Turn up the flame

With seasoning and a little elbow grease, antique cast-iron cookware can sear, blacken and brown


The shelves in my kitchen are heavy with expensive new cookware like All-Clad, Calphalon and Le Creuset, but the most useful pan in the house wasn't purchased at a fancy kitchen store. Several years ago, I bought my antique cast-iron skillet -- caked in grime, with a little rust -- at a thrift shop in Hampden for $10.

I knew that with some cleaning and careful seasoning, I would have a treasure on my hands. Griswold, a long-defunct Pennsylvania ironworks, made my skillet in the late 1800s, when Griswold's foundries were turning out high-quality cookware.

Collectors of cast iron might pay as much as $65 for a pan like this, but in my home it's priceless: With it, I cook eggs for my son in the morning, grilled cheese for my wife at lunch and stir-fried vegetables, tortillas or fried chicken for the whole family at night. Comfort foods like corn bread, hash browns, pancakes and slow-cooked bacon are right at home in iron blackened from years of use.

Nostalgia and the appeal of old-style cooking have led to a revival in classic cast-iron cookware. Nothing sears, blackens or browns quite like it. A well-seasoned pan will be as nonstick as any chemically coated pan. Chemicals in nonstick coatings, which imitate a seasoned skillet's slick surface, have come under scrutiny recently as possible carcinogens, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cast iron excels at high temperatures, where nonstick coatings might break down. At the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, chef Mark Henry says a cast-iron skillet is on the fire all the time for meats ordered seared, blackened or Pittsburgh style -- that is, charred on the outside and rare on the inside.

"I'll use cast-iron pans the same way at home," he says. "You can use them in ways that most people don't think of. On a cold night you can put it in the fireplace -- right in the fire, to get it white-hot, then sear steaks."

I'll admit I initially got into old cast-iron pans for reasons far less culinary: I thought they looked cool -- especially Griswolds, with their elaborate designs on their undersides.

I began looking for cast-iron pans at thrift shops, garage sales and relatives' houses. I cleaned them up and gave them to friends, often as wedding gifts. The pans are a great way to start a life together, and they will last longer than some marriages.

Collecting old cast iron is "an Americana thing," says David Smith, a collector, dealer and historian of cast-iron cookware who lives in upstate New York.

Smith, who is known as the Pan Man on his Web site, owns some 600 pieces of cast iron. He says some old cast-iron cookware fetches huge sums among collectors.

The most rare and valuable cast-iron pan is a Griswold with a spider on a web engraved on the bottom. "I know a gal in Alaska who bought a Griswold spider skillet for her husband for $2,000 so she could cook him breakfast on Christmas Day," Smith says.

Most manufacturers of antique pans -- like Griswold and Wagner -- went out of business decades ago, when aluminum and porcelainized steel cookware started becoming trendy in kitchens.

Lodge, based in Tennessee, is the last remaining American maker of cast-iron skillets. You can buy its pans at most kitchen stores for around $20.

But for collectors, there is nothing like the old stuff. Smith says antique cast-iron pans perform better on the stove top than newer ones. "The quality of the iron is better and their finishing is better," he says.

New pans have rough surfaces, straight from the sand mold. But the old iron craftsmen used to grind and polish the cooking surfaces of pans, which opens up the pores in iron and makes the pans easier to season, Smith says. "Some skillets are as smooth as glass on the inside, and they are very lightweight," he says. "You can find these great old skillets everywhere."

Collectors and connoisseurs learn to look for brand names of companies long vanished, like Wagner, Griswold, Wapak and Favorite. Collectible cast iron can be found online, on eBay and auctioneers' sites, but you might pay more for the pans and a hefty price for shipping a hunk of iron across the country.

Many old pans found at thrift shops and garage sales wear their history like a skin -- covered in a thick coat of carbonized, baked-on grease. Often a great pan hides underneath that grime.

But do look carefully before you buy. Inspect pans for damage and defects, and walk away from any that are cracked, warped or severely pitted with rust on the cooking surface. They aren't salvageable.

In the years I've been buying cast iron, I've found ways to get the gunk off and start over with a fresh seasoning. You'll need a few plastic bags, rubber gloves and protective eyewear, plain green scouring pads, a utility knife, paper towels and original Easy-Off, which comes in a yellow can. And you'll need a place where you can get messy. The active ingredient in Easy-Off is lye, which is caustic, so don your gloves and eyewear.

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