Restoring Cast Iron, or History Repeats Itself In My Kitchen

Reduce, reuse, recycle. I choose not to question whether my zeal for second-hand goods is a result of wanting to cut down on consumer waste or a direct result of what my Grandma called her “cheap Scotch blood.” (Scotch as in Scottish – she’d haunt me if she thought I portrayed her as a boozer.)

Either way, I love a good deal. The majority of the baby goods in my home – from bassinet to swing set, high chair to clothing – have both a previous and future owner. But this is not a blog about Craig’s List baby goods. Consider this one giant segue leading you to my newest kitchen obsession.

Cast iron.

I have fallen in love with a #10 Wagner cast iron pan from the early 1900s that my mom found for $10 at a yard sale. (Huge benefit to me that the “granny” of ebay’s Granny’s Trinkets and Trash is my mom.)  It weighs more than a bowling ball and I have definitely built some arm muscle since I’ve started cooking with it. There is comfort in the heft though – the feel of a thing that is well made. I like to imagine the three generations of mothers before me using this same pan to feed their families. It has good mojo.

When I first got it though, there was work to be done. Most old cast iron requires some reviving. It was covered in rust and layers of cooked-on grease that the cast iron world technically refers to as “gunk.”

Like all innovative DIY newbies, I went online for information on how to restore this beauty. I found that people are CRAZY when it comes to cast iron. I’d find a blog with what I thought to be good information only to be dissuaded by reader comments hundreds deep on why a particular process does or does not result in a perfectly seasoned non-stick pan. For cast iron junkies, the “perfectly seasoned pan” is the elusive holy grail of cookware. So, I read a lot and then decided to wing it.

My salvaging supplies consisted of oven cleaner, protective gear for me and the patio, a few garbage bags, 2 wire brushes originally for stripping paint, vinegar, borax, and those blue soap SOS pads that you can probably find right now corroding in a corner of the cabinet beneath your kitchen sink.

My process consisted of spraying down the pan with oven cleaner, double-bagging it, and letting it sit in the sun for 48 hours before rinsing it off and going to town with the wire brushes in an effort to get the gunk off. It took 4 rounds of this, and a final bit of elbow grease courtesy of my husband, before I got the pan down to its raw iron core. It still looked rusty but it was smooth.

Then I gave it a final scrub with the SOS pad before I soaked it in a 50/50 white vinegar and water bath for about 12 hours. After that I thoroughly cleaned the pan with borax (borrowed from my laundry room – 12 Mule Borax is great for your whites) to neutralize the vinegar.

Time to wipe it off and then pop it into a 200 degree oven for 20 minutes to get it bone dry. Let the seasoning begin! I coated it with a thin layer of organic flax seed oil and put it in a 500 degree oven for an hour, then let it cool in the oven for 2 additional hours, before taking it out and repeating this process. Based on a blog I found, I did this a whopping SIX TIMES. I was about 2 weeks in to this pan at this point, but things were looking pretty good.

I still didn’t have that deep dark black that I coveted though, and my first trial with cooking salmon was semi-disastrous. I wanted my friend Julie’s pan from The Crankin’ Kitchen – she makes amazing food with a jet black pan that was her Grandma’s.

Back to the internet, and I stumbled upon the best piece of cast iron advice yet. In essence, a very down-to-earth man, whom I picture to have a slightly shaggy haircut and a handlebar mustache ala Sam Elliott, advised the cast iron world to calm down and take a breath. He told us all to clean our pans with soap (since we’d be re-seasoning), dry them with heat, wipe them down with a good layer of shortening or lard, and throw them into a 300 degree oven for 2-3 hours. Wipe them down once more and then start cooking. He said to break in the pans in with fatty meats (hello bacon friend) and deep fried dishes until they reached a glossy black finish over time. Yep, just like our grandmas did. I would have to slow down, curb my notions of instant gratification, and give my pan some time.

So, I have been frying bacon, chicken cutlets, and these delicious Asian fish cakes to my heart’s content.

After dinner I wipe the pan down with a paper towel and leave a light coating of oil from that night’s meal. And lo and behold! Little by little, meal by meal, my lovely history-filled pan is turning in to the skillet of my culinary dreams.

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