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.
Pictures tell the story better.
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.
The Right Kind of Spatula
It has to be metal. Some people will get concerned that the metal will scratch the surface and ruin the skillet, and their thinking is spot on, but the wacky thing is that in this case, we want it to scratch the skillet. But not just any scratching. We want just the right kind of scratching. Because with just the right kind of scratching, the surface of the skillet will get better and better. Smoother and slicker. Flatter. Bumps of fused on gick will be scraped off and any pits will be slowly filled in with seasoning.
A plastic spatula will not work. At some point something will stick to the skillet. The plastic is not able to scrape it off. And then other little bits will get stuck to the first bit. As time passes, this bump will get bigger and bigger. If a metal spatula were used, the first little bit would not have been more than a few minutes old before it got scraped off. These skillets with the big tumors are going to have to have all the seasoning removed and started over.
Now for a bit of focus on the shape. There is the edge of the spatula that will contact the surface of the skillet, and there are the corners of the spatula that will contact the edge of the skillet.
- Spatula edge: Nearly all metal spatulas have a slightly rounded edge - those will scratch the surface of our cast iron in a bad way. The surface will end up uneven as the scratches accumulate over the years. With a flat edge, the surface will become flatter. This can be a bit challenging to find, but don't compromise on this point! A perfectly flat edge will make you much happier in the long run.
- Spatula corner: The rounded corners are important because the inside edges of the skillet are rounded.
- wood handle: With a wood handle, you can rest your drippy spatula in the pan and the handle won't melt or get hot.
Removing the Seasoning Layer From Cast Iron
There are three reasons I know of for why you might want to do this:
- Your cast iron skillet has crusty blobs on it. I suspect that this comes from not using the right kind of spatula.
- You have a brand new cast iron skillet from the factory. Modern cast iron skillets have a layer of gunk on it that the manufacturer has decided to label as "seasoning". I suspect that the stuff on that cast iron skillet has a lot more to do with marketing, shipping and profit margins than what you would want to eat. I think you really want to get that gunk off.
- There is rust on the cast iron skillet.
While I have read of many ways to do this, the technique I have used in the past is to toss it in the coals of a dying fire. I have a stove for wood heat. When the fire gets to the point of being just coals, I toss the cast iron skillet on the top. The next morning I fish it out. All of the crusty or rusty stuff is turned to ash. I brush the ash off with my hand, then dribble a little oil on it and wipe that all over the cast iron with a paper towel. Then I start re-seasoning it.
Some say you can start a cast iron skillet over by using a self cleaning oven. I've also heard some people say they tried this and their skillet cracked.
Here is a cast iron skillet that just finished going for a ride in a self cleaning oven. This skillet had become covered in layers of petrified gunk - both inside and outside the pan. And all that gunk is now ash.
You can also use Oven Cleaner. Just put it in a plastic bag with you Cast Iron. You may have to repeat this process before all the crud is removed.
Begin by spraying the pan with oven cleaner and putting it in a plastic bag for a couple of days. The bag keeps the oven cleaner from drying out so it will continue to work. After a couple of days, remove it from the bag and scrub it in a solution of dish soap/water. I use a brass brush marketed for cleaning white wall tires. It is just the right size for doing pans. If all the burned on grease doesn't come off, repeat the process, concentrating the cleaner to the areas not cleaned.
I DO NOT recommend the following methods of cleaning:
- Throw it in a fire - The intense heat of a fire can severely warp or even crack the piece.
- Self Cleaning Oven - Although not as great a risk as throwing it in a fire, the intense heat of a self cleaning can warp a skillet.
- Sandblasting - This is the cardinal sin for collectors. Sand blasting destroys the patina making the piece a dull gray color. Most collectors will not buy a piece that has been sand blasted.
The Recipe for Perfect Cast Iron Seasoning
The basic idea is this: Smear a food-grade drying oil onto a cast iron pan, and then bake it above the oil’s smoke point. This will initiate the release of free radicals and polymerization. The more drying the oil, the harder the polymer. So start with the right oil.
Go to your local health food store or organic grocery and buy a bottle of flaxseed oil. It’s sold as an omega-3 supplement and it’s in the refrigeration section because it goes rancid so easily. Check the expiration date to make sure it’s not already rancid. Buy an organic flaxseed oil. You don’t want to burn toxic chemicals into your cookware to leach out forever more. It’s a fairly expensive oil. I paid $17 for a 17 ounce bottle of cold-pressed, unrefined, organic flaxseed oil. As it says on the bottle, shake it before you use it.
Strip your pan down to the iron using the techniques described above Heat the pan in a 200°F oven to be sure it’s bone dry and to open the pores of the iron a little. Then put it on a paper towel, pour a little flaxseed oil on it (don’t forget to shake the bottle), and rub the oil all over the pan with your hands, making sure to get into every nook and cranny. Your hands and the pan will be nice and oily.
Now rub it all off. Yup – all. All. Rub it off with paper towels or a cotton cloth until it looks like there is nothing left on the surface. There actually is oil left on the surface, it’s just very thin. The pan should look dry, not glistening with oil. Put the pan upside down in a cold oven. Most instructions say to put aluminum foil under it to catch any drips, but if your oil coating is as thin as it should be, there won’t be any drips.
Turn the oven to a baking temperature of 500°F (or as high as your oven goes – mine only goes to 450°F) and let the pan preheat with the oven. When it reaches temperature, set the timer for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven but do not open the oven door. Let it cool off with the pan inside for two hours, at which point it’s cool enough to handle.
The pan will come out of the oven a little darker, but matte in texture – not the semi-gloss you’re aiming for. It needs more coats. In fact, it needs at least six coats. So again rub on the oil, wipe it off, put it in the cold oven, let it preheat, bake for an hour, and let it cool in the oven for two hours. The picture above was taken after six coats of seasoning. At that point it starts to develop a bit of a sheen and the pan is ready for use.
If you try this, you will be tempted to use a thicker coat of oil to speed up the process. Don’t do it. It just gets you an uneven surface – or worse, baked on drips. Been there, done that. You can’t speed up the process. If you try, you’ll mess up the pan and have to start over.
The reason for the very hot oven is to be sure the temperature is above the oil’s smoke point, and to maximally accelerate the release of free radicals. Unrefined flaxseed oil actually has the lowest smoke point of any oil (see this table). But the higher the temperature the more it will smoke, and that’s good for seasoning (though bad for eating – do not let oils smoke during cooking).
There’s a myth floating around that vegetable oils leave a sticky residue. If the pan comes out of the oven sticky, the cause is one of three things:
- You put the oil on too thick.
- Your oven temperature was too low.
- Your baking time was too short.
It’s possible to use a suboptimal oil for seasoning, like Crisco or bacon drippings, and still end up with a usable pan. Many (most) people do this. But the seasoning will be relatively soft, not as nonstick, and will tend to wear off. If you want the hardest, slickest seasoning possible, use the right oil: flaxseed oil.
Cast Iron Cookware and Tomatoes
Note that tomatoes, tomato sauces and other acidic foods eat away at the seasoning. I would generally avoid cooking these in cast iron.
Cast Iron Cookware and Bacon
Some bacons leave petrified goo on the skillet. This is actually sugar that is used to cure the bacon. The heat causes it to come out and turn into a sort of caramel/candy. Some people call it "bacon brownies." Frying this kind of bacon almost always leads to needing to boil some water in the skillet to get it all out.
soak cast iron in water
wash cast iron in a dish washer
leave cast iron outside
leave food in cast iron
Avoid using soap on cast iron cookware
A Brief History Of The Griswold Manufacturing Company Of Erie, Pa, As It Pertains To Collectors Of Cast Iron Cookware
In 1865, two Erie families associated by marriage, joined in a modest venture to manufacture door hinges. The Selden and Griswold union paved the way for The Griswold Manufacturing Company of Erie, Pennsylvania, recognized world wide as producers of fine cast iron products, especially cookware.
Between 1865 and 1957 when they closed production of the plant at the corner of 12th and Raspberry Street, their line of cookware had been sold and used around the world. Their designers and engineers produced many patents spanning almost 100 years of manufacture. Before the turn of the 20th century, they added cast aluminum products to their line. In the 1920's they enameled some cookware and by the 1930's they offered electric items to their product list. They produced commercial pieces for use in restaurants.
The company was in trouble by the 1940's for a variety of reasons. Many products were being introduced by other cookware companies that seemed more attractive to modern cooks. Problems within the company between management and employees widened, the quality of the products seemed to decline, and in 1957 the doors of GMC closed leaving 60+ employees without jobs.
While most of the GMC cookware is a desired collectible, almost all collectors avoid the small Griswold logo era. The former quality and casting isn't there, for the most part. There seems to be a much larger demand for cast iron, compared to those seeking cast aluminum, enameled, electric, or plated pieces. Eventually, Griswold's strongest competitor, The Wagner Manufacturing Company of Sydney, Ohio, ended up with ownership of their molds. The "double stamped" Wagner/Griswold emblems are not considered important collector's items, nor are the items that say Griswold but were really manufactured in Sydney, Ohio by Wagner.
Some of the overlapping logos produced at the foundry included these:
1865-1883 Selden & Griswold
1865-1909 ERIE or "ERIE"
1874-1905 Spider and Web
1884-1912 GRISWOLD'S ERIE
1884-1909 Diamond (with ERIE inside the diamond)
1897-1920 Griswold Manufacturing Company (italic lettering, large cross logo)
1919-1940 Griswold Manufacturing Company (block lettering, large cross logo)
1937-1957 Griswold (block lettering, small cross logo)
Some other trademarks include:
Tite Top Dutch Oven
Tite Top Baster
Production of cast iron cookware began around 1880 under the ERIE brand.
In 1905 the brand name was changed to Griswold's ERIE and in 1906 the famous Griswold cross logo appeared.
This logo design is known as the Slant/ERIE and it dates from 1906 to 1912.
FYI - Any Griswold piece lacking the word Erie was produced in Wagner's Sidney Ohio plant.
This logo design is known as the Slant/Erie PA U.S.A. (or EPU for short) and it dates from 1909-1929. These are my personal favorites.
This logo is known as the Block/Erie PA U.S.A. and these date from 1930-1939. Notice the lack of a heat ring that was seen on the older pieces.
This is a Griswold block logo cast iron skillet with heat ring, circa 1920 to 1930. The size is a rare #5 - 7 7/8 x 1 3/4. Marked "5" on the handle and "CAST IRON SKILLET 5 GRISWOLD ERIE, PA., U. S. A. 724 A" on the bottom. There are 15 skillets in this style (block logo w/heat ring) and only 4 sizes are rarer than the #5!
Priced at $594.95.[!brand:Griswold block logo heat ring!][!material:cast iron!][!size:rare #5 skillet!]
The name "Wagner" did not appear on skillets after 1922. When you find one like this #10 shown above you are looking at an old piece. The Sidney, O. stands for Sidney Ohio. The Chicken Fryer, lid and the #8 skillet were probably cast in the 1940s.
The Wagner Manufacturing Company was founded in Sidney OH in 1891. It became one of the two largest makers of cast iron cookware along with Griswold and continued to be a family owned company until the mid 1950s. After being sold to the Randall Company, Griswold was also acquired in 1957 (you can find pieces with both markings). In the years that followed a series of transactions took place that ended up seeing the Sidney foundry close in 2000.
A Wagner cast iron skillet seems like the iron is a little thinner, but it works great! It might not be widely considered the best cast iron skillet, but it is widely considered to be far better than the "Lodge Logic" stuff found in stores today. Also, a Wagner cast iron skillet usually runs a lot cheaper than Griswold on ebay.