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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Toss That Old Cast-Iron Pan! Restore It

It seems that for our entire cooking lives we've heard, "Nothing cooks better than a cast-iron pan." But we associated cast-iron with the heavy, rust-prone, pain-in-the-neck pans of our parents, so we went on to amass a collection of Circulon, Calphalon, All-Clad—anything but cast-iron.

But when Ruth's mother moved into assisted living and Ruth had to clean out her house, she found the old skillet that her father had used to fry sausage, eggs, pastrami, and other cholesterol-laden delights under the disapproving eye of his health-minded wife. The pan had fallen into neglect since his death, covered with rust and dust, but Ruth could not bring herself to put it in the Goodwill box. She took it home and—well, we'd like to say that she used it religiously, but she put the skillet in a out-of-the-way cupboard where it went on to collect years' more rust and dust.

Then we moved to a different house, leaving a few things behind for our occasional trips back to Connecticut. On these trips we discovered that we needed a good frying pan, and we remembered the old skillet in the back of the cupboard. Could it be restored?

Indeed it could. We were amazed by how easy it was to clean—and how well it cooked. We feared food, particularly proteins, would stick, but the cast iron released food at the perfect moment of doneness. The skillet held heat evenly—better, in fact, than our much more expensive pans in Virginia.

The handle is smooth from decades of use; the inside is scarred from decades of spatulas; the outside is as rough as an old ship's bottom. When we use it, we remember Ruth's father defiantly cooking his beloved sausage in a long-lost kitchen in upstate New York. We love this pan.

How to Restore a Cast-Iron Pan

First, we gave the skillet a good scrubbing, washing off as much of the accumulated crud as we could.

Then we set the empty pan on top of the stove, added about a quarter-inch of vegetable oil, and heated it at a medium setting until the handle was too hot to touch. That took about ten minutes.

We added about a third of a cup of kosher salt and—wearing a rubber glove on one hand and clutching a potholder in the other—rubbed the oil-and-salt mixture into the pan with a wad of paper towels, making sure we cleaned every bit of the inside surface.

We washed the pan with soap and water, then dried it completely and—important!—wiped a tiny amount of olive oil onto the cooking surface to prevent further rust.

As long as we apply that small dab of oil after each washing, the pan stays rust-free.

Did we say that we love this pan? It's true: Nothing cooks like cast-iron.

If you don't have a pan of your own, it's worth checking your local flea market or thrift stores, which always seem to have a lot of them, in varying stages of rustedness. Don't let their abused appearances scare you; chances are they can be salvaged.


  1. I agree! These skillets are magical - and great heirloom gifts!

  2. I just spied two very neglected pans in my basement . . . you must have telepathic skills! I've been meaning to restore these babies, although I don't have the same sentimentality you rs does. Mine 'came with' the farmhouse we have. But I'll do it. Promise.