Tips from the Experts
How Home Cooks Can Hit the Jackpot at an Estate Sale
Kitchens are an estate sale hot spot, according to one expert.
01-08-2021
Mari Levine

A few days ago, ATK Kids test cook Cassandra Loftlin shared some food news that got the home cook in me excited: American Southern cooking doyenne Nathalie Dupree was having an estate sale in Charleston, SC.

Dupree is a big deal in the culinary world. She’s credited with starting the New Southern Cooking movement. She’s the author of 12 cookbooks and a two-time James Beard Award-winner. She was also a longtime cooking-show host on PBS, the Learning Channel, and the Food Network. A portion of the proceeds from her estate sale will go to the Charleston chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, which she helped found.

As you’d expect, her estate sale is a treasure trove for home cooks. Among the items for sale are hundreds of pieces of cooking equipment—skillets, pots (many of them copper!), and appliances—plus shelves of cookbooks, cooking magazines, and other ephemera that looks like it belongs in a museum. Even if you’re not in the Charleston area, browsing the photos is a vicarious thrill.

But you don't have to wait for a culinary legend to downsize to find that diamond in the rough. Estate sales are the opposite of shopping at a big-box store; each one is unique. They're great places for anyone (not just collectors or antiquers) to shop for kitchen tools—as long as you know what to look for. 

I talked to Janet Gaffney, a former food stylist and cooking instructor and the owner of Estate Treasures, the company behind Dupree’s estate sale, about some items to keep an eye out for next time you’re able to attend an estate sale in person or online.

Items for sale in Nathalie Dupree's estate sale

Some of the items for sale in Dupree's estate sale.

Cast-Iron Cookware

Cast iron is a hot commodity at estate sales; Gaffney says collectors seek it out the same way they seek out sterling. She said that Dupree’s cast-iron waffle maker from Griswold Manufacturing, a collector’s item, was one of the first items to sell during the estate sale’s pre-sale period.

Home cooks should know that cast iron is virtually indestructible. So even though that cast-iron skillet might look beyond repair, all rusty and dull, it can likely be restored. (But if it’s dented or cracked, thank it for its service and leave it on the shelf.)

To breathe new life into a cast-iron skillet in very bad condition, start by stripping the surface using these detailed instructions. Once the skillet’s seasoning has been stripped away, repeat an oven-repair process six times or until the skillet has a dark, smooth finish. Find all the details you need to care for cast iron—from general maintenance to full overhaul—in this How to Clean a Cast-Iron Pan article.

Attachments for Your Favorite Appliances

Dupree’s estate sale is a particular gold mine in this department. Because Cuisinart sponsored her television shows, her estate sale includes dozens of food processors, bowls, and attachments. (It took a whole afternoon for someone to sort all the parts—most of them were stored in the attic.)

Not every sale will have so many high-ticket items, but Gaffney points out that estate sales are a great place to shop for specific parts for items you already have: another bowl for your stand mixer, a new blade for your food processor, or a new attachment for your pasta maker.

Small Appliances

If the price is right, this is a good time to buy that specialty device you’re reluctant to pay full price for. It’s like taking an appliance on a test run—if that $10 ice cream maker proves to you how much you love making your own ice cream, use it until you’re ready to upgrade to a new one.

Gaffney said it’s industry standard for estate sale workers to make sure an appliance turns on when it’s plugged in before adding it to a sale. “We try to be up front with the buyer so when they get home, they’re satisfied and can use the product,” she said.

That said, all sales are final. Keep in mind that all of these appliances have been used, so there’s always a chance they won’t last as long as you’d like. Don’t spend more than you’d be OK paying if that happened to you.

Knives

If you find a knife you love, one that feels good in your hand and is a length and design you’re comfortable with, don’t be discouraged if it isn’t as sharp as you’d like. That’s what knife sharpeners are for! There are sharpening options for every level of dullness, from a honing steel (for a simple realignment) to a whetstone (to reshape the blade). You can find four ways to sharpen knives—along with our product recommendations—in this video.

Small Tools

Small tools’ design flaws are usually easy to identify and they’re a pretty low-risk purchase, so if you know what to look for, you can find quality models of things like biscuit cutters, ramekins, cookie cutters, and mixing bowls. They might not seem as exciting at first but these small tools will get more use in your kitchen than many appliances or pieces of cookware.

Even the experts do it: Gaffney told me she “bought Nathalie’s ice cream scoop because it’s better than the one I have.”

Cookbooks

“The great thing about estate sales is that everybody has these wonderful libraries in their homes,” Gaffney said. Even people who aren’t avid cooks tend to accumulate some cookbooks over the years, and estate sales are a great place to find unique, one-of-a-kind additions to your own collection.

Vintage Cookware and Servingware

There’s a whole industry of collectors, resellers, and antiquers who buy their wares at estate sales. They know to look for the “hallmark”—the unique logo that signifies the maker and date of a manufacturer—to know if an item is real sterling silver or crystal or some other valuable material or maker.

But there’s also a lot that might appeal to an untrained eye. Even if that vintage-looking casserole dish or funky salt and pepper set isn’t going to earn you thousands of dollars on Antiques Roadshow, they come with lots of history and a good story.

“I hear clients say, ‘Oh, my children don’t want this silver.’ And I say, ‘That’s fine. Someone will.’” Gaffney said with a laugh. “But there are always people who just want to set a pretty table. There’s still a buyer for everything.”