The One Essential Kitchen Tool You Should Never Buy New

published Mar 30, 2023
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Tortellini with spring vegetables in cast iron pan, cropped in close. A wedge of parmesan in upper right with grater. Some has been grated over the top
Credit: Jesse Szewczyk

Half the thrill of thrift shopping is the treasure hunt. Sure, you save money and reduce waste by shopping secondhand, but it’s much more satisfying to find just the thing you’re looking for in a thrift shop. I love stocking up on used canning and storage jars and finding unique glassware, but my absolute favorite thrift find is cast iron! Cast iron is one of those kitchen pieces that you can almost always find used and is totally worth snagging, re-seasoning, and giving a second life. 

Thanks to their durability, any used cast iron pan you can find is going to be more worthwhile than a new one — and I’m not talking about collectable Griswold and Wagner pans, either. Here’s why you should (almost) never buy a cast iron skillet new and why the hunt for a perfect-for you-pan is really worth it. 

Why You Should Almost Never Buy a New Cast Iron Skillet

Cast iron cookware is incredibly long-lasting, can go from cooktop to campfire, gives the best sear you can ask for steaks, and crisps vegetables to tender perfection. Still some home cooks are scared off by the care that it takes to season a new piece of cast iron. Seasoning — which is essentially a bond between the iron and carbonized fat on the pan’s surface — is what makes cast iron cookware nonstick.

While most modern cast iron comes pre-seasoned, the seasoning is less established (and more likely to need re-seasoning) than one that is created by regular use. Seasoning is a major reason I prefer to thrift cast iron — someone has already done a lot of the work to establish and maintain a thick layer of carbonized oil, and many used skillets have a better nonstick surface than new pans. 

Another reason to buy cast iron secondhand? You can often find shapes and sizes that most big-box stores don’t regularly sell, or have been discontinued by manufacturers. I’ve been looking for a cast iron pizzelle pan for the last couple of years, inspired by a friend’s beloved press that is no longer manufactured. (If anyone has any leads, please let me know in the comments!)

When shopping for used cast iron, don’t be scared off by rust or a dull cooking surface. Both can be remedied with a vigorous washing and a couple rounds of re-seasoning. Do be wary of pans with serious pock marks on the cook surface or bottom, as they can’t be filled or re-seasoned, and will cause uneven heating. 

If you find that your thrift or vintage store has a skillet priced for more than $30, you might be looking at a more coveted vintage brand, like the fan-favorite Griswold or beloved Wagner pans. These can be worth their higher price point, but don’t have any major advantages in the kitchen over budget-fave Lodge or unmarked pans. 

Never Say Never to New Cast Iron 

Cast iron skillets are relatively inexpensive when purchased new, so there is still a case to be made for getting some brand-new cookware. While I adore secondhand cast iron cookware, I can appreciate that not everyone has time to thrift hunt — especially as certain cast iron sizes and shapes can get quickly snatched up. I recommend buying new cast iron if you want a common size, like an 8-, 10-, or 12- inch skillet and you don’t mind adding to a manufacturer’s seasoning. 

Personally, I prefer new cast iron cookware with intricate designs, like the corn cob cornbread pans or cast iron Bundt pan, as they are just easier to use with a factory season and some seasoning at home, versus buying new and rehabbing.

Are you a fan of secondhand cast iron cookware? Let us know in the comments below!