Finding and Using Cast Iron Pieces

by Kathy and Bruce Jacobs

Seen a great piece of cast at the flea market? Not sure if it is worth the price? The answer is here!

If you go to lots of garage sales and flea markets you will occasionally find used cast iron for sale. The prices will vary as will the quality and cleanliness of the items. The nice thing about used cast iron is that the cleanliness when purchased is not really important.

Don't pay a premium for seasoned clean cast iron; you will be getting it to the bare metal any way. Rust is not something to worry about either. A friend has a cast iron Dutch Oven that had been used outside as a planter for a couple of years, I knew that it could be saved (and was). I suppose it is possible for someone to scrub the bottom out of an oven but I have yet to see it. Do check to see if it is almost rusted through - that would be an indication of an unuseable piece.

The real killer of cast iron is cracks. Look all over the item for any cracks. Popular places for cracks include: the lid edges, the lid handle, the rim, and around the legs. If there are any cracks at all, put the pieces down and walk away. It is possible for an expert to weld cast iron so it can be used in cooking again, but it is a specialized skill and unlikely to be worth the cost and effort. For this same reason, avoid any cast iron pieces that show signs of welding. They may crack when heated.

Another common problem is missing pieces, especially the lid. If there is no lid, avoid the piece, as you are not likely to find the mate and no other lid will fit tight enough.

Sometimes a piece of cast iron is exposed to chemicals. Radiator water comes to mind. I would ask if I see any unusual stains. If a poison contacted the interior, I would thank them for their honesty and walk away. If they can't identify the stain, do the same thing. Cast iron is porous and retained poisons, chemicals, and materials could affect the food.

Don't spend too much on a used oven unless it is an unusual size or shape. I have seen indoor Dutch Ovens go for $8US-$12US. Usual prices for used outdoor ovens are in the range of $30US-$45US. I have seen a good new 12 inch outdoor oven for $30US, but they can go as high as $60US. The larger the piece, the more expensive it will be whether it is new or old.

Part of the reason for the strange pricing is the cast iron collectors and perception of what the collectors will pay. Be careful even when buying new. One company makes outdoor ovens without legs. I have seen malformations in the bottom of cheap ovens that almost looked like cracks and could become cracks in the future. If possible, open the box and look inside before you buy it.

Ok, now you have the cast iron and no idea how to get it clean. There are three tricks to having good clean cast iron:

  • Getting it clean.
  • Seasoning it
  • Keeping it seasoned.

The nice thing about cleaning cast iron is that it is made of iron. Approaches which would never be used on anything else may work quite well on cast iron. If the food is thick and baked on try an old screwdriver, putty knife or paint scraper. Some people have good luck with cast iron pieces by running them through the self clean cycle of a kitchen oven. (I have not tried this, so you on your own if something goes wrong.) Do NOT do this with an aluminum oven. I have also used sand paper, scouring pads, and aluminum foil.

If you are at a campsite, you can clean your cast iron with some sand or course dirt. Put about a tablespoon (10 ml) of sand in the bottom of the piece. Crumple some aluminum foil into a ball. Add a few drops of water. Scrub the iron with the foil making sure to rub the sand in. After a few minutes you will notice the sliver color of bare metal.

Once your cast iron is clean, you need to season it. To season it properly you need to make sure it is completely clean. Even new ovens need to be scrubbed down to metal before there first seasoning. When the piece is clean, rinse it off with water and dry it completely. Some scrubbing pads contain soap, this must be removed. You may want to let it sit in a warm oven for a couple of minutes if needed to make sure it is completely dry.

Coat the cast with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Do not use lard, grease, margarine or any oil that contains salt. Do not put much on; the oil should not drip when the piece is turned over. Pop it upside down into your kitchen oven at 350 degrees for an hour. Some people suggest two hours and some suggest removing it every 30 minutes and putting a second layer of oil on it. I find that adding layers of oil tends to cause build up and drips. Because I recommend using a liner pan almost all the time, I don't worry too much about extra seasoning.

If you do not use a liner pan, avoid acidic foods like tomatoes and fruit the first few times you use the cast iron. Also lightly coat the interior with oil before each use and after each time it is washed.