Since I started my carbon steel series, I’ve been postponing writing a blog post to answer the question “does carbon steel rust?” And how to stop it & prevent it from happening again.
But after coming across this Reddit user, I knew those were spirit guides nudging me to write about this topic🤣.
According to this distressed Reddit user, they washed their pan, and it proceeded to rust right in front of their eyes!
“Hey, pan, next time, at least wait for them to look away?”
Anyway, if you’re sailing in the same boat, stay with me, and I’ll show you my ways
The best way of solving any problem in life is to get to the root of it. Otherwise, you’ll just be going in circles.
Therefore, I thought we would study the theory of how rust is formed.
So, does carbon steel rust? Yes, it does, and various factors can accelerate it. Some of them include.
This is the number one culprit when it comes to carbon steel pan rust. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by writing equations on how rust forms—no need to show off 😅.
You only need to know that once the steel is exposed to large amounts of water for a long time, it automatically forms iron oxide ( which is a fancy name for rust).
And that’s not all; the type of water that comes in contact with your pan can determine how fast rust is formed.
For example, rust forms slower in areas with low rainfall than areas that have frequent & heavy rain. Also, while normal rainwater causes rust, acid rain will accelerate the rust even more.
Another example that relates to your carbon steel utensils is steel rusts faster when left longer in saltwater than in pure water.
Oxygen is another primary ingredient in forming rust. This means that when carbon steel is left outdoors, it’s likely to rust faster than if it’s stored indoors.
Higher humidity accelerates rusting, while low humidity slows it.
According to the Department of Physics of Illinois University, hot iron forms more rust than cold iron.
I know this may be confusing because we are talking about carbon steel. Well, let me clarify it for you.
The thing is, carbon steel contains 99% iron and 1% carbon (I know how that sounds, but it’s true).
Back to heat and rust; if you leave iron sitting under hot sunlight, it will likely rust faster than iron in colder weather conditions.
Apparently, the thinner your carbon steel pan or wok is, the more likely it’s likely to rust. Now you understand why people still insist on buying thicker pans. However, for the sake of my peace in the kitchen when tossing food, I still prefer lightweight woks.
Don’t worry; I’ll be teaching you how to prevent rust from forming so you don’t have to go for extremely heavy pans.
Also, carbon steel materials with holes in them will rust faster than those without
The carbon steel vs. carbon stainless steel is one that I have to referee every time I’m recommending carbon steel products, so why not settle it here?
Well, carbon steel does rust faster than carbon stainless steel; when all other factors are kept constant.
Simply put, if you put carbon steel and stainless carbon steel in one room, carbon steel will rust faster. This is because stainless carbon steel has more chromium than carbon steel, which makes it more rust-resistant.
Formation of rust can take months or minutes (like in the case of the Reddit user), depending on the factors we discussed. That is, water, heat, and oxygen. The level at which carbon steel is exposed to the three factors determines how long it takes to form rust.
Now that you know that stainless steel can rust, or you’ve experienced it first hand, it’s time to learn what prevents rust from forming.
Carbon stainless steel woks and pans are very durable & long-lasting, and they can survive very high temperatures.
Unfortunately, they’re prone to rust, which can significantly lower their performance, longevity, and appearance. Rust is ugly, especially on cookware.
Think about this, when you’re using, let’s say, a carbon steel wok to cook, it cooks your food at very high temperatures, vaporizing all the moisture in it. This leaves you with dry food with oil.
So, what happens when the temperatures aren’t very high to sustain vaporization of the moisture? That moisture remains in the pan, and it starts degrading the seasoning, and before you realize it, food is sticking to your wok.
And what do you do when that happens? You take a scrub and some detergent and start scrubbing the pan as if your life depends on it. And voila! The ungrateful pan RUSTS.
Moral of the lesson: A well-seasoned carbon steel pan is easier to clean than one with food sticking on it.
And here are ways to prevent rust from the passage:
What happens if you’re just learning all about carbon steel rusting after the ugly ordeal of your pan rusting?
Do you throw away your carbon steel wok? Or are there ways to fix it?
You guessed right; you can rehabilitate your pan and make it a better pan.
Here are some ideas on how to go about it.
I know I advised against this as a way of preventing rust, but it’s too late at this point. Here is the whole process.
White vinegar is very powerful in getting rid of rust on steel. The latter reacts with the rust and then dissolves.
For best results, soak your carbon steel pan in white vinegar, and leave it for an hour to allow it to do its magic.
If you don’t have that much vinegar, just pour it on steel, and give it time. Or soak a cloth in vinegar and wipe the pan with it.
Another alternative is to dip aluminum foil in white vinegar and use it to clean the surface.
You can also use rice vinegar to remove the inner carbon steel pan rust. All you need is to mix water and rice vinegar in the ratio of 1:1 and pour it into the pan. Boil the mixture in medium heat and then pour it. Lastly, scrub the pan with a detergent and rinse it.
This is probably the oldest trick in the book. To remove rust, sprinkle salt on parts of the pan that have rusted, then squeeze lemon or lime on it. Give it at least four hours to react with the rust, and then use the left-over skin to scrub the pan. This is a great way to remove rust without worrying about destroying your pan because the combination doesn’t damage the steel.
Method 4: Use Potato and Dish Soap
I haven’t tried this hack yet, but people say it works. I decided to include it because chances are you have potatoes and dish soap in your kitchen.
Simply cut the potato into pieces and apply soap to the cut ends. Place the potatoes on the surface and let them stay for a few hours before scrubbing the surface. The chemical reaction of the potato and rust make it easier to scrub off the rust.
I love using baking soda to clean my cooker, and it works wonders regardless of how messy it is.
To remove rust using baking soda, you need to form a paste and apply it on the rusted surface. Allow it to rest (normally, I let it stay overnight – that way, it does its job, and it doesn’t irritate me).
Use a scrub or new toothbrush to remove the dry paste, and rinse with water.
Ensure you season your pan after using the above methods to remove rust. Removing heavy rust from your pan also interferes with your pan’s seasoning.
If you have no idea how to do this, check out my guide on how to season a carbon steel pan.
I should also mention that most of these processes will take a few repeat sessions before seeing results, depending on the extent of the rust.
If you try the first time and nothing happens, do not despair. Repeat the process until you see results, or try any other method on this list.
Using carbon stainless steel pans and woks is all fun until they start forming rust. That is annoying, but it happens even to the best of us. Sometimes, the rust will occur simply because you went for an extended period without using the pan.
If this happens, simply follow the methods I shared to remove the rust (do not dispose of the pan – even the new one will rust at some point).
That said, it’s crucial to observe carbon steel utensils’ cleaning and maintenance practices to reduce rust occurrences.
What is the most challenging part of maintaining carbon steel utensils and preventing them from rusting?
Colin is a passionate chef by trade and a kitchen nerd on the side. Growing up in the kitchen, Colin has always had a passion for learning the absolute best way to cook a dish. He quickly realized most kitchens have duplicate cookware and small appliances and had to decide which ones were going to be the “keepers” – causing him to take a closer look at all his products.
As it turns out, small differences make a big impact on the experience. Whether it’s how hard you have to press a microwave button, to how long a cast iron skillet stays warm after you turn off the heat, these little difference changed everything.