[PHOTO NOTES: I’ve saved images very large so you can click on them to see the details close up. It’s important that you understand the textures of the cast iron during the shopping and restoration process. If you want to use these photos, please contact me. Thanks, Julia]

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to add a couple cast iron pans to my kitchen for 3 reasons:

  1. the unique cooking abilities they provide
  2. additional iron my my diet
  3. and nostalgia because they’re what my grandma used

But I just wasn’t finding any in the Goodwill stores I frequented, on Craig’s list or Freecycle. Then one day, @snappyjdog tweeted that she scored a vintage pan at a local antique store and that they had more! Oh groovy groovy groovy! So I did my Google research into old cast iron brands to make sure I knew what I was looking for and headed over to buy my first cast iron skillet. Yes, I was 47 before adding cast iron to my kitchen.

Then you’ll never guess what happened! My SIL sent me two more cast iron skillets she had lying around unused. So now I have a great set of skillets in three different sizes! I am sooo stoked!

TIP on buying old skillets: Sometimes old cast iron develops cracks, usually as a result of abuse. You won’t likely be able to see any crack due to the accumulation of seasoning so the only way to test is by sound. Dangle the skillet by the handle and rap it with your knuckle. It will either ting like a bell or sound dead with a slight buzz. Guess which has the crack?

Now I had to decide what to do next.

After reading up on old pans, I quickly realized I had to first restore this pan then start the seasoning process all over because I did not know the history of the pan. For all the antique dealer or I knew, it coulda been used as a drip pan under a car in someone’s garage. No way to know for sure.

So what comes next is not necessarily environmentally friendly but I figured since I’m only doing a couple of pans I wouldn’t beat myself up over it. But I’d recommend that if you’re going to be in the habit of restoring a lot of cast iron, you should come up with a more environmentally friendly and safer method than this. There are a lot of folks who swear by burning off the old seasoning (there are others who say that’s a bad idea) and there are other cleaning products like Simple Green® (although I have no idea if it works) but I couldn’t find any of them in my area so I went with Easy-Off® oven cleaner.

Materials you’ll need to restore and re-season an old cast iron pan:

  • the pan
  • Easy-Off® oven cleaner
  • plastic garbage bag
  • rubber gloves
  • scouring brush
  • scouring pad
  • dish soap
  • Crisco® shortening (which is vegan BTW, not healthy but no longer animal based)
  • lots of paper towels or old rags
  • a NON-silicone oven mitt or pot holder, something with friction like terry cloth

And for future cleanings after cooking:

  • salt
  • a towel that you don’t mind looking grungy all the time

Steps to restore your new old pan:

  1. Spread the garbage bag in an area where it can stay undisturbed for a few days, this will take a while. I spread it inside an old cheap plastic bath tub in the spare bathroom because that room is cool (less evaporation), no one ever goes in there and I can close the door to keep fumes contained.
  2. Put on those rubber gloves.
  3. We’ll do the inside of the pan first so place the pan facing up on the bag and spray heavily with Easy-Off. Try not to inhale the fumes, do this quickly and get out. Wear a mask if you’re sensitive to fumes and watch the over-spray so that it doesn’t get on anything in the surrounding area.
  4. Come back in 8 hours and spray another layer of Easy-Off on the pan. Same deal, do it quickly and get out. Close the door behind you. NOTE: I tested doing this outside and the squirrels got too curious and I didn’t want to hurt them so I moved it to the spare bathroom. I also tried washing off the goo after 8 hours and while a lot came off, it did better after sitting 24 hours and reapplying the Easy-Off 1 or 2 times in that time period.
  5. When time is up, put the rubber gloves on again and cautiously rinse off the crud then use dish soap and a plastic brush to scrub at the loose bits. Be careful of splashing the crud everywhere.
  6. Dry thoroughly and repeat as often as needed to get all the old seasoning off the pan. Once one side is done, you can do the other side by flipping over the pan on the garbage bag. Some folks do the whole pan at once and put it inside a plastic bag. I was looking for a photo opp so I did it more slowly.
  7. Once all the crud is gone, wash the pan really well in hot water and dish soap to get all the Easy-Off off and dry thoroughly.

A note about rust. Easy-Off will not rust the pan. It may look like it’s immediately making rust when you spray it on but on my pan, that was the crud starting to loosen and there was some old rust on the pan that the Easy-Off removed as well.

Steps for seasoning your freshly restored pan:

  1. Line the bottom rack of your oven with either foil or a baking sheet that is large enough to catch any drips from the skillet.
  2. Preheat the oven to 125 F before placing skillet inside so any moisture in the oven’s air is eliminated. This prevents any light rust from occurring on the surface of the skillet.
  3. Then add the dry skillet to the 125 F oven for 15 minutes to warm it up.
  4. Remove the skillet and coat with Crisco then wipe off as much Crisco as possible. Coat the handle, the inside and the outside of the skillet.
  5. Using a non-silicone oven mitt or pot holder (otherwise the pan will slip from your grib and make a mess on the floor) return the skillet to the oven, upside down on the rack above the foil/baking sheet and turn up the temperature to 350 F. You want the skillet to be face down so that excess oil drips off and doesn’t pool inside.
  6. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour. Turn off the oven and let the skillet cool completely while in the oven. (There are a lot of different opinions on temperature and length. Some sites say 2 hours at higher temperatures like 350 F, some say 1/2 hour at 225 F. I’m going to try the lower temperature and shorter time with my second pan to see if there’s a difference. But whatever you do, let it cool completely in the oven before removing.)
  7. After the oven and skillet are completely cooled, remove the skillet and wipe again to remove excess oil. Your skillet now has its first layer of seasoning!

What’s happening during the seasoning process: Heat opens up the pores of the iron, allowing the fat to enter. Cooling closes the pores, leaving you with nature’s best non-stick surface. The surface is now also rust-resistant so long as you don’t soak your pans in dish water. If you’re a soaker kinda person, cast iron is not for you.

Note about Crisco® shortening: While Crisco is now vegan, it’s still not as healthy as olive or canola oil. I have read a lot of websites that use oil for seasoning and those that adhere to the tried and true Crisco. I haven’t tested each fat to see if there’s a difference in seasoning quality because that would involve having two identical skillets to test, which I don’t. The sites that suggest using Crisco do so because they feel it provides as superior non-stick surface, so that’s what I used. But if you try it with oil, please let me know how it worked for you.

So how to clean cast iron after cooking with it?

  • First, you have to get over the ick factor of not using dish soap. Remember, dish soap really only softens the water. It doesn’t actually have any antibacterial or sterilizing properties.
  • Then, you’re going to assign a towel or two to be your cast iron towels. These towels are going to get dirty when you use them because your cast iron will always leave smudges on towels when you’re drying it. You could also use paper towels.
  • After cooking, you’ll simply wipe the skillet clean using salt as a scrubbing helper to get crusty bits off. If needed, use a plastic scrubber pad. Avoid metal scrubbers at this point because they can scratch the seasoning. If your skillet is truly encrusted with food, I’ve read that you can boil water in the skillet to loosen the bits but I’ve also read that you should NEVER boil water in cast iron because it will rust. So I’m still looking for a good solution to cleaning heavily encrusted skillets. Cast iron is best used with some sort of fat to keep the seasoning going and prevent rust. If you’re boiling noodles, don’t use cast iron.
  • Store your cast iron pieces with a towel or paper towel between them. In some household environments, they can collect condensation when touching which can encourage rust.

Stuff you should buy:

  • Buy or make padded handle hotpads since a cast iron skillet’s handle gets hot. And keep them on the pan when using so you don’t accidentally burn yourself. Of course, you’ll remove handle covers if baking in your pan but I’m going to assume you know that already ;-P
  • A good place to store cast iron is directly on the stove top or in the oven so it gets used and doesn’t collect dust. If your pan becomes dusty from non-use, a quick wipe with a damp rag will remove the dust. Just remember to NEVER let your cast iron spend ANY time soaking in water.

Benefits of cooking with cast iron:

Oh man, where to start? There are so many reasons to use cast iron, we could write a book. But it really boils down to two key benefits:

Superior cooking: There’s nothing like a heavy cast iron pan to give your corn bread that perfectly browned crust. It heats fairly evenly, retains heat really well and develops a safer non-stick surface than those chemical surfaces that shan’t be named. You can use it at higher temperatures than Teflon® surfaced pans and it won’t burn. Just as with a wok, you really can’t kill your cast iron skillet unless you took a blow torch to it, dropped it from a significant height or ran over it with your car. Even if you found your husband used it as a drip pan under his Harley, you can salvage this pan.

Nutrition: Take a look at these quick numbers for some of my favorite foods.

Foods Tested
(3 oz.)
Iron content,
Iron content after cooking
in cast iron skillet
Applesauce, unsweetened 0.35 mg 7.38 mg
Spaghetti sauce 0.61 5.77
Medium white sauce 0.22 3.30
Pancakes 0.63 1.31

In 1986, the Journal of American Dietetic Association‘s 1986 conducted an extensive test of the affects of cast iron on some of the foods we eat. Read this awesome page to learn more about how this test was conducted and see a longer list of tested food items.

Iron absorption by cooked foods depends on:

  • the acidity and moisture levels of the foods
  • the age of the cast iron (I wonder if this is more about the age of the seasoning than the age of the actual iron ore)
  • the length of cooking time
  • the amount of stirring

For folks like me who have always been borderline anemic, this is a health boon. You also don’t have to use as much fat as with other pans while cooking because its well-seasoned surface becomes a good non-stick surface.

Obviously, if you have issues with iron toxicity, cast iron cooking is not for you.

Brands to look for when shopping:

There actually are books written on this topic. One of the best experts in the field is The Pan Man. This guy IS…The Man. He’s the expert. There are others who know an awful lot though including Black Iron Dude. Here’s a brief run down of the primary cast iron cookware brands:

Griswold: This is the Rolls Royce of cast iron cookware, if you can find an authentic piece and not a reproduction or fake. These go for HUGE bucks on eBay and Craig’s List but you’d find better deals at estate sales, garage sales or perhaps antique shops. If you Google “Griswold cast iron”, you’ll find a ton of background info such as what the logo looks like at various stages in the company’s lifespan and that Griswold was eventually bought by a competitor, Wagner. True Griswolds are no longer made and newer cast iron is not made the same way as the stuff your great grandma used. The older iron was reportedly of a different ore, was lighter in weight and thinner than today’s models, and was hand worked after casting to create a VERY smooth cooking surface. Do your research before shopping so you can better identify the age of any Griswolds you run into. More than likely you’ll run into Griswolds made between 1897 and 1957 but the older “Erie” pans from 1865 to 1909 are reportedly some of the best.

Wagner Ware: Wagner was a competitor of Griswold in the 1800s through the early part of the 1900s and made a very fine product. In fact, you’ll find that there are basically two camps of cast iron aficionados: Griswoldites and Wagner Warers. IMHO, it has as much to do with the individuality of the pan since they were all hand made and the seasoning. From my not-very-in-depth research, Wagner Ware seems to be available for less than Griswold. Incidentally, you may run into pans that are stamped with both Wagner and Griswold trademarks. Collectors don’t really care for these pans as they were made after Wagner bought Griswold. Likewise, if a Griswold pan contains the cross logo WITHOUT the “Erie” imprint, it was also made by Wagner.

Lodge: Another very old American company, Lodge reportedly made great products for years but it seems to me they’ve stopped with the individual handwork on the cooking surfaces of pans. The current Lodge pans you’ll find in stores have a rougher texture and are likely to be part of their Lodge Logic line that is pre-seasoned. The pre-seasoning can be removed using the same restoration process I’ve outlined above if you prefer to create your own surface.

Unmarked pans: Even Griswold made a number of unmarked pans so if you see one, check its weight and surface quality before deciding against it. It could be anything if unmarked but if it’s smooth rather than bumpy, finely made, thinner walls, it may be an older model that will be a wonderful addition to your kitchen.

Spotting old versus new pans.

Here are some photo close ups to show you what to look for when perusing antique stores. I left the main images insanely huge so you can see the different textures, just click on the photo to enlarge full size.

There are other brands but Griswold, Wagner Ware and Lodge are the big 3 that keep coming up in Google searches. And we haven’t even thought about discussing enamel cast iron like Le Creuset — a whole other category for sure.

So go shopping, keep your eyes peeled, don’t forget to check for cracks and you could make a tidy side business out of reselling antique cast iron to chefs who are always on the lookout for the good stuff.