Cast Iron Memory Lane and a DIY

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Insourcelife – the early years…

I have great memories of my childhood: hours of unsupervised play time on the streets of a big city, summers at my grandma’s place in the country and unlimited freedom of movement afforded first by a bicycle and then by a moped. Lots of fun with an occasional trouble or two and – looking back through my responsibility-filled 40-year-old eyes – completely carefree years. To top it off, at the end of each and every fantastic day a home-cooked meal was waiting on a kitchen table.

Thinking back I can count the number of times our family went out to dinner from my first childhood memory all the way to the time I moved out at age 17 using only the fingers on both hands. A trip to a restaurant was always reserved for a special occasion.  It was also the only chance I had to get anything deep-fried… What kid doesn’t love french fries with ketchup?

My sister and I were raised on home-cooked food. Except for things like bread, pasta, butter, sour cream and other staples pretty much everything else was made from scratch. Fast-food to us always meant reheating the leftovers.

Home-cooking left a lasting impression. My sister is such a good cook that she could open her restaurant, if she wasn’t busy enough already working two jobs and feeding 3 kids and a husband. When we all get together “lets go get something to eat” is still a foreign concept. Why would we want to go somewhere else when we can have a time of our lives right here around a kitchen table? My sister’s cooking is very much like my mom’s cooking – I’ll take it over any restaurant… and everyone else in the family agrees.

My mom’s kitchen was pretty basic. A few pots, pans and bowls. A cutting board and a rolling pin. A manual meat grinder. Gadgets were limited to a hand mixer, a slicer and a coffee grinder. No food processors, toasters, microwaves or dozens of other gizmos that somehow became essential in well-equipped (but seldom-used) modern kitchens.

Of all the cookware in her kitchen the one thing my mom used the most was an old cast iron frying pan. It seemed to leave the stove only for a quick rinse in the sink serving up delicious meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A simple plate of home fries would taste so much better out of the “magic pan” than out of any other skillet! Years of daily cooking coated cast iron with a thick layer of seasoning that made anything cooked on it uniquely flavorful.

I’ve been chasing that elusive flavor ever since.

First I thought I just needed to get a few cooking tips from my mom. I sat down with her and wrote out recipes of my favorite childhood dishes. I’m a decent cook and can certainly follow instructions but it just never tasted the same. It took me a long time to realize that I was using the wrong tools.

Before you get married you put a set of Calphalon pots and pans on your gift registry – that’s a law! After we came back from the honeymoon I started cooking on this Teflon-like cookware. Nonstick, easy to clean, barely need any oil… The food tasted good, but never as good.

After a few years (3-4?) I noticed that our Calphalon pots and pans were visibly worn. We always make sure not to use anything that can scratch them and yet there were lots of scratches all over the cooking surface. It looked like the coating was chipping which means we were eating the coating, albeit in small servings. Mmmmm – yum! Probably not something you want to ingest in your body.

Aside from chipping, the frying pan bottoms were warping and no longer sat flat on our glass stove top. That made cooking challenging, to say the least.

When consumer products don’t live up to their expectations my wife likes to make sure that the manufacturer is aware of her dissatisfaction. She wrote a letter to the company and send a picture of the problematic frying pan. I guess they take this stuff seriously and she received a reply apologizing for the problem and offering to send us a replacement. She said “sure, why not” and we got ourselves a new skillet in the mail.  All was well for a couple of years… until the cycle repeated itself. Does this sound familiar?

After these “Nonstick Coating” escapades I was finally putting two and two together – if I ever wanted to taste those childhood home fries again I needed to get serious about my cookware! Forget finicky Teflon with its potentially harmful chemicals. It was time for the real deal – the good old cast iron skillet.

By now you’ve probably noticed that cast iron anything is staging a comeback. Cast iron is “in” and there are plenty of options on the market. After doing some research I decided to buy this highly rated cast iron pan. But as it often happens other things got in the way and a new skillet purchase slipped my mind.

Meanwhile, my wife inherited a couple of things from her grandparents. One of those things happened to be a Griswold cast iron pan. If you’re not familiar with this company here is a short primer from Wikipedia.

Griswold Manufacturing was an American manufacturer of cast iron home products founded in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1865 that finally closed in 1957. For many years the company had a world-wide reputation for high-quality cast-iron cookware. Today, Griswold pieces are collector’s items.

Score! Even though the inherited Griswold was in pretty bad shape there is something to be said about using the same cookware used by your grandparents. Cast iron pans are routinely passed from one generation to the next… That’s just not gonna happen with your Teflon skillet!

I was anxious to try cooking on our “new” cast iron pan but first I needed to refurbish it. Everyone loves pictures so lets see if we can bring a neglected Griswold back to its former glory.

DIY Instructions for Refurbishing Cast Iron Cookware

Here is the starting point – rusty and crusty:

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First I tried using my trusty steel wool pads but they were no match for years of neglect. I quickly realized that it was time to bring out the big guns – an old Makita corded drill and a wire brush attachment to do the heavy scrubbing. A cordless drill is not the right tool for this job. This corded beast is used rarely but when you need to drill through cinder block or scrub and old iron skillet clean, this is what you want!

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Getting better but still a long way to go…

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Attacking the side crust from a different angle with a putty knife helped a lot and was followed by more scrubbing with the wire brush bit. By the way, these Irwin Quick Grip clamps are a must have for any aspiring DIYer!

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Some more scrubbing with baking soda in the sink and…

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… the final result. Looks much better, doesn’t it? The entire cooking surface including the sides is very smooth at this point.

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It’s time to season the skillet to get it ready for kitchen duty. The seasoning process is very easy. Once the cast iron skillet is clean and dry you take a paper towel and spread your favorite cooking oil all over the pan – inside and out. Don’t use too much oil and wipe off any excess. Now put the skillet upside down in the oven and put a cookie sheet or some aluminum foil on the shelf below to catch any drips.

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Turn the oven on at 325 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for 1 hour. Once the timer goes off, turn the oven off and let the pan cool down behind a closed oven door.

What you have now is a cast iron pan that went through the initial seasoning cycle. You can cook on it but don’t expect it to be nonstick just yet. As a matter of fact, several of my dishes cooked in the beginning were burning up and sticking.

Just remember this cast iron rule – it gets better with each use!

It took several months of continuous use before my cast iron skillet became as nonstick as my Teflon pans. I can now cook an egg and it will slide off the pan and onto a plate. The trick is to never let cast iron cookware sit in a sink overnight – clean up the skillet shortly after cooking and oil it up lightly after each use. Clean up was a pain at first but now it’s fast and easy.

I really like the idea that I don’t have to buy another pan ever again. The fact that there is family history behind this skillet makes cooking on it even more fun.

And as far as those childhood home fries… Well, lets just say that it’s getting close!

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5 thoughts on “Cast Iron Memory Lane and a DIY

  1. Mmmm those home fries look delish.

    I learnt about cast iron pans over a year ago and still haven’t got round to buying one yet! Our non stick ones are still in good shape so until one of them dies it seems like a bit of a waste of money… But then I’m missing out on the home fries and other tasty morsels so maybe I should just bite the bullet!

    • Right after posting this article I went and fried up some leftover spaghetti with chicken and olive oil on the cast iron pan and trust me – it’ll never taste the same on a Teflon-type skillet. Besides the seasoning that gives whatever you cook on it added flavor, cast iron is much better at handling heat. It gets hot and stays consistently hot, even on our electric stove top that always cycles on and off. But even on a gas stove it will still do better with heat management than the light/thin nonstick pan. I could never get the food to fry just right until I started using cast iron.

      As far as cost – this one is not expensive and has really good reviews. But you might be able to do even better if you’re willing to search on a used market and put some elbow grease like I did. New or old – don’t give up after just a couple of uses. I promise it gets much much better with age and minimal care (mostly just oiling after each use – a 10 second task).

      I can honestly say that I’d be perfectly happy getting rid of all the other pans we’ve accumulated over the years and just using this one cast iron skillet for the rest of my life.

  2. I was under the impression that cast iron (and most caphalon pans for that matter) were big no-nos on glass top stoves due to their ability to scratch and damage the glass. What does the manual on your stove say in particular about that? We’re in the market for a new oven soon, and Mr PoP is fascinated by cast iron, but I’m hesitant due to the limitations it would put on my oven/stovetop purchase.

    • Page 9 of the manual for our GE stove model number JB690SF1SS says: “Caution is recommended for cast iron cookware that is not completely covered with smooth porcelain enamel, since it may scratch the glass ceramic cooktop“.

      For all type of cookware including aluminum, copper bottom, stainless steel etc the manual says “do not slide cookware across the cooktop because it can scratch the glass“. It’s probably easier to scratch or break the glass top with heavy cast iron, but it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re careful.

      As far as Caphalon – we’ve been using it on this GE stove for the past 7 years and while the glass top has some minor scratches it’s nothing that I wouldn’t expect over that many years of constant use (we cook a lot). I don’t expect any issues with using the cast iron skillet but I do plan to be mindful not to slide it around too much and definitely no slamming down or anything like that.

      If you still feel uncomfortable using raw cast iron then you could always look into getting porcelain enamel-covered cast iron cookware. My GE manual says the following: “As long as the cookware is covered completely with porcelain enamel, this (cast iron) cookware is recommended“.

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