How to Clean a Rusted Carbon Steel Pan the Right Way

by Robin Hood | Last Updated:  July 24, 2021
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Carbon steel is one of the best ways to cook your food. They are hot enough to sear food and are light enough to maneuver easily. But there is one problem. These pans can rust. So, how can you clean a pan that has rust on it?

I will show you three methods on how that you can clean the rust off a carbon steel pan or wok.

In addition, I will show you how I re-season my carbon steel cookware and I will give you some tips on storing and caring for your carbon steel pans or woks.

  • First, you can use a salt rub.
  • Second, you can use steel wool.
  • Third, you can also use vinegar.

The right option will depend on how serious the rust problem is. After you have removed the rust, you will need to re-season the pan.

If you see rust, you don’t need to get rid of the pan. But you will need to carefully remove the damage. This will stop the rust from spreading, making the problem easier to deal with. Here’s everything you need to know about cleaning rusted carbon steel pans.

Is Cooking With Rust Safe?

Once you have found a rusty pan, you need to stop using it immediately. The rust will be eating into the metal pan.

The longer you wait to deal with it, the worse the problem will become. Eventually, the metal will get so thin that you will have to replace the pan.

The other reason that you should avoid using the pan is because of the potential health impacts. At lower levels, it’s unlikely that your carbon steel pan will any substantial health effects.

The longer you eat from the pan, the higher your rust intake will become. This can start to cause some health issues. Often, this will present as respiratory issues.

In rare cases, though, even low levels of rust will produce severe effects. This is common where people have hemochromatosis.

This is a condition that causes your internal organs to retain rust, causing the amount of metal in your bloodstream to rise to a potentially dangerous level.

Aside from the health effects, rust on your cookware will start to impact the flavor of the food. Even if a small part of the pan has been affected, the rust flavor will seep into the entire meal.

No one wants to cook a dish that has a metallic aftertaste. Or worse, to have flecks of rust turning up in their soup.

How Do You Remove Rust From a Carbon Steel Pan?

As soon as you start to notice rust, you’ll need to work on solving the problem. First, you should stop cooking with it. You don’t want to rust to get into your food. This can cause several health problems.

Next, you’ll need to decide what method you want to use to remove the rust. This will often depend on how severe the rusting had become. Let’s look at some of the options that you can explore.

Below is a video I created on the process of removing rust from a carbon steel pan. I continue to show you how to season a number of pans that have had rust on them.

Please excuse the noise from the wok burner. You might consider turning your volume down a bit to try to make out my verbal description on video.

Scrub the Pan with Salt

If the rusting isn’t extensive, you might want to consider a salt rub.

Using a salt rub will not do as much damage to the seasoning of the pan making it easier for you to restore it later.

To use the salt rub method, you’ll need to get some coarse salt such as Kosher salt. Pour the salt onto the rusted area. Next, add a small amount of cooking oil.

Use a paper towel and move the towel slowly over the area in a circular motion. You might need to do this for a few minutes. The salt should have removed the rust.

I usually use my fingertips in order to feel if the rust has been removed.

Using Steel Wool

Sometimes, the rust will be more extensive. In this case, you will need to use a more aggressive approach to remove it. Understand that this method will do more damage to the patina.

This is one of the easiest methods. All you need to do is take a ball of steel wool.

Rub it in a circular motion on the rusted area. Don’t be afraid to put some force behind your scrubbing. You should start to see the rusted flakes coming off.

Sometimes I used a finer steel wool if I wanted to get the small scratch marks out of the pan.

Remember that the small scratch marks caused by a No. 4 steel wool will NOT affect the function of your pan.

Once you have removed the rust, you’ll need to wash the pan out with warm soapy water.

Using Vinegar

Finally, you might want to consider using vinegar. This is one of the most abrasive approaches and will do the most damage to the seasoning on the pan. But it is the most effective against rust that has got a strong foothold on the metal.

First, you’ll need to create the vinegar mixture. To do this, you will need to mix equal parts of vinegar and water in the pan. Slowly bring it to the boil inside the carbon steel pot. This should start to lift up the rust. Pour out the vinegar mixture.

To finish the process, you’ll need to scrub the pan with warm soapy water. If the vinegar mixture removed all the rust, you can use a soft cloth. However, if there is some residual dust, you might want to consider using a ball of steel wool.

How to Restore Carbon Steel Pan?

In order to remove rust, you need to remove the seasoning. However, this can be a big problem. Not only does it ruin the aesthetic appeal of the pan, but it also has a big impact on the way that the pan feels to cook with.

Without the seasoning, the pan doesn’t have the same protection from the elements. Water will be able to get onto the surface of the pan. As a result, there is a greater risk that it will rust again.

A good seasoning will make it easy to keep the pan clean. Usually, all you’ll need to do is wipe it with a paper towel. We’ll discuss cleaning your carbon steel pan in more detail a little later.

Additionally, seasoning is the best way to make sure that the pan has non-stick properties. When it’s been done properly, the patina on a cast iron pan is better than any non-stick Teflon surface. This is why so many people prefer to cook with a carbon steel pan.

How To Season a Cast Iron Pan?

The good news is that it isn’t hard to season carbon steel. Unlike other types of pans, you will be able to see the seasoning forming on the metal.

Over time, it will achieve the same black color as a cast iron pan. There are two ways you can season a pan. You can use the stovetop or the oven method.

How to Season a Pan on the Stove-top?

You’ll need to put the pan onto medium heat. You’ll know that it’s ready when a drop of water will evaporate as soon as you put it onto the pan. Now, you’re ready to start the seasoning process.

You’ll need to choose the right type of oil. Almost all vegetable oils will be a good choice.

You just need to pay attention to the burning point. This will be the maximum temperature that you can to which you can heat your pan. Because of this, grapeseed is often a good pick.

It’s also a good idea to avoid things like butter and lard.

Below is the method I have used many times to season a carbon steel pan. If you use my method below to season your pan I am sure you will be more than satisfied.

Next, you’ll need to apply a thin layer of oil to the pan. You don’t want to put too much on the pan. You only need to apply enough to form a thin layer.

After you apply a thin layer of oil then take a clean paper towel wipe out any excess oil. Remember that less oil is better than too much

A large amount of oil runs the risk of creating an uneven seasoning.

Once you have put the oil into the pan, you’ll need to heat the pan. This will burn away the excess oil.

The good thing about using a carbon steel pan is that you’ll be able to see this process occurring. The pan will start to change color, often to brown or black.

As you’re burning the oil onto the pan, you’ll notice that it is smoking a lot. This is normal. Allow your pan to smoke for a couple of minutes, then remove it from the heat allowing it to cool.

I found that you will need to repeat this process 3-5 times to fully season you pan.

Often, you will see that the section that contained rust isn’t the same color as the rest of the pan. Don’t be alarmed, that’s normal. Over time, the seasoning will develop and it will start to blend in more.

How to Season a Cast Iron Pan in the Oven?

Some people prefer to use the oven as part of the seasoning process. While the principles will stay the same, you’ll need to follow a slightly different approach.

You want to set it to around 450 degrees Fahrenheit (232 degrees Celsius). Heat the pan on top of the oven so that it is warm to the touch then apply a thin coating of oil.

Below is a video I created to show you how to season a carbon steel pan or carbon steel wok in your oven.

Whether you have rust on your pans or not, the seasoning process is the same. I have a cast iron pan and I season it in the same manner.

Next, put the pan into the hot oven. You want to flip it over, so the base of the pan is facing towards the top of the oven.

Leave it for around an hour. During this time, you will see some smoke. This is a normal part of the seasoning process and shouldn’t be a cause for alarm.

After an hour, the pan should have stopped smoking and should have changed color. This signals that the seasoning is complete.

Like the stove-top method, you will need to do this multiple times, to get a well-seasoned pan or wok.

How to Take Care of a Freshly Seasoned Pan?

After you have seasoned the pan, you’ll need to make sure that you are taking care of it properly. There are a few simple ways that you can do this.

First, you should pick the meals that you are cooking more carefully. It’s a good idea to choose something that will use a little more oil than usual. This lets you build a strong patina even quicker. Often, once you are finished the excess oil will have been absorbed into the pan.

Remember that without a good seasoning, the pan won’t have non-stick properties.

Because of this, you might want to temporarily avoid cooking starchy foods, like noodles or rice. If you are planning on cooking with these foods, you should add a little more oil to stop them from sticking to the pan.

We’ll discuss some of the other types of foods that you should avoid a little later.

Why Do Carbon Steel Pans Rust?

When it comes to carbon steel pans, preventing rusting is the best option. As a result, you’ll need to address the causes of the rusting. If you leave it exposed to water for an extended period, it will start to rust.

Usually, rust is a signal that something is going wrong with the way that you are storing or cleaning the pan. If you don’t change your techniques, you will keep experiencing rusting. Here are some tips you need to keep in mind.

How to Store Carbon Steel Pans or Woks?

Before putting the carbon steel pan away, you’ll need to make sure that it is completely dry. If it is still damp you are providing the ideal chance for rust to form.

Make sure you store your pans upside down.

If you keep getting issues, you might need to check the humidity in the kitchen. If it is too high, it could be making your pans rust. You might need to consider using a dehumidifier.

How to Clean Carbon Steel Pans Once the Rust Has Been Removed?

Another common mistake that people make is not cleaning out their carbon steel pans properly. The good news is that cleaning the pan doesn’t need to be a complex process. As long as you have seasoned it well. The surface should be fairly non-stick.

Do not put carbon steel cookware into a dishwasher. If you do, you will be increasing the chances that it will start to rust.

Usually, it will be a lot easier to clean the pan when it is still hot.

If you have a wok brush you can run it over the pan. If not, you should be able to use a paper towel to wipe it clean.

If there is still food residue, you’ll be able to use a dishcloth and hot water. In some cases, I have used an old plastic credit card to scrape the food off. Just make sure that you aren’t using soap. This has the potential to remove the seasoning layer.

If the food residue still isn’t coming off, you might need to use the salt scrubbing method we described earlier. This won’t damage the patina as severely, though you’ll still need to season it after doing this.

Once you have finished, wipe the pan clean. It’s a good idea to put it on low heat. This will ensure that any excess water evaporates.

Lastly, you’ll need to form an additional coating of oil. Use a neutral oil like canola oil when storing your pans.

Neutral oils will not turn rancid as quickly as other oils. This will help protect the pan.

Make sure to store your pan upside down. If water should happen to drip on your pan, the inside of the pan will not rust.

Put a small amount of oil onto a paper towel. Then, using circular motions, spread it across the surface of the pan. This is especially important if you have just finished seasoning the pan.

If you have formed a strong patina, you might be able to skip this step and put it away when it is dry.

What Should You Avoid When Cooking With a Carbon Steel Pan?

When you are cooking, there are a few foods that you should use sparingly. They have the potential to break down the patina, forcing you to re-season the pan more frequently.

The most important thing to avoid acidic foods. For example, you don’t want to cook with lemon juice or vinegar regularly. These have the potential to dislodge the seasoning layer. When this happens, you might notice a metallic taste in the food.

Even if you have a well-seasoned pan, it’s still best to avoid using too many acidic ingredients in your cooking.

If you are in the process of building a strong patina, you might want to avoid boiling too many salty foods.

The salt in the mixture will remove the seasoned layer. Once you have built a strong seasoned layer, you won’t need to worry about this problem.

Final Thoughts

Carbon steel pans have a lot of advantages. They will be able to get hot quickly, making them the ideal choice for searing meat.

However, they do have a flaw. If you put them away when they are still damp, they have the potential to start rusting. The good news is that these pans are tough and durable.

As long as you catch the rusting early enough, you will be able to stop the problem. Often, it will just take a few hours to remove the old rust and put on a few layers of seasoning. Then, you’ll be able to start using the pan in the kitchen again.