I have a friend who has started cooking with cast iron and has been restoring a number of old cast iron skillets she’s picked up in various places around town- Craigslist, thrift stores, etc. With renewed enthusiasm, I thought, “If she can do it, so can I!”
Properly seasoned (oiled) cast iron cookware is free of toxic non-stick chemicals (like teflon, which is a known carcinogen when it starts to break down and ooze into food) and is very easy to use. Cast iron is built to last, so there’s no need to replace pans every few years. Many pans that were made in the early 20th century are still around and can still be used. I don’t think you can say that about the type of cookware that’s made today! You should avoid storing food in cast-iron, soaking in water/soap, or scrubbing really hard at the pan after it’s properly seasoned, as that will strip away the protective coating. If you have an electric stove like I do, avoid any heat higher than “medium.” You probably won’t need it anyway, since cast iron heats very evenly and effectively. Always make sure it’s totally dry before storing- you can put it on your stove on “low” heat for a few minutes to make sure it’s really dry.
I started the restoration process by scrubbing off as much visible rust as possible with steel wool and a little bit of water. I dried it thoroughly with a clean dish towel, then plopped it on the stove and started heating it up slowly. I added some canola oil, and as soon as the pan and oil were too hot to touch, poured in some salt, put on my rubber gloves and started scrubbing with a big wad of paper towels. The pan looked a lot better, but there was still a 1/2″ crust of old, uneven seasoning around the lip of the pan and some uneven spots on the actual cooking surface. I felt like that needed to come off to prevent food from sticking once I started cooking with it.
A week later and several more hours of internet research, I decided to take the risk of putting the pan through my oven’s self-cleaning cycle. I’d read that old cast iron (such as some of the first Griswold and Wagner pans) may not do well with modern self-cleaning ovens, since the ovens can range in temperature from 900-1200* F. Other websites said it was fine. Since there was still too much crap on my pan to tell what it was, it was a bit of a risk. Modern cast iron skillets, like Lodge Logic, are cast in a slightly different manner and aren’t as susceptible to 1200* temps, or so I’ve read. In the end, I decided that if it did crack, it would be a learning experience for me and only $2 lost. So, Sunday afternoon, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Seven hours later (allowing two hours to cool), I opened my oven to find the pan covered in a fine rust-dust, but otherwise intact. I carefully removed the skillet from the oven, holding a cookie sheet underneath to catch anything that might fall off, and brushed off the dust with a cleaning rag. There was a new layer of rust on the inside of the pan, so I repeated the steel wool/warm water and oil/salt process. There was a little bit I just couldn’t get off, but decided I could probably seal it in by seasoning right away.
Everything else had come off beautifully, and now I could read the imprint on the bottom of the pan. As far as I can tell, it’s a modern Lodge Logic #8 (10.5″ skillet). It would have been pretty exciting to find the “Griswold” stamp on the bottom, but since Griswold went out of business in the 1950’s, it was unlikely. (As a side note, my mother’s maiden name is “Griswold” so that would have been worth a smile and a giggle if I had been that lucky!) Modern pans seem to stand up a little better to higher heat (like in self-cleaning ovens), but the surface is much rougher, so it takes some extra seasoning to get your cooking surface really, really smooth.
The finished pan is in the picture to the right. Please excuse the poor lighting and glare- updating the terrible lighting in my kitchen is my next project. I probably could do a 3rd or 4th round of seasoning, but I think that once I start cooking with it, that will take care of the seasoning for me.
I am looking forward to years of non-toxic, non-stick cooking with this pan. Now that I know how to restore cast iron cookware, I might try to find a few more pieces and slowly replace as much of my cookware as possible. As an added bonus, cast iron can help keep blood iron a tad higher- as you cook, microscopic bits of iron can rub off into your food (much like eating with silver flatware, this is where the phrase “blue blood” came from!).