If you need to purchase a cast-iron pan, it’s probably because you haven’t been blessed with the gift of a family heirloom. No one has passed his or her beloved, well-used vessel, seasoned with years of cooking bacon or larded cornbread or ghee-flaky flatbreads or fried chicken onto you. This is a sad reality. And I’m not saying that with patronizing pity. Nope, this is straight-up empathy because I, too, was deprived the heirloom experience. Mine is an orphan’s battery of cast-iron pans*. Those of us who don’t have those palimpsests of polymerization, of familial love transmitted through cookery, we’re at a slight disadvantage. Through all of my trials, errors and triumphs with numerous skillets, I have learned that cooking on a vintage surface is consistently more satisfying, and we all know that anything that has personal value attached to it brings greater joy.
Here’s the oxidized silver-ish lining: You can buy a previously owned, aged skillet, and you can fix it up yourself, and then, just maybe, you can pass it along to someone you love years from now. That process of restoring an old pan and making it your own is a bonding of a sort; it can endow the pan with a meaningful value that isn’t the same as that of your grandma’s, but is significant and empowering nonetheless. You can also buy a brand spanking new skillet, and that may take more time—and cooking—to accrue its literal and figurative patinas, but maybe there’s something to be said for that.
And now, some shopping rules for new, old, and any skillet:
Get a Starter Skillet
This may be more of a tip than a rule, but if you’re an unproven cast-iron user, I’m all for the starter skillet like the one I tested my cookbook on. It’s a Lodge 10-incher, and it’s served me in good stead. It’s the most accessible, not just logistically; at about $22, it’s extremely affordable. Like the majority of skillets manufactured today, it’s pre-seasoned; it’s been treated so you can start cooking on it right away. No piece of cast iron is 100% nonstick, and it’s a material that gets closer to that unachievable 100% the more you use it. So don’t expect this or any pre-seasoned pan to be up to the task of cleanly turning out a hoecake straight out of the gate, or box. You should rinse it, dry it on the stove and oil it a few times before you get cracking.
The Lodge’s surface is a little rough, slightly bumpy, which is not the case with the vintage or higher-end “crafted” contemporary pieces. Those are smooth, almost luscious, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like them better for it, and didn’t find them easier to cook on because of it, either. They’re investment pieces. The wonderful thing about the Lodge is that you can make all your mistakes on it, you can hone your cast iron skills, and you can decide whether or not you dig working with the material as much as everybody else does. If you fall in love, which I’m pretty sure you will, then you should buy one of the expensive guys, old or new.
Explore Your Options
If you’re going to splurge on an artisanal job, do your homework first. This is true of any purchase. I wish you could test-drive skillets the way you can a car, because then you’d know how a handle feels in your hands, how that clafoutis you love to make so much bakes, how the berrylicious goo of your fruity upside-down cake slides (or doesn’t) right out of the pan all glossy and gorgeous. Alas, this is not so, although, you can ask your pals who have these skillets to weigh in or, even, to loan you theirs and you can read whatever consumer reviews you trust.
I will tell you that I adore Finex skillets so much that, after buying one, I reached out to the founder of that company in Portland, Oregon, and asked him a zillion questions about cast iron history and maintenance. (And now we’re friends, so I guess that makes me biased.) I’ve just received the Smithey Ironware pan I ordered from Charleston, and I can’t wait to try it out, because it’s swoony handsome and the scale feels just right to me. If you’re looking for an even more specialized product, check out Borough Furnace in Syracuse, New York. The company releases a few at a time, so you’ll need to be patient. They make custom pieces for chefs, and offer task-specific braising and frying pans. Then there’s Field Skillet, which has gotten lots of buzz—and backing—already, but hasn’t released its lighter-weight cast-iron products yet. Point is, you’ve got choices.
Ditch the Savior Complex
Almost every vintage skillet is a skillet worth saving, but maybe not by you. People will regale you with tales of how they pulled up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere because they saw a sign for a garage sale, or they stumbled upon a small-town flea market, or they were going through the dumpster again as we’re all wont to do from time to time and—you know how this story goes, yes? It ends with their recovering a rusted-over cast-iron treasure from a junk pile for a tiny sum, taking it home, cleaning it up and giving it the kind of makeover Bette Davis’s Charlotte Vale gets in Now, Voyager. You look at their finds with envy and awe—i.e. aspiration. How hard could it be, you ask yourself, to find a neglected piece of metal and bring it back to life?
Sometimes, it’s really darn hard. It requires lots of scouring and muscle. You might even have to resort to pernicious activities like sticking your gunk-covered discovery in a garbage bag (or two, or three), dousing it in a toxic fume-releasing oven cleaner and evacuating the premises for a good 24 hours. Yeah, that happens. I read about it. And when I did, I knew that no-thank-you this was not for me. I’m not telling you not to do it. I’m saying: know your limits.
If you’re into serious fixer-upper projects, sure, get the scummy pan and make it gleam like a shiny penny. Your “rescue” should be one you can manage. If you’re not the handiest Andy or loathe the DIY lifestyle, you can buy ABC (Already Been Cleaned) vintage skillets; Etsy and eBay are especially good for finding them. Yet another option would be to take your grimy gem to someone who specializes in restoration—a hardware store or smith’s workshop would be places to start.
Learn to Let Go
Some vintage skillets are too far gone. Rust you can work with; cracks and craters can’t be fixed. A level, even-toned cooking surface is necessary to functionality and performance. Mottling, pitting and extensive scratching are forms of permanent damage. It’s awful to see that kind of neglect, but you’ve got to let it go.
Get the Right Gear
No matter which skillet you buy, you should have a few essential accessories on hand to care for them so they cook like the dreams we dreamed for them (when heat was high and lard was glistening…).
Dish soap—any brand will do as long as it’s bleach-free and not too harsh. Dawn or Dr. Bronner’s are easy-to-find examples.
A Japanese vegetable scrubbing brush or Tawashi—this is your designated cast iron brush.
Kosher salt—an alternative for removing any stubborn food particles that are stuck to your pan.
Steel wool (not the soapy kind with the pink stuff on it)—when, despite your best efforts, the rust comes for your pan and you have to re-season it.
Flaxseed oil—for the seasoning associated with general upkeep, and the dreaded re-seasoning.
*Disclaimer: I am NOT an orphan! But none of my skillets was passed down through my family tree.
Charlotte Druckman is the author of Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet. Copyright © 2016 by Charlotte Druckman. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.