Cast-iron baking pans are often overshadowed by the treats they hold inside. You may never have admired the pans' smooth black surfaces and fanciful geometric shapes that give them the look of modern sculpture.
Combining beauty with practicality, these versatile collectibles can be displayed on a wall or used to bake classic cornbread -- and much more.
Cast iron is an alloy of iron, carbon, and silicon that is poured, molten hot, into molds to create objects that are amazingly durable. "You can keep the same pan for 100 years," says David Smith, a collector and dealer of cast-iron cookware from Perrysburg, New York, and coauthor of "The Book of Griswold & Wagner" (Schiffer; 2005).
Cast iron also retains heat well and distributes it evenly, making it a great material for baking. Cornbread is traditionally cooked in cast iron (heating the pan before adding the batter yields a bottom crust that's brown and crunchy). But virtually any batter bakes beautifully in a cast-iron pan, and the assortment available makes it easy to create cakes and breads in many charming shapes and sizes.
Although we often associate cast-iron pots and pans with Colonial America, the Chinese made the material as early as the sixth century B.C. It was produced in Europe in the 14th century, and in 1619, the first ironworks opened in North America. By the latter half of the 19th century, cast-iron stoves had become fixtures in American kitchens. Some foundries specialized in cookware, such as Griswold Manufacturing, in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Wagner Manufacturing, in Sidney, Ohio (which came to own Griswold in 1957), two names particularly prized by collectors.
These sturdy kitchen helpers made it possible to mold cornbread into neat ears of corn, and muffins into hearts, stars, hexagons, or swirled turbans. There were pans for Vienna rolls, popovers, Danish monk cakes, and little breads and muffins called gems. Cast-iron pans were manufactured by the thousands, making them plentiful today at flea markets and thrift shops and via online auctions.
Prices vary widely, depending on rarity and condition. A common popover pan from the 1950s can cost $15, while a rare 1925 Turk's-head shape may go for $1,500. Smaller pans with fewer sections (such as one that makes six muffins rather than 12) are usually more valuable than larger ones. Markings on the back -- a logo, a date, or a catalog number, among other details -- can reveal a pan's origin, but there are so many variations that it's a challenge for a novice to decipher them (a collectors' guide helps).
You may also come across recent reproductions. With these, the metal tends to be rougher and grainier than with old pans. They may not be worth as much on the collectibles market, but they are still good for cooking.
Regardless of markings, you can't go wrong buying a pan you love. Look for pans with a smooth surface and dark, even patina, without cracks or pits. But don't reject one that's coated with grease or rust. Clean it in hot soapy water with a fine wire brush, and use a fine wire wheel on an electric drill on rust.
The cleaned pan must be seasoned to protect it from rusting and help make the surface nonstick: Pour a spoonful of vegetable oil into the pan, and rub to distribute; the coating should be even but not thick. Heat the pan in a 300-degree oven for an hour, then remove it and let it cool. Wipe away any excess oil. Don't clean a seasoned pan in the dishwasher or with detergent or soap. Instead, wash it with hot water and a sponge; scrub it with coarse salt to remove cooked-on food. Wipe the pan with a little oil after scrubbing. Always dry cast iron well before putting it away -- or putting it on display.