Every cook, it seems, has a secret. Maybe it’s a special way to beat eggs that creates a perfectly fluffy but toothsome yellow cake every time. Or perhaps it’s a special seasoning blend that contains an oddball ingredient that somehow adds just the right punch to any savory dish. For some cooks, though, it’s all about the pan. Specifically, cast iron skillets handed down through generations.
“I think everyone should have a cast-iron frying pan,” says Lane Quinn, who relies on a heavy black skillet that she estimates to be at least 100 years old. “You can brown what you’re cooking on the stove and finish it in the oven, all in one pan.”
Lane’s first cast iron skillet, which she acquired nearly 35 years ago when her uncle died, is unique in that it came with a “drip top,” a lid manufactured to allow condensation to drip back over the food as it cooks. “Everything I make in that pan stays incredibly moist since it self-bastes the whole time it’s cooking,” explains Lane. “I rarely need to add water or worry that the bottom will get scorched.”
Lane enjoyed her old cast iron pan so much that she soon invested in several other pieces including 10- and 12-quart pots, which she uses for everything from pot roast to frying French fries, as well as a pretty enamel-covered pot for soups and spaghetti sauce and a large skillet that she purchased to use in the family’s vacation home. “I got tired of carrying the old one back and forth, so I finally just got one and left it there,” she explains.
Yet for all of its benefits — cast iron browns food beautifully, fortifies the food with iron, cooks evenly, holds heat and lasts, literally, forever — the material is not without its challenges. The first is weight. Cast iron pans are heavy, so much so that tasks like pouring off grease qualify as an upper-body workout. Then there’s seasoning, a term for infusing the pan’s surface with a tough cooked-on layer of oil that, with time, becomes a non-stick coating so slick that even eggs will slide right off the pan.
New cast iron pans must be seasoned before they can be used, a messy process involving oil, the oven and foil. A few weeks of use cooking fatty dishes like hamburgers and bacon will build up enough oil within their cells to keep food from binding to the surface. This brings up the third challenge, cleaning. Many cooks believe that using soap on a well-seasoned cast-iron pan will obliterate the painstakingly crafted coating in a matter of seconds. Instead, they use kosher salt, a scrub brush and lots of elbow grease, which removes food but leaves the oil. Cast-iron pots must also be dried and rubbed with a thin coating of oil immediately after washing too, or they’ll rust.
Yet with all the trouble that cast iron can be, vintage pieces from companies like Lodge, Birmingham Stove & Range, Griswold and Wagner are now considered collectables, particularly with millennials (technically men and women born between 1982 and 2004) and 30-somethings.
As the president of Lodge Cast Iron, which has been manufacturing pots and other cookware since 1896, and the father of two children who cook extensively in cast iron, Henry Lodge sees that trend from two perspectives. “Cookware sales tend to go up during a recession because more people cook at home, which gave us a real boost starting around 2008,” he notes. “Millennials love to cook in cast iron because it is all natural, very versatile and user friendly. Our kids cook almost everything in cast iron night after night and don’t think about pulling out a different pan.” Henry says that while he adores fried chicken, biscuits and sweet rolls cooked in cast iron, the material, once seasoned, is also perfect for less fatty fare, including the 6-ounce fillets that, in a nod to healthy eating, have become his dinner go-to.
“We sear them on the stove for about a minute per side in a little olive oil and finish them in the oven,” he says. “Even though they’re 1 inch thick, it only takes about 3 minutes per side in the oven. But they really are good, and even though they’re low in fat, they cook beautifully in the cast iron without making a huge mess.”
Henry says that some of the earliest cast iron cooking pieces were actually promotional items manufactured and given away by stove manufacturers. “When you purchased a wood-burning stove, which was made from cast iron, the manufacturer would often include a set of cast-iron cookware to go with it,” he explains. “At that time, there were a lot of companies producing cast-iron cookware in the United States. Today, we’re the oldest and the only full-line cast-iron cookware company left.”
Although Lodge still produces their cast iron the old-fashioned way, pouring molten iron into sand molds at a foundry, in 2002 the company began pre-seasoning their cookware. “Now, instead of having to create that seasoning base, cooks just need to maintain it, which requires nothing more than a quick wipe with vegetable oil if it starts to look dull,” says Henry.
Cast iron collector Joe Barker, who at 32 falls neatly into the target age range for a cast iron aficionado, received his first cast-iron skillet seven years ago from his father, who found it at a second-hand store. After staring at the dull, dirty pan for several years, he decided to clean it up and use it. “I had no idea what was involved, so I went online and started researching,” he explains.
Not only did Joe learn how to recondition old cast iron, but he also found a whole world of people passionate about cast-iron cookware. Soon after getting his old Griswold into fighting shape, where it’s the pan of choice for everything from pork chops to brownies, Joe found that he really enjoyed searching for and refurbishing all sorts of cast iron pieces. Although he keeps many of his treasures, he sells the vast majority, either at an antique mall in Little Mountain or on craigslist.
“The more I studied it, the more interested in it I became,” he says. “I learned that one reason people seem to like the older cast iron is that it’s thinner, so it isn’t as heavy. They also like the smoother cooking surface it offers.” He thinks he’s also discovered the reason why many people believe that washing their cast iron with soap will remove the baked-on seasoning.
“Back in the day, soap had so much lye in it that washing it would probably strip the seasoning,” he explains. “Modern soap is not lye-based so there’s very little chance you’ll wash off the seasoning. You just have to make sure you re-oil any spots that look dry after the pan has dried.”
Henry Lodge agrees. “We wash our cast-iron cookware with soap and have never had a problem,” he says. “Re-oiling any dull spots is key, though, for keeping the seasoning and preventing rust.”
Each piece of cast iron — old and new — contains clues to help identify where the individual piece was made, the date and the manufacturer by examining the bottom of the pan, skillet or Dutch oven. The logos, branding and markings on cast iron have changed over time. Some manufacturers displayed the city name, a symbol or pattern number in addition to or in place of the company’s logo. Each detail provides information in narrowing down the date and manufacturer. For example, a Wagner Ware logo imprinted with “Sidney” and “–O–” on a skillet can be dated between 1905 and 1929. Based on the markings, these pieces were manufactured in Sidney, Ohio. Griswold cookware marked with “Erie” was made between 1865 and 1909, displaying the city in which it was made — Erie, Pennsylvania — and not the company name.
You can also look for a pattern number, a molder’s mark and notches in the heat ring to help identify the cast iron if it is not marked with a logo or brand name. A pattern or catalog number helps identify the mold used to pour the cast and from which manufacturer it was produced. If a pan is “unmarked” with a molder’s mark and has one or more notches in the heat ring, you could have your hands on a vintage Lodge. For example, a Lodge one-notch, unmarked cast iron skillet with a molder’s mark can be dated back to the 1930s, and a three-notch Lodge skillet with “MADE IN USA,” can be dated to the 1960s.
If your cast iron does not include a manufacture’s name or marking, look for a “gate mark” that appears as a slash across the bottom. Gate marked pans are some of the oldest pieces of cast iron as the process for casting the mold was used in the 1800s.
Seeking out “new” pieces to add to your collection and learning the history of cast iron and its manufacturers is the thrill of the hunt, and is what keeps enthusiasts engaged in the hobby over time. It also spikes interest in those who are new to collecting.
Next time you stumble across a piece of cast iron at an antique shop or in your mother’s cabinet, flip it over and see if you can identify the markings and guestimate its date. The cast-iron skillet that was used to make breakfast every Saturday morning and that was passed down from generation to generation in your family could very well be more than 100 years old — that’s a lot of pancakes!
1 cup rice
8 slices bacon
1 pound small shrimp, peeled and cooked
1/4 teaspoon dill
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon parsley
1/4 teaspoon basil
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Cook rice and set aside. Cook bacon in a 12-inch cast iron skillet or the deepest skillet you have. When bacon is cooked as crispy as possible, remove from the skillet, cool and crumble. Scoop the cooked rice into the skillet on top of the bacon grease. Then stir in the cooked shrimp, crumbled bacon, dill, oregano, parsley, basil, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Gently stir over mild heat until mixed well. Serves six.
Awendaw Corn Bread
1 cup yellow grits
1 3/4 cups corn meal
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 stick butter, soft
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon Crisco® oil
Cook the grits and cool. Beat eggs and pour into the cool grits. Add the corn meal, water, butter, sugar, milk, salt and baking powder. Mix well until all ingredients are blended. Grease a cast iron cornstick pan with oil then pour in the Awendaw Corn Bread mix. Preheat oven 350 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. If using a large cast iron skillet, grease with oil and bake 1 hour.
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen, thawed
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup water
Pour blueberries in a 10-inch cast iron skillet and add water on top. Mix sugar, butter, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl. When thoroughly blended, spread across blueberries in the skillet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 45 minutes, until golden brown. Double the recipe for more servings. You can substitute one good hard apple, sliced, for blueberries to make a delicious Apple Crisp!
Courtesy of Henry Lodge, recipe from the Lodge Cast Iron Nation cookbook.
6 plum tomatoes, skewered and charred on the grill, about 5 minutes per side
3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and black pepper
1 large red onion, sliced
Shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded
1/2 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
1 pound refrigerated pizza dough
Fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced, cut into small pieces, or shredded
Chopped fresh basil or baby arugula mixed with a dash of olive oil, salt and fresh lemon juice
In a medium bowl, combine the grilled tomatoes, garlic and salt and pepper to taste, mixing and crushing the tomatoes into a sauce. Set aside.
Grill the onion and mushrooms using a cast iron grill pan. As you finish grilling them, transfer to a small cast iron skillet on the top rack of the grill to keep warm. Meanwhile, cook the sausage in a 10.25-inch cast iron skillet on the side of the grill or attached burner until no longer pink, breaking into small pieces.
Lightly flour a work surface and the pizza dough; roll it out 1/2 inch thick, trimming off any excess pieces. Brush one side of dough with some of the oil, and place on a Lodge 14-inch round baking pan, oil side down, and grill for 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from the grill, brush the top side of the dough with oil, and flip it over. Top the grilled side of the dough with the tomato sauce, then scatter your choice of the grilled toppings and sausage over the top. Finally, cover with mozzarella. Place the pan back on the grill, close the lid and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. If the mozzarella hasn’t melted, remove the pizza from the grill and stick under the broiler for another few minutes to melt. Top with basil or dressed arugula, and serve. Serves four.