I picked it up, turned it over, and was surprised to see that it was a Wagner piece and that it was marked only $25. Wagner's are not exactly rare, but they are sought-after because they're quite old and not manufactured anymore, usually very smooth (as opposed to the bumpy finish found on most newer cast iron), and a bit on the thinner side, making them a little bit lighter. This particular one was a unique shape that I hadn't seen before and I wasn't sure what it was called.
As much as I wanted to buy it, I really have no room to store additional pans, so I put it down and walked away. About a month later, we were back at the same store and it was still there. That time, I couldn't resist any longer and I snatched it up. I brought it home, gave it a good scrubbing, oiled it up, and sauteed some veggies in it.
Come to find out, it's not a particularly unique piece. It's called a "Chicken Fryer" and I imagine they're more plentiful in the south where they fry-up a lot more chicken than we New Englanders do. It is rather old, possibly cast in the 1940's. The markings on the bottom are from post-1920.
Old cast iron pieces are a really good find and a great addition to your cooking arsenal. They're often well-seasoned (even if they usually need a good scrubbing and a light re-seasoning), as smooth as some non-stick cookware, and cheap (often, cheaper than new pieces). You can also find unique shapes and sizes that aren't manufactured today.
But most of all, cast iron isn't nearly as fussy as people make it out to be. In fact, cast iron is almost easier to take care of than Teflon. Once it's well-seasoned, there's really very little you can do to destroy it (short of dropping it on concrete and splitting it). Here's a great post about the myths and maintenance of cast iron pans. Ignore all the stuff about salt rubs, no-dish-soap, and so on.
Here are a few tips I've learned over the years by actually working with my cast iron:
- Buy old, if you can find it. New pans from Lodge (one of the only manufacturers left in the US) aren't polished as well after casting and they have a textured surface that takes a lot of time and use to get reasonably smooth. They also have a "pre-seasoning" treatment that, in my opinion, only makes them harder to season properly. Older pans tend to already have this work done for you.
- Look for pans that don't have big crusty build-up. This is a mark of a not well-cared-for pan. While it is possible to remove it, you'll be making a lot of extra work for yourself and you'll basically have to get it down to bare metal and start seasoning from scratch. I've been known to do this for only really unique pieces (one of which, I'll show you in a future post). A little rust is okay, as long as it's not pitted.
- When you get an old pan home, scrub it good with soapy water and a scouring pad. If there's significant rust, don't hesitate to use a steel wool pad (like Brillo) to get the rust off. Once the pan is clean, dry it well with paper towels or an old cotton cloth. Lightly rub a very thin layer of oil on the inside of the pan and heat it on medium-high heat. As the pan heats-up, burnish/polish the oil into the pan with a wad of paper towels. Once it looks shiny like a polished pair of shoes, turn the heat off, let it cool, give it one last wipe with a fresh paper towel to remove excess oil, and you can store it.
- If the bottom of your pan needs a little extra seasoning as well or you have a brand-new pan, coat it with a thin layer of oil as described above. Instead of putting it on the stove, put it upside-down on the middle rack in a 350 degree oven with a sheet pan below it to catch any drips. Open windows, turn on fans, and unplug the smoke detectors. Heat until it begins to smoke and turn the oven off. Let it cool enough to remove it with heavy pot holders. Rub with a clean paper towel. Repeat as needed until well-seasoned.
- Once you have a good seasoning, don't hesitate to use a blue Scotch Brite scrubbing sponge and regular dish soap to loosen food. The blue pads are the non-abrasive ones made for Teflon, so they'll be gentle on your seasoning. You can also use a nylon pan scraper or the edge of a nylon spatula for stubborn spots.
- Never leave your pan wet and try not to let starchy food dry on it (it leaves a film that's difficult to get off). Wash right after dinner as described above, oil gently, heat the pan, and burnish in the oil. It's now ready to store. If you don't have time to heat it, you can oil it and store as-is, but I've found that the oil just sits on top and if you don't use your pan often enough, it goes rancid and you just have to scrub it off and re-oil.
- Avoid cooking sprays. They have extra ingredients that do not make a good seasoning coating. Try to use regular oils and butter in your cooking.
- Let your cooking do the hard work of seasoning your pan for you. I've never found anything that seasons a pan better than cooking roast chicken, bacon, or oiled oven-roasted potatoes.