Saturday, May 31, 2008

Old Cast Iron vs. New Cast Iron

Old cast iron and new cast iron are very different beasts.

If discussing skillets, the two characteristics of a pre WW2 pan that first grab your attention are:
  • They are lighter in weight. The walls and bottom are thinner than a modern Lodge skillet.
  • They have a much smoother interior surface.
The lighter weight means you cook at lower temperature settings on the stove. The smoother surface is a result of the superb iron ore that was found near Lake Erie and also the machining that is no longer done to save on labor expense.

Pictures tell the story better.
~click to enlarge~
On the left is a Lodge 8SK 10.5" skillet. On the right is a Favorite Piqua Ware skillet of the same size. The Lodge is probably 16 years old while the Favorite is at least 74 years old. I don't know the exact date of manufacture for the Favorite but the Favorite factory shut it's doors in late 1934, a casualty of the Great Depression.

Griswolds, Wagners, Wapaks, (and probably others) offered similar quality. Old Lodges were very smooth as well.

Which do I prefer? If I could only have one I like the older pieces best. Fortunately I get to have old and new so I've developed some preferences.

For very high heat applications (like blackening fish) I'll take the newer heavier pans. For normal everyday lower temp cooking like making eggs the old pieces are simply unbeatable.

One common mistake many people make is assuming that the old pieces are more nonstick because they have been cooked in for 50+ years. This is not true. I clean all my old iron down to bare metal so I'm losing the accumulated seasoning. Even after starting from nothing the old pans outperform the newer ones (with 16+ years of seasoning) within just a couple of months.

30 comments:

Rev. Biggles said...

Hi!

Another thing I've noticed with the older pans, is a fire ring on the bottom. I figure it might be for the older stoves that had flat plates, instead of raised grates with the more modern ranges.

Cheers

Greg said...

I've also read that the heat rings would hold the pan in place on a flattop stove that had removable round sections.

I think these were called "stove eyes".

Rev. Biggles said...

Sounds plausible, but the heat rings on the bottom of my pans are all different sizes, and I think only the smallest would fit in the hole.

An, what problem were they attempting to solve by making the heat rings the size of the holes? Unless your cooking on a boat or airplane, we don't need our pans secured to the stove.

Personally, I think it was more along the lines of keep the bottom of the pan off the heating surface directly. This would cause hot spots. The fire ring holds the pan off the flat surface and allows even distribution of heat. That's how I figure it.

Biggles

Greg said...

This site agrees with you.

http://www.griswoldandwagner.com/faq.html

"The heat ring is the small rim around the outside of the bottom of many (usually earlier) skillets and some other pieces. Its purpose is to raise the pan's bottom slightly from the old wood range cooktop so as to equalize heat."

The fact that this ring is sometimes called a "smoke ring" makes it sound like it acted as a seal when using the stoves that had the openings on top.

Griswold and Favorite produced these kinds of stoves so they could match the sizes of the rings to the stove openings. I've seen pictures of stoves that had multiple concentric lids so you could open the top to whatever size you want.

Why you wanted to remove the lid and set the pan in the opening I don't know. Maybe someone will answer that?

Rev. Biggles said...

Hey mang,

Neat!

And I can answer the last question, easy.

My kitchen sports a 1952 wedgewood, wonderful piece of equipment. It's a 4 burner rig, and two of the grates have a solid disc of cast iron unstead of the cross-hatched ones that allow the flames to actually kiss the bottom of the pot. The discs are called, Heat Diffusers. They allow you to cook gently and kinda, indirectly. I use them mostly for melting butter, simmering beans, anything you don't want to scorch.

I believe those discs in the stove work the same way. When you want to boil water, you sure as hell don't want to do it with a thick hunk of steel in your way. I do most of my every day cooking without the diffusers. So, I would say that those discs were removed quite frequently.

Another angle to consider is that up until, I think it was the 20s or so, many of the kitchen ranges were fired with coal or wood. I believe in the 20s and 30s you could get ranges that were dual-fuel, wood/natural gas. (gee I wonder why that combination went away?). My point being, that if those holes stayed open all the time, your fuel would burn down faster and you'd have to feed it more often. Put the metal disc back, and your fire calms down. This saves fuel and cools the range to some degree.

As near as I can tell, they served two purposes. One to regulate temperature and to regulate your fire.

Biggles

Greg said...

It turns out Griswold did not produce cookstoves so I want to correct what I wrote above.

Pokeberry Mary said...

Wow--neat blog! I followed a link from Tramp's Camp http://tramps-camp.blogspot.com/
and found your site. Very cool!
I'm not a big collector of cast iron but I do keep my few pieces of cast iron on the counter next to the stove. It seems we use it too often to be dragging it out of a cupboard--besides--its heavy!

I have a little wood cutting board under my pans and I keep an old pot lid that my hubby's grandma had in her kitchen and I just put that lid over my little stack of nested cast iron pans. We have one that is older and 2 that are lodges. Our older one has a design on the bottom that I think must do something positive as it seems to keep a high heat best. I don't think its a 'real' antique the design makes me think it was probably made in the 70s when country was cool cuz it says "cracker barrel, original country cookware" on it. We use the pans for all kinds of cooking but my favorite is Sunday morning pancakes, bacon and sausage. I make the pancake mix and Hubby does the cooking. He is quite particular about how to cook his bacon--nobody else can do it right. :) We've been doing our Sunday breakfast for years-- although now that the kids are grown we don't do it every week--just every couple/few when the urge hits. I can't wait to feed our future granddaugther bacon and pancakes when she gets big and can fly out to visit us. :)

Greg said...

Mary, thanks for visiting.

I'm sure you granddaughter will remember those breakfasts years from now.

Sonoran Woman said...

Hi. I'm just wondering why you would clean an old seasoned pan down to bare metal. Is there some logic to this method?

Greg said...

Sonoran Woman,

When I purchase a used piece of cast iron I really have no idea what its history is.

Some people use an old skillet as the drain pan for oil changes. I cook in all my iron (no wallhangers or show pieces) so I take it down to bare iron just to be safe.

If a friend or family member gave me an old skillet I doubt I'd strip it unless they had it all gunked up with crud.

Anonymous said...

You may polish rough cast iron with "flap discs" and "flap wheels" available at welding supply stores. 80-grit will work OK. A flap wheel may be spun in a common electric drill, and a flap disc requires an angle grinder. Clean up initial rust with a cupped "knotted style" wire wheel.
WEAR A FACE SHIELD AND WORK GLOVES.

Linda said...

I grew up with a grandmother using a coal fired (50s-60s) and spent 18 years of my adult life cooking on a big kitchen wood stove ('75-'l93); from Gram I learned to adjust heat both with the multi-ringed removable lid which was usually over the fire- and by how far the others were from the heat. I really only ever removed the lids from the areas over the oven when I was cleaning the soot out of the stove.

I pretty much regulated fire with the dampers- those little centers were a pain to remove ;).

I have her Griswold and Wagner ware...also a Dutch oven with a fire ring, very nicely made but with no mark. The lid has been dropped and the fairly delicate handle broke, but it's still usable.

Anonymous said...

I bought a Lodge cast iron skillet years ago. I must have seasoned that thing at least six times but the surface is so rough I can sand wood with it. An old WagnerWare that I found cleaned up nice and it as slick as Teflon once I seasoned it.
That said - Has any one been successful in maybe clamping one to a mill and trying to machine it flat?
This Lodge pan is junk and I may have to just chuck it.

Greg said...

Man, have I been a slacker responding to comments on this thread.

Anon - I've heard of people trying different methods and I even tried an orbital sander (took waaaay to long) on a late 80s polished Lodge with a heat ring. Once I bought my first old skillet I swore off the idea of smoothing up a rough one.

Linda - Thanks for the definitive info on the stove. I've seen them but never used one. Glad to hear you inherited her iron.

Anon - People report success but the surface will still be more porous than the older iron.

I use my rougher Lodges for high heat cooking and they are fine for that. The get tossed on the charcoal grill and get used for car camping.

BigIron said...

Hi all,

The reason that the older pans are *so much smoother* is the pans were made using jeweler's sand. It creates a smooth, glassy surface. While I cannot find the reference about jeweler's sand in relation to cast iron pans, I can provide this note about the Hubley cast iron toys and doorstops:

"In the casting process at Hubley, metalworkers would carve out a form of wood, or hammer the doorstop or toy design out in metal. The form was then pressed into finely compacted sand, making an impression. Cast iron heated to 3000 degrees was poured into the sand mold and, when cooled, the form would pop out and rough edges were filed off."

SOURCE: http://www.collectics.com/education_hubley.html

You can see some filing on the older pans, too, especially around the lip of pans.

In the 1930s and 1940s, manufacturers started 'milling' or smoothing out the pans after they were cast, as far as I can tell by my growing collection.

all the best,

BigIron

Anonymous said...

You know, the new Lodge cookware isn't bad, it's just not finished yet. I've had mine for about 5 years now and have appreciated its heat retention but would like it to be more non stick. So I finally stripped the thing down to the metal and sanded the inside of it. It took awhile but has really turned out great. At least so far so good. I seasoned it last night and it currently only has one layer on it rendering a nice deep carmel color. I don't think I'll bake another coat on it, just start using it. That will do pretty much the same thing.

So all those with a newer "unfinished" Lodge, don't hate your pan, just make it better.

Jim

Theresa said...

Dear Greg
I have a "hammered" looking 3 in deep cast iron pan with "hammered" looking lid with basting rings. It has a heat ring and the number 89 with a smaller capital "A" to the right of it. It is extremely smooth on the inside and looks very well made to me. It also has a brownish hue to it...my Wapak is more greyish. I just don't know who makes it. I love cooking with it. It is not quite as thin as my Wapak, but also not as thick as a newer Lodge. It's a lot like a chicken fryer with 2 pouring spouts. Can you tell me anything about it

Jason said...

Hi,

i recently was just given 3 iron skillets from my mother in-law. She is a very big antique collector and seller. i love to cook and told her i wanted a set and she found me some. one is a newer Lodge skillet and the other two aren't marked with a logo but, from what i've read on this blog might be older. they are both smooth and thinner than my lodge. on the bottom the say their size "11 3/4in L" and "9in N" they both also say Made in USA and that is it. can anyone tell me more about these skillets and who they might be made by...

Thanks for your time

J

BigIron said...

Hi Jason,

In response to your post about your two pans that have "Made in USA" on them (probably on the bottom); casting pans with "Made in USA" started in the 1960s, so your pans are over 40 years old.

If you really want to start learning about cast iron pans, griddles, and other cookware, get 'The book of Griswold and Wagner' by David G. Smith and Chuck Wafford, and 'The Book of Griswold and Wagner' by Chuck Wafford.

Also, you can learn a lot by signing up for a guest account at the Wagner and Griswold Society's web page" wag-society.org. There is a lot of great advice there, and helpful people who love CI (Cast Iron).

The Wagner and Griswold Society's resources also have instructions for proper cleaning, care and restoration of CI. I noticed that "Anonymous" made a posting to use a grinder to 'clean' CI. That is not a very gentle method and would probably make a serious collector cringe.

'Black Iron Dude' recommends the lye method, which is a very good, gentle method. It sometimes takes time, but it's worth it. Some larger enterprises have lye vats that they use to clean their fine antiques. I will eventually have an electrolysis set up (the very best way to clean and restore a collectable pan).

Here are some definite don'ts. Never sandblast a pan, you will ruin it. Two other similar and dangerous methods are to place a cast iron pan in an electric oven on cleaning cycle or to place it in a bonfire. Cast iron pans, especially older ones, can be warped or cracked from overheating or uneven heating. I have read some very sad tales about people trying those methods and ruining their treasures. It is especially sad because the old treasures are irreplaceable.

I hope that my long ramble helps. My cast iron is very dear to me, as yours is to you. Treat it well!

Happy New Year

Jason said...

B.I.D,

thanks for your response. i have been ADDICTED to cooking in my pans it has been awesome and i have since been trying to find them and having my antique collecting mother in law keeping an eye out for them when she shops. i recently got one from here that i wanted to get a little bit of history on if your could help...

its a small #5 Vollrath. just says Vollrath Ware and 5 on the bottom. please let me know anything you might know about this type of skillet. looks old thats for sure.

thanks

Jason

Greg said...

Jason - Bigiron answered some of your questions and he did a good job.

Your unmarked pans were made after 1960. Can't tell you exactly when but Bigiron is correct that the "Made in USA" was implied before 1960. Send me some pictures of the skillets (especially the bottoms) and I'll try to ID them for you.

I have a guess but pictures will help.

Re: cleaning I prefer and use electrolysis but since my post about Easy Cast Iron Reconditioning people think I'm a Lye kinda guy.

Vollrath made some beautiful cast iron from the 1920s to the 1960s. Once their competitors switched to machine casting they could not compete and they stopped producing their handcast iron.

You have probably noticed that your Vollrath #5 has the 5 at a 90 degree angle to the handle. A unique little quirk from this foundry.

You can see pictures of my pristine Vollrath #8 in the post titled "Skillet Porn".

Thanks for reading the blog!

waltersd2 said...

Just found this site trying to find info on 2 skillets I inherited from my grandmother(1903-1980). One is a Vollrath Ware 4 with a heat ring. It's about 7". The other skillet is about 10" and on the bottom has 4 EXP 7 (?M)W It has a heat ring about 7". Does anyone have any info?
Thanks,
Debbie

heather said...

I just got 2 skillets at a yard sale for two dollars each. I am going to try the electrolysis method to clean them up and make them usable on my glass top range. (I'll take before and after pics) Their bottoms are flat with "made in the usa" and measurements on the bottom. I am looking at Favorite pieces on ebay and wondering if they all have heat rings on the bottom, as I need flat bottomed ones on my range. Any suggestions for flat bottomed brands to look for?
If this works out, I will hunt all summer and my sisters are going to get freshly seasoned garage sale pans for Christmas!!!

Thanks,
Heather

Aaron said...

I read that Wagner started in 1881 or 1891 depending on who you ask but didn't put their name on them until 1920's. I have a skillet that's been handed down for several generations (that we still use). The only identifying mark simply says "Sindney" 8. Could that be a pre-1900 Wagner?

Thanks

Aaron

Greg said...

Debbie - Vollrath produced cast iron cookware from the 1920s to the 1960s. They made very good stuff but did not make the transition to machine made CI like their competitors.

Heather - Electrolysis is my favorite cleaning method by far.

FWIW I use CI with heat rings on my glass flattop stove almost daily without hurting it but I don't care for the stove and need an excuse to go buy a gas stove.

Aaron - You could have an actual Sidney which for a brief time was a hometown competitor to Wagner.

BigIron said...

In response to Theresa regarding the "hammered" high-quality pan with the rings inside the lid.

Theresa, your pan 'sounds' like it may be an unmarked Griswold. I encountered one a garage sale 3 years ago and encouraged my friend to buy it (the going price was $2.00). As I learned more about CI (Cast Iron), I found out from pictures in my collector books that the pan was made by Griswold. By that time, my friend had used the pan so much that the bottom of the pan warped and it became a 'spinner.' A 'spinner' is a pan that spins when you place it on a flat surface and try to turn it.

COLLECTOR PANS will sit DEAD FLAT on a counter, a good test is to try to slide a dollar bill underneath it.

Pardon the ramble, but I hope this helps.

Big Iron

Justin said...

The reason why there aren't any smoothly polished cast iron pans anymore; why you shouldn't go out to buy one if you're just looking for something light, smooth, and nonstick is carbon steel. Also known as french steel, blue steel and black steel. The blue steel and black steel are just level of heat treatments. These make it tougher and more resistance to rust, IIRC.

Carbon steel is thinner and therefore lighter because it is stronger than cast iron, unintuitively because it has less carbon to make it brittle. Otherwise, they're almost the same, composition-wise. Thin ones are 1mm, regular use ones are 2mm, and restaurant heavy duty (and also quite weighty ;) ) are 3mm.

This is also what famous old world french or blue steel crepe and omelette pans are made out of. Care and seasoning are much the same, although the ones reserved for omelettes are usually hidden away after use and never ever touch water (they're usually also only reserved for that single purpose).

Also, mostly they're seasoned on the stove, you can google for recipes for that, usually involving potato skins, or salt, and oil, and sometimes overnight "soaking".

Anonymous said...

Hi I stumbled across this site while looking for info on my great great grandmothers iron skillet. They have no manufacture name on the bottom just a number and letter. Is there any way to know who made them or when? Thanks

Greg said...

BigIron - Your friend cranked the heat up too high (rather than waiting for it to slowly come up to temp) and warped it.

With proper treatment a good CI pan is almost impossible to wear out even over several generations.

Justin - Carbon steel is usually rolled out in sheets and stamped into woks or crepe pans. It is steel rather than just iron so it does have different properties.

Anon - It would probably be tough to ID but send me a picture and I'll look at it.

Aaron said...

Hi, Greg,

I'm wondering what your opinion is of the line of "polished skillets" sold under the Wagner name here:
http://www.wagnerware.com/ProductDetail.asp?Filter=PL&PCat=1&PLine=4&Prod=94&PSub=38

I ask about these specifically, because I'm interested in getting a skillet that has a "glass-smooth" cooking surface, will take and hold seasoning well and will generally be of good quality.

I have a few of the modern Lodge skillets, but they have the very grainy, bumpy surface that has proven problematic--especially with eggs.

That said, if this modern Wagner is not suitable, could you recommend an antique model to search for that has curved sides for omelets and is 8 inches wide?