So maybe you’ve decided to use cast iron, but you’re not sure how to season the pan after buying it from the store. Or maybe you have an old cast iron pan lying around somewhere, and you’re wondering if you can still use it. Maybe your well-meaning cousin’s boyfriend’s grandmother hands you an old pan covered in rust as a gift.
Yes, you can still use it, with a little reseasoning. Read on to find out how!
Once I decided to use exclusively cast iron and stainless steel cookware, I needed to expand my cast iron collection beyond the single 12″ skillet. But even though cast iron isn’t expensive, I don’t like to spend money.
So of course, I waited until I found a good deal on a pan at a garage sale…a 10″ skillet for $3. It had a small rust spot on it, so I scrubbed the rust off, reseasoned it, cooked some bacon, and now it’s perfect. I have since added a dutch oven (free from someone’s basement) and waffle iron (received as a gift) to my collection. Combined with my trusty stainless steel skillet and saucepan that I use for highly acidic things (like tomato sauce), I figured I’d never buy another pan.
No, none of my pans broke. They all work great, and I’ll probably have them until I die. But I discovered that you can roast coffee beans in a cast iron pan…but your pan will taste like coffee forever. So I decided that obviously, I needed a pan specifically for coffee beans.
My “New” Coffee Roasting Pan
Ironically, the price I paid for this pan was twice what I paid for all of my cast equipment combined – a whole $6, from a yard sale.
It was also, by far, the dirtiest, most disgusting pan I’ve ever seen. Rust covered most of the bottom of the pan, as well as the handle, and it was filthy with literal dirt. When you touched it, you got what looked like axle grease on your hands. You know, the black, icky stuff from the car or lawn mower. This is what happens when dirt meets grease. To make matters worse, it had cobwebs on it. And in it.
It was gross.
But it was a pan. And it was $6. And I was too impatient to wait for a cheaper or a better pan. Besides, now I can write a blog post about refurbishing a cast iron pan.
Part 1: Making It Not Broken
Remove the Ick
For all of my love of not “cleaning” cast iron, you don’t want dirt in your pan. If your pan has been sitting in a garage or a garbage dump for awhile, you need to clean it. And I recommend cleaning it really, really well. In order to do this, I washed it in the sink with a whole lot of dish soap. It turned my sponge black and ran black water into the sink. It was gross. But when I was done, the cobwebs, dirt, and “axle grease” was gone. I washed both the inside and the outside of the pan. Actually, I washed it three separate times because that is what it took to get off all the ‘ick’.
If you have a rusty pan that is otherwise not dirty, you can skip this step.
Remove the Rust
I have read online that you can run your cast-iron pan through the “self-clean” function on your oven to remove rust. In theory, this is easy and great. But it practice, I hate using the “self-clean” feature on my oven. It runs for, like, five hours. It uses a ton of power. And it emits so much heat that I would never think to do it in the summer. I was certainly not going to run this feature on a clean oven just to remove rust from a pan, especially when there is no guarantee that is actually works. But I mention it because you can feel free to try this.
I used good ol’ elbow grease. I turned on the radio, got a piece of steel wool, and scrubbed. And then I scrubbed more. And then my arm got tired, and I kept scrubbing anyway.
Did I mention there was a lot of rust?
If you have one little rust spot, it’s pretty easy to scrub it off with steel wool. It probably won’t take more than a couple of minutes. But if you have a lot of rust, it’s harder and it takes longer.
Basically, you want to rub all of the rust off of the pan. You might see shiny black finish underneath. You might see silver steel. Either way is fine. When I was done, this pan mostly had black shiny finish, with a few spots of silver.
Don’t neglect rust spots on the outside of the pan when you do this!
Part 2: Reseasoning The Pan
Once you get all the rust and dirt off of an old cast iron pan, you can go about reseasoning it. You should also do this when you first buy a cast iron pan. Sometimes cast iron cookware comes “pre-seasoned”, but in my experienced that shiny black finish from the store isn’t very good, and you should season it again. Other times, it comes without any finish at all, and looks silver and metallic. If you don’t season the pan to get the nice black finish, everything will stick terribly and be awful.
1) Preheat your oven to 450.
2) Smear liberal amounts of grease or oil on the inside of your pan. You can use paper towel, or an old rag, or your fingers. It doesn’t matter. The raw iron will soak up the grease, so don’t be shy.
3) Smear a SMALL amount of grease or oil on the outside of your pan. You want the outside of your pan to be seasoned as well as the inside, to prevent rust, but you also don’t want the outside to feel greasy. The outside isn’t getting washed or cooked on regularly, so a tiny amount should do you just fine.
4) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper to prevent a pain-in-the-neck cleanup
5) Turn the pan upside down, put it on the baking sheet and bake for 1 hour.
6) Let the pan cool.
7) Repeat a few times. For a brand-new, already store-seasoned pan, one time through this cycle is probably enough. One time is probably also enough if you’re just cleaning up one or two tiny rust spots on a pan. For a completely “raw” iron pan, or a badly damaged pan, 3-4 times may be required. You don’t need to do all this on the same day, although you can if you want. After the initial “seasoning”, your pan will be relatively resilient. I typically will season it 3-4 more times over the next few weeks, waiting until I’m already heating up my oven for some other reason to run the pan through an additional seasoning cycle.
Basically, each time you complete these steps, you get a thicker patina on your pan.
If you have a rusty old pan that you scrubbed clean, keep in mind that you may have missed a spot or two. Examine the pan after the reseasoning process, and make sure you don’t see any rust. If you do, get the rust off and run it through the oven again.
I’d also recommend re-oiling your pan (see: cast iron care) the first few times you use a new or refurbished pan. You just want to make sure that the patina is as pretty and non-stick as possible, and cooking grease into the pan is how that happens.
Why Should You Do This?
Uh…because you can?
I’ll admit – this process isn’t quick or fun. It’d be easier to buy a pre-seasoned pan from the store, run it through the oven once, and start cooking. And you can certainly do that.
But personally, I think there is something satisfying about preserving an old pan. This week, I was able to take something that is essentially dirty trash, purchase it for a few dollars, and turn it into something usable that will last me for many years. To me, that’s worth a little elbow grease.
There may also be sentimental reasons to do this. Perhaps your grandmother has an old cast iron pan that has gotten rusty after years of disuse. Perhaps you find a pan with a really cool story behind it that you want to preserve. Whatever the reason, now you know how to do it, and can enjoy your antique iron pans.