Compare the pans and pots you cook your food in to what your great granny used to use, and it won’t take you long to come to a definite conclusion: they sure don’t make them like they used to.
The early 20th century was a time of booms, busts, and ceaseless innovation in all areas of life, including cookware. And it was the changing pace of American life and consumers’ tiredness of retinning copper pans or seasoning cast iron skillets that paved the way for cast-aluminum cooking vessels.
Ask anyone who knows this or that about cookware about the best cast-aluminum cooking vessels of the 20th century, and, 99.9% of the time, they’re likely to reply to you with one brand name: Magnalite.
Magnalite was a line of cast-aluminum roasters introduced by the Wagner Manufacturing Company in 1934. Its production was halted in 1996 and, today, new Magnalite cooking vessels are no longer being made.
Hand-cast from a magnesium-aluminum alloy at the Wagner Manufacturing Company factory in Sidney, Ohio, Magnalite cookware has been celebrated by restaurant chefs, cookbook authors and home cooks alike for its ability to conduct—and to radiate—heat.
“It cooks food from all sides-it’s like having an oven on top of your range (heat radiates from every part of Magnalite not from the bottom only),” the care and usage instruction booklet said.
Magnalite roasters behaved like Dutch ovens but were much bigger in terms of capacity and lighter in terms of weight. While a cast-iron Dutch oven of this size would weigh 20 pounds, a cast-aluminum Magnalite pot weighed approximately five pounds.
“You can easily fit a 20-pound bird in the big roaster and all the fixings and still be able to lift this into the oven,” a Redditor commented in a thread on the topic. “Nice to know that if a nuclear winter comes, you’ll still make a hell of a pot roast,” another one joked. Or did they?
Rectangular-shaped with rounded corners and walls 3/16 inches thick, Magnalite roasters were cast of an alloy of 94.2% aluminum, 2.5% copper, 0.5% zinc, 1.3 manganese, and 1.5% nickel.
When we speak about Magnalite, one thing’s for sure: these pots were built like tanks. They were so good, in fact, that Wagner backed them by a 50-year warranty.
Founded in 1891 in Sidney, a city in Shelby County, Ohio, the Wagner Manufacturing Company was a maker of some of America’s finest cast iron (called Wagner Ware) and cast-aluminum cookware (Magnalite).
The Wagner Ware cast iron and Magnalite cast aluminum pans and roasters are still popular among collectors and home cooks. As far as their owners are concerned, they cannot be surpassed by any modern piece of cookware on the market. They just don’t make ’em like they used to!
The Randall Company of Cincinnati acquired the Wagner Manufacturing Company in 1954, which was then acquired by Providence, Rhode Island, industrial conglomerate Textron, Inc.
In 1969, Textron sold the Wagner Ware and Magnalite trademarks to General Housewares Corporation (GHC). GHC manufactured the cast-iron and cast-aluminum cooking vessels for decades until 1996, when it announced its plans to stop doing so.
“The company said the brand names affected were Wagner’s 1891 Original Cast Iron Cookware, Magnalite Classic Cookware and Magnalite Professional Cookware, ” The New York Times reported in January of that year.
“The company said it was in talks with potential buyers for the lines and possibly for the plant where they are made, in Sidney, Ohio.” The factory remained in operation until the late 1990s. The building still stands today but has been abandoned—and is in a worsening state of continual decay.
GHC introduced another line of cast-aluminum pans and pots called Magnalite Professional. However, die-hard Magnalite fans will tell you that they’re nothing like the original manufactured by Wagner, which you can easily recognize by the engraving on the bottom of the pot.
A lucky few have had Magnalite roasters handed down to them as family heirlooms, while others have snatched them up for various prices at thrift shops, garage sales or found them online from sellers at eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy.
In Acadiana, the official name of the French Louisiana region, Magnalite roasters go by the name of “gumbo pots,” and are the first thing heirs will fight over if a family member who had them passed away and didn’t decide who should inherit them in his or her will.
“If the cornerstone of regional cooking is to take readily available cheap cuts of meat and cook them low and slow with seasonal vegetables and spices,” Atchafalaya Basin Landing Airboat Swamp Tours writes on its website, “the one thing you can count on is that there will be a heavy duty, well seasoned cast iron or aluminum pot at the heart of every Cajun meal.”
They don’t make Magnalite pans and pots since the Magnalite factory in Sydney, Ohio, closed down in 1996. These days, the only way to equip your kitchen with Magnalite cookware is to buy it second hand.
There are five sizes of Magnalite roasters and roasterettes: 13 1/2″ handle to handle, 8 1/4″ wide x 4″ tall; 15 1/2 handle-to-handle, 10″ wide x 5″ tall; 18 1/2″ handle-to-handle, 11 3/4 wide x 5 1/2″ tall; 19” handle-to-handle, 18 5/8” wide x 9/16″ tall; and 20″handle-to-handle, 12 1/4 wide x 6″ tall.
Magnalite cookware, thanks to the fact that it’s made from cast aluminum, heats up quickly and radiates heat better than any other kind of pans and pots on the market. It’s thick, sturdy, and, since aluminum doesn’t rust, is considered heirloom capable of outlasting generations of home cooks in a family.
To keep foods from sticking, Magnalite pans and pots should be seasoned. Preheat your oven to 250°F (120°C), grease the surface of your pieces of cookware with a paper towel soaked in cooking oil, and bake them upside-down in the oven for 1-2 hours.
Since they consist only of cast aluminum, magnalite roasters and roasterettes made by the Wagner Manufacturing Company can go in the oven. Magnalite pans and pots produced by GHC from the 1970s should be put in the oven with caution, as the phenolic handles can get damaged if heated past 375°F (190°C).
Magnalite pans and pots are made of cast aluminum, and—especially when you cook acidic foods with tomato, vinegar, wine, lemon sauces in them—they can leach aluminum into your food. According to the World Health Organization, adults can safely consume up to 50 mg of aluminum a day, which is significantly more than the amount leached into foods, even with daily use.
Magnalite pans and pots sell for $25-$50 depending on their condition, and Magnalite roasters for $50-$200 depending on their capacity. When in doubt, ask a cookware valuations expert to help you value your collection.
Editor’s Note: Shout-out to the reader who helped us add a missing Magnalite size through the feedback form below! Thank you for making Home Cook World a more accurate source of information for everyone on the Internet.