A restored vintage piece of cast iron cookware, ready to be seasoned.

dating wagner ware cast iron skillet-75

You could take the easy route and pay a premium for a piece that's already been refurbished.

Or you can go the DIY route by picking up a rusted old clunker at a garage sale or flea market and fixing it up yourself.

Look online, though, and you'll find a whole lot of different ideas about the best way to clean it up.

Aside from the small improvement in non-stick qualities that the smooth surface does offer, it's also just a heck of a lot more beautiful to look at.

But perhaps the best thing about vintage cast iron pans is the past they connect us to—those pans go back to a period of American history dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s when cast iron was a serious industry, not just for pans but steam radiators and wood-burning stoves, bridges and even buildings (the Serious Eats headquarters is just blocks from So Ho, home to an amazing collection of 19th century cast-iron architecture).

Beyond the national history, there's the everyday life that's baked into each and every old piece of cast iron cookware: just think of all the meals that have sizzled in a skillet that dates back to the first World War, or the Civil War even.

That's the magic of vintage cast iron, but what about the reality of actually buying it?

It's not that the vintage stuff is worlds better than the modern pans available today—the smoother finish characteristic of very old cast iron provides only marginally better non-stick properties.

But, for those of us nerdy enough to get excited about the details, vintage cast iron has a lot going for it.

First, it tends to be lighter than its modern equivalents, which, if you use cast iron regularly, can start to make a difference in your quality of life (at the very least, your back will thank you for it).

Second, it has that smooth finish, a final production step from long ago that was eventually dropped in favor of manufacturing speed and efficiency.