Second-Hand Secret: Cast Iron Pans

by Lara Stewart

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While most people in the frugal lifestyle are usually willing to "settle" for used goods, there are some situations where buying used is actually better than new. One of these is the purchase of a cast iron skillet.

There are many reasons I'd recommend second-hand over new. First, a cast iron pan must be seasoned before you use it. Seasoning is the process that makes cast iron skillets dark and non-stick. It takes time to get a really good season, so let someone else do that for you.

Surprisingly, an antique shop may be the best place to find a good deal on a really good pan. I see a lot of them there, and they are usually so well-seasoned that the surface is smooth as glass. Look for Griswold or Wagner Ware pans, although any deep skillet will do. Around here, the price in antique stores is usually around $10 to $30, depending on how ritzy the shop is and how rare the pan. Thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and second-hand stores are also great places to look.

Mine came from a junk store. It's a Griswold #10, and at least 50 years old. I paid seven dollars for it. I love my cast iron skillet, and I use it almost every day.

Another reason to buy used is that new pans in the same price range don't seem to be as well-made. They are often thin, have mold-marks around the edges, and just aren't deep enough to be very effective.

The third reason applies to all used purchases, but is important enough to bear restating here. It's the environmentally correct thing to do. Used goods have little or no packaging, and do not use new resources. A good, well-cared-for cast iron skillet is an investment that can last several generations, and there are plenty of them around.

Once you've found a good one, care of a pan that is well-seasoned is pretty easy. If I use my pan for something messy, like chicken cooked in some sort of sauce, I wash it in hot water and a bit of soap. If I just fry something in it, like tortillas, I only wipe it clean with a paper towel. When the weather is especially humid, the pans are prone to rust, so I coat mine in olive oil and stick it in the oven for a while before putting it away. I hang my pan on a rack so that it gets good air circulation. When storing in a cabinet, my parents put an oil soaked paper towel inside, and that seems to help prevent rust.

If you find a really cheap pan that isn't in the best shape, and you like a good renovation project, you may want to try refurbishing a rusted or neglected pan. There was an article in The Tightwad Gazette that gave well-detailed instructions. Basically, you put it in your oven on the self-clean setting, then steel-wool the rust off. After that, you begin normal seasoning of the pan. This may be worth it if you find a really good pan cheap, but I'd rather just find an old one that's been treated right from the start.

Cast iron pans are terrific kitchen tools that will change to way you look at second-hand goods. Best of luck on your hunt!

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