Cast-Iron Skillets: What Makes Vintage Pans The Best
Categories: Fun, Gadgets, Camping, Homesteading, Tips & Tricks
Doing some research, I learned that vintage cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens from the 19th and early 20th centuries were made with much more care and craftsmanship than those produced today. These pots and pans were made by hand: Sand molds were carefully formed, and the iron was hand-poured, allowing manufacturers to make thinner, lighter cookware than can be made in a factory. And the pans were also finished to make their surfaces smoother; they could be polished with a grinding stone or “milled” to make the bottom of the pan completely flat and smooth (a process that removed more metal than grinding), and some companies also used proprietary finishing techniques to make “mirror polished” or “frosted” pans that had an almost satin feel. These methods made the pans easier to handle and to season—and, therefore, to cook with.
Now I’m always on the hunt for vintage cast-iron pans. Over the years, I’ve learned to look for a few things: First, the best cast iron was made in the U.S., and most of what is still available today was made by just nine companies: Birmingham Stove & Range, Favorite Stove & Range, Griswold Manufacturing, Lodge Manufacturing, Martin Stove & Range, Sidney Hollow Ware, Vollrath Manufacturing, Wagner Manufacturing, and Wapak Hollow Ware. Many of these companies made cookware under a few different brand names, and many continued to produce wares after they’d switched over to an automated manufacturing process. Lodge, for instance, still makes high-quality pans today. But if their names are stamped anywhere on the pan, or if you can find the name of the city the foundry was in, it’s a good start. (The term “Made in the U.S.A” wasn’t stamped on pans until after automated manufacturing became the norm. If you see this, it’s not vintage.)
Second, I check to see if the pan is chipped, warped, or has any pitting or hairline fractures. A pan with a bad patina can be reseasoned, but structural problems cannot be fixed. Mostly, I look at the quality of the pan. Does it feel light and is easy to handle? Does the metal look sturdy but thin? Does the surface feel smooth? On some high-quality pans you will still see the whorls or concentric circles made by milling and polishing.