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How to Clean Rust Off Your Carbon Steel Pan

Never fear—your pan isn't ruined forever.

By Team Made In
Oct 16, 2023
carbon steel frying pan outdoors
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As a general rule of thumb, rust and cookware aren't the best combination. That means it's totally normal to do a double take when you first see some appearing on your carbon steel pan.

Don't worry: removing a rust stain from a carbon steel pan is easy, and it'll perform just as well (if not better) once you've removed the rust.

With a few tips you'll soon be able to not only clean rust, but prevent it from forming again. Here's how to get your carbon steel cookware looking brand new and rust-free.

Why Does Carbon Steel Rust?

Unlike other types of cookware like stainless steel, carbon steel may rust when left in a humid or moist environment for an extended period of time. This happens due to the presence of oxidizable iron in the alloy that forms carbon steel (which is what also causes unfinished cast iron to rust).

The good news is that most carbon steel pan owners will only have to worry about their cookware rusting after it’s been exposed to water for an extended period of time (like after letting it soak in the sink, which we don't recommend). Extensive rust most commonly occurs after a cleaning, or in naturally humid environments.

If you live in a particularly humid area, or are using your carbon steel pan outdoors, there's an additional risk of your pan rusting due to the added moisture in the air. If this applies to you, you’ll need to take some extra precautions to shield your pan from environmental moisture and rust—like seasoning the exterior of your pan to decrease the amount of surface iron.

Already have a rusted area on your pan? Don't panic yet—let’s get into how to remove it with just a little effort and elbow grease.

How to Clean Rusted Carbon Steel

There are a number of ways to remove rust from your carbon steel pan. Below are three of the most popular methods—follow along with our video or read on for step by step tips.

The Salt Scrub Method

The least invasive rust removal method process uses coarse salt and oil to scour surface rust off of a pan.

This method is most commonly used for a small to medium sized rust spot, but it also works on larger rust areas as well.

  1. Pour some coarse salt and cooking oil (like vegetable oil) onto the rust spot.
  2. Scrub the salt and oil into the rust with a paper towel or soft cloth using a small circular motion until the rust has been removed.
  3. Reseason the pan (unless the rust spot was minor, in which case you can clean, dry, and store the pan using the method mentioned below "How to Prevent Rust").

The Scouring Method

This method involves using a coarse scrubber such as a scouring pad, steel wool, an abrasive sponge, or fine grit sandpaper to forcibly remove rust from your pan’s surface.

This is an effective method for removing rust from anywhere on the pan, including the bottom of the pan—which can sneakily develop rust without you realizing it.

  1. Using a circular motion, scrub at the rust with your coarse scrubber or steel wool until removed.
  2. Rinse the pan with hot soapy water.
  3. Reseason the pan.

Once you have scrubbed and reseasoned your pan, be sure to fully dry your pan with a dry cloth before storing it for your next meal.

The Vinegar Method

For stubborn interior rust that just won’t go away, this method should do the trick and help prevent rust from developing in the future. Note that a reseasoning is required after this method, as the acidity of the vinegar will strip away most (if not all) of your pan’s built up seasoning.

  1. Bring equal parts water and white vinegar to a roiling boil over medium heat.
  2. Pour out the mixture.
  3. Scrub the pan with soap and hot water.
  4. Reseason the pan.

How to Prevent Rust from Forming

Two steaks are cooking in a frying pan on an outdoor grill.

If your pan isn't rusty quite yet and you're looking to take preventative measures just in case, here's how you can set your pan up to be rust-free.

To prevent stubborn rust, we strongly advise doing the following after every cleaning that incorporates water:

  1. Dry the pan by hand.
  2. Put the pan on your stove over low heat.
  3. Dry the pan over the burner until all remaining water has evaporated.
  4. Lightly coat the inside of the hot pan with a high smoke point oil to form a very thin layer.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool.
  6. Wipe away excess oil (if any) and store.

A protective coating of oil can make all the difference when it comes to preventing stubborn rust.

Why Carbon Steel Should be Reseasoned After Removing Rust

Because removing heavy rust from carbon steel also results in the removal of some or all of your pan’s built up seasoning, it’s important to season the pan again afterwards. This ensures the surface of your pan builds up a non stick coating, or patina, over time.

For help getting the seasoning (or reaseasoning) process kickstarted, follow along with our video above.

Ready to Cook?

Now that you're up-to-date on managing rust when or if it develops on your carbon steel pan, there's nothing you can't conquer when it comes to this cookware material. From searing proteins to slow sautés, this versatile material can handle just about anything you throw at it.

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