Saving, Cleaning and Seasoning Cast Iron Pans
I love cast iron pans. When you think about them, there is a lot to love. They are out of style, but seem to be making a resurgence as of late. Or so I assume with the cost of used pans skyrocketing. Either that or people are real proud of them. Lets extol some of their values, look at their downfalls and then walk along with me as I reseason what I believe is an old Lodge SK10, No10 skillet.
Cast Iron has stood the test of time. There are pans still in service that are hundreds of years old. They are hard to break, you can throw one out of a plane and would be hard pressed to break it. If they do get broken it is usually operator error that causes it. I can think of three ways to ruin them, caused by negligence and one other way from natural process.
When my son comes of age I will be getting him a starter set of pans. He will already know how to use them. There is no sense in people wasting money on this Chinese garbage they sell these days that doesn’t last three years. When I die someone will get my small collection, whether my family or a stranger who buys them. That type of generational use is hard to find these days of planned obsolescence.
Cast iron is very versatile. I cook almost everything in mine. From meatloaf to biscuits to deep fat frying. Plus all the normal stuff. I try to use it for everything on top of the stove and in the oven. In a pinch they can be put on top of a woodstove. In a survival scenario they can be put on a fire.
Even if a pan looks like junk or is badly rusted it can almost always be pressed back into service. There are methods to restore a pan that are easy, fast and can be done at home. I have found and received pans that people were throwing away. My wife’s grandfather picked up a stack of cast iron skillets off the sidewalk one time. In it a No 8 Griswold I still use today.
But, a fire is an easy way to ruin a pan. One of the negligent ways I mentioned. I don’t like doing it because it can overheat them. It’s an easy way to make them crack. I also do not like sticking them in a fire to clean them. A badly rusted pan or one with a lot of buildup can be put in hot coals and have every bit of rust and carbon turned to ash. I find the risk of cracking it to be too high. So, I use other methods.
Second negligent way to ruin a pan is to run water in a hot pan right off the stove. Again, you run the risk of cracking it. I let my pans cool on the stove.
Third way to ruin a pan is to take power tools to it. I make two exceptions though. Never, ever take a grinder to your pan. Don’t take a belt sander to it either. A 5” DA sander should not hurt it. I use one to flatten the inside of the cooking surface. There is no real reason to put one anywhere else. You can also use a wire wheel. It sometimes is an easy way to get bad build up off the outside.
A couple negatives, cast iron is heavy. Some of my big No 10’s my wife doesn’t like to mess with. She doesn’t want a massive No14 to contend with either. If you drop a big skillet I hope it doesn’t land on your foot. A big skillet will crack ceramic tile. They can crack flat cook top stoves, which seems like all of them are now. I have been using them a number of years on ceramic cook tops and never had a problem.
When I see someone camping with cast iron on social media I always chuckle. Even though their pictures lead on they are backpacking, it’s a sure sign they are car camping. Which is fine, I do plenty of camping that way. But it is far too heavy to backpack with.
I suppose that even though I haven’t heard of it, that a pan left outside for enough years could take such bad pitting that it would rust through. This is the natural way to ruin a pan I mentioned.
Contrary to popular belief cast iron is not non stick. And I haven’t found a way to make them not stick either. Even seasoned well, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. The best I have found is right after a deep fat fry. Dump the oil out and then fry eggs or potatoes in it and I am always pleased.
Pan temperature has something to do with sticking. As I have learned Asian cooking at home, they stir fry at high temps. It seems to stick less when temps are high.
I stick to a general process, but you can use different cleaning products. Use whatever you have on hand. My process for a badly rusted pan is somewhat different. I’ll cover it in a different post since I don’t have a badly rusted pan on hand.
For a severely grimy pan spray it down liberally with oven cleaner. The high test stuff in the yellow can. You want to do it outside. Put the pan inside a garbage bag and leave it 3 days. Spray it down good again during day 2.
Hose it off after the 3rd day. More days won’t hurt it, but may not gain anything else either. Take a wire wheel or a Brillo pad to it. Scrub the entire thing down good. You should not have any carbon build up left.
Use cleaner with grit in it, like pumice or Soft Scrub and a scouring pad. 3M makes the green ones. Something like that with an abrasive cleaner will start to polish the cooking surface. No need to take the whole thing down to bare metal. Just the cook surface.
Once you have bare metal on the cook surface I start with the sand paper. I want my pans as slick as a cats ass. Start with 220 unless you have a terrible surface. Some of the new Lodge’s are a messy casting. Maybe start with 100 grit there. Go from 220 up to at least 400-440. Go up to 1000 if you are industrious. Use a DA 5” round sander if you can keep it flat.
The old way to season pans is to wipe them with grease and put them in the oven. I don’t like having my pans heated up like this. What I do is just heat it on the stove over med and put some grease in it. Either oil or bacon grease. You could just go straight for ½” of frying oil.
Dump it out and then try to fry some eggs or potatoes. Two things that seem to stick the worst for me. Scrape the bottom well each time. I use only a rag and water to clean my pans.
That’s about all there is to it. Cast iron is very easy to use and maintain. I like knowing that I’ll never have to worry about cookware again. I like finding it at yard sales and thrift stores, knowing that it will last me the rest of my life and my kids’ lives. I think it’s fun to wonder who owned it and what stories it holds.