In better economic times, cooks are eager to try the latest cookware. Brushed stainless steel, triple-ply stainless, enameled cast iron or enamel on steel are what gourmet cooks covet - even though some are costlier than a new range top.
But if you have an old cast-iron skillet in your cabinet, itâ€™s more valuable than you might think.
If itâ€™s a skillet or kettle inherited from a relative, chances are itâ€™s as smooth as a silk shirt and cooks better than a $200 stainless pan. It might even be worth $200 itself.
Since the 1800s, the cookware choice for many cooks is cast iron, and an early Griswold or Wagner item can bring hundreds of dollars if itâ€™s in top-notch condition.
Take a look at your cast-iron pan muffin pans, dutch ovens, roasters, bread molds, waffle irons and kettles to see whether theyâ€™re in good shape. If not, you can apply a little elbow grease and return them to an almost-original patina.
Jim Nance of Georgetown, Ky., searches for old cast-iron pan implements, restores and resells them. There are collectors around the country who will pay thousands for a rare find.
Nance, a retired associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, began his collection of cast iron in the late â€™70s. He and his wife, Jan, did a lot of canoe racing, camping and outdoor cooking. In 1981, Nance attended an outdoors workshop for educators at Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he was inspired by noted outdoor cooking expert Dian Thomas.
From then on, the Nances began their search for unusual pieces of cast iron. Valuable ones are identified by distinctive marks on the back. Griswold, Wagner and Erie are the names youâ€™ll want to find, although a skillet without a name can be identified by Nance and other collectors.
From 1865 until 1957, Griswold Manufacturing Co. of Erie, Pa., made cast-iron implements that each had a distinctive mark on the back of the piece. The name Griswold is easily recognizable, but the company also used "Erie," "Erie PA" or "Erie PA USA," according to Antiques.About.com. The Griswold items came in a variety of sizes, and the numbers on the backs of most pieces were for consumers, but now collectors use them to indicate value and rarity. No. 12 and No. 14 skillets are common, but a No. 13 could be a lucky find. And if you have a lid, thatâ€™s even better. Sometimes these valuable items are found at flea markets or garage sales, barely identifiable because of layers of rust.
Nance said selecting cast-iron pan cookware to restore or use is like "hunting for buried treasure."
"You never know what youâ€™ll find under the carbon-grease buildup," he said.