Cast Iron

You Can Score Vintage Cast Iron for Just $5—Here's How

And we'll show you how to restore it, too.

July 22, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Confession: I have a cast-iron problem. Once I found them intimidating (why are they so heavy?), but now I can't get enough of them. Whether searing salmon or baking cookies, cast-iron pans and skillets are a kitchen necessity—one that's been making a comeback with many chefs in recent years.

"When I pull out the cast iron, the kids know we're having something a little extra special for dinner," says coppersmith and author of Copper, Iron, and Clay; A Smith's Journey, Sara Dahmen. "I can make stew for lunch or make an apple pie in a Dutch oven over the open campfire."

Sales of cast-iron pans have increased nearly 15 percent over the past three years, according to the trade journal, HomeWorld Business. But while it's tempting to buy new cast iron, there's a huge market of used ones in vintage stores and on sites like eBay. And if you're willing to put in a little work to restore them, you can find great deals (think: $5 for a cast iron pan that would typically cost $150). We're here to show you how to do all of the above.

Where to buy vintage cast iron

Some of the best places to find cast iron pans are flea markets, yard sales, and estate sales. See, most cast iron pans are just about indestructible, and can last for decades. They’re often handed down, connecting generations of families across time, according to The Washington Post.

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"That's where you'll get the best price because people just want to get rid of them, especially if they're all tarnished and appear to be in bad shape," says self-described cast-iron hoarder and founder of Home Kitchen Land, Heloise Blouse. "I've gotten them for as low as a dollar just because the seller wanted them out of their house."

While in-person flea markets and yard and estate sales have been mostly on hold for the past year, we’re now increasingly able to get back to the hunt for treasures at those places. Blouse also recommends Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist if you have access to a car. And while websites like eBay are an option, she says she finds the price of the good combined with the cost of shipping is often high. However, if you're looking for a specific pan shape, size, or make, or a pan from a particular time period, eBay will likely cut down on the time you spend searching (and time is money, after all).

How to pick the right pan

Another problem with buying from online places such as eBay is you can't touch and feel the pan before buying it. When possible, it's always wise to be able to check the cast iron in person.

"A cracked pan is practically useless, so you have to make sure there aren't any in yours," says Blouse. To test, knock on the bottom of the pan like you're knocking on a door. If the pan rings for a few seconds like a bell, it doesn't have any cracks, but the sound will be short and abrupt if there is a crack.

A few other things to look for (and stay away from) are chipped edges or broken pieces along the edge or pour spouts.

"Handles with chips or severe rust along the interface where the handle meets the pan body should be avoided—that's already the weakest point of the cookware and if it's rusting out, the handle will be extra-brittle and will likely break," says Dahmen.

Last, you want to avoid pieces that are heat warped. Put the skillet or oven on a flat surface. If you can spin it easily, walk away.

But Dahmen says not to be too afraid of rust as with some care and work, it's usually possible to restore the cast-iron.

How to restore those vintage pans

Superficial surface iron oxide, otherwise known as rust, is relatively easy to remove from cast iron.

"Even a pretty rusty piece can be fixed using nothing but natural methods: a long soak in vinegar [overnight tends to work well], lots of scrubbing, a hot 500°F oven or open fire, can do wonders," instructs Dahmen.

You can also use a hot fire or oven to clean up cast iron coated in old food and oil; but if you use the oven, make sure to have all the windows open as it'll likely be smoky.

"It's worth it to have a fully restored piece of vintage cast iron, ready for another generation of use and love!," Dahmen reasons.

After the pan is clean and dry you can re-season it with organic flaxseed oil. Your restored pan will last a lifetime or more if you clean and season it right. Remember never to soak it and to always fully dry it after cleaning either with paper towels or by putting it on low heat on the stove.

And if you're Still intimidated?

There are a few options on the market that you can buy new and still make an eco-friendlier choice. Milo Cookware, for example, has a line of recycled cast iron cookware which each piece is made from 40 percent recycled iron. Pretty good, right?

What are your best cast-iron restoration tips? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Aloysius
    Aloysius
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    Strawboss37
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    orit rosen-yazdi
  • Chris E.
    Chris E.
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    delcecchi
Bridget Shirvell

Written by: Bridget Shirvell

Writer focused on food, climate and parenting.

8 Comments

Aloysius July 25, 2021
This is pretty handy information. My wife loves her cast iron but if I could source another one cheap and re cast it, she would be so happy with me. Thanks!

 
Strawboss37 July 23, 2021
Cast iron can be had cheaply at garage sales if you keep your eye out. That said, new Lodge skillets can be had pre-seasoned and at a very reasonable price if you’re not having good luck at rummage sales. They’re great skillets AND they’re made in America. I would never recommend cleaning a dirty, older skillet in a fire; the high-heat and the quick temperature changes make the pans prone to either crack or warp. That said, if it’s really dirty and it’s a common kind of skillet for which you didn’t give much money, I’ve gotten away with the fire method every time but one - the skillet cracked - and the brush fire method gets the skillets as clean as the day they left the foundry. Most of the methods of seasoning a skillet are far more efficient at making your house smell like a grease fire. With a well-made skillet, you’re far better off wiping them down with vegetable oil and just cooking on them. They season up quickly this way - particularly if you fry potatoes, breakfast sausage or bacon in them - and your house doesn’t smell acrid when you’re done! I often bake biscuits in mine just to keep the seasoning build up going, and often fry potatoes and onions in a skillet set on the grate of my Weber kettle. Good for the skillet and allows the coals a chance to cool down some before you put the meat on the grille.
 
orit R. July 23, 2021
I am totally ok with buying a new one… Costco sells 2 for $30.00
 
Chris E. July 23, 2021
Unless you know the pan's history well, it's a good idea to do a lead test. You can pick one up at any hardware store. People used to melt lead in cast iron, so best to be on the safe side.
 
delcecchi July 23, 2021
I'm pretty sure Lodge cast iron uses some recycled iron. A lot of steel and iron gets recycled.
 
M July 22, 2021
I find weird musty smells a lot more common in vintage cast iron than rust.

And I envy those who can pick them up for $5. Where I live, you're very lucky if you can score a beat up one for $20.
 
Author Comment
Bridget S. July 23, 2021
It really depends on where you live, I think. I have a good friend who finds amazing old ones at yard sales, etc. But where I live, it's much harder to find cheap ones.
 
M July 23, 2021
Absolutely! Where I live, $30-$50 is common.