My new thrifted cast iron pan is costing a fortune in elbow grease — but it’s worth it

Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
When columnist Sarah Walker Caron spotted this dingy cast iron pan, she couldn't wait to get it home. Was it worth saving?
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When I spotted a hint of blue on a dirty handle of a square grill pan at Goodwill in Bangor recently, I had to have it.
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Thrifting — the art of thrift store shopping — is a favorite of mine. I turn to thrift stores to find everything from decades-old vinyl (showtunes, primarily — my musical guilty pleasure) to furniture.

And my love of all things with history has rubbed off on my kids.

As the holidays approached last year, I found myself going from thrift store to thrift store, searching for just the right desk to fill my daughter’s top wish list item: a nice desk with lots of compartments, sort of like one she spotted at The Big Chicken Barn earlier in the year.

I ended up finding the perfect one at A1 Relics in Ellsworth. She loved it.

These days, my attention has turned to something new — and perhaps you can guess what it is: cast iron.

I already own a few pieces — a pair of ceramic-coated Dutch ovens, a French cassoulet, two new skillets, a big double-sided grill/griddle and a smaller griddle, plus a corn stick pan. I am on the hunt for a few additional pieces — older ones made during a different time — to complete my set.

So whenever I am in thrift stores, I keep my eyes peeled. So far, I’ve turned down used but newer skillets at a few places and a second corn stick pan (though the more I read about them, I wonder if having two pans would be fortuitous?).

Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
When columnist Sarah Walker Caron spotted this dingy cast iron pan, she couldn't wait to get it home. Was it worth saving?

But when I spotted a hint of blue on a dirty handle of a square grill pan at Goodwill in Bangor recently, I had to have it. It was dusty and dingy on the inside and the outside was covered in a thick layer of grime. But I could see the bones of the pan, a Le Creuset grill pan in Marseille — a graduated blue.

It’s ceramic on the outside, cast iron on the inside and glazed with an enamel that means cleaning is a cinch and seasoning is not needed. It’s the grill version of my griddle pan in a color I have always loved. If it could be cleaned up, it would be beautiful. Plus, I could practically taste the perfectly seared steaks I would cook in it.

This was the moment I had been waiting for ever since I read “All the Wild Hungers,” by Karen Babine, a memoir about her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the meals she cooked in her thrifted cast iron, sharing food with her family and coaxing her mom to eat again when nothing held flavor.

I’d been so taken with how Babine described the thrill of the hunt, finding nice pieces of cast iron and using them to cook her way through a difficult time where as a daughter she felt otherwise helpless.

When I spotted this pan for $10, I felt like I was getting a bargain. Similar pans sell for about $200 new. Perhaps the people who had this one just didn’t know what they had? Or perhaps they did, and they just didn’t care.

It didn’t matter. I cared. I would love it. So I bought it.

Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
Sarah Walker Caron | BDN
When columnist Sarah Walker Caron spotted this dingy cast iron pan, she couldn't wait to get it home. Was it worth saving?

Getting it home, I set about to start cleaning with a baking soda and water paste. Almost immediately, I found the beautiful blue of the handle. When I flipped it over, I found that the spots that had looked like rust weren’t at all. The blue ceramic beneath the thick, black coating was still intact.

I probably worked on it for an hour that day. And another couple hours over the next few days. Now, it’s been nearly a week and I have mostly exposed the bottom of the pan, freeing it from its grimy prison. The sides, which were most thickly coated, are still in need of attention. I’m not sure I’ll be able to completely clean the pan though. The grime is stuck in places — like the logo on the bottom — that I can’t seem to get enough leverage to scrub.

Still, the greatest surprise when cleaning the pan was the interior — which looked so tired when I spotted it in the store — is actually in perfect condition. If not for wanting to spruce up the exterior, I could put this into use today.

I’m still excited about my find. However, a colleague asked me a good question that got me thinking, how much could you buy that pan for gently used?

Apparently the answer is $30-$50.

That let a bit of air out of my sails. I mean, who knew I could have had this piece — one I’ve wanted for awhile — for such a bargain? And really, considering the elbow grease I have put into restoring this pan already, perhaps the added cash would really indeed be a bargain.

Of course if I had just bought one in good condition, it wouldn’t have come with the same sense of accomplishment that I feel every time I expose a little more of the Marseille color of my thrifted pan.

This pan only cost me $10, but it’s got an added fee of a fortune in elbow grease. And I don’t mind. It’s lovely and when I am done, it will be a pan with a story — a pan I rescued from a pile of worn cookware on a lonely shelf.

That’s good enough for me.

 


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