Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
Tucked amidst the brownstones and bodegas of Brooklyn is an historic site known as the Old Stone House. This reconstruction of an important Revolutionary War-era is home to an outdoor hearth: a fireplace, crafted by the loving hands of Eagle Scouts, right in the heart of the city. It’s there that I teach hearth cooking classes, instructing a handful of students how to make a four-course meal over an open fire; the classes are especially popular in the spring, when locals gear up to impress their friends on summer camping trips. I’ve found that learning how to cook with fire has made me a much more relaxed chef in my own kitchen, and my cooking has evolved from an equation of time and temperature to using sight, smell, sound and taste.
When I’m outdoors, my cookware of choice is cast iron; but my pots and skillets have made the leap from the outdoor hearth to my indoor kitchen. A large skillet sits permanently on my stovetop, waiting to make pancakes or stir fry, or a burner-to-oven dish like a Spanish tortilla. A Dutch oven is always on hand for slow-simmered stews and is also excellent for making especially crusty bread. I love cast iron because of its versatility, but I also love it because it’s indestructible.
In anticipation of my spring classes, I wanted to add to my cast iron cookware collection. Search Etsy for “cast iron” and you’ll find an array of beautiful vintage pans. In fact, cast iron gets better with age and use: years of oil and scraping with utensils create a super-smooth, non-stick cooking surface. Vintage skillets by Lodge can sell for $100 — more costly than new pieces from the 117-year-old cookware maker. If you’re not interested in dropping a Benjamin on a pan, take my advice: go for the rusty pieces. You’ll find them priced at half — or even a tenth — of the cost of clean skillets of the same age and size. All it takes is a little TLC to get these pans back in working order.
I purchased a tiny Lodge skillet, about 3 1/2 inches in diameter, for $10. I thought it would be ideal for melting butter and the perfect size for a fried egg, destined for a breakfast sandwich. But rust had bloomed all over the surface of the long-neglected skillet; it needed to be rehabilitated.
I checked on the Lodge website, which offers a handy video on how to resuscitate vintage skillets. First, I needed to get rid of the rust. (If there is any other crud baked onto the surface of your pan, you may need to attack it with oven cleaner first.) To get rid of the rust, you just need hot water, a wire scrubbing pad (like steel wool), and a lot of love. And by love, I mean a few hours of your time and the determination to scrub until your fingers are pruny and decades of vintage grime is caked under your nails. It took me about 90 minutes of scrubbing to get my skillet clean. Vinegar added to the hot water can help. You won’t get rid of all the rust — just scrub most of it off, and you’ll be good to go.
Next, you need to “season” the skillet. To season the cast iron, the cookware needs to be rubbed with a coating of cooking oil, although some swear by lard or flaxseed oil. The oil fills in the nooks and crevices in the pan’s porous surface. At high temperatures, the oil forms a dense, hard layer that works like a non-stick surface. I rubbed olive oil all over the surface of the pan with a paper towel, then went over it again with a clean towel to sop up excess oil.
Lastly, the pan needs to be baked at a high temperature. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Put a layer of tinfoil down on the bottom oven rack, and place the pan on the top. Bake for an hour, then turn off the oven and let the skillet cool in the oven.
Voilá: your pan is like new, and you’re ready to cook. To help keep the pan in shape, you should cook something fatty like bacon the first few times you use it. Never leave food sitting in the pan, and when you wash it, never use soap — the soap breaks up that oily layer you worked so hard to achieve. Hot, hot water and a wire scrubber are best, and then I set mine on a high-heat burner to dry and sanitize. Every so often I’ll season it with a spritz of cooking spray, massaged into the surface with a paper towel.
And even if you mess up and leave the pan full of soup overnight, or catch your spouse, with the best intentions, scrubbing it with soapy water, it doesn’t matter. Cast iron is indestructible — oil it, heat it, and your pan will be reborn.