Not that long ago cast iron was the staple in almost every kitchen. Known for it's durability, versatility and strength, it was not limited to frying pans; waffle irons, griddles, kettles, dutch ovens and food grinders all in cast iron were commonplace in most kitchens. While your grandmother may have not had the array of choice we enjoy today, she knew a good thing when she saw it.
A properly seasoned cast iron pan is the original nonstick pan. Ahhh there is the catch! "Properly seasoned" . Every time I bring up the topic of cast iron I hear the same two complaints or concerns... "I've tried it but everything sticks!"; or, "isn't cast iron a lot of work to care for?". Neither are true if you have a properly seasoned pan. Even cast iron pans that have been living in someone's basement for the last 30 years can be brought back to life as a useful versatile piece of cookware.
Finding a piece of cast iron at a garage or estate sale is like finding buried treasure; especially since I know that getting it back into shape is not a big deal. Once you ascertain that there are no major cracks in the piece, even really badly rusted cast iron pans can be brought back to useful with little effort.
The first thing you need to do is to bring the piece back, as close as possible, to base metal. This is easily accomplished by first giving it a good scrub with a wire brush and then coating it with oven cleaner, letting it sit and then applying lots of elbow grease. Or putting the pan in the oven and running the cleaning cycle if you have a self-cleaning oven. This will bring the piece back to base metal. Once you have done this you can begin to season the pan as you would a brand new one. Seasoning a cast iron pan isn't difficult, but it is time consuming to put the first layers of seasoning. You will need access to an oven for a few hours and lard or shortening, I prefer lard as it has a higher smoking temperature, but you can use either.
To season a cast iron pan:
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F
2. Place pan in the oven for approximately 15 minutes. This time will vary slightly depnding upon the size of the piece, but you're goal is to warm the pan through.
3. Remove the pan from the oven and coat with the fat of your choice. You don't want it dripping in fat, but you want a good and even coating.
4. Place the pan back in the oven and let bake for 30 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and wipe off excess oil. Wipe, not scrub. Place it back in the oven for another 30 minutes.
6. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool completely.
You have now put one layer of seasoning on your pan, I have found putting four layers on a new, or newly conditioned pan to be a good base layer before you begin using the pan. That said some of the pans being produced now, as opposed to a couple of generations ago, tend to have a much more 'open' iron structure. Not sure of the proper term, but the iron seems to have more and / or pigger pores. These pans can take five or six coatings before they reach the fully sealed state that makes cast iron pans non-stick.
Caring for your lovely cast iron cookware is not dufficult, but it does tend to be counter intuitive to haw we have been raised to clean things. Most importantly, don't use soap on your pans. The harsh degreasers in dish soap will break down and remove your careful sealing layers. Do not put your pans in the dishwasher. and finally, never put water in your pan and leave it to 'soak'. All of these will remove the seasoning from your pan and you will have problems with food sticking or rust forming.
To clean your pans, just wipe with a clean damp cloth when they are cool enough to touch. If you use your pans infrequently, you might consider rubbing a thin coating of shortening or lard into the pan after you have wiped it clean and before you put it away. I would also recommend rubbing in a small amnount of fat the first few times you use your newly seasoned pans. It helps to build up the seasoning lost to foods the first few times you cook.
Eventually your pans will develop the typical black patina that we associate with cast iron cookware, and the bottoms of the pans will become smooth as glass as the fat molecules bind with the iron molecules giving you a non-toxic non-stick surface.
If you should have a mishap and burn something in the pan or you notice food is sticking to the pan because it was improperly cleaned you can easily bring your pan back to it's non-stick surface. Just clean the burnt material completely from the pan. (Try using a baking soda scrub as opposed to a scouring pad.) then just repeat the seasoning cycle as outlined above. Usually they only need to be baked once and oiled before putting them away to bring back the surface.