Among collectors, conversations about cast iron have a way of getting sentimental, and often land in the same place: the quality of craftsmanship. “Cast-iron pans used to be made by hand,” said Mary Theisen, an enthusiast-turned-businesswoman who travels the country in search of rare and collectible cookware. In 2012, Thiesen founded a site called The Pan Handler, which sells her refurbished cast-iron discoveries for upwards of $1,000 or more. (Trophy pieces of cookware can go for more than $20,000.) “Vintage pans are going to be lighter,” Theisen added. “They have thinner walls. The cooking surfaces on most modern-day pans aren’t as finely polished.”
The value of an antique cast-iron skillet largely depends on the manufacturer. Due to rarity, names like Griswold, Wagner and Favorite (all defunct) fetch higher prices on the secondhand market. That said, even unbranded cast-iron cookware can be desirable for utility alone. Many brands of the early 20th century followed the same manufacturing process.
The first step in restoring an old pan involves evaluating the integrity of the pan and asking yourself: “Is it worth saving?” For some, like Theisen, the answer goes beyond the pan’s collectibility, or even serviceability; nostalgia also plays a part. “I’m taking pans that are sometimes over 100 years old and giving them new life,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m helping preserve a part of American history.”
Evaluate the pan’s condition. There are five common problems with vintage cast-iron cookware: crud, rust, cracks, pits and warpage. If you’re on the hunt for serviceable pan, and care little about its collectibility, some issues are less pronounced. Hairline cracks, for example, still hold liquid and do not necessarily render a pan unusable. But long neglected pans can reach a point of no return, so tread with caution if purchasing one without knowledge of its origin.
“You’re taking a big gamble when you buy something with a lot of crud and rust because you don’t know what’s going to be under there,” Theisen said. “The iron may be heavily pitted. There may be cracks.” Another common issue, of course, is warpage on the bottom of the pan, which occurs when spots of iron expand under extreme heat. “A little warpage is not a big deal,” Theisen added. “But a pan that rocks or even spins just isn’t going to sit as well on your cooktop.”
Worth Restoring? Remove the crud. “My first step in cleaning is always a lye bath,” Theisen said. “But if you only have one pan, and just want to get it clean, I’d recommend Easy-Off.” Wearing gloves, spray the pan with Easy-Off Oven Cleaner, following directions on the can. Enclose it in a jumbo plastic bag and let it sit for two days. Rinse the pan and test the leftover crud with dish soap and a stainless-steel scouring pad. “Crud can be very tough to get off,” Theisen said. “Somebody could have used a pan for 30 years without ever cleaning it.” Ultimately, you should be able to scrub the crud off without a huge amount of physical exertion. If not, repeat this step.
Address the rust. Assuming the rust is not “really, really bad,” place the pan in a bucket and cover with a solution of equal parts water and white vinegar. “It’s important to check it every 30 minutes,” Theisen said. “If it’s in there too long, the acidity of the vinegar will start eating away at the iron.” Use a fresh stainless steel scouring pad to scrub away the remaining rust. The pan will be bare, and dark gray instead of black.
Season the pan. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn the oven off and place the dry pan in the oven for one hour. Take it out and rest until cool enough to handle with an oven mitt. Use a rag or paper towel to spread Crisco shortening around the surface of the pan, handle and all. Wipe clean, making sure to remove all the liquid. “You don’t want it to look wet,” Theisen said. “You might not think there’s oil on the surface but there is. If you have too much oil it’s going to smoke to holy hell.” Heat your oven to 500 degrees and bake the skillet, upside down, for another hour. “This polymerizes the oil and bonds it to the cast-iron surface,” Theisen added. “It gives you a hard, non-stick layer to cook on.”
Additional Illustrations by Silvana Volio