I Did It One Time (IDIOT) – An Episode in Reclaiming Old Cookware

Those of you who know me have experienced, and likely been equally entertained and frustrated by my “F*** it, let’s do it live” attitude. One of my friends carries an imaginary clicker in his pocket. Each time I do something he thinks is risky or outlandish, he makes an audible “Click!” and adds it to my imaginary tally. If I had to guess, the click tally would be in the high hundreds or low thousands. However, he, as well as most of my other friends, would agree that life around me is rarely boring. In this series I hope to document some of these episodes, both ordinary and audacious. We’ll start simple, something I rarely do.

Cast Iron

A couple of months ago while pursuing an antique shop I found several old cast iron skillets. All were caked in rust and dirt; some appeared to have survived (I use the term loosely) house fires or similar tragedies. I selected one, a medium-sized pan that seemed in better condition than others, and which was stamped with “Made in the USA” on the bottom. I figured it would at least be decent quality, but had no idea what else I was looking for. I knew the names Griswold and Wagner as decent quality, but couldn’t find any with brand markings. Anyway, somehow during the rest of my time perusing the store I exchanged my “Made in the USA” stamped pan for another pan. I have no idea why, nor do I remember how I selected the pan I did, but it must have had some since-forgotten quality which made me exchange the pan I intended to buy. A couple of tips for those interested in following my footsteps that I’ve learned since buying my pan (Click!): in addition to looking for name brand pans, set the pan on a flat surface and ensure it isn’t warped. Inspect the pan carefully for cracks, and rap on the bottom several times with a hard object. Not too hard; you’re not trying to crack it if it’s in good condition, you simply want to listen for a nice bell sound. If it sounds flat, there are likely cracks you cannot see. I got lucky here.

Anyway, I walked out of the store with this pan for $12.43. I know this only because I found the receipt when I finally pulled the pan out from under the car seat where it had been riding for the last couple of months. Pro tip: leaving the pan under the seat does not in any way help to loosen up the rust, as I had hoped. It does, however, provide a healthy deterrent to carjackers when applied correctly to the face (Click!). The pan had actually stayed in the car because I broke my leg right after buying it (Click!) and have been unable to drive or move around much since. Back to the matter at hand, though… some time ago when purchasing a new pan, I watched some YouTube videos and read some articles about taking care of cast iron. Armed with this fragmented knowledge and faulty memories, I went to the auto parts store and bought a new wire wheel for my drill.

Initial Detour

Feeling motivated to get off the couch yesterday, I hopped downstairs and replaced a broken toilet seat. Instructions? Who needs instructions? Some things are so easy you just throw the stupid instructions out. Click! In my defense, changing a toilet seat wearing an immobilizing leg brace and balancing on crutches is about as easy as it sounds. After a few minutes of swearing at the shoddy fitment of the new seat and breaking an ornamental cover, I dug the instructions out of the trash and realized my mistake. I still think it’s a silly design, but the toilet seat is now attached firmly and you hardly notice the broken cover unless you’re looking for it. And who really looks carefully at toilet seat hardware? I think we’re good.

Needing to reclaim some manliness after nearly being bested by a stupid toilet seat, I hobbled to the garage, cleared a path to my workbench, and grabbed the pan and wire wheel. Oh good, the drill battery appeared to be fully charged, and a fresh one was waiting in the quick-charger. Eureka! I got down to business after taking a quick “before” photo. Cleaning the pan with a wire wheel while balancing on one leg with crutches was a bit tougher than anticipated, but with some immobilization assistance from my trusty apprentice (thanks C!) I began to make some progress. The rust dust was prolific and probably unhealthy, so she spent most of her time holding a make-shift filter (jacket) over her face. I didn’t have the luxury of looking for a filter, as I was too much of a manly man, so I toughed it out. Eventually we opened the garage door, allowing the brisk 30-degree breeze to dissipate the dust. The cold necessitated re-donning of a heavy coat, which was initially fine and later proved to be most fortuitous.

Back On Track

About 15 minutes into scrubbing with the wire wheel, the drill battery died. No problem; I have a fresh battery that has apparently been sitting on the charger for the last couple of months, since whenever I last used the drill. Come to find out, the charger needs to be plugged in to effectively charge a battery. The battery was completely dead. Oh well. I now had at least 15 minutes to kill while my li-ion battery recharged. My assistant decided to escape the cold, while I reorganized the garage for a bit. But on the same workbench sat my grinder/buffer combo. I have never found the perfect permanent residence for it, so have never attached it to the bench. Perfect. I slid it over to the edge, turned it on, and began buffing the inside with the wheel. Click! Being unattached, the entire unit vibrated all over the place while I struggled to hold it in place with one hand, hold the pan in the other hand, and hold the crutches with my armpits. I soon realized I was fortunate to be wearing a heavy leather coat, as my left arm eventually slipped and went into the grinding wheel. It cut completely through my coat, but somehow my arm was untouched. I gave up on the buffer/grinder and resigned myself to reorganizing tools while I waited.

The top shelf of my toolbox is a mess. When I complete a project, I throw all the random tools/epoxies/parts/etc. on top of the box, and never reorganize it. When I can’t find a particular tool, I often start with the top tray. If nothing else, searching through it helps me think and I can often locate the missing item – whatever its location – simply by spending a couple of minutes searching through the top tray. Sometimes, as happened in this project, I’ll locate an item I didn’t even know I needed. About 30 seconds into reorganizing, I found several packages of sandpaper left over from some forgotten project (now that I think about it, it’s probably from attempting to sand puppy tooth-marks out of baseboards throughout the house). Since the bottom of the pan was still pretty rough, I decided to use some sandpaper to smooth it out. Click! It worked like magic. I used 60 grit, and the rust came off in clouds of dust. I dumped the pan several times, and when it seemed the rust was clearing out, I used a small amount of water (spit) to really polish it. The transformation was amazing, and after some time scrubbing, the inside of the pan looked good as new. I eventually hit the outside of the pan with the wire wheel once the drill was charged, and was pleased with the overall outcome. A couple more passes at the vibrating buffer (Click!), a couple new holes in the sleeve of my coat, and I was ready to continue.

What Smoke?

After clanging and banging up the stairs with the pan in a bag, smacking off my crutches with every step, I eventually made it to the kitchen. I convinced my accomplice to dig under the sink for the steel wool I was sure we had (we did) and after a brief scare of a leaking pipe (it wasn’t) and 20 minutes for her to re-organize the cabinet under the sink, I was eventually ready to continue. I scrubbed the pan completely clean with steel wool, soap, and hot water, then dried it as quickly and thoroughly as possible. I got lucky with this; apparently unseasoned cast iron can rust within minutes if not completely dried.

What should I use for seasoning? I think I remember coconut oil has a higher smoke point or something than olive oil, so I’ll use that. I grabbed a handful and began smearing it all over the pan while simultaneously heating the oven to 375 degrees. If a little bit is good, more is better, right (Click!)? And since I’m doing this pan, I might as well put oil on a couple newer cast iron pans to top of their coats, right? Click! After about 5 minutes of the greasy pans sitting upside-down in the hot oven, clouds of smoke begin to gently waft through the house, accompanied by the smell of burnt coconut. At least it’s a pleasant aura? We turn on all the ceiling fans, the house fan, the fireplace fan, and open windows for crossflow while waving a sexy Hawaiian men calendar (a gag gift that came in handy, no pun intended) around the smoke detectors to stop that darn beeping. In between beeping episodes and clouds of smoke, I finally sat on the couch and got on my phone to research the best ways to restore a cast iron pan. For being a fairly intelligent guy, I can be a dunce.

After half an hour, I applied MORE coconut oil to the pans, but armed with fresh knowledge, polished it in as best I could and wiped off all the excess. The clouds of smoke were not as dense, and the fire department never materialized, so we were good to go. I waited another half hour, removed the pans one at a time, and wiped them with another rag, to ensure the oil was evenly distributed. After a final half-hour smoke, I turned off the oven and let the pans cool. I didn’t really notice much change in the other pans. They’re still kinda bumpy and will probably need to be refinished.

Success

Despite all the mistakes I made and misinformation I had stored in my head, the restored pan was as near perfection as I have ever seen cast iron. The bottom and inner sides are as smooth as glass, and are completely non-stick. Although I wasn’t hungry, I cooked a couple of eggs to test it out and was amazed by how quickly/easily they cooked and how well the pan wiped out afterward. I’ve since learned some experts say to never sand cast iron, as the particles could potentially stick in microscopic crevices and make the pan difficult to season. Maybe it was luck, but with the combination of the wire wheel, buffing wheel, sandpaper, and steel wool, I am extremely impressed. I’m going to redo some of my newer pans in an attempt to re-create this success.

To any readers, please take any advice here-in with a shaker of salt. The fact that it worked once for me does not mean it will work ever again. Individual experiences will vary. The author is not responsible for any torn sleeves or more serious incidents caused by attempts to re-create this perfection. Several effective and safe methods to clean old cast iron can easily be found with a simple internet search.

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