I just love old things; old cars, old houses, old books, old toys, old glassware and especially old cast iron cookware. I wrote an article last year around my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. It’s my favorite piece of cookware in my kitchen. I know it’s well over a hundred years old. I’d give up everything in my kitchen before I gave up that skillet. I have many other skillets, but that one is my favorite.

If you’re new to cooking and want a good cast iron skillet, take it from me and find yourself an old one. Lodge still makes new ones, but they’re not the quality of the old ones. They will say pre-seasoned and ready to use. I disagree with them.

If you run your hand across an old good and clean skillet, it should have a good smooth surface. The new ones are coarse and grainy feeling. That grainy texture will not go away by itself. Also, please totally forget the pieces from overseas, China, etc. They rust easily, and can’t even hold a candle to an old piece of cast iron. Top name brands include Griswold and Wagner. Many lesser known brands are also great. My grandmother’s skillet is by Dixie Foundry in Cleveland, TN. There used to be hundreds of small foundries and stove companies who made cast iron cookware. All of that era are great. Look at flea markets and antique stores. Even if the piece needs a good cleaning, that’s no big deal.

Since I do love old things, I’ve been to a lot of flea markets and antique stores. Many years ago I was at Esau’s Flea Market in Knoxville when I came across a booth with nothing but old cast iron cookware in it. I couldn’t believe my eyes at how beautiful the cookware was. Each piece looked brand new, although all pieces were old. I cornered the booth’s owner to ask him how he had cleaned these pieces. A lot of people wouldn’t have shared their secrets, but he was kind enough to do so.

First I’ll tell you what he told me, then I’ll share what I have to do now. He cleaned his pieces with Red Devil Lye®. This is a pure crystalized lye. He mixed it with water in a three gallon plastic bucket leaving enough space for the items to be cleaned. He stirred it with a stick. Be sure and use the heavy duty rubber gloves when doing this, because it can cause severe chemical burns. He placed the lid on the bucket and allowed this to sit for three to five days. This worked like a charm, but I can’t find the Red Devil Lye® any more. DO NOT use Drano® crystals. This contains other chemicals besides the lye and can damage your cookware.

I found a product Roebie Crystal Drain Opener® at Lowe’s that is 100% lye. Pour the entire bottle (2 pounds) into your bucket. Fill about two-thirds of the way full with water and stir with a stick or old broom handle. Again, be sure to use the rubber gloves. You may also want to use eye protection. You can clean multiple pieces at one time, and you can use the same solution several times. Place lid on the bucket, and set somewhere where no children or pets can get into it. Let set from three to five days according to how dirty the pieces are. I once cleaned a Dutch oven and lid that had been horribly dirty, and then spray painted black over the dirt. This cleaning solution cleaned it down to the bare metal. That was the dirtiest piece I ever cleaned.

An easier method for minimally dirty pieces is to spray the piece thoroughly inside and outside with oven cleaner. Place inside a trash bag and close the bag. Let set for two to four days. Remove and proceed with the next step in the other process. If the piece doesn’t come completely clean, you can repeat this process or try the other one.

After the cleaning period is over, remove to see how much residue still remains on your pieces. I put each piece in the sink or outside in a dishpan. Scrub with a brass bristled brush. You can find these brushes at a hardware store or even at Walmart. This should remove everything. Rinse with water. Dip in a solution of half water and half white vinegar which will neutralize the lye solution. Rinse with water, and thoroughly dry with a dish towel.

Now comes the seasoning process. All seasoning is is a thin coat of grease on your piece. The man who gave me the original cleaning instructions told me to rub the pieces with either lard or peanut oil. I rubbed mine with the peanut oil and placed in the oven to season. It came out so sticky that I had to clean it again. I recommend lard or a solid shortening such as Crisco®. I prefer the lard. After all, it is a natural product. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees. Rub your cast iron piece on the inside and outside. Turn it upside down and place in oven for 30 minutes. I place a baking sheet under mine to catch any runoff. Remove your piece, wipe down inside and out. Place back in oven for another 30 minutes. Turn oven off and leave the piece in oven until cool. Remove from oven and wipe down again.

You may see other methods of cleaning cast iron such as in a self-cleaning oven, in a fire, or sandblasting. Although these methods may clean your pieces, they can also severely damage them. My grandmother did clean her skillets outdoors in a fire, but I won’t be trying that for more than one reason. Number one being I could possibly burn my house down, and number two it can crack your cast iron. Using the self-cleaning oven can also crack your pieces due to the high heat. I don’t even want to think of what sandblasting could do unless you were incredibly skilled at what you were doing. My brother did tell me that the lye cleaning method would be a great way to clean old car parts.

Many people say that after you have cleaned and seasoned your cast iron cookware, you should never wash with soap. I don’t adhere to that advice. I don’t put the skillet down in the soapy water. I just put a little dish detergent in the skillet with some water and clean it. Also if you have a lot of food stuck in the skillet, fill with water and bring to a boil on the stove. Scrape out the food particles and wash it. Dry thoroughly. I like to even stick mine back in the oven if it is still warm.

If you take care of your cast iron cookware, it should last not only a lifetime, but several lifetimes. It can be passed down through multiple generations. I have always the best way to take care of your cast iron cookware is to use it, and I firmly that’s the best advice that I could pass along to anyone. Some folks will re-season their pieces after each use. I don’t do that, but I do occasionally give it a little rub or lard or shortening.

Now that your skillet has been cleaned, here’s an unusual recipe to try in it. A big chocolate chunk cookie! You can use that skillet for oh so many things!!

As always, enjoy!

Iron Skillet Chocolate Chunk Cookie

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature plus enough butter to grease pan

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup coarsely chopped chocolate chunks (your choice dark or milk chocolate)

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 10 inch skillet with some butter.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in the egg and vanilla. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and stir until smooth. Mix in the chocolate chunks and the pecans.

Press into the bottom of a 10 inch greased skillet. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes or until done.

Cut into wedges and serve warm with a scoop of ice cream on top.

(PUB. NOTE: Elizabeth loves to hear from readers. If you have ideas or recipes to share, email her at mammawcas@gmail.com.)