If you’re just starting out with cooking and/or collecting cast iron, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the choices available to you. Here are my top 10 considerations for selecting a vintage cast iron pan.
1. What size do you need?
Skillets often but not always have a number on them. Sometimes it is on the handle and sometimes it is on the bottom of the pan. The number corresponds to the size of the skillet, but it does not equate to the diameter of the pan. A “0” skillet is the smallest, and is usually referred to as a “toy” skillet. It is too small to use for most purposes. Next in size is the 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 20.
The first skillet most people buy is a 8. The 8 is usually about 10-1/2″ in diameter. The 9 is usually about 11″ in diameter, and the 10 is usually about 11-1/2″ in diameter. An 8, 9, or 10 will, in my opinion, cover most cooking jobs. Obviously, the larger your family, the larger the size of pan you want for your “every day” cooking.
2. Is the pan clean?
Cleaning a crusty old cast iron pan can be difficult, to put it mildly. If the pan has been cleaned, it will save much work for you. Ideally, the pan should be squeaky clean, without blobs of crud baked on. In a different guide I’ve outlined how to clean your cast iron, should you decide to forge ahead and purchase a “well loved and used” crusty pan. Cleaning years of crud from a cast iron pan takes time, experience, proper methodology, and patience. As you might expect, a cleaned and restored pan is typically more expensive than a crusty pan because of the time, effort, and materials that have been put into restoration of the pan.
3. Is the pan rusty?
Cast iron is very susceptible to rust, and the rust can be difficult to remove. The Pan handler typically uses electrolysis to remove rust from pans that we plan to resell. You may also try a vinegar/water soak, commercial products such as EvapoRust (find it at an auto parts store), or you may sometimes have success with elbow grease and steel wool. Ideally, your seller will have removed any sign of rust so that your new vintage pan is ready to use.
4. Is there any pitting on the cast iron?
Sulfur pitting can occur on the bottom of pans from use over an old wood or coal stove. This is typically seen in the center of the bottom of a pan. Also, given the variety of ways in which very old pans have been stored (I have seen pans that were buried in dirt!), you might find pitting on the pans. Old pans have history! The pitting doesn’t bother me, but it might bother you. If a pan has not been cleaned, you often cannot tell whether there is pitting under the crud that has built up.
Be sure to look carefully at the pan you are considering, so that you can see if there is pitting and if so, how much. If there is, you will need to make your own decision about whether the pitting turns you off to the extent that you should choose a different pan. The Pan Handler takes many photos of our pieces, so that you can see exactly what you are getting.
5. Are there any cracks or signs of repair?
Cast iron is surprisingly fragile. Before shipping, your pan must be carefully packed so that the handle doesn’t break off, or have a hairline crack develop when the package is tossed about during shipping. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see hairline cracks near the handle of pans. A crack dramatically decreases the value of the pan, but it often still may be used. If it is a hairline crack, you might expect that crack to seal with additional seasoning.
Another downside to purchasing a pan that has crud built up is that you don’t know what lies beneath the crud. I have been heartbroken on more than a few occasions to find a hairline crack once the pan has been cleaned.
6. Has the pan been seasoned? With what?
When purchasing a pan online, read the information about the pan carefully. Make sure that “well-seasoned” isn’t code for “I didn’t clean the pan and I’m calling all of this crud on the pan ‘seasoning.'” Unfortunately, that is often the case.
We typically use Crisco vegetable shortening to season our pans before listing them for sale. Occasionally we also use Pam, because Pam more easily goes into the tiny nooks and crannies of the piece. We carefully heat season our pans in a lengthy and several-step process.
If you care what your pan has been seasoned with, you’ll want to ask if the description doesn’t say. For example, vegetarians probably prefer not to cook on a pan that has been seasoned with lard. If you are planning to use your pan for cooking and not display only, you’ll want to make sure that your pan was seasoned with something that you’re comfortable eating/something food-grade. For those of you who want to season your own pans, I have written a guide on how I season my cast iron pans, and you can find it here: Seasoning and Care of your Vintage Cast Iron Pan.
7. What is the thickness of the walls of the skillet, and what is the type of pan interior?
A great old vintage skillet will have a beautiful almost silky satiny patina inside the bowl. Modern skillets often have a “bumpy” texture; the great old skillets do not. They are smooth and almost glassy-looking. It’s likely that your pan will have some scratches or marks; it’s a used pan, after all. A great old pan should have a black satin finish, however, and be free of significant pitting on the inside. Be sure that your pan has been cleaned and seasoned and that’s why it’s black – there are horror stories of some pans being painted black. You don’t want to be cooking and eating foods from a pan that has been painted black. At least I don’t!
You will need to make your own decision about what you prefer regarding the thickness of the walls of the skillet. Many if not most of the very old pans have thin walls – they are much lighter than pans of more modern vintage. Newer pans have thicker/coarser walls and casting. They are heavier. You might prefer a heavier pan for camping or cooking over an open fire. As for me, I’ll go for the thinner walls every time.
The photo below shows the beautiful satiny smooth black patina of a properly cleaned and seasoned Griswold #8 skillet. Note the thin walls.
8. Is the pan warped?
Some folks think that putting a pan on an open fire is a good way to clean pans. Please don’t do this! Placing the pan in such high heat can result in damage and warpage to the pan. Similarly, putting a hot pan into cold water can warp the pan.
Many old pans – especially larger sizes – have a small amount of movement when pressing along the upper rim. A small amount is not typically an issue (see my blog post here). A major wobble or a pan that spins can be a pain. If a pan does not sit flat on the cooktop, it may wobble when you boil liquids. It can also wriggle around while you’re cooking, which can be an annoyance.
You can tell if a pan has warping by pressing along the upper rim of the pan. If it rocks while you press, there is some warping. You can also try slipping a small piece of paper or a dollar bill under the pan around the edges. If the pan sits perfectly flat, you won’t be able to get the paper under the skillet. If it doesn’t, you can. If you’re buying a vintage pan, be sure to consider whether the pan rocks or spins. If you are buying online and the listing doesn’t say, ask before you buy!
Cast iron pans should be pre-heated before use. Once heated, cast iron retains its heat for a long period of time. A small amount of movement will not matter on a pan that has been pre-heated. Cooktops with raised burners can tolerate pans that have movement. If you are cooking outdoors or on a grill, or baking, movement of the pan probably is not much of an issue.
With pans sold by The Pan Handler, we might post a video showing the movement of the pan on our You Tube channel. Or, we might mention that a pan moves a “dime’s” worth or a “nickel’s” worth. This refers to the distance between the pan and the table surface when pressing along the upper edge of the opposite side. A “dime’s” worth, of course, would be less than a “nickel’s” worth. In either case, the distance will matter less to you if you are cooking on a gas or other raised burner cooktop than it will if you are cooking on a flat cooktop.
9. Who is the manufacturer of the pan?
In my opinion, the brand really only matters if you are collecting, want an epic piece to hand down through the generations, or if you plan to resell the pan at some point.
Pans made by Griswold are, in our view, the most collectible vintage cast iron pans. Griswold also manufactured Victor, ERIE, Iron Mountain, and some of the Puritan and Andresen pieces. Wagner pieces are also collectible, as is vintage Lodge (you can typically tell if it’s an old unmarked Lodge pan if there is one or three notches in the heat ring ). Wapak, G.F. Filley, Waterman, Favorite Piqua Ware, and Vollrath are other well-known manufacturers of collectible quality cast iron kitchenware. There are a number of great old pans made by many different makers – if you’re looking for a vintage pan for cooking, I’d suggest you don’t knock a pan out of consideration just because it isn’t a Griswold. Pick the pan that works for you. Look at the quality of the pan and determine how well it suits your needs.
10. Who is the seller, what is the cost, and what is the shipping charge?
If you are purchasing from the internet, be sure to check out your seller. Be comfortable that your seller stands behind the product. Ask questions before buying, and know what you’re buying before buy it. Be sure to check the shipping charge. Cast iron is darn heavy, and shipping can cost a pretty penny. Be sure to factor in any shipping charge in determining whether to purchase a cast iron pan.
Happy hunting – we hope you find a pan that is just perfect for YOU!