Growing up, my family never used cast iron pans. We used normal aluminum or steel pans and that’s all I really knew to use. About 5-6 years ago, Crystal and I inherited two old cast iron pans that belonged to Crystal’s grandparents. Both are 10-inch pans, one made in Korea and one Favorite Ware. Turns out the company Favorite Ware is an old classic company that went out of business way back in 1935 so that pan is at least 81 years old! It took a bit of work to refurbish a cast iron frying pan, but I’m so glad we did it.
Our cast iron pans have become a great addition to our kitchen. They are great for pan frying, deep frying, searing, sautéing, even baking. Cast iron stays hot for a long time and, once heated up, distributes heat evenly. They also look great in our kitchen and, knowing where they come from, give a feeling of heritage and family tradition. Every time Crystal pulls them out, she is reminded of her grandparents and thinks of the thousands of family meals cooked in them.
This post will be a summary of what I found to be the simplest way to jump into the world of cast iron pans. Not knowing anything about cast iron, I did a lot of research on what makes a cast iron pan different from other pans as well as on how to use, maintain and refurbish a cast iron frying pan. If you do the same, you’ll find hundreds of differing techniques and opinions on the subject…A lot of strong opinions! Wash it with soap, don’t wash it with soap, season with this oil or that oil, strip it in the oven, strip it with oven cleaner or a sandblaster, okay to use on flat-top glass stoves, don’t use on induction stoves, etc, etc, etc. Despite all the opinions, cast irons pans are relatively easy to use and are almost completely indestructible. Everything you read has some merit but really nothing you do can permanently hurt or wreck one if you follow some simple guidelines. Many hundred year old pans still exist for a reason.
First things first, for the topic of this post, I’m going to be talking about bare cast iron as opposed to enamelled cast iron. Bare cast iron is exactly that, it’s a 100% bare naked iron pan that is either grey, dark grey, or black in colour. Enamelled cast iron has an enamel coating (usually in fun bright colours) and a good cooking choice but has different characteristics than bare iron.
I’ll be looking at:
– why cast iron,
– how and where to buy one,
– how to season,use, and maintain one.
Read on for Everything You Need To Know To Buy and Refurbish A Cast Iron Frying Pan.
Why cast iron?
-Because you can cook almost anything with it (see Hello Creative Family’s Cast Iron Recipes here.)
-Because it can go from stovetop to oven without switching dishes!
-Because it will last forever and be renewed over and over again!
-Because it adds iron to your diet!
-Because it doesn’t have any chemicals like Teflon that can peel off!
-Because once hot, it stays hot so it’s great for searing!
-Because you can use it as a self defence weapon!
Why not cast iron?
-Because it adds iron to your diet. The amount of iron that leaches from the pan may be negligible (online research differs greatly on amount) but if you have been diagnosed with excess iron, it may be a good idea to avoid cast iron pans.
-Because of the weight. Cast iron is heavy! Once you get food in one, your dish could have a combined weight of 6-8lbs or higher so you could get a good workout in while cooking! Weight also plays a factor with glass top surfaces. Generally, cast iron is fine on glasstop and induction ranges but because of the weight, you just have to take extra care that you don’t drop or put it down too heavily and crack/scratch the surface.
-Because despite what anyone says, it will never be as quite non-stick as teflon (teflon can have all kinds of nasty health side effects though, so it might be an ok payoff). Eggs will never slide off a cast iron pan as easily as a teflon-coated pan, but we make it work.
Buying Cast Iron
Buying cast iron does not have to be a huge investment. Prices range from $10 to hundreds of dollars. Price is usually determined by age, size, brand, and quality. You can buy brand new, or find cheap inexpensive ones and /or vintage ones from thrift shops, flea markets, or online
Advantages of Buying New Cast Iron
– Your pan is brand new and you know no one has ever used it before.
– You have a return policy or warranty if you ever need it.
– Your pan will often be pre-seasoned and ready to start cooking on.
Lodge is probably the most popular and affordable of the modern brands. They’re easily found in any kitchen store and are good quality at affordable prices (as low as $35-$40).
Advantages of Buying Used Cast Iron
You can often find a diamond in the rough buying or finding one used. Thirft shops or flea markets are the best place to find pans without having to pay a premium like you would in an antique shop or online. Many people don’t realize that that old rusted pan that’s been sitting in grandma’s barn for years or that’s been sitting in that box from Uncle Joe forever ago can be renewed and be as spotless as the day it came off the factory line. This mean you can sometimes find a great pan without spending a lot of money. The two pans I found for this project were bought from a thrift shop for about $12 each.
Antique shops are great places to find pans but you will pay a premium as dealers obviously recognize value with quality.
When looking for a pan, look for:
-One with a smooth surface; the smoother the surface the more non-stick it is when seasoned properly. Lower quality pans use either used larger sized grains of sand for the casting mold or a lower quality iron.
– One with circular parallel machine marks on the interior side wall (see above photo on the top; this means that after the pan was cast in a mold, the surface was machined or ground down to create a smoother surface. The manufacturer of lower quality pans skip this step. And actually most new pans that are made today aren’t machined which is why many people value and hunt for antique or vintage pans.
– One that feels surpising surprisingly light and has thin walls. Generally, a lighter cast iron pan mean a better quality iron material was used.
– One with handles on both sides and that doesn’t have a wooden handle. This helps when carrying a heavy dish and allows you to go from stove to oven. Ours only have handles on one side, but we’re on the lookout for a two handled pan every time we visit the thrift store.
Many people will say to look for specific brands like Wagner, Favorite, Erie, Griswold, etc. and you will definitely not go wrong if you find one of these. I’m not too specific on brand myself. Of the four pans we have, only one is a “famous” brand, Favorite Ware. It probably is the best of our collection but the other unbranded pans are just as good. (The bottom pan in the above photo is of lesser quality with a very rough surface and very heavy… Good for the campfire though!)
How to turn your thrift store find into a gorgeous piece of cookware:
Bare cast iron by itself is actually a terrible surface to cook on; your food will stick to the pan, it’s really hard to clean, and it will rust. So before you use the pan, you need to season it. Seasoning means putting a coating of edible oil on the pan then baking it until the oil bonds to the pan to form a natural non-stick layer. This layer prevents food from adhering to the pan and prevents the pan from rusting.
If you bought your pan from new from a store, it may already come pre-seasoned from the factory. Check the packaging. If so, you can start using it right away. Or if you prefer or don’t trust the manufacturer seasoning, you can strip it and re-season it or just add a couple more layers of seasoning to increase the non-stick properties and protective layers.
If you bought used, you’ll want to strip off the old seasoning and start fresh. This will also sanitize the pan.
Three ways exist to strip the seasoning off a pan: physically scrape/sand it off, chemically peel it off, or burn it off. I tend to avoid chemicals and generally take the route of less work so I use the burn off method.
To burn off the old seasoning, all you have to do is throw the pan into the oven and run the self-clean cycle. Not only does this strip the pan with no work on my part, as a bonus, it cleans my oven.
Stripping a cast iron pan:
1. Ensure the pan is bone dry by heating it slowly and gently on your stove top burner for 5-10 minutes. Cast iron is porous and your pan may crack or explode if moisture is trapped and turns to steam in the oven.
2. Familiarize yourself with the self-clean cycle on your oven as per the manufacturer’s manual: remove any grates if necessary, opening windows, turning on fans, moving your pet bird away from the kitchen, etc.
3. Place your pan in the oven. If you had to remove the grates according to the instructions, set the pan on a brick (bone-dry and preheated in the oven to remove all moisture) or a 100% ceramic coffee mug to keep the pan off the heating element.
4. Start the self-clean cycle for at least three hours.
(Alternative burn off method if you don’t want to use the self-clean cycle or don’t have one, throw the pan into the middle of a burning campfire for at least three hours or until the fire burns down.
5. When the cycle is finished, the oven unlocks and the pan is cooled down, it will be covered in ash and may already start to turn red from rust. Using a wire brush or steel wool, give the pan a good once, twice, thrice over to scrape off all the ashy remnants (it will come off easy).
6. Rinse the pan under hot water to remove any remaining dust/ash/rust.
7. Now you are ready to re-season the pan.
Seasoning a cast iron pan:
1. Dry the pan and then put it on the burner to warm it up and dry off any remaining moisture.
2. When it’s warm to touch, rub with an oil of your choice. Many people have different opinions on what type of oil but it doesn’t really matter; you can use lard, bacon fat, olive, vegetable, flax, avocado, coconut, etc. I mostly use bacon fat or flax.
3. Coat the entire pan, inside and out with a layer of oil. The layer should be thin enough that it feels and looks like you wiped it all off. It should be a dull black.
4. Bake for an hour at 350F.
5. Let cool to touch.
6. Repeat 1-2 times.
Now you are ready to use the pan. The more you cook with it, the more and more seasoning layers get built on to protect your pan. The pan will get blacker and shinier with almost a mirror-like finish as layers are built on.
A cast iron pan is used like any other pan and you can cook a wide range of foods from mains to desserts.
To maintain the protective layer and the non-stick properties, keep in mind a few things:
-Heat the pan slowly to prevent warping.
-You can use almost any type of utensil in the pan; metal is perfectly fine just take care not to gouge the pan. This won’t hurt the pan but may take off the seasoning.
-When cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce, cleaning the pan promptly will help maintain the protective layers.
-Intense flavours may stick to the pan so think about having a pan to fry things like fish and other things with a strong smell and then having another pan to cook other things. I personally don’t find tastes transfer all that much but some people may notice it.
Cleaning Your Cast Iron:
1. While the pan is still warm but not hot, run under hot water and scrub with a stiff brush. No need to use soap.
2. Dry with a towel and put on low heat to remove all moisture.
3. Using flat metal spatula, scrape off any charred-on bits so you have a nice smooth surface again.
4. Rub with oil. Turn up heat till in just starts to smoke.
5. Remove from heat and let cool in oven.
And you’re done.
As long as you maintain you pan, it will just get better and better as time goes by. Even if you don’t maintain it perfectly and the pan either starts looking spotty, or loses it’s non-stick properties, or gets caked with burnt on bits, all you have to do is strip it again re-season it. In an afternoon, an old gunked up pan can look brand new again.
Cast iron pans are a great addition to your kitchen tool kit. Fried chicken with the crispiest skin, ooey gooey giant chocolate chip cookies, sizzling seared flank steak, oh-so-sticky cinnamon buns, are not only meals we are creating with our pans but are memories and traditions we are creating for our family. With a story of how it was found in the corner of that flea shop on a journey to the quiet countryside, cast iron pans can make memorable housewarming and wedding gifts. A cast iron pan will outlast your lifetime to become a family heirloom used to cook those treasured family comfort foods for years to come.
I hope you found this post useful and learned everything you need to know to buy, season, clean and refurbish a cast iron frying pan!
Tell us… Do you cook with cast iron? Where did you get your pan? Is there any questions you have about cast iron that we can help you answer?
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