awesome things about these skillets is that with a little work and a few hours, you can bring it back to almost better than new status.

I figured I’d snap some photos as I went so you can repair any skillets that need repairing.

In fact, if you don’t have a cast iron skillet, you can almost certainly find one at a garage sale if you search around a bit. It’ll probably look as bad if not worse than mine, but with these steps, you can bring it back into good shape.

Cleaning the Skillet. You probably heard it: “Never ever put soap on your cast iron skillet!”

That’s generally good advice because it strips out all the oils that have seasoned the skillet. When we are looking at a skillet like mine though, step one in getting it back into good shape is to very thoroughly clean it.

That means getting off all the rust and crud and basically starting from scratch.

For this, you’re going to want to pick up some steel wool scrubbers!

scrub

Steel Wool is your friend.

Get some really hot water, a good amount of soap, and a scrubber and really go to town on the skillet. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard work.

You want to make sure you thoroughly scrub all the inside of the skillet. Get the sides and the bottom really well. Make sure all the rust is out. It’s going to take 10-15 minutes of good scrubbing to get the job done.

suds and water

The only time soap is okay.

After this, your arms will be exhausted, and you’ll have a nice clean skillet.

This was mine after about 15 minutes of scrubbing. Looking better already!

Clean, but rough.

Of course, the problem is that now this skillet is just a big piece of iron with no coating at all to protect stuff from sticking to it. One of the joys of having a good cast iron skillet is that almost nothing sticks to it.

Right now though, this pan is like Velcro. All the little crevices in the iron are going to make anything that touches it stick to it. You can see how it’s kind of a dull black/gray color. That means it’s clean, but not seasoned for cooking.

Seasoning the skillet. Honestly, the hard part is over. Now we just need to get the skillet ready for cooking.

Seasoning, as it’s called, involves cooking a very light layer of fat or oil in the skillet for many hours. As the skillet heats up, the metal expands slightly and the iron basically absorbs the fat. Then as it cools, the oil sticks on the skillet and makes it shiny, smooth, and most importantly non-stick.

You can use vegetable oil for this, but honestly, bacon grease is the best thing for it. So assuming you’re not vegetarian, pull out some good fatty bacon.

bacon

Bacon is always good.

Add the bacon to your cast iron skillet and put the skillet on very low heat. After about 20 minutes, most of the fat should have rendered out of the bacon.

You should end up with something like this!

cooking

You just need the grease.

Cooking the pan. After you have your bacon grease ready, remove the bacon from the pan, pour off the bacon grease and save it, and wipe the pan really clean. Be sure to get any bacon bits that are stuck to the pan out of there.

Then, using a paper towel, pour a tiny amount of bacon grease back into the pan and rub it around the pan using a paper towel. There should be a very light layer of oil shimmering on the whole skillet. You don’t want any grease pooling in the pan, just a nice smooth layer covering the whole surface.

Heat your oven to 250 degrees and bake the skillet for an hour.

Take it out, rub it with a bit more oil/grease, then back in the oven for an hour.

After two hours, we’re getting somewhere. Notice how the pan is starting to shine a bit.

Two hours

After two hours of baking.

I did this same process two more times.

So in total, I baked my skillet for 4 hours at 250 degrees. Generally, two hours will do the trick, but I like to make sure mine is really nice and seasoned. That might seem like a lot of work, but it’s largely hands off.

When my pan cooled down, I had a nice shiny cast iron skillet that looks a thousand times better than what I started with.

four hours

After four hours of baking.

The Egg Test. Ok. So the real test for any non-stick surface is a fried egg.

Once you’re ready to test it out, put your skillet over medium high heat and let it get nice and hot. Add a few drops of oil to the pan and crack in an egg. It should slide around and flip easily, just as if it were in a nonstick pan!

I passed my egg test!

egg test

The egg test.

Cast iron skillets aren’t expensive, but there’s no reason to throw one away if you can fix it like new with a few hours of lazy work, and a few minutes of heavy scrubbing.

So, if you have a neglected cast iron skillet or know somebody who does, now you know how to fix it up!

If you have doubts about why you need a cast iron skillet, here are 10 reasons why you should get one.

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189 comments on “Repairing a Cast Iron Skillet

  1. My problem is not rust but I left my skillet on with something in it till all the liquid went away and now I have a strange flat black build up that doesn’t scrape off even with my trusty steel spatula. Do I try the steel wool treatment? Thank you.

    1. Hey Susan, that’s a bummer. I would give the steel wool a shot because you have nothing to lose. Worst case, you can’t get it off and the pan is garbage. Best case it cleans up just fine and you’ll just have to reseason it. Good luck!

    2. I used vinegar on mine – hot – boiled it mixed with some water then used a scraper…also used some soft scrub for the really nasty ones…once skillet is in use, coarse salt is great to clean it!

  2. I have rust and flakiness on the underside of my cast iron. I reasoned the inside which worked great, but what should I do about the outside?

  3. Once your skillet is seasoned, what is the proper way to clean it since you suggest avoiding soap?

  4. I found a newer, used cast iron dutch oven, and tried to deep fry chicken right off the bat. It started smoking befor I could even continue cooking. Now there are black scorch marks on bottom half outside, and inside, with dark grey on top half. I have attempted to reclean, and season this and it stinks of burnt rubber with slightest heat. I have NEVER seen this with any of my cast iron pans and am worried its beyond my repair. Any help would be great. I am getting sick of this horrible smell.
    Thanks!

    1. Hey Christy! That sounds pretty bad. I’m not sure what would cause a rubber smell unless it was something the previous owner did… I would say to bust out the steel wool and crust it completely down until it’s a fresh layer and then reseason it from scratch. Unfortunately you’ll probably want to do the inside AND outside as the burning could be on the outside of the pan. After you reseason it, if it is still smelling and smoking then it’s probably trash. Good luck!

  5. I love garage sales. I bought a #12 for $1.00, a Dutch oven with the lid and s canvas zippered cover for$10.00 what a steal. Believe me I’ve had to scrub a couple with steel wool, reseason with oil and my grandmother taught me to use some salt, a paper towel to really get the oil in. I’m going to try the oil and baking. Thanks for the idea. I too got on this site by accident. I’m glad I did. Too much fun it taught me a lesson not to stop reaching out for new ideas using old stuff. I love it. Thanks for sharing……

  6. I have a cast iron skillet that food was baked in and leftovers not removed for a couple of days. Now the bottom of the pan is “spotty”. It looks like discoloration spots. How can this be fixed? It is a new skillet that was purchased about 9 months ago but has been used quite often.

    Thanks

    1. Hey Lisa, if the spots won’t come off with a plastic scraper, you probably need to reseason the pan from scratch. Scrub it down with steel wool until it’s fresh and then reseason it like I do in this post. It’ll take a few hours of work, but should do the trick. Good luck!

    1. Hey James, since you are just rubbing on a thin layer of the oil you could put a baking sheet under the skillet and tilt it a bit to fit more vertically in your oven. You might have to remove a few racks to get it to fit. If it still doesn’t fit then I’m out of ideas!

  7. I just bought my pan, ‘pre-seasoned'; it obviously needed some additional work. After watching a couple videos, I used Crisco on the inside and outside of the pan – now it’s incredibly sticky. Help!

    Also – if one uses soap, won’t the soap get into the pores of the pan when it heats up?

    Matt.

    1. Crisco should work okay but I usually prefer a more natural grease, like bacon fat. Any fat or oil should work though. If it’s sticky, you probably need to apply a more thin layer and bake it longer. Since soap will kill the fat bonds I never soap my skillet unless I’m completely reseasoning it anyway.

  8. I washed my cast iron skillet, dried it, put on some canola oil, turned it upside down and baked it for one hour at 350 degrees. The skillet came out so sticky. So, I washed it, this time with a stiff brush and a little soap, dried it, added the oil and tried again to bake it for one hour. Now it’s stickier than ever. HELP!

    1. Hey Nicki… I think the problem is two fold… one, you are baking it at way too hot a temp. 350 will possibly burn the oil rather than infuse it into the pan. In the directions, I recommend 250 degrees F.

      Also, I usually bake mine for a total time of four hours. Yes… it’s a long process, but just an hour won’t get you anywhere. Hope that helps!

  9. Just to let everyone know, when I was little bitty my uncle found 12 assorted sized cast iron skillets in the corner of a barn about to be torn down and rescued them. He asked my Mom to render about a pound of bacon and sieve the fat. Then he used the hose to wash the dust and chunks of dirt off of the skillets and left them to dry outside, upside down (so the water couldn’t pool and cause more rust).
    Then he built a large fire, about three foot across and wood stacked about 3 foot high. After the fire settled down to all red and grey embers, he tossed all the pans into the coals. He didn’t let them touch and he tried to make sure they were upside down. (No idea the logic here, folks.)
    He left everything alone until the fire burned out and the skillets cooled completely. He washed them all with a metal scrubber and seasoned them all with the bacon fat inside and out.
    I would recommend doing this to everyone if you have a way to burn those crusted up skillets, charcoal grill or campfire, give it a go. If that crusty/sticky/smelly skillet is going to be trashed anyway and you have the capability, what is the harm?

  10. Love cast iron to cook with. I’ve seasoned just as you do for all of them and for some reason, some seem to take better than others. I assume it’s from years of either caring for them correctly or not. I’m always on the look out for barn sales because you can find very old, odd pieces that I would love to know the history and what was made in them from years ago…if only cast iron could talk!

  11. wow, great post. I bought my FIRST cast iron skillet yesterday. I guess I’ve already made my first mistake. The first thing I did when I brought it home is I washed it with soap to get rid of some of the dust it had on it from laying around in a store. So, if you recommend to never ever clean it with soap, what do you clean it with between uses? Also, when you buy it brand new, is it already seasoned?

    1. Hey Maggie! Most skillets come preseasoned these days. For me, after I use my skillet I rinse it thoroughly with very hot water and use a scraper to scrape off any food bits on it. Then I wipe it out with a dry paper towel. That usually does the trick and keeps it in good shape. Some people also like to rub a very tiny amount of veg oil on it in between uses. Good luck!

  12. bought a used skillet: cleaned it and found on one quadrant the iron isn’t smooth but has little sharpish bumps. How do I, and what do I use to knock these down level with the bottom of the pan?
    Thanks, Bev

    1. Hey Bev, steel wool is really the best way. If it is super-pockmarked then it might not be salvageable though. Good luck!

    2. Oh and PS… you don’t have to completely get rid of the bumps. Some skillets have them after years and years and still cook just fine. Just be sure to get off any rust and give it a shot. It might be just fine!

  13. I have a box of old cast iron cookware, 30 minutes a pan would take 2 days, what do you think about sand blasting them?

    1. Hmm… that might work for cleaning, but you would still want to season them by baking them with fat rubbed on. If I were you I would sell the ones I didn’t want as-is and then reseason just the ones I wanted to use. There isn’t really a reason to have that many cast iron pans. A few different sizes is all a normal kitchen needs.

  14. You all are doing the hard work and even probably discarding really good pieces. Just stop by Ace Hardware store and get a bottle of rooto drain cleaner (100% lye), then grab a bin with lid and pour in 10 gallons of water, pour in the entire bottle of lye crystals (1 lb) and mix with a stick. Use rubber globes as this solution can burn your skin! Let the skillet set in completely submerged for 1-3 days. The lye bath will remove all grease, old seasoning and crude that has build up over time. Check daily as some are done within a few hrs and some need 3-4 days plus some scrubbing. Once ready just bring it in under hot water and wash it throughly. Lye will wash off completely and gets neutralized by water. Then scrub it as needed and even use soap if you wish. Dry it fast to avoid rust and you can give it a coating with crisco and bake it in oven at 350F for an hr. That it! don’t sweat it! You can keep the lye properly covered for future use for up to a year.

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