I have a full collection of antique, cast iron pots and pans. The vast majority of them came via inheritance. Any time one of my little old lady aunts or cousins passed away, I’d swoop in and quietly gather up the iron cookware to add to my collection.
It was understood in the family that when you passed, and everybody was at your funeral, I would be rummaging through your cabinets so that your old skillets would find safe haven (and heavy use) in Austin, Texas. I’m not a collector. While I understand that Griswold and Birmingham Stove and Range are the brands to treasure, it makes no matter to me. I just like the heft, heat retention and soul that old black iron pans give to my cooking.
Wagner is my favorite brand and generally priced less than Griswold.
While I came by my collection through the imperceptible shifts of father time, you may not be as lucky. Most folks have to scour garage sales and flea markets to find antique cast iron pans, and this post is for them. Remember, no matter how old and crusty and rusted out that pan you’re eyeballing at a fleamarket in Tomball is, it can be restored as long as it’s not cracked.
On July 21, 1891, brothers Milton and Bernard Wagner formed a partnership, and founded the Wagner Manufacturing Company in Sidney, Ohio. Thus a legend was born. The original Wagner concern had a long and successful run til being purchased by the Randall Company of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1953.
Prior to being sold, Wagner duplicated the first piece of cast iron ever made in the American colonies. A small pot originally made by a Joseph Jenks in 1642 in Lynn, Massachusetts at Saugus Iron Works. It reportedly had 3 legs and a capacity of one quart.
I’ve had my eye out for one since I was a child.
I keep my cast iron spotless, and each pot or skillet features a glass-like sheen on the cooking surface. I never, ever allow water to touch them, and I slowly burnish each piece after use with warm fat, salt and paper towels.
It’s meditative to stand over the stove and carefully massage a pan for 5 minutes after turning out a skillet of bacon, eggs or whatever you’ve decided to cook for supper that night.
But, you may need assistance in rehabbing that cast iron skillet you found at a yard sale or flea market. Let’s address that task.
There are dozens of ways to strip the rust off that old cast iron pan that you’re determined to turn into a family heirloom.
For every acolyte of electrolysis there’s another person claiming that the one true way is to use a self cleaning oven or a big washtub filled with lye. All good methods but I champion vinegar, and water, and a nylon scrubbing pad.
Simple, cheap, not dangerous, and highly effective.
1] Make a 50/50 solution of distilled white vinegar and water. Take a new, nylon scrubbing pad and dip into your solution. Carefully, methodically and painstakingly scrub all the rust from the pan. This may take upwards of an hour and require repeated changes of your solution.
Keep your eye on the prize. Put some Furry Lewis on the hi fi and meditate a bit while you perform your task.
2] Scrub pan thoroughly with washing soda. This will neutralize the acid in the vinegar. Take paper towel and thoroughly clean pan. Place pan on medium high burner for 20 minutes. Let cool.
3] Massage a good, high temperature oil all over pan. I use manteca but avocado or rice bran would work well too. Be thorough. Clean your pan thoroughly with oil.
4] Place pan in 250 degree oven on top of baking sheet. Bake for one hour.
5] Remove pan from oven. Massage thoroughly with flax seed oil. Repeat step 4 but with oven on 450
Voila. The first few time you use your freshly seasoned pan it would benefit you greatly to rub flax seed oil into pan and then clean with a paper towel and coarse salt. After a few uses your pan will be high gloss and deeply seasoned and slicker than goose shit to use the mountain vernacular.
This may or may not be “the best” way to clean and season an old rusty cast iron pan. What I can tell you is that it is highly effective and will yield you a skillet or pot that will outlive you and your descendants by a millenia.