Thursday, February 02, 2006

Buying and Caring for Cast Iron Skillets

Michelle, the Accidental Scientist asked me for some information about buying cast iron. My answer got so long I decided to make it a post instead of a comment!

There are lots of ways to clean and season cast iron, so if you aren't already using it, don't be intimidated or afraid. It's easier to handle than most modern cookware (especially nonstick skillets) and is very durable. And if you wash or scrub off the seasoning, so what? You can just season it again!

I got all my old cast iron from flea markets and auctions. Some of them were in good condition and still seasoned, they just needed to be washed before I could use them. Others had some rust or other problems. There are lots of ways to , but what I did was put them in the fire when we were burning yard trash. The high heat burns off everything! After they were cool enough to handle, I washed them well, and seasoned them in the oven. (Here's some information on how to , plus a way to clean it using lye. I think she goes overboard on handling the rust, though.)

The best old cast iron is from Griswold, and also Wagner. There's alot of it still around and it can be found cheap because lots of people don't want Gramma's old, heavy skillet, they'll sell it for whatever they can get. Old cast iron is becoming more collectible too, so you can find it in antique stores where it's usually more expensive. (If you want to keep the antique value of an old skillet, you probably shouldn't use the heavy-duty cleaning methods that get rid of all the old blackened stuff on it, but I'm not an expert on antique iron.) People are now making reproductions of the old cast iron, but the quality is very different and the markings are too (today's laws usually require markings that old pieces don't have).

If you're going to try garage sales, auctions, or flea markets, be patient. Know what you want (size, shape, griddle vs. skillet etc.) and look for good iron. A little, or even moderate rust by itself is okay, it can be cleaned up pretty easily. Rusty skillets are usually cheaper than ones in better condition. Don't buy any skillet that is warped or cracked or has deep gouges in it for cooking. I don't like ones that have rings, because they can make the skillet heat slower and less evenly.

A used skillet will probably be seasoned at least a little, if it hasn't been allowed to rust. But that doesn't really matter, because it should be cleaned first. Before using mine, I always broke my rule about soap never touching cast iron, because you never know what's been in it or who's touched it, and I'm picky about food safety and hygiene. So I washed them well with a soapy sponge and hot water, rinsed them and dried them with a paper towel. I always use a paper towel because iron can make kitchen linens brown and gross looking. Then I season them by putting some oil all over them, just a light coat or it'll get sticky, and putting them in a warm oven for a while. Some people recommend just 225 F. for seasoning iron, I use 350 F. because it's a little faster.

The oil soaks into the pores in the skillet as it heats, and that's what creates the nonstick finish. (Soap dissolves oil, that's why it's a no-no after the skillet has been cleaned and seasoned.) Too much oil just sits on top of the iron and gets gunky. If you don't think you used enough oil, put a little more in and pop it back in the oven. Or fry something in it, that adds to the seasoning too. If you use my cleaning method after cooking, you won't be undoing the seasoning either.

If you want to look around before buying, eBay is a great place for looking and learning. For example, this seller apparently thinks that this skillet was made in 1891, she says it's in "great shape for its age". But think about it, are there stamps besides "1891 original"? I haven't seen any. But Wagner made skillets way after that year. Why don't other Wagner skillets have a similar stamp with a different year? Why would it have seasoning instructions stamped into it too? (I have one of these skillets, I use it for frying eggs. It's smooth and works great, I just don't think it's antique Wagner Ware.) Or this one, a Wagner Ware box but an unmarked skillet. Wagner skillets have unmistakable stamps. Here's what the Wagner logo looks like.

Wagner Ware cast iron logo

This auction shows an old Wagner skillet that needs some TLC. It's a big skillet, which is partly why its price is high.

Griswold also stamped its skillets. Here are the two logos I've seen most.

Small Griswold cast iron logo

Larger Griswold cast iron logo

This one looks like a good Griswold, I don't know why nobody bid on it. But I'm not an expert. And if you're thinking of buying cast iron from eBay, I hope I've convinced you to be careful if you want old iron, and don't forget to check the shipping charge!! Cast iron is heavy, it may cost more than the price of your skillet to ship it to you!

If you aren't interested in the antique value of old cast iron, don't worry so much about whether it's marked or unmarked. As long as it's smooth, and in decent condition, it'll be a good skillet. Just don't pay antique prices for it! I bought my old square skillet at a yard sale for $5 and it's an old Wagner. That was a few years ago though.

Aw, shucks, thanks :)
This series of posts has been incredibly informative for me, thank you! It's such a great reference. I love that you just charred your cast iron in the yard fire! Thanks for all the tips and for the suggested brands...I think I'm going to have to go shopping this weekend. I'll let you know what I find!
I hope you have great success! And you're welcome. Thank you for adding me to your blogroll!
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