By JASON CARPENTER
It all started as I was rummaging through the warehouse at the Salvation Army superstore, looking for a chest of drawers for a studio apartment renovation. The dresser choice was an easy one—I was able to choose from about 25 beautiful Victorian style chests, and I got one for $35 that would sell at a Manhattan vintage shop for over $300.
Outside the clerk’s door sat a gray milk crate overflowing with rusty pans. I took a closer look and discovered a treasure of vintage cast-iron cookwear—an assorted collection of pots and skillets that would make Martha Stewart weep.
“How much are those pans over there?” I asked the clerk, who was rather unimpressed with the rusty stock.
“How about $10?” he said.
“For one?” I replied.
“No, the whole crate. I’m sick of looking at it,” he countered.
My eyes widened as if I had just opened Davy Jones’ locker. “Deal.”
And off I went; chest of drawers and a crate of cast iron pans I had no idea how to restore. But I knew they could be.
A search on YouTube yielded many options. From a tap water soak to a blend of chemical agents, it seemed everyone had a “secret” recipe. Eventually, I found the perfect match: Apple Cider vinegar. Just three days soaked in a tub of the sweet-smelling vinegar and we’d have cookware to last a hundred years.
Quality cast iron cookware made by Griswold, Lodge and Wagner Ware is the stuff of culinary legend. It became extremely popular in the U.S. during colonial times, especially after the first ironworks opened in 1619.
I’ve seen restored pans sold on the internet for hundreds of dollars, so I was looking at a cast iron bounty. The only problem was they were covered in dirt, rust and what looked like paint. They were a right mess.
The benefits of iron cookware are epic; a non-stick surface that imparts an incredible flavor to food, and an indestructible construction. They have excellent, even heat distribution, and add a bit of iron into your diet. But I first needed to cut through years of abuse and exposure to the elements.
Tools and materials
· 2-3 gallons of apple cider vinegar (I got them on sale for 2 for $5)
· A medium-size tub—the type that busboys use for dishes is perfect
· A variety of wire brushes, from small toothbrush sizes to 6-inch brush heads
· Gloves (vinegar + cuts = pain)
· Work clothes—you’ll be covered in iron dust, rust and vinegar
· Bucket of rinse water
· Olive oil for seasoning
This restoration process is safe, but best done outdoors or in ventilated area. As anyone who has taken a deep sniff of vinegar knows, it can be a bit fetid to say the least.
It’s really a lazy man’s conquest, this cast iron restoration. Just dunk the pan(s), and after a three-day soak, wipe away the goo and rinse. If you’re lucky, you’ll cut right down to a fresh silvery iron surface, complete with original circular brush marks. But when’s the last time your DIY project went perfectly from start to finish?
Blunders to beauty
For the inevitable stubborn areas, take the appropriately sized iron brush and put some elbow grease behind your circular motions. Move with purpose, as naked iron begins to rust almost immediately—forming in the presence of water, oxygen or acids. In this case, you’ve got all three.
As a former commercial fisherman, appliance installation grunt, and survivor of three bone marrow transplants (that’s another story), I consider myself tougher than most. So naturally, I went bare-fisted and found quickly that even the toughest man’s skin is no match for the spines of an iron brush. Now add vinegar to a puncture wound, and well—let’s just say my language was as fetid as the vinegar.
Another rookie lesson I learned was soaking seven pans at once, removing them from the liquid, assuming I had the stamina to scrub them all. Here’s what the other four look like. If these pans can take years of abuse outdoors, they can survive an extended apple cider bath—leave what you can’t finish soaking. And don’t dump out the precious liquid like I did; you’ll quite literally have to start over. Cue the f-bombs in my driveway.
To seal in a nonstick surface, coat the pan with cooking oil and cook in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for an hour (repeat if necessary). Also add oil to the pan after each use and cleaning. Beware that the handle of these pans can get wicked hot, so invest in handle sleeves. Cast iron is indestructible, but also quite heavy—you might want two hands to remove from heat.
As for my pans, I got restored three of them: a 5-inch egg pan, 10-inch grill pan with ridges and a 10-inch frying pan. I was lucky enough to get pans from Lodge and Wagner, and soon enough, I’ll find out the brands of the other four.
In all, it took me about an hour of preparation for the soak, an hour or two of post-soak wire brushing, an hour of oven seasoning and about 15 minutes of oiling. And an infinite satisfaction of bringing something back to life.
Once you can see the original company insignia cast into the bottom of the pan and the original date of 18 and 1900s, it’s a sweet gratification. Cooking on the pans is just the icing on the cake.
Share your experiences using cast-iron cookware! Do you have tales from the restoration battlefield?