Choosing Used Cast-Iron Cookware

Find quality used cast-iron cookware without breaking the bank.

| May/June 2017

Cast-iron cookware is experiencing a revival of sorts. Maybe you’ve read articles or seen video of people who tout the superior cooking ability of cast iron, the material’s longevity — so nearly indestructible that collections are often passed down through multiple generations — and the healthful benefits of cast-iron cookware. Perhaps you have acquired a piece to try out, and now you’re hooked.

But buying a full complement of cast-iron kitchenware from retail stores gets pricey. Because it is so durable, be willing to invest time, rather than money, to seek out the pieces you want on the secondhand market. But where do you start? First, let’s examine what you will be looking for.

Old school vs. new school

Generally speaking, pre-World War II cast-iron cookware is smoother, thinner, and lighter than modern versions. There are two reasons for this. First is that originally, cookware was cast by pouring molten iron alloy into ceramic molds. When the casting cooled, the molds were opened to remove the pan and the flashing was ground off around the edges. The ceramic mold produced a smooth surface.

When manufacturers needed to increase production, they went to a sand-casting method to form their pans. The mold is a box of moist sand mixed with clay and organic binders. Some stamped the shape into two halves of a split mold. Others used a wax pattern buried in the sand. Heating the assembly causes the wax to melt and seep into the sand, leaving a pan-shaped cavern in the mold medium. Molten metal is then poured into the mold. When cool, the mold is broken apart to retrieve the pan. Very little grinding is required, no mold maintenance to perform, and the mold is reusable.

Sand casting leaves a rougher surface than the ceramic molds did. Some say this ruins the pan and only the older, smooth-surfaced pans should be used, but I for one make omelets in a sand-casted Lodge cast-iron skillet without any trouble. A smooth surface is easier to season quickly, but both can be made nonstick with regular use and proper seasoning.

Some brands, notably Griswold and Wagner, machined the interior surfaces of sand-cast pans to smooth them. Most modern brands leave the surfaces rough to facilitate their preseasoning process.

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