Cast Iron for Christmas

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How to shop for the cast iron-lover in your life.

A cast iron collector’s holiday wish list may look a bit different from the typical home cook’s. Rather than listing the newest gadgets and pans or exotic ingredients, a cast iron collector’s list likely consists of old-school skillets made by companies that no longer exist, specialty pans you may have never heard of before, or that one antique lid they need to complete a branded set.

Although the world of cast iron antiques shopping can be intimidating for a novice, there’s no reason you can’t make this season special by surprising your favorite collector with the piece they’ve been searching for—and we have everything you need to get started.

STEP ONE: MAKE A GAME PLAN

The best way to ensure success on any antiques shopping trip is careful planning. Do a little research online before leaving home, and pick two to four shops in your area to explore—going to just one can severely limit your options or be heartbreaking if the shop you choose happens to be out of cast iron for the time being.

Be sure to call ahead to double-check store hours and ask if they have cast-iron pieces in stock. If they have plenty, you can prioritize that shop. If they don’t, you can spend that extra time combing through other stores.

You’ll also want to bring a few tools to make the trip easier. Take along a small flashlight and a straight-edged object (like a ruler) to help you inspect any prospective purchases. The flashlight will help you see cracks and pitting in the pieces more easily, and pressing a straight edge along the inside or bottom of a pan will make any warping or bowing obvious.

Carrying a pair of gloves or hand sanitizer is highly recommended because pans that have been sitting on shelves often have a little rust, sticky residue, or a light coating of dust that can leave your hands feeling grimy. We also like to keep a drop cloth or sturdy blanket in the car to both protect upholstery from any gunk clinging to pans and to prevent skillets from sliding and bumping into each other on the ride home.

STEP TWO: JOIN THE HUNT

The first thing to do when you enter an antiques store is ask where the cast iron is located. Some stores display all their pans together, and some sprinkle them throughout the store among various booths. Check out the area the clerk directs you to first, then take a lap of the rest of the aisles to see if you can find any pieces peeking out of other shelves, stacks, or displays.

If you know the brand name or style of a specific piece you are searching for, don’t be afraid to ask an employee directly. They may be able to help you narrow your search area, especially if the store is on the larger side.

Once you find your prized piece, remember that the price on the tag is not necessarily final. There is almost always a little extra wiggle room added into the price for haggling.

Come to the store with an idea of what the pans you want are worth (checking online auctions or Facebook groups dedicated to cast iron collecting are great ways to find this information), so you can be well informed and ready to confidently talk the price down to what you feel is appropriate. The collector in your life will be even happier to know you got a good deal on their gift.

STEP THREE: THINK LIKE A COLLECTOR

When shopping for cast iron at antiques stores, condition is the most important factor. You’ll often find pans with excess layers of seasoning, oily finishes, and varying degrees of rust and dust. These imperfections don’t necessarily make a pan off limits—in fact, your collector may love the challenge of shining up a project piece—but it does mean you need to look carefully before you buy.

Light rust isn’t a deal-breaker, but deep rust could be. If it has gotten severe enough to eat away at the surface of a pan, the damage is permanent. While you can likely remove the rusty residue, that skillet will still have pits and dings in the iron that can’t be fixed.

If a piece has been improperly seasoned, it can usually be stripped and reseasoned with no problem. But if a skillet has layers of crusty or oily seasoning built up on the surface, it will be hard to check whether the iron underneath is in good condition. While some of these pans are still beautiful under all the gunk, it can also mask those more troublesome imperfections.

When it comes to choosing among various shapes, sizes, and makers of vintage cast iron, it can be hard to know which pieces are worth buying and which you should leave behind. This decision will depend on the gift’s recipient.

If the person you’re shopping for collects a specific vintage brand, like Wagner, Griswold, Wapak, or Birmingham Stove & Range, then seeking items that bear those logos is a great place to start. If your collector loves to identify pans, look for unmarked skillets and Dutch ovens that will give them the thrill of the maker chase. If they have a soft spot for novelties, like gem molds, cornstick molds, or Turks head pans, keep an eye out for those distinct shapes.

STEP FOUR: FINISH THE JOB

Once you’ve conquered the antiques mall aisles and flea market tables, it’s time to wrap up your cast iron quest—literally. Gift wrapping pans of various shapes and sizes can be tricky, but we have a few favorite no-fuss methods.

The first (and easiest) way to package a cast-iron pan is to simply fill an appropriately sized box with a generous amount of festive tissue paper, snuggle your pan inside, and top with more tissue paper, leaving no wiggle room between the pan and the sides of the box. This works best with a rectangular mold pan or a small round skillet.

Another simple yet decorative technique is to place your pan in a reusable canvas tote and use tissue paper to hide the contents. The sturdy material of the tote will stand up to the weight of a larger skillet or cast-iron piece better than a traditional paper gift sack.

If you’d like to make an even more delicious impression with your gift, try adding your favorite cornbread or cake mix and an oven mitt to the packaging. Or go a step further and bake a Christmas skillet cookie, brownie, or cake (like these Apple Brandy Fruitcakes) straight in the pan, let cool completely, and wrap with cellophane. Finish with a card or colorful tag, and your gift is sure to impress.

Apple Brandy Fruitcakes
 
These little fruitcakes are light in texture and filled with brandy-soaked dried fruit and warm spices. If you don't have a cast-iron Turks head pan, a regular muffin pan will do.
Serves: 12
Ingredients
  • 1½ cups chopped dried fruit (golden raisins, cherries, apricots, apple rings)
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup apple brandy or cider, plus more for basting
  • ¼ cup chopped candied ginger
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large orange, zested (about 2 tablespoons)
  • ⅓ cup fresh orange juice (about 1 large orange)
  • ¾ cup self-rising flour
  • ¼ cup chopped pecans
  • 2 teaspoons apple pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • Garnish: confectioners’ sugar
Instructions
  1. In a medium cast-iron skillet, bring dried fruit, granulated sugar, brandy or cider, candied ginger, butter, and orange zest and juice to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a large heatproof bowl, and let stand for 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 325°. Spray a 6-well cast-iron Turks head pan with baking spray with flour.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pecans, apple pie spice, ground ginger, and salt. Add egg to cooled fruit mixture, stirring to combine. Add flour mixture to fruit mixture, stirring to combine. Spoon 2½ tablespoons batter into each prepared well. Cover and refrigerate remaining batter.
  4. Bake until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Carefully turn out cakes, and baste lightly with additional brandy or cider while warm, if desired. Repeat with remaining batter. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving, if desired.

 

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