I Used Oven Cleaner to Revive a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet — Here’s How It Went

published Sep 3, 2021
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Cleaned cast iron skillet with a measuring cup filled with hot water
Credit: Joe Lingeman

When my neighbor found out I had a cast iron skillet fixation, she brought me one of her own. Not to keep, mind you: To fix. You see, the bottom was covered in rust and the seasoning inside was a mottled, flaky mess. “Save it!” she pleaded. 

Luckily for her, I had recently discovered a tip and was curious to give it a try: using oven cleaner to restore rusty, old skillets. According to sources around the web, including Cook’s Illustrated, the lye-based cleanser can power through rust and crusty old seasonings, revealing the bare metal beneath so you can start the seasoning process anew.

Credit: Danielle Centoni
My clean-up project: Tackling a rusty cast iron skillet!

I figured this would be a pretty easy favor to grant (oven cleaner is tough stuff!). I got a fresh can of Easy-Off Pro, an aluminum baking pan large enough for the skillet, and a plastic bag large enough to hold it all in so the cleanser wouldn’t dry out before it had a chance to work. I pulled on my thickest dish gloves, took everything outside, and gave the entire pan a thorough spraying. Once I got everything in the bag and secured it, I let it sit overnight, expecting a shiny pan by morning. 

Credit: Danielle Centoni
Oven cleaner power has been activated. Let's see if it works!

It’s true the oven cleaner got rid of the rust with no problem and it did eliminate the crusty, flaky layer of seasoning, but even after scrubbing with a scrubby sponge, then a chain mail scrubber, then steel wool, half the pan was still covered in a network of black, cooked-on carbon. If I attempted to re-season it now, I’d end up with another uneven, mottled mess. I had to spray it again!

Wearing my gloves, I ended up repeating the process three times (yes, three times!) over the course of several days, and the pan got progressively cleaner, but I still I couldn’t get all of the seasoning off. And I knew what metal was left exposed would get rusty immediately. I was about ready to give up, but I tried it again, this time letting the cleanser sit for 48 hours. Lo and behold, almost all of the seasoning was off — at least enough that it wouldn’t interfere with the re-seasoning process. 

Credit: Danielle Centoni
Getting cleaner!

I made sure to scrub the skillet all over with steel wool and hot soapy water to remove all of the oven cleaner residue. After rinsing repeatedly and thoroughly, I filled the skillet with a one-to-one solution of white vinegar and water, and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour as directed. The trouble was, parts of the skillet exposed to air during the resting process actually bloomed with rust, but it came off easily with steel wool. I dried the skillet super fast and immediately coated the pan in grapeseed oil to seal the metal off from the air.

Credit: Danielle Centoni
Finished cleaning! Now on to the seasoning process!

With the pan stripped and rusty no more, I could finally start the seasoning process, which is a labor of love in itself. I know from previous tests that grapeseed oil works stupendously well, which is why I coated the pan in it. But I also know that the layer of oil has to be microscopically thin. So I wiped the pan with a fresh paper towel until it seemed like it was all off, then I put it upside down on the oven rack over a baking sheet and heated it to 400°F. I let it bake for two hours, turned off the oven, and let it cool in place. Things were looking good. But to make sure the seasoning is durable enough so I don’t end up with a disappointed neighbor requesting a do-over, I’ve already decided that I’m not giving the pan back until I’ve given it a few more trips to the oven.

Have you tried oven cleaner to remove rust from your cast iron skillet? Tell us in the comments below.