I’ve always liked cooking with cast iron but it has never turned out to be as great as the company advertisements make it sound. Cast iron should be non-stick and worry-free, but for me no matter how I tried to follow seasoning and maintenance directions, a carbon layer built up on the Lodge cast iron cookware that wouldn’t come off with a gentle scrubbing. Even scrubbing with dish soap often wouldn’t take it off. The only thing that did work was steel wool and dish detergent, and then you have to season the cookware again. If I follow Lodge protocols the food I cooked started turning black from old carbon residue in the pan. My cast iron griddle and skillet spent most of their time hanging on the wall with a light coating of vegetable oil to prevent rust.
A few months ago Alice sent me a link, all the way from England, to a company that makes the old high-grade cast iron cookware, polishing to a perfectly smooth surface inside and out. I can see how this would help the carbon build-up problem immensely. Removing all those minute gaps and crevices gives burned food no resting place. The prices of such things are a bit high for my budget so I looked into ways of giving my own a better finish.
On YouTube I watched a fellow tackle a Lodge skillet with a disc sander, sander/polisher, and several grades of sandpaper. This required a way to clamp the skillet to his chimney, safety goggles and a particle mask. The end product looked ok and was certainly very shiny, but there were a lot of grooves at the edge of the cooking surface left behind by the disc sander and I’m skeptical of how flat the cooking surface was.
The price of a disc sander outweighed the price of a high quality new cast iron skillet, and the disc sander was not the only machine he used that I don’t have. I thought, well, maybe I could do something simpler, and just see if it made the pans better.
First, so long as the bottom of the pan is level, I could care less what the outside looks like, and the pans I have were level all right. The inner sides seem unlikely to cause me any problems as they are. What is really important is that inner cooking surface, the part that gets really hot, the part where you separate food from pan with spatula.
I decided to use an old-timey and really cheap method to polish just the cooking surface of the pan. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but I have lots of time. One nice afternoon I went out to the swing-seat on the porch, with the cast iron Lodge griddle, a sprinkler can of water, some steel wool, and a very worn round carborundum whetstone I’ve used for years to tune my axes and hatchets. It has a coarse grit side and a fine grit side and will fit in my pocket. You can buy one of these Norton Abrasives Axe and Hatchet Stones on Amazon currently for about ten bucks.
I scrubbed the inside of the griddle with dish soap and steel wool to get rid of whatever old carbon I could and rinsed it off. Then I poured just a little clean water onto the griddle and with the whetstone I began to grind in a circular motion, round and round the griddle.
If you don’t use a lubricating medium on one of these whetstones they clog up really quickly and stop removing any metal. If you’ve ever sharpened a knife you probably should have learned this. If you are working with a thin layer of water (or for a knife, oil or kerosene or spit) this makes a slurry on the surface of the stone and it cuts even better than if it was dry and clean. When the mud gets too thick and there’s too much metal in it, you rinse it off and start again.
It wasn’t long before bright spots began appearing on the surface of the Lodge cast iron griddle. At first there were only a few bright spots and that is not really a good sign. This means there were high points that deflected the spatula and prevented it from scraping the griddle clean, hence all that nasty carbon. I persisted, watched the neighbors cutting soybeans with their combine, saw people go by on their way to town and come back by again on their way home, listened to the birds and the farm machinery, and the whetstone kept going round and round.
It took me only a couple of hours to get the griddle polished to what looked to me like an acceptable cooking surface. Wasn’t perfect but the remaining carbon areas were small and shallow. I went through the re-seasoning process, first heating the griddle up on the cook-top until the moisture evaporated, wiping it clean with an oily paper towel, and then cooking it in a 350 degree oven for an hour. Complete instructions for most of this are available on the Lodge website. One thing that might surprise you is how quickly shiny cast iron rusts when it gets hot — this takes only seconds, but you can wipe the rust off with oily paper towels until it’s nearly as shiny as before, then rub down with clean oil and season the pan as the company suggests.
I did not know if all this work would actually make the pan any better, but when I fried a couple of eggs on it, there was a huge difference. No sticking and no carbon left on the pan. A few bits of egg here and there came off with a cold water rinse and a little scrubbing with a paper towel. I dried the Lodge griddle off and oiled it with a little corn oil, and for the first time ever I feel like I have a cast iron griddle of the same quality my Grandma Ethel had.
Next day I tackled my cast iron skillet, also from Lodge, and it was much easier. The original surface was much smoother than the griddle had been, so it only took me 45 minutes to finish up. Since I worked in a foundry for quite a few years I know this is due to the age of the molding sand and not to any extra work on the product. Molding sand for cast iron is a little coarse, but as it is reused and heated and cooled many times, the grains in the sand break down. The smaller grains in sand that is nearly burnt out make a much smoother casting than the grains of new sand do. So if you want to get the best cast iron pot or pan from Lodge, look through everything on the rack before you pick one to buy. You might find a real smoothie.