Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cast Iron Cookware Conundrum

This article is packed full of culinary secrets.  They will seem "boring" to most, but trust me; I bring naturally formed, large diameter, deeply lustrous pearls of wisdom to you today!  Well, maybe not "pearl" per se, but Iron, "Cast Iron" to be precise.  Four or five generations ago, we figured it out.  We started cooking everything in vessels made from cast iron.  Dutch ovens, cornbread pans, pie pans, chicken friers, and everyone's favorite, the ubiquitous cast iron skillet.  A quick look around a modern kitchen supply store will show you that cast iron cookware is back "in."  Your great-grandmother will be the first to tell you, however, cast iron never really went "out."

A stroll through a trendy kitchen store will reveal an amazing array of modern cookware to you.  You almost need a degree in metallurgy to know what to buy!  Copper, copper bottom, non-stick, Teflon, hard-anodized aluminum, polished stainless steel, and even titanium cookware is available these days, and it ain't cheap.  You can even buy "Enameled" iron cookware (should regular cast iron not appeal to you).

If you're less concerned about how your kitchen looks with your fancy pans hanging from your pot rack than you are with the quality of your food, you should take a step back from shelf and ask:  Cast Iron.  Why?

Here's Why:
  •  Natural non-stick properties
  •  Indestructible
  •  The more you use it, the better it gets
  •  Fast, even heat distribution
  •  Holds heat forever
  •  Cooks over a range of temperatures, up to 2,000 degrees F
  •  Requires only "water" (no soap) for cleaning
  •  Can be passed along to your children as an heirloom
  •  How can you make a good Cast-Iron Cowboy Steak without a cast iron skillet?  You can't, that's how!

If you insist on having expensive cookware, consider that some rare antique cast iron skillets sell for more than $300 each.  Buy yourself one of those and display it proudly in your kitchen!  Personally, I bought all of my cast iron cookware from antique stores, and I rarely spend more than $30.  Brand new cast iron pans are often more expensive and they don't have that well seasoned, non-stick surface that's as smooth as a baby's butt.  My favorite skillet is this Griswold #8 skillet that I bought from a local junk store.  I paid $18 for it:

Cooking Surface

Now, the pan wasn't quite this "cook ready" when I bought it, as it is today.  I spent a few hours getting her ready... I used some oven cleaner to get some light crud off of the sides, and I re-seasoned it a few times.  She shined up prettier than a brand new penny, and that's another great thing about cast iron, you never have to throw it away!  To test this theory, I recently underwent an attempt to restore the worst, most dilapidated and neglected pan I could find.

Observe, the "Woodland Camping Pan:"

How nasty is this thing?  This pan was found in the woods, near the old logging township of Gheen, MN (now a ghost town, but formerly a railroad depot for local logging interests).  I'm sure it was forgotten or abandoned when a logging camp moved from one location to another.  Some research later revealed to me that this pan was cast in 1960.  It has endured decades of nature's full seasoned bombardment.  It has collected countless inches of rain in hot Summers, and been buried in mountains of snow in sub-zero Winters.  Ladies, Gentlemen; I submit to you that this, THIS, is a skillet who's greatest hope was a quick death by way of a recycling center, rather than a lingering demise, rusting into oblivion over the coming centuries.  I decided to save it.

Step 1:  Remove the loose chunks of "crud" and surface rust.  This was easy, I used an old chisel and some elbow grease to scrape away the loose stuff.

Step 2: Oil it up, and rub it down with steel wool.  When I say "oil," I'm talking about a light greasy household lubricating oil... not cooking oil.  I needed something that would lubricate the surface and allow my ball of steel wool to slide around and do its magic.  I sprayed the whole pan down with Linseed Oil (it was handy) and I literally rubbed 4 separate balls of industrial steel wool (not S.O.S. pads, but pure steel wool) down to the nub.

Step 3: Check progress.  A quick look at myself revealed that I had so much iron dust caked into my arms and shirt, that had a U.F.O. with a tractor beam magnet been within 5 miles of me, I'd have been abducted for sure.  I gave the pan a final scrub with a scouring pad and a generous amount of Dawn (to cut the oil) and I rinsed the pan several times with excess water from our rain barrel (I knew that was good for something) and went inside to wash myself. 

Step 4: "Fine Crud" removal.  To eliminate the last remnants of rust and other nature-born impurities (I was certain that at least one weasel had pooped in this pan), I added a few Tbsp of CLR (Calcium, Lime and Rust remover) to the pan, and I attached a wire brush wheel to my electric drill (I used my industrial speed drill with the plug on it, a cordless drill won't be up to the task).  Then, I dipped the brush into the CLR, donned a pair of safety goggles, and an apron (hastily made from a trash bag), to guard against U.F.O.s and I hit the switch!  I spent over an hour, wire-brushing the sins out of this pan, baptizing it back into it's former glory!

Step 5: Final Soak.  To make sure every last remnant of rust was gone, I gave the pan a final scrub with hot soap and water, and then submerged it completely in CLR overnight.  The next day, I pulled the pan from it's liquid soak and it smiled at me for the first time!  It's shiny gray eyes let me know, it was ready to cook.

Step 6: Seasoning.  Many methods abound for seasoning cast iron.  They all advise a food-grade oil bath and some heat.  I subscribe to this method, and I apply a finishing coat of linseed oil for the last oven cycle.  If you can't find linseed oil, use peanut oil.  They both have an astonishingly high smoke point.

Here's the "After" pics:

Surface (I have no idea how my shoes found their way to my island counter-top)


Step 7: Identification.  A bit of research has revealed that this pan was made by the Birmingham Stove & Range Co. It is part of their Century Series, made in 1960. I also learned that lots of similar "unmarked" cookware was cast in those days.  According to The Cast Iron Collector: "In addition to store brands, like those made for companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, several major foundries produced unmarked versions of their goods for sale in hardware, department, and building supply stores. As such, these no-name pieces could be sold at a lower price without sacrificing the brand image and value of their main product lines. Product differentiation in the various channels was achieved by the use of paper labels affixed to the unmarked iron. A couple of manufacturers actually made the decision at some point to cast all of their pieces without trademarks, instead relying totally on the adhesive labels."

What did I learn?  Would I do it again?  Well, in my case, I didn't have a skillet this big in my collection.  A #12 pan cooks a LOT of bacon, a whole chicken, huge slices of ham, a garden of green beans, etc.  New ones cost at least $60 and that's only if you can find them.  Buying them online makes them more dear, as the shipping costs almost as much as the pan.  So, if I were to find the lid to this bad boy, or another piece that I've not encountered before, "YES," I would do it again!  I learned that the more care and love that you put into a cast iron piece of cookware, the harder and longer it will perform for you!


  1. Fascinating stuff, Ken. Thanks for the diverse and informative post.


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