Across the continent, the dark and dusty corners of thousands of basements and barns contain hidden treasures: skillets, Dutch ovens, griddles and other cookware cast in iron, possibly from a century or two ago. Though once abandoned for flashy designer cookware, cast iron is now regaining its rightful place in the kitchen.
My own fondness for cast iron cookware began soon after I inherited two vintage skillets from my mother. To this day, I feel a connection to her each time I use them to prepare a meal. And like other collectors, I have become hooked on cast iron’s many virtues, acquiring more than 30 old and new pieces over the past few years.
“People love cast iron because it’ll last a lifetime if you take care of it right,” says Russ Howser, president of the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association.
Cast iron can take and hold the heat, whether atop a stove, inside an oven, under a broiler, or over charcoal. Soups and stews seem to develop a richer flavor, skillet-fried potatoes achieve that perfectly crisp texture that’s just not possible with other cookware, and pan-seared steaks and burgers turn a beautiful brown outside while retaining full flavor and juiciness within. Professional and home cooks alike also value iron’s versatility: One pan can go smoothly from stovetop to oven, making it ideal for browning followed by braising.
This cookware has a lighter side, too. Seasoned skillets and pots develop a nonstick surface that requires very little cooking oil and is a breeze to clean. “Foods won’t stick if you care for cast iron properly, and you don’t have to worry about eating a chemical coating every time you use it,” says Howser.
You can purchase a full line of cast-iron cookware brand new, or use a little elbow grease to transform a neglected piece into a coveted, lifelong possession — the latter being my preference. Buying used ware gives you the satisfaction of giving new life to an old piece, instead of sending it to the local landfill. Many believe the quality is superior, too.
“Older cast iron wasn’t recycled like some of the iron that’s used today,” says Howser. “The older pieces usually have very thin walls and a finished surface that creates a smooth, slick surface for cooking.”
The easiest and least expensive way to find used cast iron is to ask friends and relatives for unwanted skillets or pots. Cast-iron cooking pieces have been around for centuries, and eagle-eyed shoppers can still find early iron pots and skillets for surprisingly little at flea markets and yard sales. I’ve also found many great bargains online. Skillets of various sizes, griddles, muffin pans, pots, waffle irons, tea kettles, Dutch ovens — with and without legs — and much more are available on eBay and other websites.
Be prepared for sticker shock on some items, however. A bit of snobbery exists among cast-iron collectors, resulting in escalating values for vintage ware by Griswold, Wagner and a few other manufacturers. The earlier Griswold pieces can fetch several hundred dollars or more at auction. A one-of-a-kind Griswold bread pan reportedly sold for more than $20,000 on eBay a few years ago.
What to look for? Don’t be afraid of some light surface rust, or of grease or carbon buildup. I’ll explain how to deal with these superficial imperfections later. It’s best to avoid cracked, warped or deeply pitted pieces though, as these are signs that the piece has been severely neglected or abused.
While vintage pieces are often more sought after, several modern manufacturers, including Lodge Cast Iron and Camp Chef, offer a great variety of products from æbleskiver pans to woks at reasonable prices. Many items are preseasoned so you can use them immediately. Enamel-coated cast iron from manufacturers such as Le Creuset is also widely available, and although this cookware does not require seasoning, it’s generally much more expensive, can’t withstand high heat, and foods sometimes scorch or stick.
What to do next depends on the condition of the piece. If it appears pristine, you’ve lucked out. Simply wash it with soap and hot water (this is the only time soap will ever touch your piece), and thoroughly dry it. Then, rub in a light coating of cooking oil or lard, and that’s it; your piece is ready to use.
Ask 10 neighbors about restoring cast iron and how they treat it, and you’ll likely get eight or so different answers. The following is one proven method.
To clean an old neglected piece, first soak it in a lye solution to remove the grease, says Howser. Then, wearing protective gloves, use steel wool and water to remove any remaining build-up. Rinse with clear water, and dry immediately. Repeat the scouring, if necessary. An alternative to using lye is to spray the piece with oven cleaner and seal it in a plastic bag overnight. Be sure to follow the directions on the can and wear safety glasses and rubber gloves. Follow up by scouring with steel wool.
To remove rust, place the piece in a mixture of equal parts water and white vinegar for up to four hours. Remove your cast iron from its bath and scrub with hot water. Dry thoroughly. Now your cast iron is ready to season.
Seasoning cast iron protects it from rust, seals its pores, and keeps foods from sticking. To season a piece of cast iron, set the cookware in a cold oven, then heat it to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. After about 30 minutes, use gloves or a potholder to remove the piece from the oven. Use a soft clean cloth to rub in a coat of cooking oil or lard. The heat opens the pores of the metal, allowing the fat to penetrate. As the piece cools, wipe it with another clean cloth to remove excess fat. Your cast iron now has a long-lasting nonstick coating and is ready to use.
Cast iron is an excellent conductor of heat, but it needs to be treated kindly. Don’t place a cold pan on an already hot stovetop. Instead, place the pan on a cold stove, and then start the burner. This helps to prevent warping or cracking. If you are cooking on a woodstove over a fire or on charcoal, it’s a good practice to gradually heat the pan in the oven or another heat source prior to cooking.
Most anything can be cooked in cast iron. The only foods I generally avoid are acidic items that require long simmering, such as tomato sauce. The acid can leach iron from the cookware, resulting in a slightly rusty flavor.
A little discipline is called for at cleanup. Do not soak cast-iron pots and pans in the sink — even if you did eat too much and now feel lazy. Also, do not put them in a dishwasher. Instead, hold the piece under running hot water and clean it with a plastic pad or brush, just as you would other nonstick cookware. The food should rinse off quickly and easily. If you find that some food has stuck to the cooking surface, resist the temptation to use soap. Soap will remove the pan’s seasoning. Instead, just add water to the pan, bring it to a simmer on the stovetop, and use a wooden utensil or other tool to loosen the food residue. Don’t be afraid to clean your pan only with water. It will be sterilized by heat each time you cook.
Following these few simple dos and don’ts will ensure the longevity of your cast iron for generations. You could even find, as I did, that caring for your cookware becomes a joy. Step up to cast iron, and your descendants just might find your “classy” cookware in a dark and dusty corner of your barn some day.
Jeff Thomas loves country living in northwestern Montana. He and his wife Vicki raise most of their own food, along with a few spoiled hens.
Now that you are comfortable and truly infatuated with cast iron cooking, it’s time to take it to the next level: outdoor Dutch oven cooking over charcoal or a campfire. Dutch ovens are pots that have a lipped lid designed to hold coals. They’re available in a range of sizes from 1 to 12 quarts, and most also have three small legs. Dutch oven cooking can be as simple or as complex as you care to make it. The idea is to surround the oven with coals to provide continuous heat, just as you would with an indoor oven. You can even stack multiple ovens — one containing a hearty beef stew, another with cornbread, and yet another with apple cobbler. You’ll find a vast array of Dutch oven cooking accessories available, too — stands, wind screens, tripods, lid lifters, tongs, lid stands, and more. Aficionados often enjoy using the full range of available gadgets, but all you really need are the pot, some heat and a sense of adventure.
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