5 Common Problems with Cast-Iron Pans and How to Fix Them

From rust to residue to stuck-on food, here's how to solve all your cast-iron problems.

Thin Cast Iron Pan
Photo: © Field Company

If you're anxious about using your cast-iron pans, join the club. You've likely been carrying around the burden of cast-iron myths — you shouldn't use soap on cast iron, cast iron is delicate, cast-iron skillets are possessed by the ghosts of Southern grandmothers just waiting for a chance to whomp you upside the head for mistreatment of said cast iron, you can easily ruin cast iron — and now is the time to lay them down. Sure, there are particular things you can do to keep your cast iron at its peak, but unless your skillet is completely rusted or cracked through (and if it is, what the heck is going on in your life?), that sucker is salvageable and it'll still be here when we've all slid off to that big breakfast buffet in the sky.

Why should you trust me? Well, I found a 100-year-old cast-iron skillet under some mud in an old chicken shed and I use it every day. I write about food for a living, and oh yeah: I have an actual master's degree in metalsmithing. Here are a few common problems cast-iron pans might have, and the easy ways to fix them (with a little muscle).

My cast-iron pan is rusty.

Yes, a cast-iron pan can get rusty, but you can head that off at the pass by drying it thoroughly with a paper towel or a lint-free cloth once you have washed it, then rubbing in a light layer of cooking oil. To get rid of existing rust buildup, if it doesn't come off with a quick rinse, steel wool should do the trick. Don't be afraid to really get in there and scrub, just know that you may need to season it again.

My cast-iron pan needs to be re-seasoned.

Easy peasy. The internet may try to convince you that re-seasoning a cast-iron skillet is tricky, but those people are wrong. Using steel wool or a chain-mail scrubber, scour any loose edges or flaky parts of the seasoning away, wash the pan thoroughly with soap and water, and dry it thoroughly. Then, line the bottom of your oven with a sheet of foil or a foil pan to catch any drips, and preheat to 450-500°F. While that's warming up, using a cloth or a paper towel, rub the entire surface with a neutral cooking oil (like vegetable, grapeseed, canola, sunflower, or another oil with a high smoke point), thinly enough so that it doesn't visibly run when you tilt it. Place the pan upside down on a center rack and bake it for an hour. Then, turn off the oven and let the skillet cool naturally. If you missed a spot, just repeat the oiling, baking, and cooling until you're happy with the result. (It may help to turn on the exhaust fan or crack a window as needed.)

So what is seasoning? That's just oil that's been polymerized at a high temperature and bonds to the cast-iron to create that nice, nonstick surface. Cooking with oil and butter helps maintain that gorgeous seasoning, so the more you use the pan, the better it gets.

My cast-iron pan is sticky.

This may also be a seasoning issue. Wash the pan with hot, soapy water (yes — soap, it's fine, I promise) and dry it. If it's still sticky, the pan may be overseasoned. Just line the bottom of your oven, heat it to 450-500°F and let the excess oil drip off over the course of an hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool, and if it's still sticky, just repeat the process as needed.

My cast-iron pan has food stuck to it.

Regular cooking with fat will help keep that surface super slick, but stuff happens. A pan scraper or metal spatula and some elbow grease will likely take care of it, but for truly stubborn foods, add a little bit of water to the pan, put it on a burner to boil for a few minutes, and then try scraping again. If you end up scraping a skosh too far, just — you guessed it — re-season the pan.

My cast iron pan has black residue.

This black residue from your cast-iron pan doesn't look great, but it's just seasoning and it's not harmful. Keep cooking in that pan, washing and drying and oiling it meticulously, and you'll see the issue clear up quickly.

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