Cast iron cookware is an absolute must for cooking over a campfire (unless you’re backpacking). A good piece of cast iron cookware, whether it’s a skillet, a dutch oven, or something else, will last you for years if you take proper care of it. And if something happens and it rusts, you can always get it back in shape with a little bit of extra effort. In fact, if you can find an old rusty dutch oven cheap at a yard sale or flea market, grab it. Most of them can be restored, and it will save you quite a bit of money.
Seasoning or refinishing cast iron
Cast iron needs to be properly seasoned before use. Some new cookware comes pre-seasoned. Seasoning in this case is a coat of oil that is baked into the cast iron. Each time you use cast iron, you add to the seasoning as long as you clean up properly when you are done. The seasoning does two things. First it prevents the cast iron from rusting, and secondly, it provides a non-stick surface for your cookware. Unlike the expensive and sometimes high tech non-stick cookware out there, this non-stick surface can last forever. And if you damage it, you can easily repair it. If your cast iron rusts, or you notice food is starting to stick to the surface and it’s not shiny like it normally is, follow this process to re-season it.
First, make sure it’s clean. Use hot soapy water (this is the only time this is recommended, since you are going to re-season the item). Scrub it with a stiff brush. If there is rust, or some really caked on food, I have used a brillo pad, or sometimes even a steel brush. Dry it thoroughly, then lightly coat it with vegetable oil. You can either melt solid vegetable shorting, or use the vegetable oil of your choice. Wipe away excess oil with a paper towel so the cast iron doesn’t end up sticky or tacky when you’re done. You just want a thin coat of oil to cover the whole piece. Pre-heat your oven to 350-400 degrees. Put a cookie sheet in the oven to keep any oil from dripping onto the bottom of your oven, and place your cast iron cookware on it upside down. Bake for about an hour, then using oven mitts or potholders, remove from the oven and let it cool. Once it’s cool, again wipe away any excess oil, and then store it in a dry place.
After you use your skillet or dutch oven, you need to properly clean it to preserve and add to the seasoning on the metal. Never use soap. Some people will use a light detergent, but I don’t like to. It damages the oil coating. If you do it right, and the cast iron is seasoned when you start, hot water will do the trick.
Clean out all the excess food, and fill your cookware with water. Put it over medium heat, and bring the water to a good simmering heat. At this point, you can use a plastic spatula to scrub away any stuck on food. Another way to do this is to wad up some aluminum foil and (after the water has cooled down so you don’t get burnt) scrub the cast iron with the aluminum foil. Dump out the water and dry the cast iron thoroughly. Make sure there isn’t any food that got missed, if so, repeat the boiling process. Once it’s cleaned and dried, again coat it with a very thin layer of vegetable oil and store it away in a dry place for next time.
General Usage Tips
When cooking with cast iron, here are some general tips that will help you care for your cookware. Cast iron heats up slow, and cools down slow. Pre-heat it for best results, and don’t use extremely high heat. Remember when you take it off the heat, your food will continue to cook. It will also keep your food warm for you for a while. If your cookware has just been seasoned, be careful cooking tomato based sauces, beans, etc. These foods can break down your cookware’s seasoning. If you can avoid cooking these items the first few times, you should. If you need to make something with spaghetti sauce first thing, then take care to oil the cookware when you are done, and possible even bake it/season it again. And always remember that cast iron gets hot. Use potholders, or a lid lifter when moving your cookware around. And most of all, enjoy your cookware!! In my opinion, anything is better when it is cooked with cast iron over a fire!
photo credit: 4 Dutch Ovens via photopin (license)