In better economic times, cooks are eager to try the latest cookware. Brushed stainless steel, triple-ply stainless, enameled cast iron or enamel on steel are what gourmet cooks covet - even though some are costlier than a new range top.
But if you have an old cast-iron skillet in your cabinet, it's more valuable than you might think.
If it's a skillet or kettle inherited from a relative, chances are it's as smooth as a silk shirt and cooks better than a $200 stainless pan. It might even be worth $200 itself.
Since the 1800s, the cookware choice for many cooks is cast iron, and an early Griswold or Wagner item can bring hundreds of dollars if it's in top-notch condition.
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Take a look at your cast-iron muffin pans, Dutch ovens, roasters, bread molds, waffle irons and kettles to see whether they're in good shape. If not, you can apply a little elbow grease and return them to an almost-original patina.
Jim Nance of Georgetown, Ky., searches for old cast-iron implements, restores and resells them. There are collectors around the country who will pay thousands for a rare find.
Nance, a retired associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, began his collection of cast iron in the late '70s. He and his wife, Jan, did a lot of canoe racing, camping and outdoor cooking. In 1981, Nance attended an outdoors workshop for educators at Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he was inspired by noted outdoor cooking expert Dian Thomas.
From then on, the Nances began their search for unusual pieces of cast iron. Valuable ones are identified by distinctive marks on the back. Griswold, Wagner and Erie are the names you'll want to find, although a skillet without a name can be identified by Nance and other collectors.
From 1865 until 1957, Griswold Manufacturing Co. of Erie, Pa., made cast-iron implements that each had a distinctive mark on the back of the piece. The name Griswold is easily recognizable, but the company also used "Erie," "Erie PA" or "Erie PA USA," according to Antiques.About.com.
The Griswold items came in a variety of sizes, and the numbers on the backs of most pieces were for consumers, but now collectors use them to indicate value and rarity. No. 12 and No. 14 skillets are common, but a No. 13 could be a lucky find. And if you have a lid, that's even better.
Sometimes these valuable items are found at flea markets or garage sales, barely identifiable because of layers of rust.
Nance said selecting cast-iron cookware to restore or use is like "hunting for buried treasure."
"You never know what you'll find under the carbon-grease buildup," he said.
A piece might be cracked or pitted under the rust or buildup. If an item has more than superficial rust or rust under the carbon-grease buildup, there might be pitted areas that cannot be smoothed out. Cracks are almost impossible to repair, Nance said.
If the item has a little rust, there's an easy remedy.
For rare finds, Nance uses the more complicated and thorough lye soap method. It is only for the professional restorer.
Some people recommend using a mild white vinegar-water solution (one part vinegar, five parts water) and to soak the piece for several hours.
"The problem will be a change in the patina of the piece, and only cooking over time will restore the dark, rich color," Nance said. "Cast iron is hard to restore after you use vinegar."
Another method is to spray the grease with household ammonia and place the pan in a zipper-style bag for several days. This might loosen the buildup enough for you to wash it off. A self-cleaning oven might do the trick, but you'll have a house full of smoke. Dealers use electrolysis to break down the buildup with a mild electric charge.
Once the buildup is removed, the next step is cleaning and restoring. Wash the stripped cast iron in hot sudsy water with a scrubber or steel-wool soap pads. Continue to wash until the soap runs clear, with no discoloration from carbon or rust. Dry thoroughly and place in a 180-degree oven for a few minutes to remove all moisture.
Buff the implement using a drill and a very fine wire brush to remove any residue that's left; then rewash the item in hot sudsy water and dry immediately.
"Do not ever let cast iron dry in a drain rack," Nance cautions. Place in the oven at 180 to 200 degrees, and when the cast iron is at 180 degrees, spray it with oil or wipe with cooking oil. Return to the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Wipe off the excess oil while it is still warm.
Then make some corn bread.
The person who created the first cast-iron skillet probably was looking for something to cook corn bread. One is hardly good without the other.
Corn bread recipes are as plentiful as grandmas, but here's a good one that's easy to make and remember. Danna M. Brewer of Hazel Green, Ky., sent this recipe to the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader in the early '90s.
Raised in Ohio, she came to Kentucky when she married and "had to learn about Southern cooking," she said.
"My mother-in-law took pity on me and helped me to learn a whole new way of cooking," she said. "My mother always made good biscuits, but her corn bread was not Southern-style. I have learned to change some recipes to keep up with new products on the market. When the cornmeal mix came to the market, I gradually changed my corn bread recipe to use it. If ever someone asks me about making corn bread, I tell them to remember 2-2-2 and a pinch."
DANNA'S CORN BREAD
2 cups cornmeal mix
2 cups buttermilk
Pinch of soda
1/2 cup shortening
- Mix the first 4 ingredients in a bowl. Melt shortening in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet. Pour most of the melted shortening into the batter. While pan is still hot, pour batter back into it. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
- When done, invert corn bread onto a plate. The bottom should be crisp, and the center should be moist. This batter can be used for corn muffins, corn sticks or fried corn bread.
SKILLET SCALLION BISCUITS
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped fresh scallions, white and green parts
1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in bowl of a mixer fitted with paddle attachment.
- Add shortening and mix on medium speed until a mealy consistency is reached. Mixing on low, gradually add buttermilk, until just combined. Add scallions, and mix just enough to incorporate.
- Empty dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead into a rectangular shape. Roll dough, with a floured rolling pin, to about a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle.
- Cut out rounds using a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Drop biscuits in bottom of well-seasoned, lightly oiled 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Brush tops with egg wash and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until tops are browned and insides are firm. Serve warm.
- From "Cast Iron Cooking" by Dwayne Ridgeway
PINEAPPLE-COCONUT UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 can sliced pineapple
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon coconut-flavored rum
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
1/4 cup toasted coconut flakes for garnish
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- For topping: Melt butter in a well-seasoned 9-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add brown sugar and melt, stirring constantly, until bubbling, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat, add pineapple rings in one even layer, and set aside.
- For the batter: Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Beat in vanilla and coconut rum. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cardamom, baking powder and salt. Add half the flour mixture to the egg mixture and beat on low speed just until blended. Add pineapple juice and beat on low to incorporate; add remaining flour mixture, beating until just incorporated.
- Spoon batter over pineapple rings, smoothing the top evenly. Bake on center rack of oven until golden brown and a skewer inserted in middle comes out clean, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes. To remove from skillet, run a sharp knife around the edge to release the sides. Invert a cake plate or service platter over the skillet and invert the cake onto the plate, keeping pan and plate firmly pressed together. The cake should drop from the skillet onto the plate.
- Drizzle cake with additional coconut rum, top with toasted coconut flakes and serve.
- From "Cast Iron Cooking" by Dwayne Ridgeway
CHARRED TOMATO AND CHICKEN TACOS
1 pound ripe plum tomatoes, cored (about 4 to 5)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large white onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and very finely chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
4 scallions, chopped
12 corn tortillas, warmed
1/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream for garnish
2 limes, cut into quarters
- Heat large cast-iron skillet over high heat until very hot. Place tomatoes in skillet and turn occasionally with tongs until charred on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool slightly. Cut in half crosswise; squeeze to discard seeds. Chop remaining pulp and skins; set aside.
- Add 1 teaspoon oil to pan and heat over high heat until oil is very hot. Add chicken and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is browned on all sides and no longer pink in the center, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium and add remaining teaspoon oil. Add onions and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and jalapenos and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add lime juice and reserved chicken and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and stir in cilantro and scallions. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm.
- Spoon filling into warm tortillas, roll up and serve with sour cream and lime wedges.
- Note: Wrap tortillas in barely damp paper towels and microwave on high for 30 to 45 seconds.
- From Eating Well