How to Salvage and Season Cast Iron Cookware

Antique cast iron cookware is the best there is. If you have an old piece, this guide will show you how to clean, restore, and season those worn cast iron skillets and dutch ovens so that they're good as new. 

Cleaning cast iron cookware | Clean, restore and season cast iron skillet | How to salvage antique cookware

Cast iron is incredible. It’s like nature’s non-stick surface. I have a 12” skillet, a round griddle for tortillas, and a large, rectangular griddle/grill pan, all of which I absolutely baby, adding flavor layer by layer, and avoiding soap, and many times water, at all cost.   

So, I was stoked to find this cast iron Dutch oven at a thrift store for $4. All it needed was a little TLC and a round of seasoning, and I knew it would be my new best friend.

dutch oven - cast iron

So, scour garage sales and your grandparents’ house for all the cast iron you can get your hands on. Don’t be afraid of the condition. This stuff is immortal, and anything can be salvaged and recycled. Then, follow these steps to get it into shape, and you’ll never reach for Teflon again.


What you'll need to restore antique cast iron cookware:

  • Cast iron skillet, griddle, or Dutch oven
  • Electric drill and fine wire brush bit 
  • Sand paper and steel wool
  • Vegetable oil (pure veg, or canola or peanut) and coarse salt
  • Vegetable shortening (or lard)
  • Oven, cooking range, and sheet pan
  • Heavy duty pot holders or oven gloves and tongs.
  • Safety glasses, work gloves, and dust mask (latex gloves also recommended)

Tip: Cast iron gets hot ALL over, including the outside and handles. As such, you’ll need to allow sufficient cooling time on your cooktop, so don’t embark on this process if you’re expecting company and don’t want to leave it out.

Preparing the Cast Iron Skillet

1. Assess the state of your cookware. Mine was very dry, a bit dirty, and had severe rust along the lid.

cast iron cookware/skillet with rust

2. Then, wash thoroughly with soap and warm water. It’s okay to use soap at this point, since there’s not a useable layer of seasoning. 

4. Dry completely. Donate an old towel to this process, as it will turn black.


Removing Rust from Cast Iron Cookware

5. The amount of rust will vary from piece to piece, but unless your cookware was perfectly cared for, there will be some, even if you can’t see it.

6. If the rust is minimal, a quick scrub with fine sandpaper and steel wool may be all that’s necessary. If the rust is significant, like mine, procure a fine wire brush designed for an electric drill. You’ll find these in the hardware store next to the saw blades and grinder attachments. They cost around $3.

7. Attach the brush to a drill. Use a heavy-duty, corded drill; a 7-volt Black and Decker won’t cut it for this job. Wearing safety glasses, gloves, and a dust mask, begin to remove the rust. Work slowly, and don’t dig into the surface, or it might not heat evenly. In the photo below, you can see where the rust has been removed.

8. Once finished, clean all the dust off with a towel.

Cleaning the Cast Iron

9. Place the cookware on your cooktop and heat on high, and turn the exhaust fan on HIGH. Pour equal amounts of coarse salt (such as kosher salt or a coarse sea salt) and vegetable oil in the inside. Roll up a paper towel, and hold it with your tongs, and wearing your gloves, scrub the mixture until it turns brown and looks burnt, about 8-10 minutes. Don’t worry if you see some black specks.

cleaning cast iron cookware

10. Remove from the heat and allow to cool thoroughly. Then wipe out the salt and oil. From this point on, do not use soap on your cast iron


Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

11. Heat your oven to 220-240 F. Coat the entire piece of cookware with vegetable shortening, or if you’re okay with using animal products, you can use lard, or even bacon grease. I find shortening to be particularly gross (I refuse to cook with it), so I recommend using disposable latex gloves to eliminate oily and blackened fingers. Do not use a liquid oil for this, as it will only get sticky and gooey.

seasoning cast iron skillet

12. Place the cookware on the top rack of your oven, with a sheet pan underneath to catch any drips. Turn on the exhaust fan. After twenty minutes, wearing your safety gloves, take out the piece and wipe away any excess oil with a paper towel.

13. Bake for two hours, then turn off the oven and allow it to cool. If the piece is large, like mine, you may want to repeat the process with the cookware upside down.


Caring For and Cleaning Cast Iron

14. Your cookware is now seasoned and neither will it rust..

15. Use cast iron almost anytime you please. I don’t recommend using it for rice, pasta, or anything with a lot of liquid until it is VERY seasoned, as it may discolor your food or make it taste a bit like metal. Cast iron will work on ANY cooking surface: your range, oven, grill, camp stove, or wood burning fire.

16. After using, let the pan cool slightly, then wipe with a paper towel and a little coarse salt. If there’s food stuck to the pan, you can wash in warm water only, NO SOAP. Be sure to dry thoroughly, then rub in a little cooking oil all over the surface, including the outside, bottom and handle.

Savor your cookware, and your grandkids will be able to pass it along to theirs. Cheers.

Love kitchen-related DIY's and tutorials? Try this easy garlic keeper project...

created at: 03/28/2013

Tagged: , , , , , ,

View/Add Comments (20)


(2000 character limit)

gffyhffuh on Jan 12, 2014:

Weird I just proof read that and those spelling mistakes weren't there. Wacky website

jhgyugdcc on Jan 12, 2014:

Flax is okay for low temps, for puerile who sear a lot or stir fry at high temps like 450 degrees, the flax will brush off afterwards. It's great on my eggs n sausage pan though which only sees 250 degrees usually. Soap isn't always as evil as the say, but There's no reason to use soap on a ci Pan if you're doing it right. The oil out oil and studies oil n salt will always get it clean to the wipe. If you feel you have to use soap a miniscule dot of soap will work even if you can't see suds. What people don't realize is soaps main reason for effectiveness is being a surfactant (keeps water from beading up so it penetrates surfaces better) which is why it gets under oil which does the opposite. One undetectable non bubbly drop of soap on a sponge can have that effect and help you get off stubborn gunk without having to go all out bubble war on your seasoning. You'll get a better seasoning whether soap has been okay in your experience or not, it would have been better. My pans look as if they are stripped bare and coated in a thin black reflective Son shiny paint, they don't have a thick pad of dull burnt looking grease. It looks beautiful and If I drop an egg on it it slides around as if it was oiled glass. I can even cook acidic foods in it now after a year and my seasoning is unaffected. I rarely resort to soap. Almost always use only oil wiping, occasionally with salt if I seared something.

EmJCNJ on Oct 06, 2013:

Thank you! Just got a cast iron skillet for FREE and was so pleased to find your helpful steps to season it!

Pam in Texas on Jun 02, 2013:

I've got a great old iron skillet thats sits flat, has no rust and is in sturdy condition except that the the side walls (inside and out) are heavily covered with scaling that appears baked in under the seasoned surface.  Can this be  stripped off or burnt off? How should I best remove it to restore it's original finish?

Anonymous on May 26, 2013:

To get rust off I used a potato cut in half and a large amount of kosher salt and elbow grease

Carol on Mar 23, 2013:

I HAVE A PAN THAT IS PERFECTLY FLAT WHEN COLD.  WHEN IT IS HEATED UP FOR COOKING, IT ROCKS ON FLAT COOKING SURFACE.  old pan bought 2nd hand store..seasoned, not pitted, cooks beautifully.  Can this be remedied ? T

Carol on Mar 23, 2013:

I have a cast iron pot I picked up in a second-hand store.  No cracks or pits, cleaned up beautifully and cooks beautifully....the problem is it is perfectly flat when cold....when heated up for cooking, it rocks on the cooking surface.  Is there a way to fix this probem ?

Milkmaid on Mar 16, 2013:

Iron skimmers is all I use and I also have been using then on a glass top stove for over 5 years not one problem!

Anonymous on Jan 15, 2013:

Can you use cast iron on an electric glass cook top?

Donna on Feb 09, 2012:

My dad (age 89) puts his iron pans in the woodstove in the den for the evening to get all the junk off, then reseasons with shortening in the oven.  This is a rare necessity, but does work beautifully.  We always wash them with soap and water, but I do remember mother's lessons of drying them immediately, not leaving them to drain.  Mom (an awesome cook!) and Dad (not a shabby cook, either) have been married over 62 years and the pans came along about the same time.  I just wish Mom and Dad were as indestructible. 

Lisa on Jan 20, 2012:

I have a skillet that is seasoned correctly everywhere but inside the skillet.  The inside is really rough.  Will this method get all of this out so I can start over?  I've had this pan for over 15 years and it has never had a smooth surface except when it was first given to me.

Phyllis on Jan 12, 2012:

I use my collection of cast iron generally on a daily basis. I use dawn soap to clean w/o problems. When I season I use lard or bacon grease & turn my pots upside down in the oven. My Mom taught me this years ago. 

Barbara on Jan 10, 2012:

@anonymous, I agree. I have a 30+ yr old cast iron pot that we ALWAYS used dish detergent on. It looks the same today in 2012 as it did when I was a kid! Soap will not harm it. We have never used oven cleaner on it because my mom did once (someone told her...) and it left little pock marks in the pot. We season our pot by washing first w/det. & water. Rinse, dry, grease well. Then we burn ours on a fire outside. The pot gets hot, grease burns off. Let it cool some and rub the grease all over w/old towel. Bring in, store in oven. Wash, dry before using. After cooking, wash, dry, lightly oil and heat on stove. (LIGHTLY oil so it doesn't drip) cool and store. I've done this for years and it's worked...

Anonymous on Jan 10, 2012:

I think the commenter suggesting that modern soaps don't remove seasoning because they don't contain lye is onto something. I have one very well-seasoned, hand-down cast iron pan that I wash with soap and it retains it's seasoning very well. The only time I've had to reseason is when it was overheated by leaving it to heat on a burner too long and the heat burned off the conditioning. However, this well-seasoned pan could more easily be reseasoned that the new one that I've seasoned inititally. Something about years of oils cooking in that makes an old cast iron pan far superior than a new one. Season you pan and then use it over and over and eventually you'll have a pan that you love and your kids/grandkids will appreciate years later.

Jim on Sep 14, 2011:

When it comes to seasoning, look to the Jan - Feb edition of Cook's Illustrated. You might be able to see it online.  They have a process with flackseed oil.  they feel they have run on the best seasoning processes to date

chris on Sep 10, 2011:

i've put mine throught the self clean on in my oven. it wprked great. i dont do this regularly or to season. it was to remove the years of crust that had built up on it. i bought it at a yard sale and it hadnt been taken care of. after running it throught the self clean cycle, that crust was burnt off and reduced to ash. a good option for those not wanting to use oven cleaner on something they cook food in.

Allison on Jul 04, 2011:

I mistakenly left my cast iron skillet on high heat overnight.  Today I noticed cracks in the bottom of the pan.   The cracks look like scratches and the pan does not leak  Does anyone have any experience with such circumstances"  Is it likely that toxins can get into the food thrugh such cracks?  Why are we cautioned against using cracked cast iron pans?

Thereasa on May 30, 2011:

omg...i have been hoarding cast iron pans for ions and they are in some rough shape.  I knew they had value and could bear the thought of tossing.  Now, I can't wait to revive them. 

Jorge on Jan 11, 2010:

As a new cast Iron enthusiast I'm pretty much trying out every bit of advise i come across, this will definetly make it easy on those salvaged pans I found, thx everyone.

thebeezkneez on Jan 07, 2010:

We have always burned our cast iron in a fire, too.  New cast iron comes with a horrible wax coating that is extremely difficult to remove and you cannot season cast iron until it is throughly cleaned or the seasoning will flake off...in your food.  And for those unlevel pans, have someone really strong bang it flat when its fresh from the coals, either on concrete or I've seen someone use a tool once but I don't know what it was exactly.  This will have to be someone who really loves you or your cooking because it is a hot and bone-jarring job.  I've never had any luck seasoning with anything other than vegetable shortening.  Vege or canola oil just leaves a sticky mess.  On lazy days, in between proper seasonings, I just squirt mine with a bit of cooking spray like Pam.  And I do wash my pan; I save them for last when the water is cold and the soap has all but quit but I hate the thought of not washing them, especially since I use them for such a variety of things.  I would hate for my cobbler to taste like bacon and so on.

All comments
Comments RSS