I absolutely love to cook with cast iron.
I make eggs for my husband and myself every morning in a #5 cast iron pan that belonged to my grandmother. I use one to make cornbread, a deeper one to fry okra, yet another bigger one to sear steaks and fry bologna. The only time I don’t use them is when I am cooking with liquid. As I am a Southern girl, and as everyone knows we fry everything in bacon grease, including vegetables, I use them a lot. I am exaggerating about the bacon grease. I don’t use it on broccoli, just on greens, and green beans, and fried corn, and pinto beans…
Cast iron skillets are typically built to take almost non-stop use. A cast iron skillet can be passed down for many generations. Cast iron cookware is revered for its excellent heat retention compared to other metals. Versatility is afforded by its ability to be used either in the oven or on the stovetop, and to be directly transferred from one to the other.
“Vintage” cast iron cookware from the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries enjoyed a higher standard of material and workmanship than nearly all such products made anywhere else in the last 50 years. Typically thinner and lighter than today’s products, vintage iron ware was cast from the high grade ore once mined in areas such as Erie, Pennsylvania and Sidney, Ohio, to name two of the most prominent.
Skilled foundrymen formed the individual molds, poured the molten metal, and finished each piece by hand. The fineness of the casting was further enhanced by the use of a dressing mixture known as “blacking” applied to the molds.
With cooking surfaces machined smooth after casting, and subsequently “seasoned” by the build-up of polymerized fat from cooking, vintage cast iron is considered the original “non-stick” cookware. My egg pan has so many layers of seasoning of bacon grease on it, there is no way an egg could stick to it!
In the latter part of the 20th century, the introduction of new, more “modern” forms of cookware began to gain popularity. Coupled with an influx of cheap foreign cast iron, American foundries were forced to reduce costs in order to compete and survive. For the foundries that did endure, factory automation and the heavier castings required to withstand it became the norm, and the labor-intensive final polishing became all but non-existent. As a result, what domestic cast iron ware was produced after about the mid-1960s is often cumbersome to handle, and requires more time and effort to properly season its relatively rough cooking surfaces to achieve the desired non-stick property.
You can find vintage cast iron at yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores, antique stores, online auctions…Here is what to look for:
Is there a number on it?
Skillets often but not always have a number on them. Sometimes it is on the handle and sometimes it is on the bottom of the pan. The number corresponds to the size of the skillet. A “0” skillet is the smallest, and is usually referred to as a “toy” skillet. It is too small to use for most purposes. Next in size is the 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 20. The most common skillet number is the 8. The 8 is usually about 10-1/2″ in diameter. If you’re only buying one skillet, I’d recommend the 8, 9, or 10. In my opinion, they will cover most cooking jobs that you have.
What does the inside look like?
A great old vintage skillet will have a beautiful almost silky patina inside the bowl. Modern skillets often have a “bumpy” texture; the great old skillets do not. They are smooth and almost glassy-looking. It’s likely that your pan will have some scratches or marks; it’s a used pan, after all. The pan should have a black satin-y finish, however, and be free of significant pitting on the inside. Be sure that your pan has been cleaned and seasoned and that’s why it’s black. Believe it or not, I have found skillets and kettles that have been spray painted black. Yuck!!
Is there a mark on the bottom?
75% of the cast iron I find is marked “Taiwan” on the bottom. I don’t buy these. Other than that, the brand really only matters if you are collecting, or if you plan to re-sell the pan. Griswold is the most collectible of the cast iron pans. Griswold also manufactured Victor, ERIE, and Iron Mountain pans. Wagner is also collectible, as is vintage Lodge (you can typically tell if it’s an old unmarked Lodge pan if there are three notches in the heat ring). Wapak and Favorite Piqua are other well-known manufacturers of collectible quality cast iron pans. There are a number of great old pans made by many different makers – if you’re looking for a vintage pan for cooking, I’d suggest you don’t knock a pan out of consideration just because it isn’t a Griswold. Look at the quality of the pan and determine how well it suits your needs.
Is there any rust or pitting?
Pitting is the erosion of metal either by rust or from constant use over a fire emitting sulfurous gases. Be aware that this type of damage can often be obscured by build-up coating the pan, and the seller may not be able to supply a definite answer.
Is the pan warped?
Warping is the result of thermal shock (improper rapid heating or cooling). Major warping can often be detected by feel, by visual inspection, or by placing a metal straightedge across the cooking surface or the bottom of the pan. It can also be revealed by placing the pan on a hard, known-level surface, and pressing downward on the rim of the pan at various points. Rocking or wobbling indicate warping.
Are there any cracks or chips?
Hairline cracks are also typically the result of thermal shock, are normally found in the sidewall of a pan, and look like vertical scratches extending from the top edge of the rim of the pan downward. Close inspection in good light that reveals a corresponding scratch across the top edge and down the outer wall confirms a crack. A cracked pan is often also a warped pan as well.
Have any repairs been made to the pan?
Sometimes you will come across pans that have had damage in the form of cracks or broken handles that a previous owner has addressed by welding the affected parts.
How to care for your cast iron:
NEVER use soap on seasoned cast iron. I usually just wipe out my skillet with paper towel, and oil it every couple of uses with some vegetable oil. If something sticks, use some salt to scrub it out, then wipe and oil it. If you absolutely have to, you can use water in your skillet, but NO SOAP!
Fortunately for us, much of the old iron still survives, and, with a little rehabilitation and care, can be returned to usefulness. I am going to be doing a post soon on saving rusty old cast iron.
I have a LOT of project pieces. Here is some of my collection.