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Cast Iron Cookware: Part 2

Of Mice and Mountain MenLast time we looked at the history and development of cast iron cookware, this week we look at some more practical applications of the topic.

Where to Find Cast-Iron Pots and Pans

If you are looking for high quality cookware, you will be seeking Griswold and Wagner Ware items. As these companies went out of business half a century ago, antique shops and cooking specialty stores will be the best place to look. On occasion we read about someone who bought a box full of disused cast-iron cookware at a farm auction or yard sale for just a few dollars and hidden among them were a few treasures worth hundreds of times what he paid for the whole lot, but this is rare. More likely you will be finding Lodge cast-iron goods. They are still manufacturing in America and their products are available in many stores selling housewares as well as online. Lodge enjoys a good reputation for new-school cast iron. Finex Premium Cast Iron Cookware is an Oregon based company that was established to provide hand crafted high-end cookware for the specialty cooking market and is also an option if price is no object.

There are several French companies such as Le Creuset and Staub that are making cast-iron cookware, but these are mostly enamel coated. There were many European manufacturers, but most have gone out of business. Their products will be floating around out there, but not so much here in America as Griswold and Wagner, which were manufactured here and considered top brands. You may also find Vollrath, Favorite, Atlanta Stove Works, and Wapak brands, which were made in America but have since gone out of business or changed to other products.

Old-World vs New-World

The main difference in old world and new world cast-iron cookware is the means of casting the products. The old school way was to pour the molten iron compound into molds made of ceramic, then grind away the flash flanges after the molds were opened.

The modern practice is to use sand casting. Sand casting leaves no flanges and is more expedient for mass production, making it possible to offer a lower price on their goods. But sand casting leaves a nubbly surface where ceramic molds left a smooth surface. A smooth surface is easier to make non-stick. Still sand-cast products these days are quite good and unless you’ve had the pleasure of using a vintage, ceramic molded pan you might never know the difference.

rusty cast-iron skillet |

Photo: courtesy

Restoring an Old Cast-Iron Pan

A broken or cracked pan is not worth purchasing unless you just need something heavy or as a decoration. Cast-iron pots and pans that are intact but rusty can be restored as long as they are not deeply pitted by the rust. Start by removing loose debris with a wire brush. Then place the pan(s) upside down in your oven and run it through a self-cleaning cycle. Don't have a self-cleaning oven? That's OK. Click here for an alternative cast-iron cleaning process.

Wipe out any loosened debris with a towel, then soak the pan in a solution of half water, half white vinegar for a couple of hours. The vinegar will eat into the remaining rust. Don’t leave it soaking too long or the solution (which is acidic) will start eating into the cast iron; an hour or two should do it.

Then rinse the pan in clear water and use a stiff plastic brush or scrub pad to remove any remaining rust and dry the pan thoroughly by placing it back into a warm oven for 20 to 30 minutes. You will want to immediately season the pan so it doesn’t rust again. In this case you will want to season the inside and the outside once and you will want to season the inside two or three times to build up a good non-stick surface.

Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

“Seasoning” cast iron means forming a thin, baked-on layer that seals the iron; keeping moisture from rusting it (bare cast iron is highly prone to rusting) and helps keep food from sticking. This is done by wiping on a thin layer of vegetable oil or vegetable shortening and placing the pan (upside down so any excess drains out rather than forming a gooey pool in the bottom of the pan) on the upper rack of your oven and baking at 400 F for 45 minutes. Cover the lower rack with aluminum foil to catch any drips from the pan.

Heating the vegetable oil to 400 F polymerizes the oil – which means the molecules in the oil line up and link together – forming a tough plastic-like film.

Most new cast-iron cookware come pre-seasoned so you can jump right in and cook with it. But if you want to season it again – just to get a feel for it – go ahead; you won’t hurt it and it may improve the non-stick property.

Contrary to myth, you do not have to re-season the pan each time you use it. In fact, using it (especially if you cook with vegetable oil) enhances the seasoning as you go; the more you use it, the better it gets. If you cook a lot of high-acid foods, you will need to season more frequently, otherwise television chef Alton Brown advocates re-seasoning cast-iron cookware yearly to ensure a non-stick surface and to protect the surface from rust.

To Be Continued…

In Part 3, we will explore:

  • Cooking with cast iron

  • Cleaning cast-iron cookware

  • Storing cast-iron pots and pans

  • Health effects of cooking in cast iron