There’s nothing worse, when cooking in your kitchen, than a sticky cast iron skillet — you know your skillet is clean but it just doesn’t feel clean if it’s sticky.
A cast iron skillet that feels sticky can be a by-product of improper seasoning.
Using too much oil to season a skillet in a single step rather than using a thin-layered multi-step process can leave you with an almost tacky touch to the skillet’s surface.
Surface buildup from foods or cooking residue left on the skillet and then coated-over with more cooking oil, the next time you use it, can also lead to your cast iron skillet sticking.
What you’ll need to clean a rusty cast iron skillet
- 60 grit sandpaper
- Vegetable oil
- Paper towels
- Elbow grease
You’ll want to use a really tough sandpaper. I used 60-grit because I wanted to get off as much of that rust with every swipe as possible. Yes, it’s gonna scratch the surface of your skillet a bit, but it’s going to be fine. I went in circles, following the shape of the skillet inside the pan to help minimize any odd looking scratches.
And then you just get really dirty. Wear gloves if you’re one of those delicate folks with fancy nails. I’m not, so I just went after it. Scrub until you see shiny metal. How long that takes will depend on how deep the rust is and how much other gunk is on your rusty cast iron skillet.
For me, that took about 15 or 20 minutes to do the entire skillet. I focused on cleaning the inside where my food would touch more than the outside and I didn’t do the bottom of my skillet at all. The rust wasn’t nearly as bad there.
Once I had my rusty cast iron skillet this far, I was surprised to see how shiny it actually was. All the cast iron in my house is black from years of seasoning and use. It was pretty neat.
When you get all the rust out, go ahead and re-wash it with dish soap and water by hand. Never put your cast iron in a dishwasher. Then dry it out.
I gave mine a couple of minutes to air dry and I checked it for any spots of rust I might have missed that showed after it dried. We were all clear so it was time to season it.
How to season a cast iron skillet
Use a teaspoon of vegetable oil, and put it on a paper towel. Rub the oil over every surface–inside, outside, handles. Then place the skillet upside down on a piece of aluminum foil in your oven at 425 for an hour. You need the oven to be hot enough to get the oil to “bond” with the surface of the metal. Then turn the oven off and let the skillet sit in the oven to cool.
You may need to repeat the process two or three more times over the next few days until the surface is shiny but not sticky. If your skillet it sticky, you’ve used too much oil and not heated it high enough. If you can’t get the sticky out, you may have to scrub it back down and start over.
Once it’s seasoned you can use it as you would any other cast iron.
- Try to avoid washing it much after you get it seasoned–just wipe it out unless something is really stuck in it.
- And if you do need to wash it, try to scrub the stuck stuff with kosher salt and water only.
- If soap is required, you should rub it down with a dash of oil again to help protect the seasoning you worked so hard to get in there.
- Mine turned out a bit of a bronze color, but that’s fine. In time it will darken more.
If you are a beginner, check out my cast iron care guide for more details about how to clean a rusty cast iron skillet, seasoning tips and how to use your cast iron so it lasts forever.
- Do: Keep It Relevant
- Don’t: Let It Fall By the Wayside
- Why: Using your skillet often keeps it from rusting. Then it’ll constantly be cared for as you re-season it on the regular.
Speaking of re-seasoning, your cast iron skillet will be able to build up a truly good seasoning (i.e., the non-stick layer the owner supplies the pan by using oil) because of the amount of times you’ll be re-seasoning.
Lastly, your skillet will build up some good flavors, since you won’t be using harsh cleaning products on it.
- Do: Rinse Off
- Don’t: Lather Up
- Why: The best time to clean a cast iron skillet is while it’s still warm (but not hot, because cold water could crack it). During that time, all the extra debris will be easier to remove. The best way to remove tricky food is with a gentle, stiff brush or sponge; salt; and warm water.
Do NOT use steel wool or soap. Not only will you ruin your past seasoning efforts, the cast iron itself could be compromised by using such harsh materials.
Also, never EVER put your skillet in the dishwasher. That is the quickest way to destroy this coveted kitchen tool. By the way, once your skillet is seasoned properly, it’s really easy to clean.
- Do: Towel Off
- Don’t: Drip Dry
- Why: Make sure to thoroughly dry your cast iron skillet after every use. Then it won’t rust. A foolproof method is putting it on a burner on low heat for 5-10 minutes after you’re done hand-washing it. That will ensure it dries quickly. As previously mentioned, don’t subject your skillet to the harsh environment of a dishwasher or allow it to soak in the sink.
- Do: Become a Seasoned Veteran
- Don’t: Forget to Kick Things Up a Notch
- Why: After you’ve bought your cast iron skillet, it’s time to season it. Yes, before you even start cooking. No, this doesn’t involve pepper, basil, oregano, or any of kicks of flavor like that. It’s a different type of seasoning.
To put it simply, “seasoning” a cast iron skillet involves that glossy layer on the skillet that gives it non-stick properties. The owner creates and maintains their skillet’s seasoning. It takes time, devotion, and a little love to keep a strong seasoning on your cast iron skillet, and the first usage sets the tone.
What You Need:
- Cast-iron skillet
- Sponge or stiff brush
- Clean, dry cloth or paper towels
- Shortening or olive oil
- Kosher salt (optional)
Clean the skillet with a sponge or stiff brush and salt. Apply a light layer of melted shortening or olive to the skillet. Using the cloth or paper towels, apply the shortening across the skillet. Buff to remove the excess.
Heat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, place your pan upside down on the top rack of the oven, and allow it to “bake” for one hour. Remove it from the oven, and allow your skillet to cool for one hour.
- Do: Re-Season Every Session
- Don’t: Think You’re Done after the First Session
- Why: Re-seasoning could and should be done when your skillet looks like it’s in need of a little extra TLC – and after you use it every time. Great seasoning doesn’t just happen after one use; it takes time to build.
After you’re done running your cleaning routine, let your skillet dry completely. Quickly take a dry rag and wipe the skillet down with the same oil or shortening you originally used to season it while it’s still on the burner. Cover every area of the pan. Note: your pan will be hot, so be careful!
As the pan cools, the oil or shortening will soak back into the pores of the pan, which will help to build your seasoning. Every now and then, you can pop it in the oven to really bake the oil in these pores.
- Do: De-Crust the Rust
- Don’t: Think Rust Equals Bust
- Why: Many people think that a rusty cast iron skillet equals the end of the pan’s shelf life. Not true. You don’t want rust in your pan, but rust doesn’t mean it’s time to seek out a new skillet.
First, give it a good wash with your stiff brush and warm water. Then towel dry. After the cleaning is done, go ahead and season it. You want the oil or shortening to really seep into your pan’s pores because your skillet needs some tough love right now.
If all else fails, a machine shop might be able to help you by pressure-blasting it. However, the moral is: Don’t neglect your pan. Keep it seasoned, and use it often.
The Salt and Potato Method: Another way to get rid of that tricky rust is by using the salt and potato method. All you need is two tablespoons of salt and a potato. Cut the potato in half, and pour the salt in your skillet. Using the potato as a sponge, scrub the salt against your skillet in a circular motion.
The moisture of the potato does all of the work. It may take a little time, but be patient. You’ll see the rust literally leaving the pan as you’re scrubbing. This method also works when removing stuck-on food.
- Do: Oil Up
- Don’t: Expose It to the Elements
- Why: If your skillet is looking a little dry (i.e., porous and dirty), rub a little oil onto the surface to make it look slick again. If you haven’t used it in a while, it may also build up rust.
If rubbing a little oil on it doesn’t seem to do anything, re-season it. It should get it back to its old self in no time.
- Do: Stay Cool and Light
- Don’t: Keep Things Hot and Heavy
- Why: Find a cool, dry area to store your skillet. You also want to be mindful that moisture causes cast iron to rust, so you don’t want it to be exposed to steam or water of any kind. A cabinet is probably your best option – just not a cabinet under the sink or close to water pipes. Storing it in the oven is also a good option.
If you have multiple skillets or pans, make sure you put a paper towel between each one if you plan on stacking them. That will protect them from getting damaged.
Also make sure you remove any lids when storing. You want your skillet to get ventilation while it’s being stored, and a lid will completely prevent that.
- Do: Keep the Flavor Party Short
- Don’t: Let Food Overstay Its Welcome
- Why: Flavors from food will inevitably seep into your pan’s pores, and that’s OK. It will enhance the seasoning you’re building onto it. However, you don’t want TOO much to soak its way into your pan.
Think about it. Do you want all of your food to taste overly fishy if you just made a salmon dish tonight? I don’t think so.
10. Repeated Usage
- Do: Read and Repeat
- Don’t: Skim and Forget
- Why: All of these steps are very crucial when it comes to properly caring for your cast iron skillet. Make sure you’re regularly following all of these guidelines with every usage. That will keep your skillet at its peak condition, and it will ensure you aren’t buying a new one sooner than you should be.
(Read This Next: Top 45 Cast Iron Skillet Recipes)
Best Tips to Remove Sticky Cast Iron Buildup
There are certain types of food that have a tendency to stick to cast iron more than others — like eggs, for example. How the skillet is heated and when to add oil or butter before cracking those eggs is key to them sliding out of the pan rather than sticking. This will be covered in a different post.
For purposes of removing the most common offenders after cooking — here are some guidelines:
The “Works for most Cast Iron Skillets” Method
A common problem with sticky cast iron skillets is how to remove burned food. When the food is scraped out of the skillet, it often leaves a residue that looks like a stain. This is fairly easy to correct, for the aftermath of most burned foods try these steps:
- Put about half an inch of water in the bottom of the pan and bring to a gentle boil — this will loosen any food stuck on the skillet surface
- Scrub or scrape the loosened food with a non-metal scrubbing pad or with a plastic spatula or wood spoon — repeat the process, if necessary
- Wash the skillet with warm, soapy water and rinse — dry the skillet with a clean towel or paper towels
- Return the skillet to the stove and heat for a minute or two to evaporate any remaining moisture – a very dry skillet is not prone to rust
- Spread a very thin coating of oil on the skillet while still warm – wipe the surface again with a paper towel and store after the skillet has cooled
The Stubborn Egg Removal Method
The serial sticky cast iron offender, in terms of stubborn residues, is egg. If the General Works-For-Most Method doesn’t get you the results you want, roll up your sleeves — here is Plan B:
- While we love Kosher salt for cooking, you can mix a couple of tablespoons of Kosher salt with some cooking oil to form an abrasive-type cleanser
- Slightly warm this mixture in your sticking cast iron skillet (on the stove) but keep it cool enough that you can touch it
- Take a dry paper towel and use it to scrub the warmed oil/salt cleanser into the remaining egg residue (this assumes you tried the General Method first)
- When the offending residue is gone, rinse the skillet, clean with warm, soapy water and repeat the last 2 steps of the General Method above
The How To Remove Sticking Paint Method
The process for cleaning a sticky cast iron skillet with paint spatters will vary based on the user’s comfort level but the only sure, safe way to get rid of paint is by completely stripping the skillet — here’s why.
If you purchased your skillet at a garage or yard sale and don’t know the history of that skillet’s use, then complete stripping of the skillet inside and out may be the best option.
Depending on the age of the skillet, the paints used may have been lead-based paints that we know today to be toxic.
The type of paint used on the surface of the skillet is not a question frequently asked at a yard sale or auction — so why take a chance?
Similarly, the paint removers or thinners that are generally used in getting rid of unwanted paint are harmful as well.
Who would want to chance leaving any toxic residue from paint thinners when removing any offending paint spatters?
The safest (while not the easiest or the least expensive) way to remove paint from sticky cast iron cookware is to have it sandblasted. Glass beads or river sand are typically used to take the cookware or a skillet back to its natural, unseasoned condition.
Because in sandblasting, a skillet is stripped down to bare metal — you will need to season the skillet as if you purchased it brand new and unseasoned.
The “What is that smell!” Removal Method
A sticky cast iron pan can soak up some of the flavors and odors from the food you cook — people often wonder how to remove one of the smelliest — fish odors from cast iron skillets. Try the few simple steps below:
- Cut a lemon in half
- Add a couple of teaspoons of salt to your skillet and squeeze the lemon juice from one half the lemon into the pan and over the salt
- Use the squeezed lemon half as your scrubber and scour the skillet for just a minute or two — any longer and the acid from the lemon will start to cut through your seasoning layers
- Discard the lemon and wipe the salt/lemon mixture from the pan with paper towels
- Rinse the skillet in warm water, dry with paper towels and heat on the stove for a minute to evaporate and remaining moisture before you put your skillet away