Caring for Cast Iron

kitchen1Stemming from a couple important questions related to my last post, I need to point out a few basics of care for cast iron that may be lost these days. Cast Iron is not plug and play; it takes a bit of care and preparations in order to gain the best results and in the case of grinders, not damage the tools themselves.

These are things that used to be common knowledge. In my relatively brief life, luckily I learned the value of great living that I would later come to know as Survivalism early on. Sadly those Depression-era vessels of knowledge are dying off, and only a fraction of our current population seem to retain what’s being lost. Regardless, let’s do our part to spread the knowledge.

Cast Iron requires a decent amount of attention before being used, but once done properly, will last your lifetime and most likely that of your kids, probably longer. I’m not a fan of “non-stick” junk or tools that otherwise are meant to be used for a while then thrown away. To me, it’s a waste of resources. Cast Iron in many places is considered a family heirloom- often times at least one generation old. Today’s households are having to often buy new as they’re rediscovering the value of Cast Iron cookware. Every family should have at a minimum one Large Pan, one Small Pan and a Dutch Oven. The Large Pan for general purpose frying, the Small for smaller meals or making cornbread, and the Dutch Oven for deep frying, cooking chicken, pot roasts, etc, or making huge pots of chili or stew in the winter.

If buying new- buy American! Lodge still makes products in the US, and is the only one that I know of that does. One annoying thing that they do is ship their pieces with a non-stick coating, which in my experience turns into a sticky mess after a while. Remove this by soaking the pan in hot soapy water and scrubbing, then allowing to air dry. Once done, get a can of Crisco or even better, Lard, and liberally coat the pan. Set the oven to the self clean mode if you have it, or 450 deg, and bake the pan upside down for an hour. Put a drip rack underneath the pan to stop any drippings from falling on the heating element. This process will stink. Make sure you open a window.

rusty.jpegIf finding one used, sometimes a great bargain can be found if not in a good condition, such as a rusty one seen here. The easiest way to clean them, as I did two very old belted kettles I inherited, is to first  rough the rust up with course sand paper, then soak them in a cola and lime juice mix. The acidity of the liquid will remove the rust after a few days. Allow it to dry, then go through the seasoning process I detailed above. You’ll have a perfectly serviceable piece of cast iron made new once again to last a lifetime.

While using, keep in mind that cast iron is different from modern pans; they heat up slow, and hold that heat for a long time. You also don’t need as much heat in order to fry. Most of the time medium heat works just fine. Regular maintenance is pretty simple; rub it down with vegetable oil every once in a while, and the seasoning will stay fresh. Do not wash the pans. Wipe them down to clean them.

The same needs to be done to your grinding tools. They’re made of cast iron too. Often, when looking at reviews online, many get bad reviews stating that metal shavings get ground into the food. This happens because like all metal machines, the moving parts need lubricant. Since each of them I named in the last post are cast iron, the same process for caring for your kitchen tools should be done to protect them from premature wear or risk of food contamination. The only other caveat to this is when cleaning meat grinders, use hot water and rubbing alcohol, and your seasoning should be good to go.

Again, the underlying points of these posts are gaining items to process and cook food that will last a lifetime and are perfectly serviceable off the grid. None of these items are super expensive compared to the ridiculous amounts of money  some spend on frivolous items. The cornerstone of a successful Survivalist model should be sustainability, which these tools are. Further, with good sets of tools, good communities can be rebuilt. You should be able to bring as much to the table as possible, and a warm meal when people are starving is a great way to build loyalty, post-collapse, pre-collapse, or any time in between.

This is a force multiplier.

33 thoughts on “Caring for Cast Iron

  1. Wife-A-SaurusTyrannis got a cast iron skillet a few years back.

    She went to “season” it in the oven and damn near burned down the house. She’s since left me in charge of working the skillet “magic.”

    I’ve been maintaining ours with coconut oil, and it, at least for me, has been working great. The coconut oil won’t go rancid when exposed to Oxygen, and one tub seems to last forever.

    As always, great writeup. And between the interview, and this, I’ll never mistake you for a Yankee.

    If you do up a recipe for “Brushbeater’s Carolina Grid-Down Mop Sauce” you will officially be a champion. I’ve been meaning to smoke some butts now that the weather’s nice, and the pollen’s calmed down.

    1. HA! That’s why I added the part about the drip pan- you’re not the first, and definitely won’t be the last.

      Some folks do it on the grill, but for me it never got hot enough.

      Coconut oil is good stuff and I’ve heard of several doing it like that. I prefer lard, but I’m old school.

      As for the Moppin sauce-

      1 gal white vinegar, any brand
      1/2 cup brown sugar
      1/4 cup paprika
      1/8-1/4 cup crush red pepper
      1/8 cup cayenne pepper
      2-4 tbsp Molasses

      Put it all in the vinegar jug and shake…all measurements are approximations, mix and match to taste. We call it “Eastern Style” around here. 😉

      1. Now your talking dirty! Now you done it. Just reading those ingredients making my mouth water. Have you tried setting an open crock of that possum ridge mopping’ sauce in the smokehouse for a couple days? I’m saying the combo of ingredients just reads like some smoke would only add to the toothsome delicacy of it.

        Hey, you know you put some really extra nice thoughts into these two last posts, sure appreciate you.

      2. You know…I’m gonna try smoking it. That sounds amazing, especially with a little more cayenne pepper to give it a little more kick.

        Possum Ridge…I love it…stealing that. 🙂

        Thanks for the compliments Brother. I’m here to share what I know, it’s a dying skill set but a critical one.

      3. Nah I’m a Eastern boy…ketchup is a “Western Style” thing. Folks in Asheville know about that. Mustard based sauce is SC style. All three refer to the regional sauces in NC/SC, with Western and Eastern battling it out every year in Lexington.

        Thick sauce is good for ribs though. And Brisket…I learned all about how to do a good Brisket in Texas. Another topic for another day though. 🙂

      4. Nothing-and I do mean nothing-beats eastern style N.C. BBQ.
        That’s one of the things I miss from when I lived in N.C.-the BBQ,there is nothing anywhere in the USA that is better BBQ than eastern N.C. BBQ.
        Tomato based BBQ sauce just ain’t real BBQ.

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  3. Chris

    Thanks for the article on old iron. A couple of hints if I may after years as an antique dealer and fan of iron cookware.
    The new stuff gets the job done but the old stuff is best. There’s hardly a summer flea market around that doesn’t have stacks of iron for sale. Don’t be afraid of rust but avoid pitting on the cooking surface.
    Another way to clean up rough iron of any kind is a process called “reverse electrolysis”. If you find yourself cleaning more than a few pieces you might look up this process. It does an excellent job. If you “cook” (reverse electrolysis) modern Lodge cookware it will lift the non stick coating off in sheets and leave you with the iron only. You will not miss this chemical coating if you keep your iron cured. Once you’ve removed rust etc. use a wire wheel on a drill ot a bench grinder to finish. You will be left the original iron as it left the factory and the only thing left is the cure.
    Modern methods do not equal the mirror smooth cooking surface of a hundred year old skillet so get out there, get your hands dirty and find your new family heirloom.
    Let’s eat!!

    1. You couldn’t be more spot on! Older cast iron is where it’s at, especially Griswold.

      I know about reverse electrolysis but I’ve never actually done it. The two kettles I restored I did completely by hand, but that process would’ve made it faster.

      As for pitting, it can be a concern, but I filled in the pits with several coats of lard, curing the kettle several times. It fixed the pitting, but I can see how that would be a concern for many.

    2. “Once you’ve removed rust etc. use a wire wheel on a drill ot a bench grinder to finish.”

      For pans in that bad of shape-I use a wire wheel on an angle grinder,two wheels really,a stiff one for the first time,then one that’s softer and not very stiff.

  4. When I get old,rusty cast iron pans,I let an outdoor fire burn down to coals,then set the pan in the coals,and shovel it full of coals.
    Then I add a few small pieces of oak or hickory to the coals in the pan and let it burn down overnight.
    Then I wash the pan with soap and water,scrubbing it out with a wire brush.
    After that,I let it soak in warm water with white vinegar-lots of vinegar-for a couple hours. This removes any remaining rust/discoloration.
    I use bacon grease to season my cast iron the first time,after that,if I don’t have any bacon grease,I’ll use lard as my second choice,and Crisco as my last resort.
    Unless I’ve made stew,chili,etc. in the pan,I just wipe it out with paper towels,pans that were used for stews,etc have to be washed with soap and water-or you risk starting a bacteria “farm” in the pan that will make you very ill.

    1. Great info Brother!

      I’ve never had a problem with bacteria from leftover stew, but I wash with super hot water. I just don’t like using soap on my seasoning. But I’ll definitely heed your advice from now on- your skill set far exceeds mine and the last thing any of us needs in the future is food poisoning.

      1. “the last thing any of us needs in the future is food poisoning.”

        That’s a big part of why I offer the food safety /cooking for large groups classes -it’s easy to end up with contaminated food that will make all who eat it sick-that’s why every summer you read about people getting sick from food at church picnics,family reunions,etc.

      2. Yeah,potato salad,macaroni salad,egg salad-anything with mayo in it,also deli meats,vegetable dips,chip dips,even salsa at room temp for too long can make you sick.
        A lot of times,people get sick from food that wasn’t prepared properly,or the people cooking the food cut vegetables on the same cutting board they had raw meat or chicken on it without washing and sanitizing the cutting board.

    2. There is another trick to “re-seasoning” if you require getting your cast iron back to its non stick state. Put it of a low heat source, add some bacon grease, let it heat soak till its all come up to an even heat, take a sharp spatula, preferably with radiuses corners, so they fit the radius between the bottom and sides, remember to let the pan heat soak for a spell, and with some elbow grease give it a good scraping, get the carbonized hard stuff up, go at it from every direction of the compass, you can feel it scraping down to the top of the pores that develop from heat cycles. Give the side a scrape or two.
      Even after cooking like dry sugar cured ham or bacon, its good to scrape down, because after a while you obtain a super hard carbon black coating that is impervious. If you’ve scraped off starchy food, or real sugary meat, you can add a bit of water, heat it till its steaming, then dump it out, give it a quick rinse ewith new clean water, and you have a nice seasoned pan. Its easy and quick, you never have to wash your cast iron with this method. I know this from experience, having no running water growing up.

      Ever notice the thin ridge around the bottom of your cast iron? FYI, it is there to seal the pan to the top of a wood cookstove, for when you cook with direct flame heat. Anyone remember how a wood cookstove has removable trivets? Those ridges correspond to the size of the trivets used on wood cook stoves. Some stoves have one large trivet plate, some have concentrically smaller trivets, like three or four nested inside each other? That ridge is to keep the heat and wood smoke from getting out from under when cooking with open trivets, the ridge sets flatter than a totally flat bottom pan, the ridge also provides non direct heat transfer by keeping the pan bottom off the stove top when not cooking with open flame. It is the old timey way of cooking. Slow and steady, you get to know the personality of your wood stove, and it helps to say if your baking, you have a good hot fire going, you reduce the risk of having to much pan heat, you learn where to place your cast iron accordingly. Its the old way of multi tasking.
      Them old timers knew a few things.
      It was what we had, a really sweet old wood cookstove, double ovens and all. We even got our baths on top of the stove in the winter, an oval wash tub set on bricks on top of the stove, so as little kids we wouldn’t catch a chill as we didn’t have central heat. A big old pot of water steaming away, the wash tub all nice and warm, and the heat rising up off the stove, kerosene lanterns lighting the kitchen, the adults and big kids got their bath on the floor in front of the open oven doors, a wood stove in your bedroom all nice and toasty, it was a wonderful luxury really.

      1. I’ll give that method a try the next time I have a pan that needs cleaned/re-seasoned because food started sticking.
        I prefer to just wipe my cast iron pans out with a couple paper towels,and if needed,add a little bacon grease or Crisco and put it on low heat for 10-15 minutes,then wipe it out again.
        I’ve got cast iron pans that were my great grandmothers.
        One of our woodburners is the kind with the removeable iron discs-( never heard them called trivets),ours just has one per “burner”.
        We tried to get my great grandmother’s stove,but had no way of getting to W.Va before the house was sold-that one had the series of concentric rings and the double oven.
        We got baths the same way when we were little,then my parents moved to Ohio.
        Great grandfather was a blacksmith-at least all his tools got saved,my uncle has them-and uses them.
        My cousins have no interest in blacksmithing,so my uncle said I can have the tools,the forge and the anvil when he can’t use them any more.
        He’s still pounding on hot iron at 78 years old.
        Besides the woodstove,there was one other thing I wanted from my great grandparents house-a big copper kettle they made apple butter in-it was more like an oval washtub than a kettle,but the old folks called it the apple butter kettle.
        At least one of my cousins got it,so it’s being used.
        My brother has two old two man saws for cutting trees/firewood-there was a steep learning curve to using those things!
        We have a few old kerosene lanterns,when we go camping,I fill ’em up with citronella oil to keep the skeeters away.
        Not enough people know how to live without power or running water-it’s a big change,but it can be done,and you can live comfortably.
        Canning is another thing that too few people know how to do-you can learn it from books,or reading about it online,or watching youtube videos-you have to actually can food.
        At least some of us will be just fine during any long term SHTF scenario.

      2. I miss the old wood stove we had at the farm. In the winter, a big kettle of water was always on top, at a boil, to help add much needed humidity, and also at the ready for tea, cocoa, “infusions”, washing up. I am a fanatic about washing-up water being actually HOT.

        There were also bricks warmed up on the stovetop, then wrapped in flannel and put between the sheets to “pre-warm” your bed for you.

        As Scout has said many times before, generations before us not only survived but thrived with much less “stuff” than our kids expect, as do people around the world today. So will we. The happiest day of my work life was my last day of work for The Man, when I got to turn in my electronic leash. “Smart” phone my patootie.

    3. I was always taught *never* to use soap on an already properly seasoned pan. Coming home from book club one night, I just about had kittens watching dear Hubs frantically scrubbing away at my Lodge dutch oven with a brillo pad AND soap! I may have been a bit… loud in my displeasure, as he is gun-shy about touching any of my cast iron now. (As I pointed out, how would he feel if he came home to find me “helping” by cleaning his guns with stuff that would damage them? After all, he’s the one always talking about “staying in your own lane”… but I digress…)

      Sandpaper or a wire pad will clean up rusted/old cast iron nicely for prep for seasoning. I prefer crisco over lard, applied generously with wax paper to get into all the nooks/crannies/small nicks, etc. I then “bake” in the oven at 400F (pan and lid) and let cool in the oven overnight.

      As for sanitation, the best way is to wipe out any leftover food, fill the pot with water and the bring water to a full boil (no soap). Boil for minimum 2 mins. That will “sanitize” your pot without scrubbing with soap and destroying the seasoning layer. If I think it needs it, once cooled, I’ll add another thin coating of crisco, wiping off any excess.

      1. You’re right-you shouldn’t use soap,as it ruins the seasoning-but…
        If a stew,chili,etc has been cooked in cast iron,and the pan has not been immediately wiped out,then you have a problem,as bacterial growth starts very quickly.
        Your method of boiling the pan out with water will work-as the boiling will kill *most* of the nasty little critters that can make you sick-but not all.There are several things that are not killed at 212 degrees F.
        A 400 degree oven would kill any remaining organisms that could make people sick.
        I mostly just wipe my cast iron pans out with a couple paper towels,if there’s dried food,like from stews,chili,beans,soups,etc,then I use a plastic bristled scrub brush and hot,soapy water.
        I’m not willing to make anyone sick-I spent over 20 years as executive chef at 4 and 5 star hotels,and private country clubs,and was sent to college level food safety classes every year as part of required re-certifications.I know what nasty critters do to people,and how easy it is for them to start growing on pots and pans that have not been washed rinsed,and sanitized.
        Boiling does not kill all the illness causing organisms-so I use the wash-rinse-sanitize in one gallon of water to 1 tablespoon of bleach.
        The bleach evaporates,you do not taste it,and if you didn’t go crazy with dish soap-your seasoning will be fine.

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  6. cm1

    We have found that Carla Emory had the best seasoning recipe:

    Seasoning Cast Iron

    1) grease thoroughly cleaned iron with suet (beef tallow). IT MUST BE BEEF SUET!

    2) Place in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes

    3) Regrease and repeat step 2 at least 3 times

    4) After the final coat, bake for at least 2 hours

    5)Turn oven off and allow to cool gradually. Or set “time bake” and let it cool in the oven over night.

    Over the years I’ve learned that using pieces of clean, torn up t-shirts works really well for greasing the pan. I use a small amount of grease (tallow, suet) each time I remove the pan from the oven. Rub the pan all over with the cloth piece. I also use tongs to hold on to the cloth as it gets really hot. Too much grease will cause streaks, which, while it doesn’t affect the usefulness of the pan, makes it less “pretty”.

    Another important time saver is to use your self cleaning oven to clean all the old grease off the pan. This should only be used when you’ve acquired a “new” pan from a garage sale or a dumpster dive. I don’t know about you, but I want all the stuff on that pan to be MINE, not someone else’s! Just put the pan in the oven and set it to “heavy” clean. A couple hours later and the pan will be ready to clean with steel wool. Once the rust and the rough spots are buffed out it’s ready to season.

  7. Most excellent piece.
    I grew up with cast iron, my Grandmother was from the South and grew up during the Depression so she had scads of it. Even special ones for baking loaves of bread and square ones for cakes and corn bread.
    I have several pieces but my wife is scared to death of using it. I keep them seasoned up and stored in the garage for when she goes out of town because she absolutely refuses to try and learn how to cook with them. Her, and my loss.

    One thing I saw mentioned up above that I didn’t know about, even being a mechanic for thirty years, is that Vinegar is an excellent rust remover for iron.
    It works beautifully on old tools, knives and of course, cast iron pans.
    Just fill up a pan large enough for the piece you are cleaning with vinegar, I use Apple vinegar, and let it soak for at least 24 hrs.
    You may have to repeat the process for badly rusted pieces.

    It gets into all the nooks and crannies and stuff comes out real nice. Rinse well and make sure everything is absolutely dry, then coat with the oil of your choice.
    I have used this method for really old wood handled pipe wrenches and other garage sale finds and am always amazed at how well it works.

    1. Cast iron is also excellent for pit cooking. More people should try and just stick to the basics:
      vinegar, baking soda, washing soda etc first – they’re cheap and like you mention – they work!

  8. Caffer

    Certainly agree that cast iron is best for most cooking, and that Griswold is better than Lodge. I’ve several Lodge ovens and pans, but only one Griswold, a #9 pot dated 1920. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to find a lid for it. Been looking 20-30 years.

    Any suggetions?

    1. Ebay if you’re into the whole internet buying thing, but better yet, any and every flea market and thrift shop around.

  9. Grandpa

    here I go… do not ever use soap in a cast iron pan. Clean it with clean sand (all purpose sand at Lowe’s is less than $5 for 50lbs. If you have concern over bacteria, clean the pan then sterilize it with heat. Use bacon grease to season the pan… Get the big dang Lodge pan (huge, takes two hands to lift it…) from Bass Pro, and use it every day… get a smaller one for breakfast, and get the skillet and Dutch oven. Learn to use fire – and use it daily – to cook. If you have an electric stove, I’m sorry but change now lol. There’s a reason why “iron deficiency’ in the blood is a recent phenomenon… just wait until folks find out teflon causes cancer…

    1. I fully agree on the Iron deficiency. I’ve never seen a study on it (and never looked) but there’s something to that. My Grandma was an RN and talked a lot about using Cast Iron cooking and molasses to solve problems with Iron. And I’ve never seen otherwise.

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