Thursday, October 14, 2010

Primer: Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware


People worry too much about this, and I think this is one aspect of Dutch oven cooking that scares a lot of people back indoors. It really is easy if you do it right. A well kept patina will lead to years of successful Dutch oven cooking. A bad patina, rancid oil, and improper maintenance can not only ruin your Dutch ovens, make your food taste gross, but it could actually kill you. Food poisoning is no light matter, but use the right techniques and you'll be safe.

Lets examine how the non-stick coating on your Dutch oven works. When new from the factory, the metal is susceptible to rust and water damage. So the factory coats the oven in wax or gross petroleum based grease. (Bear in mind we are talking about non-factory seasoned ovens.) This packing wax or grease protects the oven during shipping and the time spent on the shelf, but it needs to come off when you pull it out of the box. How do you get the grease off? Two ways. 1. Scrub with a green scrubby and soapy water. Repeat until the metal no longer feels waxy. Don't use steel wool or other abrasive pads. 2. Put it in the dishwasher. Set the washer to a pots and pans scouring setting and put nothing else in the dishwasher. Load it upside down so the water drains out. Wash both the oven and the lid. Either way, dry the oven and lid with a cotton towel that doesn't leave a lot of lint behind.

After you get the grease or wax off, the oven is susceptible to rust, so don't leave it out, or you'll have an orange oven in no time. What is a patina, anyway? A patina is a food safe oil that is burned into the oven. Cast iron is cast into molds made of sand, and has lots of little bumps and pits. Look at a Dutch oven with a hand lens- bumpier than our moon! The patina is burnt oil that fills the holes, cracks and gaps in the iron finish. This creates a slick surface so food doesn't stick... Better than Teflon, right? So how do you get a patina? A few ways, with the same goal in mind.

Lets start off with the worst way. Your home oven. Capable of temperatures near 500 degrees, and conveniently available to all with racks for placing the cookware on. Why is this the worst method? Because your house (or apartment, as I did my first time) will fill with smelly, gross, yucky smoke. If it's all you have, open all your windows, and you'll still probably have to fan your smoke alarms as I did my first time.

A step up is the barbecue grill. Capable of higher temperatures, conveniently situated outside, and at waist height. Also has convenient racks. You'll probably have to do your lid and oven separate.

My favorite method, is to do it in a fire pit. Directly in the coals, it has the heat potential of 800 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and does a great job.

What you will need for any method:

Heat resistant gloves
Cooking oil (don't use spray oils)
A heat source (see above)
cotton rags that don't shed much lint

Step one: Scrub the packing grease off. (See above)

Step two: Thoroughly oil all surfaces in and out wiping with rags.

Step three: Build heat up to the hottest possible. On an oven, set to the highest temperature on the dial. For a grill, set the flame highest or build a hot fire. For the fire ring, burn a lot of hardwood and rake the coals to the center. Keep a side fire going.

Step four: Invert the Dutch oven on the heat source. For the oven and grill, just put it upside down on the racks. For the fire, you'll need a way to raise it about an inch above the coals- we used 3 bricks arranged radially. This allows you to get the iron out without losing a hand.

Step five: Wait. For the oven and grill, you may need to wait 30 minutes or more. The tell tale is when the smoke stops coming from the iron. Directly in the coals, you only need wait 15 minutes. See why it's my favorite?

Step six: Remove iron from heat and wipe out. Wear gloves- fire is hot.

Step seven: Repeat whole process (except scrubbing) at least 3 times. More is better, especially with the lower temperature methods.

Step eight: Cook something in it, with a lot of fat. Bacon, roasts, any meat really. Don't cook starch foods at first. The patina is weak initially, so you want to strengthen it before giving it something that sticks as bad as starch.

After cooking each time, a lot of people wipe an amount of oil on the oven to reseason it. I don't do this, because the oil will either go rancid, or get tacky, and won't give a good patina. If your going to oil after cooking, heat up the iron either in some coals or on a large gas stove and then add the oil. Heating it up will bake it in the pores and also kills any germs that are living there.

The best way to get the best patina, is to use your iron often! Get a skillet and put it in your kitchen- nothing beats a fried egg when cooked in iron! And look ma, no Teflon flakes in my food! If the patina flakes off, it's just harmless burnt oil. No nasties!

What's your experience with seasoning iron?

Bon Appetit! The Outdoors Start at Your Back Porch!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent tips. I learned a thing or two here and I already thought I knew cast iron. I was guilty of using oil afterward.

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