is one of the greatest cooking materials known to man.
It is an even heat distributor and one of the best ways to brown wild game or garden vegetables. There’s just something authentic about it. And, properly cared for, cast iron can last for generations. Of course, not everyone has the time or desire to take care of their cast iron pots and pans, leading to great garage sale and thrift shop opportunities.
But when you buy from a thrift shop, naturally some TLC is in order. There are plenty of recommendations on the internet that you should use Easy Off or a lye-based product to scour your pans. I disagree and find the application of heavy chemicals disconcerting. Instead, simply use your oven’s cleaning cycle!
Most home ovens will self-clean on a three hour cycle. Because the oven gets very hot, the doors will close and lock, so be sure you’re ready to start. (You may also want to pull the oven out from the cabinetry if yours isn’t screwed down, as repeated use of the cleaning cycle can warp surrounding cabinets). Don’t worry about pre-treating, just put the skillet in the oven and fire it up.
Once the cleaning cycle is complete, your skillet will look like this. The crud has all turned to ash (constricting in on itself almost like pills on an old sweatshirt in the process). This exposes the raw iron, which immediately begins to rust. Don’t worry; you’re going to scrub all this off with steel wool in the next step.
Take your skillet to your sink after allowing it to cool. Scour it to remove the leftover crust and expose the raw iron. Don’t worry if the skillet looks tinged with a little rust; you are going to re-season it in a moment. If your thrift shop find has serious rust issues, you can soak it in a 50/50 vinegar and water bath for a few hours; the vinegar contains acetic acid, which will eat away the rust without damaging the iron.
Many older Lodge skillets will have seen enough use to become almost glass-smooth, but most will still have some texture. Seasoning your skillet will fill in many of the divots and pits which are an ordinary result of the iron casting process, eventually making for a “natural” non-stick surface. You can assist this process greatly by repeatedly seasoning the pan.
Start by drying your pan thoroughly in the oven while you bring it up to temperature. If you don’t mind a little smoke in the house (or you can open the windows), go ahead and set your oven to its hottest temperature (usually 550 degrees). Otherwise, perform your seasoning at a lower temperature (say 350 degrees), but double the bake time. As soon as the skillet is dry, but before it gets hot again, pull it out and wipe it thoroughly with Crisco or retained bacon grease. These are both almost entirely made up of saturated fats, and they will melt at skin temperature. Work the grease into every nook and cranny of the pan, then gently wipe with a paper towel. If you leave too much grease on the skillet, it will form an undesirable crust. Instead, you want to gradually build up thin layers of seasoning for maximum permanence.
Once your skillet is fully “doped” with grease, set it in the oven and let it bake for about an hour. The first time through, the skillet should emerge with a brown, caramel color. Allow it to cool, then re-apply more grease and send it through a second time. Generally speaking I find that three to four applications of this process is enough to begin using the pan in ordinary cooking. In order to avoid building up too thick a layer of seasoning on the working surface of the pan, be sure to season it upside down (with a sacrificial cookie sheet or old pie plate under it to catch any drips).
Even after three to four applications, the seasoning process is really only just beginning. For the first few uses I’d recommend frying bacon or sausages or a similar “greasy” food in order to really lay down a carbon footprint (this is the one place where you want your carbon!). Go ahead and use metal spatulas and utensils to really help wear in the high spots on the pan. After three or four years of heavy use, your skillet will be glass-smooth and just as non-stick as any high end Teflon cookware.
As far as care and feeding goes, NEVER put your skillet in the dishwasher. This will eat off the seasoning and set you back to square one. Instead, wipe out the skillet or scrape it clean with wood or metal utensils. You can rinse with water, but you should immediately put it back in the oven to make sure it is throughly dry. I like to periodically give my pans a wipe with more bacon grease inside and out and run an “intermediate” seasoning, especially if they are showing any signs of rust (typically this will happen on the bottom of the pan, out of sight).
When all is said and done, your thrift shop find will be as good as new and ready to serve an entire generation of new cooks!