Caring for Cast Iron

A well cared for piece of cast iron cookware will last a lifetime

Trout filet and asparagus in cast iron fry pan.
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When it comes to outdoor cooking the number one cookware has to be cast iron. No other material can withstand the kind of punishment it can. Cast iron pots and pans can be stacked right in campfires, put straight on the grill, and packed with live coals. The most expensive chef’s ware wouldn't last a season of the kind of treatment that cast iron cookware was built for.

In addition to this durability, cast iron is thick and heavy, allowing it to absorb and evenly distribute heat.

The inconsistent heating of a live fire is evened out by cast iron, creating an excellent cooking environment. Cast iron cookware, properly seasoned and treated, is also a naturally nonstick surface.

There are many more advantages to cooking with cast iron. For instance, cast iron adds significant amounts of dietary iron to foods, making it very healthy to cook with it. Also, cast iron cookware retains heat, allowing you to reduce cooking temperatures. You will similarly find that foods cooked in cast-iron pots retain a lot more moisture, making foods more tender and flavorful.

However, as perfect as cast iron might be for outdoor cooking, it demands care. Cast iron is, after all, an iron. This type of cookware does not have a smooth surface and can quickly rust if not properly treated. This care must be constant. The intense heat of real fires will burn away the protective coatings that you have worked so hard to create.

Seasoning: The secret to caring for cast iron is in the seasoning. Properly seasoned and cared, for cast iron will last literally forever. So what is seasoning? It is a process of coating the surface with oil, fat or grease to create a barrier between the metal and the environment. Because of the porous nature of cast iron, you need to melt oil into every pore to keep moisture out.

It is this moisture that is cast iron's natural enemy.

Start by thoroughly washing your cast iron piece. Many products are shipped with a wax coating to prevent rust and give it a nice appearance. This coating needs to be completely removed before you start seasoning, so make sure you wash well and use very hot water. Once clean, dry completely. Now you want to take and cover every inch of your cookware in vegetable shortening. Some people will tell you to use lard or bacon grease but products like Crisco work great.

The secret of seasoning is to get the oil (shortening) hot enough that it can melt into every single pore of the cast iron but not burn into a chunky hard mess. So, with your cookware completely coated you need to heat it up to about 300 degrees F and leave it there for an hour. This can be done in your oven, but it tends to smell pretty bad before the process is complete. You can also set it on some live coals. If it has a lid, put the lid on and put the coals on top of it. Remember where you want the temperature. One trick is to turn the pots and pans over and place foil on the rack beneath. This allows the excess oil to drain away and not burn on the inside of the pot. This too can be a messy proposition.

After an hour of heating, turn off the heat and let the cast iron cookware cool down where it is. You want this cooling to be nice and slow. Once cooled, you can remove it and give it another cleaning but this time just, wash away any excess or burned on oil.

Finally, take a few paper towels and some cooking oil and lightly coat the entire piece, store in a dry place.

Just because you took the time and carefully seasoned your cast iron cookware right the first time, doesn’t mean you’re done. Seasoning is an on-going process that will continue for the life of your cookware. From the first use to the last you need to always make sure that your pot or pan is well oiled and kept dry and safe from moisture.

It is generally recommended that when you first use your newly seasoned cookware that you cook something with a lot of fat, like bacon or hamburger.

This will help soak that oil in and build up that protective layer that separates the metal from the meal. Some people will go so far as to suggest that you cook up a really fatty batch of hamburger and throw them away. If you've seasoned the pan right, you won't need to do this.

From this point onward you care for your cast iron by what you choose to cook. Fatty and/or oily foods will keep your cookware in great shape. However, acidic foods like tomato sauces or vinegar solutions will breakdown the oily coating and expose the raw metal. If you do cook things high in acid you will need to make sure you clean the cookware thoroughly and that you coat it in oil before you store it. Also, if you plan on using your cast iron for baking you will need to make sure you oil it well before you bake. Remember that cooking spray is the best friend your cast iron cookware will ever have.

Well cared for, the cast iron cookware will outlast you.

When you buy a new piece plan on which family member you will leave it to in your will. There are cast iron pans that have been in my family for 150 years.