All I Know About Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware is considered some of the best and most amazing stuff that anyone could ever cook with. My grandma gave me a cast iron dutch oven a while back and I never had the chance to use it because it was rusty, too big to use, and I haven't been camping in a long time. She recently passed away and my grandpa let me have the cast iron cookware.

This landed me with a decent amount of cast iron cookware, most of which was rather rusty and just kinda bad looking. It's not that they weren't cared for. Cast iron is something that you need to keep using to keep a fresh coat of seasoning on. If you don't use it, the seasoning can become ineffective and then you wind up with air and moisture getting to it. Air, moisture, and iron make rust.

Cast iron is a challenge to restore but I guarantee the reward is worth the effort.

Why Cast Iron

Cast iron is amazing, but only if you understand why.

  • Can almost always be restored
  • Holds up to high heats (if heated evenly, like in an oven)
  • As non-stick as non-stick pans get
  • Is non-stick without the Teflon crap that can't handle higher heats)
  • Will last your lifetime
  • Can be found for very cheap
  • No soap! (Don't use it!)
  • Excellent heat distribution (the #1 point)
  • Retains heat extremely well (the other #1 point)
  • You get a little bit of iron in your diet

Identifying That Iron

So, you're going to buy cast iron or looking at some now or considering looking around for it or... whatever you're doing, I don't care. You have or want cast iron cookware. You should know what you're looking at and why you do or don't want it. I learned a lot in short order and here are my foot notes.

Much cast iron cookware is not marked with a brand. It takes some research to know what particular markings mean.

Common older brands:

  • Wagner
  • Griswold
  • Lodge
  • Birmingham Stove & Range (BSR)

Age

You're not likely to run across anything older than 1700.

If the cast iron has a "gate mark", it is older than 1900. Gate marks happened when the pan was broken out of the mold. Between 1875 and 1900, they were phased out by injecting the mold at the lip of the pan instead of the bottom.

Originally, cast iron was made to fit on top of a wood stove. Wagner, Griswold, BSR, and Lodge made stoves and then made the pans that would fit those holes. This is what the size printed on the pan means. It roughly means the diameter, but not always. For a time, they were produced with a heat ring which would set right inside of the hole to help keep the pan centered. The heat ring disappeared in the late 1970's.

If the heat ring is very neat to the edge of the pan and the pan has a sharp sloped edge, it was produced prior to 1950.

If it has "Made in <anywhere>" printed on the bottom, it's made after 1960.

"Wagner 1891 Original" was produced in the 1990's.

BSR changed from <number>/<letter> to "NO. <number>" in the 1950's.

Brand

If the brand isn't printed, these are some clues to who produced it. A pan may or may not have all of these characteristics. Example: A BSR pan either had the <number>/<letter> size or it had NO. <number> for size, but not both.

Lodge:

  • Three notches in the heat ring
  • Very rounded script used for the numbers
  • Used "SK" for Skillet
  • An extra handle opposite of the handle
  • Heavier than Wagner
  • Cornbread pan with an open hole

Wagner:

  • INCH and description "SKILLET" is spelled out completely
  • Typewriter style font

Griswold:

  • Angled handle (comes to a point)
  • Italic font for size

Vollrath:

  • The size is perpendicular to the handle

Chicago Hardware Foundry:

  • Dented surface (like a golf ball)

BSR:

  • Weight is between Lodge and Wagner
  • Extremely smooth surface
  • Solid round heat ring
  • Size will also have a letter or two (the mold letter)
  • Angled ridge on the bottom of the handle
  • "NO." number abbreviation
  • Cornbread pan without an open hole

Made in Asia:

  • Rough surface
  • Saucepan with wooden handle
  • Generally poor quality iron
  • Ridges on the top of the handle
  • No, they don't have lead in them

Everything listed here, except Asian cookware, is generally great quality.

Anything produced by Favorite Stove and Range (very light), Wapak (very light), or Martin Stove Company (very heavy) are also great brands. Most iron produced in Asia was done with low quality iron.

The New Stuff

New cast iron is fine and usually comes pre-seasoned. The quality is supposedly just as good as fifty years ago, however, the pre-seasoning means something to the pan. In order to properly pre-season, they need to make the pan rough so there is something for it to adhere to. This extra roughness causes sticking and isn't much fun to clean.

Many people will strip the seasoning off and then grind the pan smooth(er) and then re-season it. They usually feel that the seasoning they put on is better anyway. This is likely true. It's especially true if you do a great seasoning job. Pre-seasoning is usually done with soybean oil. This makes the older stuff much more enticing.

Cleaning Cast Iron

There is a lot on the internet about cleaning up cast iron and making it look pretty and amazing. Well, I tried a lot of it and a lot of it utterly sucks. I even bought a nice Dremel tool to clean it up. It's a great tool to have, but not useful for this job.

Electrolysis works, but it's not something I had handy or the motivation to build, so wasn't an option for me.

Really Bad

If your cookware is full of gunk, crap, rust, stuff, and other things, then it might very well fall into this category.

The best thing to do is clean it with a green scrubby pad as well as you can without water and then wipe it clean with a damp rag. Put it upside down in your oven and put the oven on self-clean. How long it stays in there depends on how bad the build-up is.

When it's done, LET IT COOL! If you force the oven door open too soon or open it after the oven has cooled but the iron hasn't, you risk a drastic change in temperature. This change can cause the cookware to either warp or crack. When taking the cookware out, everything that was caked on should just fall off. It might not be unwise to suck up the flakes on the pan with a vacuum hose before pulling them out. Yes, rust will remain.

Once out, wash the pan with cold water and soap. The soap will help remove any lingering oils and rust. Use a green scrubby pad and some mild dish soap. Once it looks shiny and new, rinse it extremely well. You don't want any soap to remain. Dry this extremely well right away or rust will form. Do not use warm water or the rust will come back faster.

You can now move on to seasoning it.

Not That Bad

If it's not in bad condition, you may get by with just scrubbing it well with a green scrubby pad and mild dish soap, then rinsing well with water, and drying immediately might be all you need.

Sometimes a soak in vinegar can help loosen some rust. Just remember that water is the enemy of cast iron. Keep it dry when not soaking.

If it's not bad, sometimes you can season right over top of tiny amounts of rust. When coating with oil, you'll actually take some of that thin layer too.

Seasoning

This one is tricky, there are thousands of methods out there and they're all basically the same but very different.

The oil/fat you use will make a big impact. If you choose something like Crisco that has a low smoke point you will have to bake it at a much lower temp and you end up with a softer finish.

After much research, I found that the best option is flax oil. Flax oil has a smoke point of 520 °F which means you can bake it at 450 °F without worry. Flax oil and the high temp produce a very hard seasoning that won't break down so easily over time and gives a very nice black appearance.

I chose organic flax oil because it had nothing else added. The other stuff I found had extra flavorings and I didn't want that inside the iron. I wanted just the flax oil.

Flax oil and linseed oil are basically the same thing, but they are very much not interchangeable. Don't try.

Just put a small amount of oil on the pan and coat the whole thing. Use the oil sparingly. You just want to get the whole piece wet with oil. Once you've hit every part of the pan, wipe it down with an absorbent paper towel. You should no longer see any streaks from the oil. This is key to making it look nice. If it's too thick, it will pool or drip.

Once your oven is pre-heated to 450 °F, you're ready to put your piece in the oven. Leave it in there for 30-60 minutes. Turn the oven off and let it cool with the door closed. Once it's cooled completely, take it out, put another thin layer of oil on it, wipe it down, and repeat the kiln process. You may need to repeat this process three times.

On your last baking cycle, leave it in the oven for up to two hours. This helps ensure your finish will be rock hard. On the last pass, just as it gets cold enough to handle carefully, I will flip the pan over and put just a small amount of oil on it where the iron touched the rack. I do this all inside the oven to prevent hitting the iron with too much cold air.

That's all there is too it! A lot of text here, but after doing it once, it's as hard as Crisco.

Once you have a good seasoning, just using it and caring for it is enough and you shouldn't have to ever season the inside again. It's possible you may have to touch up the bottom from time to time, but that shouldn't be anything more than baking it with some oil on the bottom.

Using Cast Iron

Now that you have you're cast iron cookware, know who made it, how old it is, and have seasoned it to perfection, it's time to cook with it!

The number one tip when using cast iron is to NEVER turn you're burner to high. This is exponentially more true with electric burners. If you put the pan on a very high heat, the bottom will heat faster than the rest of the pan. If this happens too rapidly, the edges won't have time to expand and the pan will warp. This isn't instant. Over time, it will ruin the pan. Electric burners tend to focus heat which makes this even easier to do.

Start your burner on low and let the pan warm up before turning up the heat. You shouldn't ever need to bring it up above medium or maybe medium high heat. High should be avoided like your crazy ex, especially with an electric range.

Obviously, you'll probably be cooking with oil. I recommend using either peanut or olive oil. Olive oil is a bit pricey but gives the best flavors and peanut oil is the best of the cheap options. They give great flavor and help maintain an amazing seasoning.

Once your up to temp, you'll stay there cast iron doesn't lose its heat just because you dropped something cool on it. It keeps a very nice consistent and even heat. That's part of why we love it so much.

If you want a steak that has an excellent crust, pre-heat a cast-iron pan to 400-500 °F (if you used flax oil) in an oven. Take it out out of the oven and sear the steak on both sides for three minutes each side. Put it back in the oven for another three minutes on each side. If you have two cast iron pans, one can be used to sandwich the meat and cook both sides at once.

The lower temp you cook your food at, the better it will end up. On medium-low heat, get some oil sizzling. Take stems off some portobello mushrooms and put them stem side down in the pan. Put them on the side of the pan and they'll cook themselves. Put a ground beef patty in there, wait a while, flip, wait, toss on a slice of cheese, take it all off, but don't stop! Take a bakery fresh bun, split it, and toast in the remaining oil. Now you're ready for the best burger ever. Bonus points for using grass-fed ground beef.

Make sure to not cook things too hot. If you do, grease will splatter and create a mess. This mess will probably form letters. It might look something like "I don't know what I'm doing."

Cleaning Cast Iron

You just finished your amazing meal and you realized what you've been missing in life. It wasn't a dog! Now you have to clean. Take a paper towel and wipe it down. Done. Stop arguing, you're done cleaning it!

If you really insist, you can let it cool, rinse with cold water, and wipe down again. Really, though, that's it.

Don't use soap unless you plan to start seasoning from scratch immediately. Just don't use soap. Absolutely NEVER EVER use the dish washer. NEVER! Did I make my point well enough? Don't ever do it! Want to clean everything off of it and start from scratch? Still, don't ever use the dishwasher.

Conclusion

Well, there we have it. Everything I know about cast iron at the moment is right here. I hope this will help many others learn to love cast iron cookware and care for it properly.