Today many people don’t know how properly to care for, clean or refurbish cast iron pots, making it possible for the savvy treasure hunter to find gems just waiting to be returned to use.
One of the simplest ways to remove the baked-on, grimy accumulation of gunk from your cast iron treasure is to use the self-cleaning cycle of your oven. (Don’t use this method with wooden handled pans!)
My suggestion is to build a fire in the backyard or grill and burn the crud off in the fire pit. Do you really want all that smoke in your house?
After cleaning the pan in your oven, soak the pan in a solution of half white vinegar and half water to remove accumulated rust. Find a container that’s big enough to hold the rusty pan and completely submerge it into the solution. Let it soak for one to four hours, but no longer. The acid in the vinegar dissolves rust, but if the rust doesn’t dissolve completely, a plastic scrub brush will loosen stubborn areas. If you leave the pan in the vinegar solution for too long, the acid will start to dissolve the pan and damage it; so check the condition of the pan often while soaking. The more rust, the longer it will need to soak. When you’re satisfied that the rust is gone, protect your hands with rubber gloves, remove the pan from the vinegar solution and rinse thoroughly under running water.
Dry with a kitchen towel, then place the pan into an oven set at a low temperature; bake for a few minutes to make sure the pan is completely dry. It’s the nature of cast iron for a faint sheen of rust to form on the surface almost immediately as the pan dries. Use fine sandpaper to remove the light rust, then wipe with a soft rag to remove dust. Using a paper towel, immediately cover the pan with a thin coating of vegetable oil or shortening to prevent rust from returning.
As it heats, the oil will flow into nooks and crannies in the pot’s surface, and form a nice, smooth coating. Be sure to apply the oil in a thin layer so it doesn’t pool when it heats.
For the best results, you should repeat this seasoning process three or four times before using your pan to cook. After that, cooking will continue the seasoning process and your pan eventually will develop the nice, smooth, black patina treasured in a well-cared-for cast iron pan.
To make sure the pan is completely dry, place it on a stove burner turned on low for a few minutes.
Then, while the pan is still warm, carefully coat the inside of the pan very lightly with cooking oil. This will prevent any rust from forming in the nicks you may have made in the surface. Any skillets or Dutch ovens that have lids should be stored uncovered or should have a folded paper towel placed between the pan and the lid to provide air flow. This keeps moisture from building and potentially causing rust. Never store food in a cast iron pot; the acids from the food will damage the seasoning. And never put cast iron in the dishwasher!
It’s not difficult to restore cast iron cookware and once restored, maintenance is simple. So if you are not already cooking with cast iron, go on your own treasure hunt.
Rust or caked-on, rancid grime are reasons many perfectly good cast iron pots and pans have been shoved to the back of kitchen cabinets, buried in boxes in a basement, or stored in piles of junk in the corner of a barn. If you don’t have your own pot that’s awaiting your attention, ask your relatives and friends what they have tucked away. If those avenues fail, try yard sales, barn sales or flea markets to find inexpensive pots and pans in need of refurbishing.