It’s amazing what you can do with a good dutch oven or a cast iron pan over a campfire, on a stove top or in an oven. The secret to this age old, original non-stick cookware is how you take care of it. If you ask 10 scouters how they take care of their cast iron you will get 11 different answers 🙂
So.. here is #12.
There are a few things you have to keep in mind about cast iron skillets, pans and dutch ovens.
- They are not ready to go when you have purchased them new from the store… yes… even the pre-seasoned ones.
- There are certain foods you want to try and avoid in cast iron
- There are certain implements you can use which extends the capabilities of your cast iron
- Not all cast iron is created equal.
- Seasoning is a multi-step AND ongoing process.
- Cleaning and storage techniques must be followed or you will have problems.
Lets start with the first big myth most people fall for… Pre-seasoned cast iron is ready to eat out of as soon as you bring it home.
Ever see the the backroom of any department store? Ever look inside shipping containers or boxes? Yeah.. pretty nasty stuff. Cast iron is porous. It will absorb what you put in it or comes in contact with. The oils used to preseason cast iron is the bare minimum to keep rust from happening and not much in the way for cooking just yet. You still need to season it if you want anything out of it to taste like anything but the oils that came on it. You just don’t need as many seasoning layers as the non-pre-seasoned gear. Lodge uses a highly refined soybean oil to treat and then bake on. (You can go to their site to see their process.) Some of the cheaper stuff made may use other types of oils that may not even be good to ingest. The point here is that you want to eat out of it right? You should give it a very good cleaning first to get all the stuff, including that factory oil, out of that pot/pan/dutch oven without soap (Covered in the last point of this article.) After cleaning it, you should then apply an oil that you know about or cook something really oily/fatty (like a few strips of bacon or sausage) in it with the intent you won’t eat it. You will then need to season it. (That step covered later).
The second point is you want to try and avoid certain types of food in cast iron.
Acidic foods like tomatoes, pineapple, and vinegars can eat through your seasoning if it’s thin or left in contact for long periods of time with that acidic food. So what is the answer to this? You need to use something that either provides a barrier between the food and cast iron (covered in the next point) or cook in them quickly and get the food out as quick as you can. Option #3 would be to use an aluminum dutch oven.
The third point is that there are certain implements you can use which extends the capabilities of your cast iron.
Baking parchment paper/liners or, aluminum foil/liners provide barriers between your food and the wall of the cast iron. They can keep the acidic foods from attacking your well worked in seasoning. They also enable a very quick cleanup if you are careful. Parchment paper/liners are better for baking while aluminum foil/liners are better for boiling, roasting. The paper is less of a thermal block and will easily transfer heat while the foil is a radiant barrier. If you make a cobbler with a foil liner it will take much longer for it to bake especially if you put all those ingredients into a cold dutch oven. Trivets are usually made of metal that provide an air gap between the bottom of the pan and your food barrier. These are excellent if you want to convert a dutch oven into a warmer. You simply place about 1/4 cup of water in the bottom. Heat it up to near boiling point. Now, stick the trivet in and place a pan on top of that to keep your food off the water. The pot along with hot water will create a steam warmer that should last up to 30 minutes if the pot got hot enough and you keep the lid on it. Camp Chef offers a few more gadgets that can convert your dutch oven into a smoker (that’s a post for later).
The fourth point is that not all cast iron is created equal.
The older cast iron is almost always the best. Griswald cast iron is highly sought after at auctions. The stuff that you can buy new online or in stores are made with different metal mixture values that can leach into your food. Some stuff made in China has been known to have high amounts of lead in it. (Google how to test for metals leaching into your food from cast iron. it uses a tomato based sauce.) Lodge is one of the few manufactures who guarantee that their cast iron is lead free. You will want to check on where the cast iron is made before you purchase if that is a concern for you. Also with the cheaper made cast iron you will notice that it won’t heat evenly. This is a big problem for baking but not so much for things like soup.
The fifth point is that seasoning is a multi-step, ongoing process.
The better the seasoning (which is to say the more seasoning layers, the better the performance of use and the food will taste. It requires oil to seep into the pot, smoke (if you like smoky tasting food and the more it’s around smoke the darker it will get.) and heat. Over and over and over again. If you can keep the food particles out of it and the seasoning evened out across the whole pot/pan/skillet, you will have years and years of great service from it. There is a two step process to seasoning. The first is a burn off and the second one is bake on. The heat temp needs are different. For the burn off process the heat must reach at least 450 degrees. Those auto cleaning ovens get this hot so it’s a no-brainer to use those when you are burning off old stuff you couldn’t scrub out. Make sure the cast iron is placed on the rack upside down. Now engage the auto cleaning cycle and walk away until it’s finished. I usually do mine on the outdoor grill so the kitchen doesn’t get so hot. Once that has completed and cooled, your cast iron is now at stage one. It will require at least 1 layer of good seasoning. This is where you will add an oil that has a higher flash point. I like to use olive oil. It’s natural. It coats nice and I like the taste of the food out of it. You will want to coat both the inside and outside of the cast iron with it. It doesn’t need to be dripping with oil. Just a nice sheen. Put it back in the oven for at least 30 minutes and at least 450 degrees. Some people go lower temp for longer (400 degrees for 60 minutes) for a ‘thicker’ seasoning. Let it cool. Congrats… you can now eat out of it. OR… you can redo that process again to get to that non-stick stage of cast iron. Some people will skip the stove seasoning process after the burn-off stage and just cook some fatty bacon in it to apply the oils at hot temps. These do work over a period of time but you will eventually get to enough of a seasoning to make it truly non-stick but it will take a while and those acidic food could wipe out your seasoning if you aren’t careful.
The last point about cast iron is cleaning and storage. It is true… you don’t use soap to clean cast iron. Why? Because, most soaps attack oils (aka your seasoning). Our troop has a rule of thumb on cleaning anything.
“If it went on hot, it has to come off hot.”
Let’s talk about how cast iron is traditionally cleaned, especially on campouts. You will need a few items to do this efficiently. You will need a stiff bristle brush or stainless steel scouring pad with something to move it around in the hot water that can take some pressure as you push it around like a cooking spoon or tongs. Cleaning is easy to do if you follow these steps.
- Rinse/scrape all remaining food particles out of the cast iron as good as you can.
- Fill the cast iron half way up with water and put on the stove to heat that water.
- Bring that water to a boil. This step will knock down germs and bacteria. Once it’s boiled and cooled a bit you can start scrubbing
- Employ that stiff bristle brush or scouring pad with a tool so your hand doesn’t go in the water. If you find that you left those at home you can add some sand in the water before you boil it and can use the sand once the water has cooled a bit.
- Once you have scrubbed out all the food particles, you rinse it. There shouldn’t be any food particles on it all all at this point.
- This next part is missed a lot but it is the most important part… You must put that cast iron back on some heat to drive the water out of it. Remember cast iron is porous. Water will be in it and you don’t want to apply your seasoning oil with water in the cast iron.
- Once the water has evaporated completely. Let it cool slightly and then apply about a tablespoon of your oil of choice with a paper towel to both the inside and outside parts of your cast iron. If you put too much oil on it at this stage your food will have a very oily taste to it so it shouldn’t puddle anywhere. It should have a nice sheen. I usually keep the paper towel I used to spread it out in the dutch oven to help keep the oil from evaporating.
Wa-la! You now have a properly seasoned and ready to store cast iron pot/pan ready for the next meal. So now that we are at this stage lets talk about the final part and that covers storage. Here is the thinking behind storage… You need to consider moisture when will the cast iron will be used again. If you are camping, it’s best to keep cast iron out of the direct, humid air in your scout trailer, We use burlap to cover our pots. You can also put them in patrol boxes. If they are oiled up, it should repel most moist air. If the oil dries up, rust will begin to appear and you will need to repair them. (Another post will be published on that one.) If you will use your pots again before 30 days you can use animal fats to season pots and pans but fair warning, those oils could go rancid if left for a long time without using. Plant based oils are better to use for seasoning for longer term storage.
Well… there you have it. Some great tips and tricks on how to take care, season, clean and store your cast iron. Like I mentioned before there are many different ways of doing this out there. This thought process and steps work for my troop. If you have a different way of doing all this in your unit, I would love to hear those because it may save me a step here or there. Post those in comments below.
Good luck out there scouters!
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