A PRIMER ON GREAT AMERICAN COOKWARE
Cast iron cookware evokes memories of old-fashioned, down-home, comfortable cooking. It reminds us of simple methods, simple ingredients and simple preparations. Most modern cookware doesn’t last a single generation under constant use, while cast iron, if cared for properly, will last for generations and improve with age. Grandma’s cast iron skillet should have the lingering history of everything that she ever cooked in it, generations of flavors lining the pan.
The first patent related to cast iron cookware was issued 300 years ago, in 1707, to Abraham Darby of Bristol, England. He developed a way to use his coke furnace to make cast iron pots thinner than other manufacturers had before. Cast iron continues to be manufactured and used today, and is one of the best types of cookware available. It is nearly indestructible; it heats evenly and can withstand the high heat of a broiler and the low and slow heat of the oven for a stew. A small amount of iron is released into the food that you cook in it—which is good if you’re anemic—and it really does become almost non-stick over time.
Beginning in the 1960’s, cast iron fell out of fashion, while clad and non-stick cookware came into vogue. More recently, cast iron has regained some of its popularity. At the Brooklyn Kitchen we sell more than a piece a day, new and vintage. With more than 450 pieces sold in 2007, we are talking about literally tons of cast iron. This may be due to the “Teflon backlash”—in 2005, the EPA determined that a component in Teflon coatings is likely carcinogenic.
Some cast iron is still made here in the US, which is a rarity in this era of imports. This helps save shipping costs, as a ten-inch skillet weighs in at seven pounds. Historically, American cast iron manufacturing was centered near the mines of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Tennessee. The Lodge Company has been making cast iron cookware in South Pittsburg, Tennessee since 1896. They are the last remaining manufacturer in the US, still family owned and operated.
According to many aficionados, the golden age of cast iron in the US was before World War I, when at least a dozen foundries were putting out great pots and pans in a seemingly limitless variety of shapes and sizes. I believe that anything cast before World War II is a good bet and will perform as well, if not better, than a pan made today. The older pans are smoother, lighter and develop a good seasoning faster.
Today’s cast iron is thicker and heavier, and the surface is not perfectly smooth, but it still cooks great. It’s cheap ($19.95 for a Lodge #8 – 10 1/4″ skillet), it’s bulletproof, and it now comes pre-seasoned with a finish that approximates cooking 20 meals. Stay away from pans made in China and Taiwan, as manufacturing overseas can involve chemicals and substances not approved by the FDA, and the iron used can have impurities that affect the consistency.
Griswold, of Erie, Pennsylvania, is by far the most collectible maker of cast iron, and there are many collector websites and associations dedicated to the brand. The company was founded in 1865, and the final Griswold pan was cast in 1957, making even the youngest Griswold you will find over 50 years old. (Note: The Griswold logo was licensed into the late 70s or early 80s and appeared on some pans without noting “Erie, PA”) Other collectible American brands include Wagner (Sidney, OH), Favorite (Piqua, OH), and Vollrath (Sheboygan, WI). Recently, a very rare, early Griswold sold for $3600.00 on eBay. Anything very large, or that comes with a lid, might be worth more as a collectible than as cookware. If you think you have something odd or rare, your best bet is to do some research and check recent sales, but most old pans are better to keep for yourself and use every day. I routinely find cast iron from the 19th century that, after a thorough cleaning, will still cook as good as the day it was new and last another 100 years.
When looking for vintage cast iron it is important to keep a few guidelines in mind. Look for pans and skillets with flat bottoms. Careless use can warp or crack the pan. If a pan is cracked, don’t bother with it. A warped bottom will still cook fine, but may not sit flat on your stove. On the exterior of the bottom there may be a ring around the outside. This is called a heat ring and is from a time when stoves had a flat surface and was meant to even out the heat.
Round cast iron cookware is usually sized by number. This is vaguely related in an idosyncratic way to the actual size, with the actual diameter being approximately 2 inches larger than the number (e.g. #8 is 10” in diameter, #10 is 12” diameter).
Places to Find Cast Iron
The Brooklyn Kitchen: We sell New (Lodge) and always have a rotating selection of Vintage pieces.
Flea Markets: I find that the pieces at flea markets are sometimes more rusty that you will find in other places and will require more work to revive. However, good prices can usually be had. Be prepared to put in time and energy to get pieces cleaned up/re-seasoned and ready to use.
Yard and estate sales: These have often just come out of the kitchen, so you can put them right into use in yours. You are less likely to find oddball shapes. Still may require cleaning/re-seasoning.
Thrift stores: Hit or miss. Depends on who got there first.
In the Trash: It’s amazing what people will throw away. Keep an eye out—you might score a nice #12!
Cleaning and Seasoning
The seasoning is a layer of (delicious) fat and grease that has soaked into the surface pores of the iron while it was hot, aiding its ability to release food. Little by little, as the layers of cooked-on fat add up, it becomes non-stick and sealed to the point that you can boil water, or cook acidic foods, which typically react with raw cast iron, without affecting the surface. But seasoning is much more than that. It also releases flavor, adding depth with every successive use.
• NO SOAP! Scrape stuck-on food with a wood or bamboo scraper. You can use kosher salt as an abrasive.
• Wash with warm water if necessary. You can even use the scrubby side of a sponge, but stay away from Brillo, or anything very abrasive.
• Water is the enemy. You need to keep rust away. After cleaning, put the pan on a burner until all the water evaporates.
If the pan is looking dry and dingy, whether it’s new to you or an old standby, it may need to be re-seasoned:
• Get the pan hot—not red hot, but hot.
• Wipe pan with Crisco or lard depending on your food persuasions or perversions. Do not use olive oil or any specialty oil as they have a lower smoke point and can go rancid if left on the pan without use.
• Put the pan upside-down in a 300º oven for 1-2 hours. Place some tin foil on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips.
• Turn oven off and leave pan to cool overnight.
• Wipe out any excess lard or Crisco and you’re ready to cook.
The seasoning process may be repeated to get a really good start. I would recommend that you cook with more fat than usual or cook fatty foods for the first few times you use the pan. This will help develop the seasoning and keep the pan going for years to come.
Never store food in the pan. The acid in the food will break down the seasoning and the food will take on a metallic flavor.
Rust is the enemy and thus you must keep moisture away from the cast iron. If rust develops, scrub it off with steel wool and re-season the pan following the steps above. If you aren’t going to use the pan for a while, like in the heat of summer, wipe the pan with a coating of oil before you put it away, especially if you live in a humid climate.
In extreme cases there are a few other tips and tricks for cleaning cast iron. If the pan is very rusty and there are scales of rust coming off and it looks like it’s been sitting outside in the rain for years, you’re better off leaving it and looking for another, but if it’s just surface rust and you’re not afraid of a little elbow grease, go after the rust with abrasives—Brillo, sandpaper, a wire brush or wire brush wheel on a drill. Make sure you get all the rust off the pan before you season it, as you can “trap” rust and this will give your food an “off” taste.
Good luck in your search. New or used, cast iron will cook some mean and delicious food.
Feel free to contact us with any questions.
this article was originally published (In Print!) in Bejeezus #11