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Restoring Cast Iron

We’re big fans of cast iron here at EstateSales.NET. Many of us have at least one pan at home. Some have several. Most of them are relatively new and store-bought.

Shame on us.

Shame on us because whether it’s the adorable cob-shaped pans made for cornbread, the questionably-shaped acorn pan, or a traditional skillet, estate sales are chock full of vintage cast iron treasures. And even if they’re not in peak condition, a little elbow grease and a little more time will turn those tag sale finds into kitchenware finer than what’s in the store today, and at a fraction of the price.

Because frankly, vintage cast iron has a lot going for it over contemporary pans. They have a smoother finish, which improves its non-stick qualities. It’s often lighter-weight. And it has a history, whether known or not, that a pan off the rack simply doesn’t have. Cast iron pans last for generations—there’s something special about finding one that's already lived one life, and bringing it back for another.

It should be noted, though, that not all pans are created equal. 

Certain name brands, like Griswold and Wagner, simply command a higher price than others. So if you come across one of their early products in your estate sale shopping, even if it needs some TLC, the price may reflect that, depending on the model. The two companies, however, were bought out in the 1950s, and the later products are not in the same demand.

Some people are also wary of products made overseas, concerned that other metals have been used in addition to the iron. So if you set out to find a quality cast iron pan to restore, be sure to do some research ahead of time.

But there were quite a few manufacturers making cast iron cookware in the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s that is now considered collectible. So it's certainly possible to find it for a great price at estate sales.

I submit the following cast iron pan as evidence.

We recently bought this rusty little number, a deep-sided, 10.25 inch pan made by Birmingham Stove & Range in the 1960s as part of their Century series. We picked it up on the last day of a local estate sale for $5.

There was a scratch on the inside that I suspected was purely cosmetic. If it went beyond the surface, the integrity of the pan would be jeopardized. But a rap of a knuckle to its underside emitted a resonant pong rather than a shallow tunk, so we were optimistic it was not a crack. But still, we’d have to get under it to get rid of it.

The pan was filthy and pitted, but we just knew it was beautiful on the inside.

Scratching the surface
The first order of business was the rust. When you’re dealing with rust at this level, preserving the seasoning is no longer an option. It’s a lost cause—you don’t want anything on that pan in your food. So you can scrape and scrub all you want—you’re not going to make things worse.

There are many schools of thought on the best way to remove rust from cast iron.

You can run your oven’s self-cleaning mode with the pan inside.

You can use store-bought oven cleaner. Spray the pan generously (outdoors, please!), then with gloved hands place the pan in a plastic bag and let the cleaner and time do the work. (You may have to do this more than once before it’s completely clean.)

You can soak it in a 50/50 vinegar and water solution. Anything you might have heard about keeping your precious cast iron away from water is moot at this point—you gotta do what you gotta do. But you should keep your eye on it—once the vinegar eats away at the rust, it will almost immediately eat away at the iron itself, causing pitting.

Or you can use my method. First, make a grand claim of being able to clean the whole thing yourself, without the use of harsh chemicals. Cry “I’ve got gumption!” Proclaim “I am a strong and independent woman!” Next, spend an afternoon scrubbing the pan with kosher salt and scouring pads, making minimal headway. Finally, throw your hands up in exasperation and ask your co-worker, Kyle, to take his grinder to the whole thing and just remove the entire outer surface with its wire brush attachment.

No chemicals on that route, right?

Right. But do make sure you wear a mask and ear protection if you decide to grind down your iron. It’s a lesson Kyle learned the hard way.

But it’s hard to argue with results.

Once we stripped the pan of all rust, seasoning, and protective coating of any kind, we needed to move quickly to reseason it. With nothing between the pan and the elements, it can start to rust quickly.

Choose your oil
The re-seasoning process involves rubbing every surface of your pan—inside, outside, rim and handle—with cooking oil.

We chose flaxseed oil—essentially the food grade version of linseed oil—for its high smoke point, the hard, durable surface it ultimately leaves behind. And, frankly, because most people in the office had heard it was the way to go.

Flaxseed can be pricey compared to other oils. We paid $12 for an 8-ounce bottle at our local health food store. But if you, like us, are working with a $5 pan, the few extra dollars you’ll spend on oil is worth it, given the final product.

If flaxseed isn’t your jam, or if it costs more than you’re willing to spend, other oils will certainly work. There are people who swear by canola, and others who are loyal to lard. Basically, anything you want to do with your cast iron pan, you’re going to find a slew of people who feel strongly about it, one way or the other.

Turn up the heat
Armed with the oil of your choice, apply a very thin coat to your pan. If you think the coat you’ve applied is too thin, you’re wrong. In fact, go ahead and take a dry paper towel and rub the skillet dry one more time, just for questioning it.

A thick coat can result in oil dripping in your oven, and ultimately a thick, tacky layer of seasoning that will scratch off easily and get into your food. No one wants that.

So go ahead and wipe the pan down one more time, why don't you.

Once the pan is oiled, put it in a cold oven, upside-down, and turn up the heat as high as it will go. At least to 450 degrees, if you can swing it. When it reaches the set temperature, let it bake for an hour. Then turn off the oven and let it sit in there—do not open the door—for two hours.

You're going to want to open the door. You're going to want to see how beautiful your pan is starting to look. Don't do it. Don't you do it.

Two hours later, with a well-earned sense of pride and self-control, you can open the oven and admire your handiwork.

Then start the process again.

And again.

You’ll need to do at least four rounds of seasoning. Ever the overachievers, we did six.

Ours never quite reached the shade of black you get in a storebought pan. Perhaps that comes with time and use. But this $5 skillet, once fully-seasoned, performed better than any contemporary cast iron cookware I’ve used.

We tested the pan with a no-knead rosemary and olive oil bread.

The dough rose in the pan, baked up perfectly, and slid right out of the deep-sided pan without any sticking. If everything baked in that skillet comes out as smoothly as our maiden bake, then maintaining this pan will be a breeze.

Once it’s initially seasoned, you’ll only need to do the occasional maintenance—a round of seasoning when things get sticky. This marathon oiling and baking is a one-time thing. But clearly, it’s worth it.

So make sure you keep your eyes peeled at the next estate sale you attend. If you’re willing to put in some time and effort, you can fill your cabinets with versatile vintage cookware, at a fraction of what you might spend in the contemporary market.

Happy hunting!

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