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.
"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?