Saturday, January 24, 2009

Easy Cast Iron Skillet Reconditioning

The "finished" skillet. Ready for use and continuous improvement.

The purpose of this post is to demonstrate how one can recondition a piece of cast iron cookware using items you probably have in your house or apartment. This process uses no specialized equipment (like an electrolysis tank) or large amounts of a nasty chemical (lye). It also does not require power tools or very much elbow grease.

You will need:
  • 1 can of aerosol oven cleaner
  • plastic bags
  • ordinary white vinegar
  • a scrub pad or #0000 steel wool
  • olive oil and/or Pam cooking spray
  • patience
The skillet we are dealing with is a Wagner Ware 1056 {1935 -1959} that is in neglected condition.

There is abundant surface rust and lots of crud and gunk (if I get too scientific with these terms let me know).

I paid 9 dollars for this skillet at an antique store. I'm sure you could buy one just like it for less. Even after spending the time and money required to restore this skillet I still think it was a bargain compared to some crude, "Made in China", abomination endorsed by a bonehead celebrity chef. {See here for exhibit A. & exhibit B.}

If you are lucky enough to inherit some cast iron this may be similar to what you receive. Thousands of similar pieces are probably sitting in basements, unused and unloved for decades. Hopefully this post will spur a few people to restore their heirlooms and give these fine old pans some more stovetime.

The first step in getting this Wagner #6 cleaned up is to remove the old ruined seasoning. To do this use a heavy plastic bag and the aerosol oven cleaner. Spray the skillet and coat heavily with the oven cleaner and then place the pan in the bag and wrap it up. I'm using a sandwich bag to keep the cleaner off of my hands as it can burn your skin.The bag will keep the oven cleaner from evaporating so it can work longer. I reapplied oven cleaner every 2 days and it took a week before the old seasoning washed completely away. This is where you need patience. Let the oven cleaner do the work, it will remove all the caked on seasoning and no damage will be done to the piece being cleaned.Once the old seasoning is removed you can wash the piece in hot water and lots of soap.

The next step is rust removal. I used vinegar and hot water to soften the rust. Some people like Coca-Cola for this task.I used a quart of generic white vinegar in 2 gallons of hot water. The skillet sat in this mix for 30 minutes after which I lightly scrubbed the entire piece with 0000 steel wool. Some collectors like the Chore-Boy brand of non-metallic scrubbing pad for this job.
Whether you use steel wool or a scrub pad the point is to merely remove the surface rust. You are not trying to buff or polish the skillet. After washing towel dry the skillet.

At this point the skillet was ready to be seasoned. If you live in a humid environment (I don't) you may need to begin the seasoning process as soon as you have removed the rust. Untreated cast iron begins to rust immediately in a damp climate.

For this skillet I used the same method I wrote about here . The skillet was placed in a 250 degree oven for 20 minutes to dry completely. After this I turned the oven up to 550 degrees and let the Wagner #6 heat up for 45 minutes. The blazing hot pan was removed from the oven and rubbed with a medium coating of olive oil. The hot cast iron absorbs the oil and a decent dark brown patina is visible on the iron in just a few minutes. Keep rubbing the oil into the metal until it begins to build up. At this point grab some new paper towels and rub the oil off the skillet until it just looks wet. Put the piece back into the oven but turn the oven off. If the cast iron has a rough finish you can leave it alone until it cools. If the piece has a smooth finish wipe it down every 5 minutes to prevent the oil from forming droplets on the surface. After 30 minutes prop the oven door partially open to cool. Keep wiping the cooking surface with the oiled paper towels.

I hope I don't need to mention that cast iron heated to 550 degrees is extremely hot to handle so don't burn yourself. I use my cooling rack so I don't need to hold the iron.

After this one seasoning the skillet is smooth, clean, rust free, and a nice dark brown that will become shiny & black with use. (see the picture at the top of the post)

For other seasoning methods I like see this post. LINK

To clean the iron after cooking I follow these steps. LINK

A New Zealand reader used this method to restore a skillet that was in horrible condition. Take a look at the process. LINK

Do you have some old cast iron you need to recondition?

Another easy iron stripping method that some use is to put the cast iron piece into a self-cleaning oven and run it through a cleaning cycle. I think this is a fine method provided you can replace the piece easily. In other words, if the cast iron is modern and you can easily buy another identical piece, use the oven. On old pieces from makers that are no longer around I won't use the oven as I know of several people who have cracked older pieces. (The old pieces tend to be thinner walled.) My own brother cracked a Victor #8 skillet with the oven method. I've been told the self cleaning cycle on electric ovens can go from 800 degrees F to over 1200 degrees F. 1200 degrees F doesn't hurt cast iron but going from 1200 to 70 degrees too quickly causes the thermal shock that does the damage.