All the modern “nonstick” cookware available today just does not have the same level of character for cooking on (or in) as good old cast iron. I have found that many things never taste quite right if they are cooked on anything else.
And I’ve recently discovered that it’s also great for baking a giant chocolate chip cookie, with a perfectly buttery, crispy crust and ooey-gooey center!
Porcelain-covered cast iron Dutch ovens are perfect for “pot roasting” and braising.
In addition, cast iron camp ovens (often erroneously labeled as “Dutch” ovens) make camping trips a real treat, since you can cook dishes that most people would never dream of serving away from the vicinity of a modern kitchen.
This material is versatile and can do a lot more than most modern cookware. In fact, you can still purchase new, made in the USA cast iron skillets, frying pans, and Dutch ovens.
This is fairly inexpensive (but not as inexpensive as buying used, in most cases).
Where to Find It
I look for old examples at flea markets, yard sales, and junk shops. Some of my best cast iron skillets belonged to my great-grandmother, and they have been handed down from various family members.
These skillets have a date of 1894 molded into them, and they are still perfectly usable today. Find me a piece of modern cookware that will last like that – Good luck!
I would have to say that frying pan was well worth the money my great-grandfather paid for it.
The problem with almost all of these pieces is that they have often sat unused for years, because they are “nasty looking.”
I will not argue that point.
My own were nasty looking when I got them. In fact, some of them were very nasty looking, but today they are clean and usable.
How did I do this?
No, I did not use a small mountain of steel wool and gallons of oven cleaner, or scrub until my arms fell off.
In fact, I watched TV while ages of old gunk was stripped off these wonderful old pieces. When the process was done, it took me about an hour to “cure” the freshly stripped cast iron, and ten minutes to clean up.
If you’re looking for a thorough purchasing guide on cast iron cookware (along with other types of skillets), do feel free to explore our thorough review on the subject!
Restoring with a Self-Cleaning Oven
In order to clean cast iron in this manner, you will need a self-cleaning oven. If you have one, you are in luck.
Your restoration efforts will be a snap!
Your first step is to inspect the pans before you even purchase them. Make certain there are no cracks or breaks – otherwise you are just wasting your time.
If the piece is sound (just cruddy from years of gunk and crud buildup), you may be able to get it for a good price.
Once you get your bargain home, knock off any excess buildup outside, using a stiff wire bush. Then prepare your oven for cleaning, in accordance with the oven manual directions.
My oven says to remove both of the wire oven racks. I leave one in for the cast iron to sit on, and have never had any problems.
Once the oven is prepped, I place the wire rack on the next to the bottom guide rails, and then place the cast pieces on the rack.
Each piece should be turned upside down and, while you may place them as closely together as possible to get as many as possible into the oven, they should not be touching each other or the sides of the oven.
I can usually get four pieces in my oven, unless I am restoring large Dutch ovens.
Once you have placed your frying pans and/or Dutch ovens inside, close the door, lock it, and set the timer. While most ovens can be set from 2 ½ to 5 hours I have that found that 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours seems to work best for stripping the pans.
Of course, you are also cleaning your oven while doing this, and you need to consider how dirty it is to start. I doubt the cast iron will be hurt if you leave it in for the full 5 hours; I have just never tried it myself.
During the course of a self-cleaning cycle, the oven works by using very high heat to burn away built up gunk and mess. It is this heat that will burn away the gunk on your pans.
The cycle can produce strong odors, so I usually turn the ventilator fan on high and place a window fan in the kitchen window, sucking air out of the kitchen.
When the cycle is finished, you will need to allow the oven and the cast iron time to cool before you try to handle them.
In addition, I recommend utilizing some very good hot pads. You will find a pile of black ash in the bottom of your oven, which will need to be wiped up.
This ash will be loose, not stuck to the oven floor. It is all that remains of the gunk that covered your cookware.
Seasoning and Curing
The cast iron should be bare metal iron now. It looks nice, but it is not ready to use. If you leave it like this it will rust quickly. You must first “cure” or “season” it.
While it is still warm (not hot), use a folded paper towel or clean cotton cloth to grab a scoop of shortening (such as Crisco or any generic brand) and spread it evenly over the pan.
You want to coat the entire surface of the iron, inside and out. Make sure you do not miss any spots or you will have rust in these areas. Ideally, your pan is still warm enough at this point for the shortening to melt into the metal.
If not, you will need to turn the oven back on to about 300ºF, and bake the vessel(s) just long enough to melt the shortening after each of the first three coats.
Be careful to put a drip pan of some sort beneath the pan(s), or you will mess up your freshly cleaned oven by dripping shortening all over it.
After three coats, I put one VERY thick coat on my iron and place it in the oven, at 300ºF for about 20 minutes.
This sometimes produces smoke, so again, I usually turn the ventilating fan on high, and put a fan in the kitchen window, sucking air out of the room.
After 20 minutes I shut the oven off, open the door, and allow the iron to rest until it is cool to the touch. Then I take it out and wipe it down. It is now ready to use, and as good as new.
Your only task now is to ensure that you properly care for and clean it.
Using this method, old “junk” that was purchased for next to nothing can quickly become valuable and usable cookware.
I have even been considering picking up some old cast iron cheap, restoring it, and taking it to the flea market to sell.
Who knows, it might work to bring in a few bucks!
No matter what, I still have a nice collection for my own use, which I keep up and use regularly.
I hope this helps some of you to save old pieces and put them back to use, rather than seeing them thrown out for no real reason, only to be replaced by cheap “made in China” crap. Good luck!