Ashley Jones loves finding and refurbishing cast iron cookware

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Yes, s'mores can be made in a cast iron skillet. Photo by Poly Mendes, courtesy of American Skillet Company.

The beauty of campfire cooking is that you don't need a lot of tools. The essentials include a knife, a pair of tongs and a cast iron skillet, which might be the greatest kitchen tool of all time. There are legions of obsessives out there who hunt for vintage pans, paying attention to details like surface-finish and the shape of the pour spout. Ashley Jones is one of them. She's such a big fan of the stuff, she has written two books about it. Her latest is Skilletheads: A Guide to Collecting and Restoring Cast-Iron Cookware. Why? Because just like recipes, some cookware deserves to get passed down through generations. 

For those who think traditional s'mores, made with a stick or a skewer, are too messy, we have the perfect alternative, a recipe for Skillet S'mores.

KCRW: I've lived in the same place for many, many years. I was digging out some flower beds at the beginning of the pandemic to start over, and I found a cast iron skillet that had been buried there for who knows how many years. 

Ashley Jones: So strange. Was it all rusted? 

Yeah, it was all rusted. But I fixed it up and now it's my favorite pan. 

Well, I am very impressed that you were able to restore something like that. That says quite a lot about you — and cast iron, actually. 

That pan, because it was the kind of cast iron pan that isn't pitted, it was really smooth. 

Wow. Do you know what brand it is? 

No, it has nothing. It has no marks. 

Wow. So that tells you how old it is, too. A lot of those old vintage pans didn't didn't have any kind of marking on them. They didn't think about branding their cast iron. The fact that it was very smooth, tells me that it was probably handmade and they milled it once it was made. That's one of those pans that people love to collect. 

How has the manufacturing of cast iron changed over the last 50 or so years?

You know the old adage that "what's old is better than what's new," "you can't make it like you used to"? That kind of holds true. Cast iron used to be made by hand and it was poured by hand. It was treated afterward by hand. It was seasoned by hand. Everything was done by hand. Then, when automation hit in the 1960s, cast iron did have quite an overhaul. 

The modernization process was rough on those pans. Because cast iron is brittle, they had to make the pans a little thicker, a little more robust to handle that automation. Pans started getting thicker walls, different size pour spouts, everything was just clunkier. And you didn't have people milling the inside, so that handmade part was gone. That's the way things were left for a long time. We could get the automated pans. Lodge is the main manufacturer for that. They've been around since 1896. They've held the industry all these years. 

Then, in about 2012 to 2015, several companies were formed and they all decided, independently, that they wanted to make cast iron in a vintage style. They realized that none of the new stuff was like the old vintage ones.They all focus on more of a handmade cast iron product that, in some way or another, mimics those old styles. So we've definitely reverted back to the good old days when it comes to cast iron. 

Those pans are scary expensive. But I guess we have to remember that they will last generations. 

That's right. So when you talk money, Lodge is going to be your most economical pan. A regular 10-inch, you can get at Target, Walmart, Sam's, places like that for $25. Very economical. It's still cast iron. It's a very good quality piece of cast iron. But it's made in that modern style. There are people there who help the process along but they're not hand-milling it so there's a lot of texture on a cast iron pan from Lodge. The mark-up from there is drastic. 

When you look at those modern companies, you're going to $140, and that is because there is that hand element in there. Some of the companies still hand-pour their metal. They're really small and they have batch processing. Most of them, they have some automation in there but are doing some hand-milling afterward or they're hand-seasoning it. Sometimes, it takes three weeks or more for these pans to get done. They're also renting space in different foundries across the U.S. They don't have their own foundry that they own, like Lodge does, so they're renting space. They'll ship the pans from one stage to another, to finish the process. It's very different with those modern companies, and when you look at what goes into it, that price tag really makes more sense. 

Are there any of these modern companies that you'd like to give a shout out?

I can honestly say I love all of them. The pans themselves are each very unique. You think cast iron, you think round, regular handle, not much going on there. But they are quite unique from company to company. Some are really lightweight.

Marquette Castings has the lightest weight one that I looked at. It's like 4.3 pounds for a 10-inch skillet. I can lift it with one hand. It's amazing. Stargazer Cast Iron is really well known among people who love to cook. You've got Field Company. Borough Furnace is a very neat one out of New York. The names are ones that I had never heard of and that's because a lot of these companies sell direct to the consumer, so you can't find them in the store. That's how they keep their costs from being higher than they already are. 

So let's talk for a minute about vintage pants because I love picking through metal junk. What should we be looking for as we look for a vintage pan?

Yeah, they call it the love of the hunt. First, you want to make sure it's cast iron. Cast iron is magnetic. So you can take a magnet with you and make sure that it is actually iron. There were some other products that companies made that were not cast iron that can look like it. One of the things that you want to make sure that you don't get is a damaged pan. Pans that are restored in a fire can often have fire damage. If [a pan] has a pink or reddish hue to the metal, that's probably fire damage. You can also see if the pan is warped. You can take a straight-edge ruler and put it inside the pan or on the bottom of the pan and see if it's not straight. 

If you're looking for certain brands and certain styles that were made at certain times, there's so much of the history in these companies, you really need to do your research. There are some great resources out there that have pictures of every variation of every pan by these main manufacturers. You can find that variation based on the shape of the hole in the handle and sometimes the weight of the pan or the thickness of the walls. They can really help you figure out what the manufacturer was, maybe what the brand was and even a guesstimate on the year that it was made. 

Should people be wary of finding a pan that has rust on it?

That's a great question. So many people are afraid of rust and I get it. What do you do with it? Cast iron rusts very quickly. It can happen overnight if water is left in it. So no, don't be wary of a little rust. If it is just a little rust, that can be easily taken care of. Start with a wool scouring pad. This is the only time you would use something like that on your pan, to get that rust off. Then you just rinse it out, make sure the water runs clear and you've got all the rust off. That's typically all you have to do if it's a little rust. 

If it's a little more than that, then you can do a vinegar bath, which is half-water, half-white vinegar, in your sink. Let that sit for a little while. Vinegar can pit the pan so you have to be careful. You check it every 30 minutes or so. Beyond that, it can get a little interesting in the ways that the professionals restore cast iron. They take pieces that look like they came from the bottom of the sea and restore those using lye baths and electrolysis tanks. Some [people] will also use products that you can use at home. So if you're not interested in a lye bath or any tank, you can use products like Easy-Off Oven Cleaner, Rust Off. I was really scared about those products initially, but I did some research and talked to a chemist, and it seems that those are actually quite safe to use on your cast iron, and they rinse clean. 

If all of that sounds super scary, then your next option is simply to send it to someone who restores cast iron. They will restore it and send it back to you. 

Could you describe the ideal surface finish and texture of a pan? Tell us what we're looking for. 

Cast iron is like all kinds of cookware, it's personal preference. If you know how to cook, you can cook on a very textured pan or on a very smooth pan. But it's easier to cook on a smoother pan. You need some texture. I found out that if the pan is completely glass smooth, it cannot hold seasoning. 

Ashley Jones says in the last decade, cast iron skillet milling has mimicked vintage tradition. Photo by Courtney Wahl.

Let's talk about seasoning the pan. I think that despite all the YouTube videos and advice out there, when it comes to actually doing it, people still have so much trepidation about it. 

I think that's because a lot of that information is conflicting. Seasoning is really a neat chemical process. I wish they had taught this sort of thing in school. I think all of us would have been a little bit more interested, when it came to chemistry. 

The oil has to be heated. When the oil is heated in a cast iron pan, it forms a polymer layer, kind of like that when they make plastics but this is all natural. It creates this nice polymer layer and it partially bonds to the pan. So it creates a natural nonstick coating on your cast iron pan. Now, there are tricks to this. If you overheat the oil, it's going to smoke, and that releases some carcinogens. We don't really want to breathe that in. So you want to get it hot but not to that point. 

From a home cook standpoint, I need this to be done in like two minutes. So I came up with what I call a light seasoning and a deep seasoning. 

A light seasoning is what I do on the stove. Every time I cook, I wash my pan, dry my pan with paper towels, put it on the stove and let it get warm on the stove. That's going to let all the water evaporate. That makes sure that I can't have any rust. It won't rust because all the water is going to evaporate. Then, I go ahead and put some oil in the pan. I use tongs and some paper towels to rub that oil on the cooking surface of the pan, then I rub off any excess. This is a very important point that everyone impressed on me. The oil has to be removed from the pan because when it creates that polymer layer, it's a very, very thin layer. So I remove any excess oil, I let that pan heat up for a couple minutes on low to medium and it's done. I turn it off, I let it cool down and my pan is seasoned. That's all I have to do with my pans, 99% of the time. 

If, for some reason, I need a little bit more care, let's say we remove that rust and we need to give it some TLC, you do the same thing. Rinse it, dry it on the stove, put some oil in it and put it in the oven. This time, you can put the oil on the bottom of the pan, on the handle, everywhere. Again, wipe off all excess residue. Put it in the oven and set the temperature to 10 to 15 degrees below the smoke point of your oil then let that cook for an hour.

Photo courtesy of Red Lightning Books.