There are reasons old cast iron skillets in great condition can be found at garage sales and antique shops. They are extremely well-built and nearly impossible to ruin. Cast iron skillets, kettles, and pans have been handed down through generations and have been used in all settings from gourmet restaurants to campgrounds. Unfortunately, along with their storied history, misperceptions and myths have become common among cast iron cookware owners.
Real, vintage cast iron cookware is very collectible, but most find their value in a variety of other ways. This includes their durability, cooking qualities and ease of care. This makes cast iron a great addition to any camping mess kit. For those who presently own or are interested in obtaining cast iron cookware, this guide will help build a better understanding of how they are made and the best way to use them. It will address the importance of “seasoning” and discuss the cleaning and maintenance of cast iron as well as how to properly store your cast iron pans and skillets. Readers will also learn about the possible health benefits of cooking with cast iron and how they can be restored. Finally, the guide will explore what to look for when presented with used cast iron cookware and what deal breakers to avoid.
They are heavy, nearly indestructible and will serve their owners for years when properly cared for. Here is the Ultimate Guide to Cast Iron Cookware.
Table of Contents
- How Cast Iron is Made
- Understanding Seasoning
- Cast Iron Debates
- Difficult or Easy to Maintain?
- Soap or No Soap?
- What Oil is Best for Seasoning?
- Heats Evenly or Has Hot Spots?
- Never Use Metal Utensils?
- Will it Add Iron to Your Diet?
- Cast Iron Mistakes
- Routine Care and Cleaning
- Restoring Cast Iron
How Cast Iron is Made
Modern cast iron cookware gained popularity in the late 1800s as homes transitioned from cooking over a fireplace or campfire to kitchen stoves. While previous cookware had legs and/or handles for use over open flames, stoves created a need for flat-bottomed skillets and pans. Cast iron served that need. Iron was affordable, available and durable.
Cast iron is made from molten iron poured into molds made of compacted sand or a sandy mixture. As the molten iron cools, it takes the shape of the mold. Once cooled sufficiently, the utensil is broken from the sandy mold. This accounts for the somewhat rough surface of most cast iron skillets and pans, although today’s more modern products are often less polished than their vintage counterparts.
The invention of non-stick pots and pans negatively impacted the production of cast iron cookware in the 1960s. Consumers enjoyed the new space-aged, non-stick Teflon surfaces and few cast-iron cookware manufacturers survived. Those that have, used their own “recipes” for the iron composition used in their brands, much of it recycled. Today’s cast iron cookware is frequently manufactured and pre-seasoned before sold on the market.
While some appreciate the character it brings to their cookware, seasoning actually only has two basic purposes. Seasoning is designed to protect the bare cast iron from rust and helps keep the cooking surface more non-stick. This not only makes the skillet, pan or griddle easier to cook with but also, and probably more desirably, simpler to clean. However, no matter how much seasoning a piece of cookware acquires, it will never quite reach the non-stick levels of modern chemical coatings. Owners, however, take comfort in knowing that it is an all-natural cooking surface with a high level of non-stick potential.
What is Seasoning?
Seasoning is a little different than what it sounds like. Rather than being a “flavor” the cookware adds to your foods, it’s the process of heating or baking fats or oil into the surfaces of a cast iron utensil. As the oil heats past its smoking point, it polymerizes, actually creating a chemical reaction that turns the fat into a hardened protective layer that binds to the cast iron. It makes the surface more stick-resistant and also serves to prevent the iron from oxidizing or rusting.
Seasoning is a more natural way to build and maintain a non-stick surface as opposed to chemically coated protective surfaces. This in part, accounts for the growing popularity in cast iron cookware in a more chemical-free and health conscious society.
There are a few misconceptions about seasoning. First, in spite of the term “seasoning”, the process doesn’t, or shouldn’t, add flavor to the foods you cook in cast iron cookware. Seasoning is a process. Secondly, there is a difference between seasoning and oiling cast iron. Seasoning bakes the fat or oil into the cookware, changing it into a solid form. Oiling is simply wiping down the utensil with oil before storing as proper maintenance. While oiling is certainly not a bad idea, do not mistake it for seasoning the item.
How to Season Your Cast Iron
While there are varied theories on the best way to season a cast iron utensil, it is best to keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish with your unseasoned pan or skillet. Ultimately, all you want is to give it a non-stick surface and protect it from rusting. It is just that simple.
Start seasoning your new cast iron cookware by first giving it a good washing and thorough drying. It is fine to use a liquid dish soap when initially cleaning it. This makes sure the item has a fresh clean surface and that anything left from manufacturing and shipping has been removed. There should be no moisture on the cookware when seasoning, you can place your cast iron in a warm oven or on a low flame on the stovetop to dry.
After the cookware is clean and dry, an oil or fat should be placed on all surfaces, inside and out. It must then be heated to just past its smoking point. Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like; the point at which the oil begins to smoke from the heat. This is when the oils polymerize, providing the protective coating that bonds to the cast iron. This polymerization provides a resilient, tough coating that is more durable than some give it credit for.
The heat can be provided by an oven, a stovetop or even a barbecue grill. It is important to heat up the item slowly and evenly so the entire utensil reaches the smoking point. Be sure that all surfaces are covered with oil to be seasoned, including the outside and handle. While you don’t necessarily need the outside or the handle to be non-stick, it is desirable that it doesn’t rust.
It is beneficial to buff the oil into all surfaces so the item doesn’t appear too oily. If there is too much oil, it can pool when seasoning and if there’s too little you won’t achieve the desired non-stick characteristics. Instead, work the oil evenly into the surface with a paper towel. Because, remember, the oil will harden as is, any pooling will create an uneven cooking surface that is subject to chip.
If you are using an oven, bake your oiled piece at about 450° F for about a half-hour. It may get smoky so keep the area well-ventilated. It’s also recommended to season cookware upside down to prevent any displeasing pooling.
Some prefer to repeat the initial seasoning process several times, especially when working with a new piece of cast iron. This is generally unnecessary because the cookware will continue to season as it is used. For that reason, after the initial seasoning, it is perfectly acceptable for your newly seasoned cookware to be left to cool then properly stored for future use.
Cast Iron Debates
Starting at the very beginning with the debate between whether multiple initial seasonings or seasoning once is best, the whole lifespan of cast iron tends to lend itself to varied opinions and theories. Many of these beliefs are embedded regionally or through generations of being passed down through well-intentioned family members. Some feel cast iron is simple to maintain, others avoid it because they’ve heard it is high maintenance and frankly, confusing. Should it be washed with soap? Is there a specific oil that works best for seasoning? In this section, we’ll take a look at some of these perceptions and misperceptions about cast iron cookware and try to determine what approach is best. Often, it’s a matter of personal preference.
Difficult or Easy to Maintain?
Over all, is cast iron easy or difficult to maintain? This question comes up frequently because all too often cast iron has not been properly seasoned or poorly maintained in the past. While it is nearly indestructible, just like everything else in the kitchen, it does take proper care.
If you see cast iron cookware that is rusty, has chips or shiny spots, odds are it wasn’t properly taken care of, potentially starting with its initial seasoning. Keep in mind, however, that even some of the most abused cast iron pans and skillets can be fully restored, giving you years of additional use.
While maintaining cast iron cookware may be a bit different from caring for aluminum, steel or copper cookware, it is no more difficult to maintain. In fact, quite the opposite, many fans of cast iron cookware actually feel care is much easier than their counterparts made of other materials. Cast iron holds up to wear and tear much better and doesn’t require extensive care like copper cookware. Even if abused, cast iron is resilient.
Soap or No Soap?
If there is one area of cast iron care that is heavily discussed it is the soap/no soap debate. Some feel that soap may wash away the oils that season the pan, negatively impacting the cookware. Others can’t imagine putting away cookware that hasn’t been cleaned with soap.
Keep in mind that when oils are heated into a cast iron pan during seasoning, polymerization takes place. This is a chemical change that bonds the oil to the metal, forming a protective layer. This layer can’t be removed by a simple cleaning with dish soap, the properties of soap aren’t harsh enough.
There are those, however, who feel that seasoning actually does add flavor from the perviously cooked meal to other foods cooked in the same cast iron. While using dish soap will not impact the true protective layer in a pan formed by seasoning, there is nothing wrong with choosing to not using soap either. Just make sure food particles and debris are fully removed and that the cookware is wiped clean. Once the food is cleaned out and the pan is wiped down, the oils left behind can serve to further season the cookware during its next use. This can also be acheived by washing with soap after using then applying a new layer of oil that can contribute to further seasoning when used next. The bottom line is that “to soap or not to soap” is largely a decision that can be made by personal preference and comfort level.
What Oil is Best for Seasoning?
Another debate that has gone on for years is if one oil is better than another for seasoning cast iron cookware. Opinions range from old school lard to today’s modern oil blends created specifically for seasoning cast iron.
For some, grape seed oil is a good choice due to its high smoking point. The general consensus today is that any polyunsaturated oil works best. These include corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil. Some major manufacturer’s of cast iron cookware like Lodge, recommend vegetable oil, shortening or even canola oil. Some chefs prefer coconut oil as it has less fat than some other oils.
Your choice may be based mainly on availability, cost, and ease of use.
Heats Evenly or Has Hot Spots?
Another area of discussion surrounding the pros and cons of using cast iron is that some will argue that cast iron heats evenly while others experience hot or cold spots. Again, this will come down to proper usage.
Cast iron, for example, only has about a third of the thermal conductivity of aluminum. That means it takes longer to heat thoroughly and doesn’t transfer heat evenly. It is critical that cast iron is pre-heated before use so the temperature is consistent throughout the heating surface. When pre-heating cast iron on a campfire or uneven heat source, it should be rotated periodically so that all areas are heated through. If you use a campfire tripod, either use one with a grill you can rotate the pot on, or give the fire more time to evenly heat the surface of the pan. Once cast iron cookware reaches its desired temperature, it will remain there for a longer time than other metals. This is one of the reasons it is popular for stocking a camping kitchen and viewed as heating foods more evenly.
One must keep in mind that cast iron, in general, is heavier and thicker than other cookware. This means it naturally takes more time to heat. When it reaches its desired temperature, however, users will find it maintains that temperature evenly and longer than alternatives.
Those who are struggling with hot spots or uneven cooking surfaces when using cast iron should keep in mind a little patience will go a long way. Take your time. Remember cooling will take longer as well, so be careful of accidental burns.
Never Use Metal Utensils?
Some believe that using metal utensils in cast iron cookware will either damage it or potentially remove seasoning in spots. Cast iron is exceptionally durable and will likely not be negatively affected by metal camping utensils. In addition, because seasoning is a chemical bonding that takes place, scraping the seasoning off the cooking surface of a skillet or pan is unlikely.
Seasoned cast iron cookware, especially well-seasoned cast iron cookware, will be basically impervious to metal utensils. However, when cleaning cast iron cooking surfaces using a wooden spoon is suggested as opposed to scraping with metal utensils.
Will it Add Iron to Your Diet?
One reason many mothers and grandmothers use cast iron cookware is the belief that cooking foods in cast iron add beneficial iron to their family’s diet. And this has actually been proven to be true through research. In fact, newer, more recently seasoned cookware has shown to contribute higher percentages of iron than older, more thoroughly seasoned pieces.
The research also demonstrated that the more acidic a food is, as well as the longer amount of time they cooked it in the cast iron cookware, the more iron would be absorbed into those foods. Acidic foods like spaghetti sauces and chili absorb the most iron. However, over the course of time, continued long simmering of acidic foods will negatively impact seasoning.
Cast Iron Mistakes
As many areas of debate there are about cast iron cookware, there are also areas of consensus. Water, for example, and iron don’t generally mix. It’s not that water can’t be used to clean cast iron, it is just that prolonged water exposure can cause rust on cast iron. That is one of the main purposes of seasoning, to prevent rust. Soaking in hot water or leaving in the sink overnight can help promote the ultimate formation of rust.
This combination of hot water and soaking is one of the reasons many cast iron cookware owners will not use them to make soups or to boil hot water. It can negatively impact the seasoning that many owners desire to build upon. So while there is much debate among lovers of cast iron, this is one area in which most agree.
Soaking in Water
Cast iron is extremely durable and heavy, but it is subject to oxidation or rusting. Seasoning inhibits the formation of rust. There is another way to avoid oxidation, and that is not soaking cast iron cookware in water.
While soaking is a favored way to get rid of burned-on grease and food in steel or aluminum cookware, it will reduce the effectiveness that seasoning provides in preventing rust. In fact, soaking and or boiling water in a cast iron skillet or pan is a way to almost guarantee that pan will be more subject to rusting.
While there’s nothing wrong with using water when cleaning cast iron cookware, soaking in water, especially hot water, should be avoided. Any such cookware that has been repeatedly soaked will need to be seasoned again to re-establish its protective layer against oxidation.
Most agree the benefit of cooking acidic foods, like pasta sauces, for example, will absorb more iron than other less acidic foods. There are a few things to keep in mind, however. The impact acidic foods have on cast iron cookware is a combination of not only how acidic the food is, but in how long it is exposed to the cookware. That means that while simmering pasta for an hour in cast iron should be kept to a minimum, it can be perfectly acceptable to routinely sauté cherry tomatoes in it. And while you may want to avoid simmering wine sauces for lengthy periods in cast iron, quickly de-glazing it with wine after pan-cooking chicken is fine.
Another factor to keep in mind is if a pan is newly seasoned or whether it is “experienced”. Highly seasoned cast iron cookware is more likely to minimize the effects acidic foods can have on cast iron. Newly seasoned cookware will have a thinner layer of protection and thus be more greatly affected.
Causing Structural Damage
While cast iron cookware is considered nearly indestructible, the keyword to keep in mind is “nearly”. They are not totally impervious to physical and structural damage. Here are the common ways cast iron cookware can be structurally damaged.
- Cleaning or seasoning in an oven’s self-cleaning cycle. Some believe that more heat is better when seasoning or cleaning a cast iron pan or skillet. That is simply not the case. Cast iron that is super-heated in the high temperatures of a self-cleaning cycle can be structurally weakened, suffer heat damage, and lower its performance as well as lifespan. Heating to 450° F for about 30 minutes is generally sufficient for seasoning cast iron cookware.
- Sudden, extreme temperature changes. It doesn’t take long for owners of cast iron cookware to realize how long cast iron retains heat, even after being removed from the heat source. Impatient users may be tempted to place the cookware in cold water to cool it down. This can cause cracks, even very small ones that can structurally damage the cookware. The same can happen if the cookware is heated too quickly. Throwing a pan into a campfire for cleaning, for example, can cause thermal shock to the piece.
- Damage from physical force. Cast iron is still subject to trauma from a variety of physical forces. This may include dropping them on a hard or concrete surface. The surprising weight of cast iron can catch some off-guard, causing them to lose grip. Te metal handles formed into the cookware will transfer heat just like cooking surface, so caution must be taken to avoid dropping. Using too much pressure or sharp edges when scraping them clean with a metal utensil or metal scrub brush can cause damage as well. and if the kids are in search of pots and pans to bang on, there are better choices other than cast iron.
Because cast iron cookware seems to be so substantial it can be easy to forget that yes, it can be damaged. Taking just a few precautions can bring years of valuable service and cooking enjoyment.
Routine Care and Cleaning
Although the proper maintenance, care, and cleaning of cast iron cookware isn’t necessarily challenging, it is important it is done correctly to ensure top performance and years of use. The main point to remember is that caring for cast iron pots and skillets is different from caring and cleaning of other pots and pans. It need not be more imposing or difficult, but it is different.
In this section, we will cover the various aspects involved in cleaning and scrubbing your cast iron cookware and the steps to take when it needs re-seasoning. We will also approach how to best store cast iron cookware to keep it in its best condition.
One of the nice traits of cast iron cookware is the more you use it, the better it performs. In theory, when properly cared for, its non-stick qualities will only continue to improve over time. It may not ever get to the slippery coated surface of a Teflon or other chemically applied nonstick surface, but users take comfort in that this is an all-natural way to prepare foods on a non-stick surface.
Users should take a non-aggressive approach to cleaning cast iron whenever possible. That means if wiping with a damp cloth and drying will suffice, feel free to do it. If after its next use, germs are a concern, simply give your cast iron a quick wash in soapy warm water and rinse and dry.
What should one do when a pan or skillet is particularly greasy with food particles or needs a good scrubbing? In spite of its apparent durability, use of metal scrubbers or steel wool should be avoided. Instead, use the synthetic scrubbing surface found on many of today’s modern sponges. If you need more aggressive scrubbing, use a coarse salt as opposed to a harsh cleanser. Simply add coarse salt to the pan and scrub over low heat with a wooden spoon to remove stubborn bits of food or burned areas. Finish cleaning with a mild soap, rinse and dry completely.
Some users feel more comfortable if they reapply a small amount of oil to the cast iron after this type of cleaning. While it is not necessary, it certainly is not going to do any harm. Just make sure any oil is thoroughly applied and buffed in so it will not create shiny or burned spots during the next use.
Some cast iron cookware owners feel it is a good idea to re-season their cookware after it has been aggressively cleaned or scrubbed in soapy water. This too is not a difficult process but care should be taken to avoid getting burned. After washing, scrubbing, and rinsing the cookware, place it on a lit burner to evaporate any bit of remaining moisture. This will only take a few minutes. Then add about a ½ teaspoon of your preferred oil for seasoning and wipe into the surface carefully avoiding touching the hot pan with bare skin. Once the oil reaches its smoking point, remove from the heat. As it begins to cool, buff the oil into the surfaces of the cookware. Make sure the cookware is allowed to fully cool before storing away.
How to Store
Storing cast iron cookware is not that much different than storing other cookware, although because different metals can impact each other, you’ll want to store cast iron cookware separately. You’ll also want to take precautions due to the significant weight of cast iron cookware.
- Store in a low cabinet. Because of its weight, many feel more comfortable storing their cast iron cookware in a low cabinet in the kitchen. This can prevent damage to the cookware, flooring or a foot should the piece be accidentally dropped when removing or storing.
- Nest the cookware. Stack smaller pieces on top of the larger pieces, placing either a cloth or paper towels between each to prevent scratching of the cooking surface. Not too much different than the careful storage of Teflon cookware whose surface can be scratched.
- Apply a thin coat of oil if you choose. Many cast iron cookware aficionados prefer to buff in a very thin coat of oil into their cookware when storing. This can be a good idea when living in an area with high humidity or when cast iron cookware is infrequently used.
Be cautious when storing cast iron cookware so that it is easily reachable for its weight. If storing on hooks, make sure any hangars are solidly anchored into the wall or ceiling. Because of the size and weight of cast iron, some prefer to store it in an unused oven. Make sure the oven is empty, however, before pre-heating or using the built-in oven cleaner. Always make sure cast iron cookware is sufficiently cooled before storing away and is always completely dried to avoid rusting.
Restoring Cast Iron
Not every piece of cast iron cookware found at a garage sale or antique shop may be a good value. Some may indeed be in excellent condition, while others may be a diamond in the rough needing some attention. And still, others may be beyond help.
In this section, we will explore how cast iron can be restored, how old seasoning can be removed and replaced, and what to do with rusty cast iron pieces. We will also consider when it is time to simply walk away from buying a vintage piece that may be beyond repair.
The more you understand cast iron cookware, the better chance you will find and be able to restore pieces to its past glory. You will also have a better understanding of what is a cast iron cookware deal breaker.
Removing Old Seasoning
If you are unhappy with the performance of an older piece of cast iron cookware or have found a piece in need of rejuvenation, the answer can frequently be in removing the old seasoning and starting over. Keep in mind, cast iron cookware may not have been taken care of properly or may have never been seasoned correctly at the outset. It may have been subjected to misguided theories on care or even simply abused or not paid attention to. It could even be that it simply hadn’t been stored properly. The point is that in the vast majority of cases, cast iron cookware can more often than not be restored to its previous glory. In most cases, restoration starts with removing or stripping down old seasoning efforts and beginning anew.
One of the most efficient and effective ways to remove old seasoning on a piece of cast iron cookware is to use one of the choices of normal spray on oven cleaners. Choose a lye-based cleaner, often referred to as sodium hydroxide. This process may take several days and may be a bit messy, but can be truly effective in removing old, multiple years worth of seasoning.
Start by completely covering the piece with the foam cleaner and securing it in a plastic bag. Close and tie the plastic bag shut, and after putting it in some type of container that will control potential leakage, place it in a warm area. The bag should be secure and away from where pets or children can disturb it. If properly sealed, the plastic bag should prevent evaporation and allow the oven cleaner to strip the seasoning from the cast iron over several days. In instances where seasoning has been particularly heavy, several applications of the oven cleaner may be needed over the course of days. Eventually, the “goo” of years of seasoning should be able to be removed with a hot water rinsing and perhaps some light scrubbing.
Cleaning with oven cleaner can be foul smelling and time-consuming, but it will be effective. An alternative is a lye bath, which is a solution that should be treated as if it were oil heated to 350° F. Safety precautions such as gloves, goggles, and masks should be used when working with lye. So it’s no surprise that most consumers find the oven cleaner method safer and ultimately just as effective.
Once the cookware has been restored to its original, gunmetal colored condition, it should be deep cleaned by scrubbing with perhaps coarse salt and soap and water. It’s best at this time to fully wash the piece at the best of your ability to remove any chemicals used before using. Thoroughly rinse the piece and make sure it is completely dry before starting your seasoning journey.
Since we deal with rust on a variety of other surfaces in our lives, it can be tempting to transfer this knowledge to removing rust from cast iron cookware. This can cause problems. Techniques such as sand blasting or using Naval Jelly aren’t recommended for the average user. These are hazardous methods that could easily result in damage to your cast iron as well as personal injury.
For surface rust, soaking the cookware in a 50/50 vinegar and water solution can be extremely effective. The sink or a plastic tub is a good place to soak the cookware in the solution. Make sure the entire piece is submerged and after a half-hour or so, scrub the piece with steel wool or a steel scrubbing pad. Depending on how much rust is on the cookware this process may need to be repeated several times. Do not let the cookware soak for more than 45 minutes to an hour per session, however. Once free of any rust, the piece should be washed, rinsed, dried and seasoned.
A paste of lemon juice and coarse salt can also be an effective way to remove deeply embedded rust. Scrub the rusted surface with the mixture and allow it to sit before repeating. Rinse and dry once the surface has been restored then season.
Molasses and water is another way to naturally remove rust, albeit is time-consuming. Soak the cookware in a solution of 1 part molasses to nine parts water and let sit for a week to ten days. The solution suspends oxidation.
Once rust is removed from cast iron cookware it needs to quickly be re-seasoned or at least treated by wiping it down with oil. Make sure all surfaces are rust free, clean and dry before re-seasoning and storing.
Electrolysis is a process that uses electricity to remove rust and to restore cast iron cookware. While this process can be a bit more complex and expensive than a vinegar and wash scrub, the results can be well worth it. Items needed for conducting electrolysis on cast iron include:
- A large plastic tub capable of holding up to 8 gallons of water along with the cookware
- A manual automobile car battery charger
- A sacrificial piece of iron or steel to serve as an anode in the process
- Sodium carbonate washing soda
It is important you use a car battery charger that has a manual on/off switch, as an automatic charger may determine your electrolysis tank is a charged battery and turn itself off. This will also allow you to properly set up your system before turning the charger on.
Fill the plastic tub with enough water so you can hang the cookware in the water and have all but the handle covered by the liquid. Add about 1-2 tablespoons of sodium carbonate washing soda per gallon of water in the tub and mix. Avoid the temptation to add more as this can cause problems.
Many users will use a sturdy piece of wood placed across the top of the plastic tub from which to hang the cast iron cookware. Some choose to use a metal coat hanger to hook onto the hole in the handle. Make sure that there is a solid connection between the metal cookware and the negative (black) wire of the charger or the metal hanger.
At the other end of the tub, place the piece of metal that will serve as the anode. Make sure there is a solid connection with the positive terminal of the battery charger to the anode. To ensure the connection, scuff or sand the metal surface where the terminal will be connected. Do not turn the charger on until all connections are made and secure.
The electrolytic process takes the red rust and converts it to black rust or ferrous oxide. It eventually coats and will destroy the sacrificial piece of metal. The piece of metal used as an anode can be anything from an old lawn mower blade to a large flattened metal juice can. The more surface area the anode has the better it will perform its job. The anode and the cast iron should not touch and nothing should be between them in the tub.
Electrolysis can be a lengthy process, taking several sessions of 8 hours or longer each. Between each session, the charger should be turned off and the cast iron piece and anode rotated for maximum effectiveness.
It is important to note that electrolysis should only be used on bare cast iron. The process can also produce flammable hydrogen gas so it should be done in a well-ventilated area away from the main house or outdoors. Of course, always make sure the power is off when handling the cast iron or anode metals.
Potential Deal Breakers
Cast iron is not indestructible, it can be damaged to the point where it is either functionally unusable or at least undesirable. Here are the conditions that could be deal-breakers when it comes to cast iron cookware.
- Warping. Cast iron cookware can warp when exposed to thermal shock, or rapid and extreme heating and cooling. This warping can make the piece worthless as it will not sit evenly on any heating surface nor properly cook foods. There is nothing consumers can do to correct the warping that has resulted from thermal shock.
- Deep Pitting. While some minor pitting can be expected on older pieces of cast iron cookware, and can frequently be dealt with, deep pitting can be the result of thermal shock. Deep pitting on the bottom of a vintage piece could be the result of the sulfur in coal used decades ago. A piece of cast iron cookware with deep pitting should be avoided unless it is on the bottom or outside surface.
- Severe cracks and chips. Cast iron has been compared to glass in that it will break before it will bend. It is not uncommon to see minor chips along the rim of some cast iron cookware and minor cracks can be almost undetectable. More severe cracks may be able to be determined by holding up the piece to light. Seasoning can be very effective at hiding cracks so close inspection is recommended.
If you are judging the value of cast iron cookware just by age alone you could be making a mistake. For this type of cookware to have any real value, it must be in good, functional condition.
Enjoying the Cast Iron Tradition
Owning cast iron cookware can be rewarding, but it also can be somewhat intimidating. There are so many theories, legends, opinions and misperceptions it can be difficult to know quite what to believe.
Many have taken to collecting vintage pieces and some can sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Keep in mind for any piece of cast iron to have value it must be in good, useable condition.
It can be very useful to understand some of the science behind cast iron cookware and the seasoning process. It is important to know how to properly care and clean the cookware and what situations to avoid. With a little knowledge and care, cast iron cookware can become a part of a family for generations. Use it, enjoy it and pass it on.