Antique cast iron pans put modern cookware (including new cast iron) to shame. In this article, you’ll discover:
- how to find the best antique cast iron cookware for prices you won’t believe;
- how to restore, maintain, and cook in cast iron pans; and
- myth vs reality of using cast iron in your kitchen.
This article is a collaboration with our dear friend, Eliza Holcombe. Eliza, who we affectionately call “encyclopedia head,” is a fount of knowledge about antique cast iron cookware — and an avid collector.
The first thing she’ll tell you: you don’t have to have deep pockets to have a swoon-worthy antique cast iron cookware collection. In fact, armed with a bit of knowledge (which she happily provides to anyone who will listen), you can have a kitchen full of antique cast iron cookware for far less than it would cost you to buy cheap modern cookware.
Why is antique cast iron cookware better than the rest?
Years back, Eliza gifted us a beautiful set of cast iron pans she’d found at a flea market and restored to perfect condition. (Yes, that’s what you call a good friend!)
The Tyrant and I do a lot of cooking and consider ourselves fairly adept at using various types of cookware. At the time of Eliza’s gift, we had enameled cookware, new cast iron, stainless steel, and more in our kitchen…
The first thing we noticed about the antique cast iron pans Eliza gave us were the smooth surfaces of the pan bottoms. “That’s how you can immediately tell they’re antiques,” Eliza informed us. (You’ll learn why below!)
After using our “new” antique cast iron pans for a few weeks, we quickly fell in love. Now we rarely use anything else. Exceptions: we still use stainless steel sauce pans for boiling water, soups, and high acid sauces (yes, you’ll find out why in this article), plus we use a wok for Asian stir fry dishes.
5 unique benefits of antique cast iron pans
Properly cared for antique cast iron pans have a wide range of benefits over other cookware, including:
1. They’re virtually indestructible and will long outlive you. (Your Teflon pan will be lucky to outlive a hamster – no offense to hamsters.)
2. Their surface is naturally no-stick (once properly seasoned) and scratch-free.
3. They don’t contain environmentally- or health-hazardous substances like Teflon does. (Yes, we like to pick on Teflon. Unlike hamsters, we don’t mind offending Teflon.)
4. They’re often much thinner (thus lighter in weight) than comparably sized modern cast iron or ceramic cookware.
5. Once heated, they stay hot and radiate heat further above the cooking surface (especially helpful for things like baked goods and cuts of meat).
Now that you know a bit more about the benefits of antique cast iron pans, let’s take a deeper dive into these unique historical treasures!
What is an “antique” cast iron pan?
An antique cast iron pan is one that was made prior to the 1970s and features a glass-smooth cooking surface.
Lodge Logic is the only brand of cast iron still operating that has been making cookware since the late 1800’s. However, a new Lodge pan is nothing like their old ones.
Lodge’s current models are based on design changes invented around the 1970s in order to appeal to people charmed by the new convenience of Teflon. Modern consumers didn’t want the extra step of “seasoning” a cast iron pan after purchasing it.
In response, newer cast iron pans have a deliberately pebbly or sandpapery texture so that their surface can be misted with oil and heated at the factory, creating assembly line, “pre-seasoned” pans.
The smooth surface of the old designs wouldn’t stick to the oil mist long enough to make it through the heating process, and the foresight of this design is why Lodge is still around today. Teflon’s success put the other cast iron brands out of business.
What does it mean to “season” an antique cast iron pan?
Perhaps the greatest misperception when it comes to cast iron pans is “seasoning.” No, seasoning is NOT “the accumulated gunk built up on the pan that adds the right flavor to the food,” as someone once told Eliza. Yuck!
So what is seasoning? Seasoning is a thin layer of oil that has been heated until polymerization occurs, essentially bonding it to the metal as an inert, nonstick surface that is much stronger and more difficult to damage than Teflon.
Once polymerization happens you can’t even wash the seasoning off with dish detergent since it is no longer oil, though it’s a popular myth that this is a no-no. If your cast iron seasoning comes off in your food when you cook or clean it properly, you aren’t doing it right.
(We’ll discuss proper antique cast iron restoration, cleaning, and maintenance below.)
How do you season a cast iron skillet/pan?
Here’s how to season an antique cast iron pan:
1. Completely clean the pan BEFORE seasoning, e.g. no gunk, food debris, rust spots, etc.
2. Once you are left with bare gray metal, apply a tissue-thin layer of oil (such as grapeseed oil) over the entire cooking surface (bottom and sides). You can use a washcloth or rag to get an even surface coat of oil with no pools.
3. Bake the pan bottom-side-up (so the oil doesn’t pool in the bowl and make the surface uneven) in a 425°F (218°C) oven for 1 hour.
4. Repeat this oiling process 3 or more times for a strong layer of seasoning that will only get better with use). Touch up with additional seasoning layers after boiling water or cooking acidic foods.
Do you have to season modern/new cast iron pans?
If you ever bought a new “pre-seasoned” cast iron pan and immediately tried to cook an egg in it, you almost certainly ended up with a giant mess. Chances are, there was more egg stuck to the bottom of your pan than ended up on your plate.
That’s because modern “pre-seasoned” cast iron pans will need 6+ layers of new seasoning added before they will truly perform as non-stick.
How to find, identify, and purchase antique cast iron pans
We can’t speak for other areas of the country, but the south is awash in old, superior quality cast iron that is better made than the most expensive modern pan on the market. Yet if you know where to look, it’s usually priced for less than a movie ticket or a lunch out.
Flea markets and junky antique shops are usually your best bet for finding neglected, antique cast iron cookware at bargain prices. However, yard sales, estate sales, and even online shops like Facebook marketplace and Craigslist can all yield hidden treasures.
Antique cast iron brands – do they matter?
Eliza says, “When I do meet someone ‘in the know’ about cast iron, they usually think antique pans of the “Griswold” or “Wagner” labels outperform all the other old brands, but the truth is that all of the American brands of cast iron cookware made prior to the mid-1960s are nearly indistinguishably comparable and fantastic.”
The main reason Griswold and Wagner pans are more expensive nowadays is because collectors fixated on them and are trying to collect all the different makes and marks. To be fair, if you ever find a rare “spider logo” Griswold (worth several thousand dollars) at the bottom of a rusty heap, buy it immediately. However, know it won’t actually cook a caramelized upside down cake any better than grandma’s 1930’s unmarked Lodge.
If you’re an on-a-budget foodie looking to stock your kitchen with the very best cookware available, you should be looking at unmarked antique cast iron. That said, a massive quantity of the beat up, unmarked pans found in junk shops or flea markets for $10.00 or less often are Griswolds and Wagners manufactured without the logo so that they could be sold in less fancy department stores without damaging their elite brand name.
The main variation in old cast iron cookware is in the thickness of the pans, which can influence how you use them in the kitchen.
- The thicker the pan, the longer the heat will be maintained (if your burner is heating it unevenly you can turn the skillet or simply place it in the oven for a bit).
- Your thinnest cast irons are best for dishes that require a slight of the wrist (example: garden green crepes) and your thickest ones are best for one-pot meals or baking (example: one-pot roasted turkey with wild rice).
Becoming a serious cast iron collector
If you’re like Eliza, you’ll get a bit obsessed with collecting antique cast iron pans. At that point, you’ll become interested in the different iron foundries and the methods and marks they used to produce their lines of pans.
For instance, pans created prior to the year 1890 can be quickly identified by a “gate” or “flash” mark that looks like an appendectomy scar, usually on the bottom of the pan. This is because cast iron is literally named for being cast of a molten metal injection into a fine sand mold and the resulting piece is broken off from the injection site after it cools.
After 1890, most foundries had switched to a newer side-gate pour before grinding down the scar to make it invisible. Eliza finds gated 1800s pieces on a regular basis at flea markets, but they tend to have endured more damage than the early 1900s pans.
What do numbers and marks on antique cast iron pans mean?
Later cast iron cookware foundries were associated with corresponding brands of cookstoves. Much like clothing sizes, the large numbers stamped on cast iron pans (5, 8, 14, etc.) were slightly variable and meant that the pan would fit into the same number “eye” (burner) size of an affiliated brand’s wood burning stove.
When a recipe says you need a 10” skillet, you actually might need a #9 or #11 antique cast iron pan. Take a ruler with you when you go shopping if you want to know the actual size of a pan, though most recipes work out just fine even if you don’t match pan size recommendations exactly.
Additionally, cast iron foundries used other marks on their pans to keep track of patterns and molds, or for individual molders who worked at the factory to tag the pieces they’d made. You can purchase books or find sites online that will help you identify these other pan markings.
(Book recommendation: James P. Anderson’s Cast Iron Journey.)
In the mid 20th century, manufacturers began the practice of labeling pieces with size and item descriptions. After 1960, pans started to carry a “Made in USA” or other country of origin stamp — and many still do today.
Unmarked pans can also have their foundry and production year identified by:
- handle shapes;
- the shape and location of a “heat ring” on the bottom (pans prior to 1940 usually had small circles of metal on the bottom to help the pan fit into the eye of wood burning stoves, but this feature was phased out when gas and electric burners became popular);
- the pan thickness; and
- when store catalogs historically began to advertise various styles and shapes of a pan.
A couple of examples:
- Lodge pans (marked or unmarked with their brand name) with a smooth surface and a heat ring bearing a single notch opposite the handle were made in the 1930s.
- Birmingham Stove and Range pans always have a peaked ridge underneath the handle that does not flatten out at all when it meets the bowl of the pan. Even if a pan has no other mark, Eliza and other serious collectors can instantly tell a 1930s Lodge or a BSR pan by these indicators.
You can also dive down a rabbit hole of marks, foundry font styles, unique brand abbreviations, coveted rare pieces, and even the identifiers of various matching lids.
However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this information, rest assured that none of it is necessary to choosing a great “user” piece for your kitchen!
How to make sure you buy undamaged antique cast iron pans
If you’re new to shopping for antique cast iron pans, you might be anxious about what to look for in the pile of pans in the wheelbarrow at the back of the flea market — especially if those pans are rusted and/or covered in ancient food gunk (which is not seasoning!!).
Here’s how to make sure you buy antique cast iron pans that aren’t damaged and will polish up like new with a little TLC:
Step 1: Do a quick visual inspection.
Check that the pan surface is smooth, unpainted, and undamaged. (Yes, some people paint a pan for folk art or to make it look extra shiny and black. No, these pans are no longer safe for food.)
Step 2: Check for warping.
Damaged pans are easy to identify as long as the iron surface isn’t too caked with gunk or rust. The first thing to check for is warping, which is when the pan has been heated unevenly and the bottom bows slightly (this usually only happens to cast iron pans placed in a fire or left empty on a hot burner).
A credit card or driver’s license are perfect makeshift straightedges to check for pan warping. Simply place the card edge against the center of the pan and make sure it lies flush. If you can see underneath the card edge, the pan is warped.
You can also do the “spin test” (ideal method when the pan surface is rusty or dirty). Place the pan on the floor and attempt to spin it like a top. If it spins easily or rocks back and forth, it’s warped.
Step 3. Check for chips and cracks.
Next, check for chips and cracks in the sides, bottom, and handle.
It’s a good idea to find a bright light or window and hold the pan in front of it in order to see if light shines through any hairline cracks. The thinner a pan is, the more common warping and cracks are.
Be wary of heavily crusted pans since it is hard to see if there are cracks, though a well-seasoned pan can be used if the cracks are tiny and filled in with seasoning. Cracks don’t always render a pan unusable, but it greatly reduces the collector’s value.
Step 4. Check the finishing.
Finally, take a look at the finish of the pan. A little rust or old seasoning is no problem at all; both can be removed so that the pan can be re-seasoned like new.
Make sure rust discoloration has an orange tint, NOT a dark, dull red to mahogany tint which is an indication of heat damage (seasoning won’t stick well to mahogany tinted metal).
If an unmarked pan passes all these tests and is less than $20.00, take it home!
How to restore rusty, dirty antique cast iron pans
If you’re only restoring a handful of pans, the best method is as follows:
1. Coat the pans with Easy Off oven cleaner. (*Warning: Some oven cleaners use aerosolized lye, so use a face mask and heavy duty gloves in a well-ventilated spot if using a lye-based cleaner.)
2. Immediately wrap the Easy Off-covered pans tightly in trash bags for 24 hours.
3. After 24 hours, scrub off the loosened seasoning with steel wool, then rinse and dry the pans completely. It may take more than one try to get them fully clean, so repeat as necessary.
Once you are left with bare gray metal, you’re ready to season your pans using the methodology detailed above. Now you can start cooking with your restored antique cast iron pans!
Too much work? Want to buy antique cast iron pans that are already in good condition?
If finding and refinishing antique cast iron pans sounds like too much time and work, but you or someone you know REALLY wants antique cast iron cookware, don’t fret.
There are plenty of sellers of antique cast iron cookware online. Search the web or look on sites like Ebay and Etsy for sellers with good customer reviews, then stock up!
Cast iron pan FAQs
1. Can you wash cast iron pans?
Despite myths to the contrary, you can and should wash cast iron pans when they get dirty. Hand-washing a cast iron pan with a bit of soap and non-abrasive materials will NOT rub off the seasoning — assuming your pan has been properly seasoned as detailed in this article.
2. How do you wash cast iron pans?
For lightly dirty cast iron pans, a little soap, hot water, and a sponge are all you need to thoroughly clean them.
You do NOT want to soak your cast iron pans overnight. You also do NOT want to put your cast iron pan in the dishwasher or use steel wool (or similarly abrasive materials) to clean it. If you do, you can cause other parts of the pan to rust and/or remove the seasoning from the cooking surface. While you can always re-season a cast iron pan, it’s best to avoid causing damage in the first place.
If you have a particularly gunky cast iron pan to clean, the best way we’ve found is to boil water in the pan while scraping off any remaining gunk with a wood spoon/utensil (not metal).
As soon as you’re done cleaning your cast iron pans, towel them completely dry. Water left on them can cause rust. After a heavy cleaning, we also put a small amount of oil in the pan and lightly coat the cooking surface and sides by wiping it in with a paper towel or dry wash cloth. This helps keep the pans in tip-top shape.
3. Will you ingest iron if you use cast iron pans?
Are there any health risks with eating from cast iron pans? Can you cook acidic foods in cast iron pans? Can you supplement dietary iron by cooking in cast iron pans?
These are common questions/concerns. For instance, a friend of ours once told us he didn’t use cast iron because he was afraid he’d get too much iron in his diet due to the iron from the pan going into his food.
The good news: a well-seasoned cast iron pan shouldn’t leach any appreciable amount of iron into your food. (An unseasoned cast iron pan is a different story and can leach fairly high amounts of iron.)
If you were to cook a high-acid food (example: tomato sauce) for a long period of time in a well-seasoned cast iron pan, the sauce would end up with slightly higher amounts of iron in it than sauce cooked in an enamel or stainless steel pan.
You probably wouldn’t want to cook high acid foods in an unseasoned cast iron pan if you’re concerned about getting a high dose of iron. (Frankly, you shouldn’t cook with an unseasoned cast iron pan in the first place, regardless of the acidity of the food.)
It’s also important to note that not all iron is created equally from a bioavailability standpoint. Just because you eat a certain type of iron, doesn’t mean your body can or will absorb it all…
Heme iron (the type of iron found in meat) is much more highly bioavailable than non-heme iron (found in veggies and other non-meat sources like cast iron pans). That means that if some additional iron does manage to get into your food from a cast iron pan, it won’t necessarily be absorbed by your body.
4. What’s the hottest temperature cast iron pans can withstand?
A standard home oven does not bake at temperatures higher than about 500°F (260°C). That means your home oven can not get hot enough to damage a cast iron pan, unless:
a) the cast iron pan already has a crack in it, or
b) you leave your pan(s) in the oven during self-cleaning mode (which goes up to 800°F/427°C).
Even at 800°F, your cast iron pans will likely be structurally fine (although the seasoning will be burned off of them over ~700°F). That’s because cast iron is stable up to about 1500°F (816°C) and has a melting point of 2200°F (1204°C).
A more likely way to warp or crack a cast iron pan (especially one with an existing structural defect) is on your stovetop. Left on high temperature without food in it, a pan on an electric or gas stovetop/range can reach much higher temperatures than in an oven, potentially going over 1000°F.
Bottom line: normal usage of non-defective cast iron pans at home will not warp or crack them.
5. How frequently do you have to re-season a cast iron pan?
It depends… If you’re boiling water (or boiling recipes like soups) or making high acid sauces, it’s a good idea to add at least one additional layer of seasoning before using the pan again. This is why we typically boil water or make spaghetti sauce in stainless steel pots, not cast iron.
Other types of cooking that don’t involve boiling liquids or high acid foods will not damage the seasoning on your cast iron pans. That means you can potentially go many months or even years without having to re-season your cast iron pans.
Case in point: we have multiple antique cast iron pans that we haven’t had to re-season in 3+ years and their seasoning is still perfect, despite regular use.
The type of oil you use to season your pans may also impact how frequently you have to re-season them. Use the wrong fat, and your seasoning might not last as long.
6. What’s the best oil to season or re-season cast iron pans?
Debates rage in kitchens and internet chats about which type of oil is best for seasoning and/or re-seasoning cast iron pans.
Our take? Pretty much any plant-based oil you have in your pantry will due since they contain highly unsaturated fats which polymerize easily, plus fairly high (or very high) smoke points. If you want a simple, single answer: go with grapeseed oil!
7. Should you butter or oil a well-seasoned cast iron pan before using it?
Yes! Just because your cast iron pan is well-seasoned doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some butter in the pan before frying an egg, olive oil in the pan before sautéing onions, etc.
Adding a liquified fat to your pan before cooking helps to further preserve and protect the underlying seasoning.
We hope this article helps you create a kitchen full of gorgeous antique cast iron cookware that you and your family cherish for generations.
Have more questions about antique cast iron cookware? Want to brag about a recent cast iron treasure you snagged for pennies at a flea market? Let us hear about it in the comments!
Ready to get cooking in your cast iron? Here are a few recipes you’ll love:
- Cast iron corn on the cob with lacto-fermented fruit rub
- Recipe: How to make cast iron pan roasted chestnuts
- One-pot roasted turkey with kumquats and wild rice