Cast iron is an awesome material. It’s able to withstand extremely high cooking temperatures, which makes it ideal for frying and searing. Over time, cast iron naturally develops a non-stick surface which also adds a rich, savory flavor to anything cooked in it.
Cast iron pots and pans are generally made of a single solid piece of metal, which means that they can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven. The fact that there is cast iron cookware from the Civil War era still in use today is a testament to the amazing durability of this material.
With the popularity and demand for antique cast iron cookware, it’s easy to conclude that there must be some lost, magic process that our ancestors employed in making them. The truth is, they are slightly superior to their modern counterparts.
The main technical benefit is that antique cast iron pots and pans were made to have a smooth finish which aides in their non-stick quality. They also weigh less than newer pieces.
The real advantage is the history that these living relics have. They’re a bridge between the present and the past. It’s entirely possible that you could be making breakfast on the same pan where someone baked cornbread when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, or fried eggs while the U.S. entered the First World War.
These pieces are beautiful, collectable, and useful. Sometimes, however, they require a little bit of restoration to get them back in good working order. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do if you know the proper steps. Let’s take a look at how to get your antique cast iron in tip-top shape.
How to buy a vintage cast iron
The first step in your journey to cast iron cooking is to buy yourself a piece of cast iron cookware. You could spend days researching and familiarizing yourself with all the brands of cast iron makers that have existed over the years. Some of the notable names include Wagners, Griswolds, Favorites, Victors, and Wapaks just to name a few. (Read about Wagners vs Griswolds)
It’s perfectly fine to just buy a piece of cast iron that’s old, lightweight, and in good condition. You can always figure out its history later.
Check for cracks
Make sure to check your pan for cracks before you purchase it. A crack in your cast iron pan cannot be fixed and makes it unusable. Sometimes, these cracks are obvious, but other times they can be hidden under grit, grime, or rust. A trick for making sure your pan is crack free is to hold it by its handle and knock on the bottom of the pan. If it rings like a bell, it’s crack-free. If it has a flat, dead sound then keep looking.
Watch out for pitting
Also, be on the lookout for pitting. Pitting refers to the little pock marks that look a bit like the cratered surface of the moon. Most antique cast iron pieces will have some amount of pitting, but it’s best to avoid those with excessive pitting as this makes it hard to get a good layer of seasoning on your pan.
A little pitting is okay, but a lot of pitting is bad.
What about warping?
Warping usually happens when a piece of cast iron was overheated and the metal literally warped. It may also be a manufacturing defect, but it’s hard to tell.
If you have a glass top stove, like I used to have, warping will be an issue. Your cast iron skillet will spin like a top! One of my first Wagner Ware skillets was a tad warped so I gave it to my mother in law who has a gas stove with big, sturdy grates. So the slight warp wasn’t a problem at all.
Once you have your cast iron cookware, it’s time to begin restoring them. This involves removing the old rust and seasoning from it. Let’s take a look at some methods for accomplishing this.
Remove the old seasoning
To remove the layer of old seasoning on you cast iron, lye is a tried and true method that works. Lye is the common name of sodium hydroxide and it does a great job of stripping away the polymerized oil coating on your cookware. Be very careful working with lye, though, as it will cause serious chemical burns if it touches your skin. Wear thick rubber gloves and safety glasses any time you work with lye.
Pure lye can be purchased at hardware stores. Add one pound of lye to five gallons of water. Add the lye slowly, like snow falling onto a pond. The solution will get hot, up to 200 degrees, as the water and lye react. Be sure to always add lye to water and never water to lye, as it can cause what’s known as the volcano effect. This means that the lye will form a crust on the water, pressure will build up, and a little volcano of lye solution will burst out splashing all that caustic goodness on anything nearby.
Now, submerge your pan into this solution and let it sit for 24 hours. A five gallon bucket with a lid works great for this, because you can cover it for safety. After your pan has soaked, give it a good scrub with a scrubbing pad. You should easily be able to remove your seasoning, but if not just repeat the process by soaking for another 24 hours.
You can also use oven cleaner…and that’s what I do:
Now that you’re done removing the old seasoning from your pan, it’s time to remove the rust. This can be accomplished with an inexpensive jug of white vinegar. Just submerge your pan in vinegar for 5 minutes. Break out a new, lye-free scrubber and give your pan another good scrub. It’s important not to leave your pan submerged for more than 24 hours or else the vinegar will start to erode your pan.
Here is a totally bare skillet.
Once you’ve stripped away the old seasoning and rust, your pan should have a bright gunmetal shine. It’s important to season it immediately, though, as exposure to air will make it rust again. (Read the Definitive Guide Here) To do this, start by rubbing down the surface with a paper towel soaked in flax, corn, vegetable, or canola oil.
Repeat this process three to four times, until your pan is pitch black. Voila! You’ve now restored your antique cast iron pan to all its former glory.
Cook, Fry, Repeat
Now that you’ve salvaged a piece of history, you’ll want to be sure to keep it in good condition. Use your pan often, especially for frying, as this will ensure that you’ll maintain a good layer of seasoning. Clean your pan immediately after using it while it’s still hot. This will make it easier to clean. When cleaning it, use the scrubbing side of a soft sponge and do not use soap. To prevent rust, heat your pan again and add another layer of oil before storing it. If you follow these simple steps, you will keep your pan in excellent condition.
See this article on great accessories for cast iron to ensure you have the tools you need to properly care for your cookware.