When my Grandma (my father’s mother) died when I was in college, I got lots of her old kitchen things that my aunts didn’t want. One of the treasures that I was given was her cast iron skillet.
I started using it immediately, when and if I had the courage to get in the kitchen and try to make something-usually it was something simple, like sauteing vegetables. But I had no idea how to care for a cast iron skillet. I washed it with soap, let is soak in water and in general did not take care of it the way a cast iron skillet needs to be taken care of (i.e. no soaking it in water, no soap, etc). I put it away after awhile because I could see I was messing it up, and I didn’t want to continue messing it up, but I wasn’t sure what to do fix it. I bought a new, smaller cast iron skillet and that became my go to skillet and my grandma’s got pushed to the back of the cabinet.
This year I wanted to do more braising and slow cooking on the stove top and wanted to pull it out and see if I could figure out how to repair and restore it and keep on using it. It wasn’t in horrible condition, I have seen way worse skillets online and at flea markets, but it did need a ton of elbow grease to get it to a better condition. It is still not perfect, but it is a million times better, and now that I know how to take care of a cast iron skillet that will just continue to get better with age.
First, I soaked it in apple cider vinegar and water for about 4 days.
Then I scrubbed with water, soap and baking soda.
Then I scrubbed and scrubbed with a scraper thingy (those little hard plastic squares with a good edge for scraping) and scraped all the layers upon layers of burnt food and cooking oil off that I could.
Then I heated it on the stove top with boiling water and scrapped it some more.
Then I soaked in vinegar again for about 10 days this time, and at the end of that rinsed and scraped some more. This time I used white vinegar and it seemed to work much better than the apple cider vinegar, and a whole lot cheaper.
Even after all of that, it still had gunk caked to it. So then I brought out the big guns. The toxic chemicals. I put it in a trash bag and sprayed the cast iron skillet with foaming oven cleaner. I closed up the trash bag, and let it sit for 24 hours. And boy did that work, it got off the last of the gunk that was cemented on.
Then more rinsing, boiling of water on the stove top, scraping and finally, finally I started the process of seasoning it.
After the last washing, I dried it with a paper towel and put it in the oven to really get it dry, at about 300 degrees.
Then I added some olive oil, I just did a very thin coat with a paper towel and put it back in the oven for 30 minutes. I did this about 5 times and then let it sit overnight. The next day I did it five more times and again let it sit overnight. I did that again one more time. And then put it away for a real cooking the next day. First cooking I did was to fry some eggs for breakfast, using raw, grass-fed butter. Worked perfectly!
A few other tips I learned through this process. When you are seasoning it, do not get crazy with the oil, just a tiny bit for each layer. And turn the pan upside down so that the oil does not pool. Don’t have your oven heat too high, about 300 is just fine. If you didn’t dry your skillet good enough, baking soda and a scrub brush will get off any rust from letting it sit in water too long.
In the end, this process was a huge pain in the ass. It is not for the impatient or faint of heart. But the prize at the end of all the work, was so worth it, especially since this skillet was my Grandma’s, who I had a very close relationship with and I still deeply miss every day. I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her again, making Christmas cookies, sun tea or BBQ chicken, but I am so grateful to have her skillet with me in the kitchen and know she is with me in spirit.