In which a skillet is saved
October 20, 2018 1:22 AM   Subscribe

I suddenly want a neglected cast iron pan to manifest in my life so that I can experience the feeling of having a very small yet meaningful subset of my shit together.

posted by Vesihiisi at 1:36 AM on October 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Cast iron is the best thing and is nearly indestructible.

When I was a kid my father had a big old Erie cast-iron skillet in the basement which was abused in creative ways. After his death, and with the purchase of a home with a gas range, I did some research and with work returned it to use. One day while I used it to put a lovely crust on some burgers, my mother remarked casually that it had belonged to her great-grandmother. “Why’d you let it get all awful and funky?” I asked, having learned just how helpful it could be. “I had an electric stove,” she replied. “So I gave it to your Dad.”
posted by kinnakeet at 2:17 AM on October 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

"Is this a metaphor for America?"
"It's not NOT one."
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:10 AM on October 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

Also satisfying is the refurbishment of woodworking tools. I've return a few rusty hand planes to service with a bath in vinegar. It takes a couple days but it's cheap. Evaporust is good too but expensive.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:28 AM on October 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Cast iron is great for cooking, and also a handy metaphor for many things, like the male psyche or democracy, that look strong and indestructible from the outside, but actually require constant care and nurturing to remain functional and are very sensitive to certain corrosive elements.
posted by The Toad at 4:05 AM on October 20, 2018 [29 favorites]

I'm going to be a naysayer. I have street cred on this.

See those pits still in the bottom of the pan before she seasoned? To prevent this pan from having issues, that surface needs to be improved further, otherwise any time this pan isn't used with absolute reverence, there is a weak point at the seasoning there. Food will stick, and it will be an old rusty pot that was almost taken to completion. That pan needs further buffing to prepare the surface.

As a demonstration piece of techniques, I approve. As something the internet should herald? No. She didn't complete the task.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:19 AM on October 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

I have a cast iron skillet in similar shape. Now I have no choice but to try and rescue it. Based on his experience this thread will probably be closed by the time I either finish or give up, but if not I will post an update.
posted by TedW at 5:23 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

This story was so unbelievably satisfying. I am the proud owner of many pieces of cast iron, some of which have been brought back from what would appear to a neophyte to be a lost cause.

My love of cast iron is such that when I divorced, the division of it was spelled out clearly in the decree. We had twelve years of nurturing skillets and dutch ovens that clearly outlasted our marriage. Establishing custody of them was worth every penny paid to the lawyer.
posted by Sequined Ballet Flats at 5:46 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Once I worked at a museum that had a major shipbuilding operation with a lot of industrial tools. A friend found an ancient cast-iron skillet in her basement. It was much worse than the skillet in the picture. Every surface was layered with bubbly rust - it looked like a skillet-shaped rust sculpture. One of the shipwrights took it and it put it into an industrial sandblasting cabinet they had at the yard. It came out in 10 minutes looking like brand new, silver steel.

So that's another option for skillet resurrection. Auto shops sometimes have sandblasters or know who does.
posted by Miko at 5:53 AM on October 20, 2018 [16 favorites]

I think this is definitely something that you get much more into as you get older. I remember when I was younger I wouldn't have had the patience for these kinds of tasks, but now they're deeply satisfying and productive ways to spend time.

I've been going around my friend's land collecting all the old tools I can find and restoring what I can. The other day I spent 4-5 hours hand-filing and re-shaping a seriously rusty and toothy old hatchet. There's more shaping work I can do on it but it went from what was effectively a thin, dull hammer with cartoonishly sized notches in the blade to something that can actually split wood and notch/cut sticks with nice, satisfying chunks. (I want to hack up some rustic stick benches and chairs out of a huge pile of alder just siting around.)

I've learned how to sharpen knives pretty ok, too, and that one eluded me for ages. Also, truing bicycle rims. I can apparently actually do that now and not just make it worse.

It's interesting how a lot of these tasks are weird quasi black arts that depend almost entirely on a feel and tactility mixed with what is often a sophisticated mental concept that you have to apply using that feeling. Honing sharp tools is a good example of this.

I'm also really good at accidentally seasoning the hell out of my houses giant vintage Lodge pan by turning on the wrong burner and leaving it sitting there smoking in grease, heh.
posted by loquacious at 5:58 AM on October 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

To follow up on Miko's suggestion: Yes, that'll do it and strip just about anything down to bare metal again. Another more modern term for these tools is "bead blaster" because in a lot of metal shops it's not sand but fine grained steel beads doing the blasting. (Sandblasting has silica/silicosis risks and has mostly been replaced by either bead blasting or CO2/dry ice blasting for lighter work.)

Another tool that people can usually get their hands on that does the same sort of thing, just more crudely, is a needle gun. They make electric and pneumatic versions, and they're used to scale rust and welding slag off of boats and ships and stuff. Applied lightly and it'll scale rust off of anything and peen/blast the metal into a finely hammered textured finish. (You'd want to further sand/grind/lap the cooking surface because this would dent the hell out of it, but it'll get all the crud off.)
posted by loquacious at 6:06 AM on October 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Twitter and Instagram as mentors. The restoration of the broken. The victory of effortful care over neglect. Good stuff. Thanks, arcticseal!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:08 AM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

A long soak in a weak solution of oxalic acid will remove rust. It cleaned up an old chromed bike fork and painted frame that had many rust spots. Very easy and satisfying. Oxalic acid is also used as wood bleach, so it's available at some woodworking stores. Rust removal doesn't need much acid, just a few ounces in a large basin of water.

There's still bare metal where the rust was, so it'll come back. Waxing will slow the return of the rust, or try some kind of clear finish coat.

This youtube video shows the method, and the before & after. (But he used a hugely excessive amount of oxalic acid.)
posted by jjj606 at 6:39 AM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

A happy story.
posted by Artw at 7:01 AM on October 20, 2018

Cast iron is great for cooking, and also a handy metaphor for many things, like the male psyche or democracy, that look strong and indestructible from the outside, but actually require constant care and nurturing to remain functional and are very sensitive to certain corrosive elements.

It doesn't require that much care, I find. Any kind of regular use is almost enough, so long as it doesn't involve nitric acid or something, and it can take quite a beating when it comes to more conventional hazards like being stabbed with a fork. Let it have some heat to prevent it rusting when you're going to put it away, that's about all I do. Even if you get it wrong and it ends up looking corroded and beaten up, there's still a core of strength in there somewhere that while it may not be indestructible in theory, is surprisingly strong in practice and easy enough to find. And of course the same is true of cast iron.
posted by sfenders at 7:32 AM on October 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

Cast iron is great for cooking, and also a handy metaphor for many things, like the male psyche or democracy, that look strong and indestructible from the outside, but actually require constant care and nurturing to remain functional and are very sensitive to certain corrosive elements.

Must be why I have no patience for either cast iron or the male psyche. I have a dog if I'm looking to enjoy the demands of a needy cause in my life. That's enough for me.

At least democracy is a group effort requiring little from the individual.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:34 AM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Then again, if you do let your democracy go bad to the point it needs a full re-seasoning, that's going to be rough going.
posted by sfenders at 7:39 AM on October 20, 2018 [13 favorites]

Food-grade oxalic acid is sold as Barkeeper’s Friend in the US. Not only is it good for stripping cast iron, it’s good for stripping carbon steel paella pans.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:42 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I agree that the bottom of the pan could have used some grinding and buffing before the seasoning went on. This is the problem with Lodge cast iron as well; they leave the bottom of the pan all nubbly from sandcasting rather than bothering to smooth it out (trivial to do by machine in a factory, obnoxious to do by hand at home) so you don't get a good nonstick surface. A bit more work and it would've been perfect.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:23 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've revived numerous discarded cast iron skillets, to the point that I had to start giving them away to maintain domestic peace. I'm particularly fond of some of the vintage ones I find here in Sweden, with fine grain and tubular steel handles riveted in place, which work well for dissipating heat to the grabby bits.

That said, cast iron is not indestructible. It can crack if abused or dropped. I'm enamored of my stamped steel de Buyer skillet: equally cheap bought new (if procured at restaurant supply shops) and takes a seasoning just as well, but lighter and with a better finish.
posted by St. Oops at 9:34 AM on October 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have over 70 pans, in various shape.

Most pans can be saved, disqualifiers are cracks, severe rust pitting on the cooking surface, and a non flat bottom.

Most can be saved.
posted by Max Power at 11:28 AM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Even if a pan is not salvageable, it could be melted down and the iron reused, yes?
posted by emjaybee at 12:31 PM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

That said, cast iron is not indestructible. It can crack if abused or dropped.

This happened with a cast iron champion beer stein in Philadelphia, and the whole city turned the thing upside down and pretended it was always meant to be a bell. Now the crack is a tourist attraction.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:32 PM on October 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have a 6.5", a 12" and a 15", ( and a enameled dutch oven ) and my frying game is on point. It's nice to not have to worry about them and replace every couple of years the non-stick pans. Metal utensils rule.
posted by mikelieman at 1:53 PM on October 20, 2018

Ugh, this makes me feel guilty about all the cast iron pans (3 maybe?) I have tried and failed to get into usable condition. I've had two different Lodge pans, but that pebbled surface just seems to foil me every time. I tried a Victoria as well, which was smoother, but no better for cooking, even after seasoning. People claim you only have to got through the "bake in a film of oil for an hour" rigamarole once, but that has not been my experience. And I always seem to live in small apartments, where the oven process will set off the smoke alarm.

The thing is, I know I'm going to try again. Maybe NEXT TIME it will work!
posted by lunasol at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2018

My roommate Wendy had a frypan with a surface like glass. After I praised her seasoning job too loudly, the confessed that she'd run a power sander over it for a LONG TIME before it got that good.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:57 PM on October 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a very big modern Lodge skillet that has a pebbled surface; it's good to use if I need that size, very heavy. The prize is a 10" (at the base) skillet, my Mom gave it to me (thank you again) and it has the spun surface. I have never 'seasoned' it; if it has rust, I make bacon or something else with lots of fat. It is non-stick, even for scrambled eggs. Not very thick, so not terribly heavy. It is an excellent cooking tool, a pleasure to use. I picked up a similar one; they turn up at Goodwill, and it's in the oven; I want to bake out any germs. Chicken coop, ewww. That one has the spun surface, and I will hang onto it in case my favorite ever cracks.

If you ask 10 people how to care for cast iron, you will get a dozen answers. I'm sure there are heartfelt feuds and grievances.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 PM on October 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

The key in my experience is just to use them a lot, not scour them (you can scrape them with a wooden spoon if you need to), go light on the detergent (don't need to use a dedicated soap-free sponge or anything, just give your sponge a squeeze and rinse to get most of the soap out before you use it), and put it back on the heat for a little while after washing so that it gets totally 100% thoroughly dry. Also, no acids—don't try to do a balsamic reduction or whatever in your cast iron, it'll strip it down to the bare metal.

If it does get stripped, reseasoning it is not some arduous process. Just rub a bit of vegetable oil into it, heat it up, and then start using it again. It might need a little extra fat for a while until it gets a good layer on it again, but it'll be fine. You don't have to go baking on seventeen ultra-thin layers of organic flaxseed oil in three-hour ultra-high-heat cycles or whatever, just use the pan and it will naturally season itself as a side effect.

This is how my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother have always used their cast iron pans, and it must work because they're still the same pans after three generations.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:29 PM on October 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

The thing is, I know I'm going to try again. Maybe NEXT TIME it will work!

Myself, I try not to over think it. Step 1 is make sure there's enough oil in the pan, and if it needs more, add more. Then just use it, and keep it clean. I use kosher salt to scrub if needed. Dry it on the burner, and MAYBE give it a wipe with an oily paper towel, then let it keep going until it smokes, then turn it off and let it sit before you put it away. I don't know about "perfect", but doing this:

1) They work good and don't rust

2) I give them a light oiling before taking pictures, they look like any other "perfect" pan...
posted by mikelieman at 12:36 PM on October 21, 2018

Late, but I just today ran across this poem from A.E. Stallings...

Cast Irony

Who scrubbed this iron skillet
In water, with surfactant soap,
Meant to cleanse, not kill it,

But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,

Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.

It lacks
Internal consistency
As ancient oral epics

Where a Bronze Age warrior might appeal
To a boar's-tusk-helmet-wearing foe
Who has an anachronistic heart of steel,

Will of iron—from which metals
No one has yet forged a weapon,
Much less pans or kettles

(Though there must have been between
Two eras, awkward overlap
Enacted in the kitchen

When mother-in-law and daughter
Wrangled over the newfangled,
Over oil and water

In proverbial mistrust,
Brazen youth subject to iron age
As iron is to rust).

There can be no reasoning
With sarcastic oxygen,
Only a re-seasoning

Can give the vessel's life new lease:
Scour off the scab the color of dried blood,
Apply some elbow grease

To make it fast;
Anoint it, put it once more in the fire
Where everything is cast.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:18 PM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

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