Thursday, July 4, 2013

Re-Conditioning or Seasoning your Dutch Oven or Cast Iron Cookware


Re-Conditioning or Seasoning your Cast Iron Cookware

 

 

 

Is it a new piece that comes with a Wax coating?

If you have a new piece that comes with a wax coating it need removed before cooking or seasoning for the first time.  The brands that still come with a food grade wax that needs removed are normally tagged as such.  You can test with your fingernail too.  If you can scrap away a semi-clear material with your fingernail it is more than likely a wax coating.  I have picked up garage sale purchases that have never been used that still had the wax coating.

 

Some brands now come with factory pre-seasoning.  Lodge pro-logic series is pre-seasoned.  This does not need removed but I recommend further coats of seasoning before you begin cooking with the piece.

 

The easiest and safest way to remove the wax is your kitchen oven.  Hopefully you have an exhaust fan.  The kitchen oven is preferred because you can regulate the heat.  Cast iron that is heated too hot, or too quickly, when dry (no food mass inside) can be damaged.  Likewise cast iron that is hot, then cooled quickly or touched with something cold or cooler can result in an instant crack.  This is all more important when burning off wax, stripping, or seasoning, when the item has no food mass inside.  The most common time a crack occurs is when the piece is at high temperature and it is picked up with a damp towel, glove, or mitten. 

If your kitchen oven is not an option, the second choice would be a covered BBQ grill.  A covered grill that includes a thermometerUsing a BBQ grill you must be vigilant in regulating the temperature during the entire process.  If your oven is used, line the bottom of the oven compartment with foil to catch any drips.

Heat the oven/grill and the cast iron piece at the same time from cold. Do not pre-heat the oven/grill first.  As a generic rule bring the temperature up to 400°F.  Maintain that temperature for 1 hour.  Do not open the oven or lift the lid.  At the end of one hour turn off the heat, but allow the piece to remain in the closed oven, or covered grill, to naturally cool down together.

Once the piece is cool or slightly warm to the touch (about another hour) immediately scrub with hot soapy water using a scrub brush or nylon sponge type pad.  Then dry on a warm stove burner until completely dry.  Then apply your preferred seasoning material in a very thin coat.  Coat all surfaces inside and out.  Do this even if you don't have time to finish the seasoning process.  Raw unprotected cast iron be begin to rust almost immediately.


Careful with your Heat to avoid warping or cracking

Cast Iron Cookware for the most part seems indestructibleFailing to watch your heat can result in permanent damage.  Quickly heating, or quickly cooling, can have disastrous results.

For us collectors we often find vintage cast iron that we call "Rockers".  "Rockers" are created when the bottom is warped due to excessive heat.  Skillets and Dutch Ovens should not rock when placed on a flat surface.  Many were once used on top of a wood stove.  Where one of the stove top lids was removed and the cast iron cookware placed over the hole.  The cookware was exposed to direct heat from the wood fire, or perhaps even hotter fire from coal.

Cracks are even worse.  Some even split in two.  The most common mistake is to put a piece on the heat of a stove, empty, and either use too much heat too quickly, or get distracted and walk away a few minutes too long.  The sickening pop that may follow is a death blow to your cast iron.

Bring cast iron up to temperature slowly.  When seasoning put the piece in a cold oven.  Let them come up to temperature together.  Cooling is done with the oven door shut and the oven and piece of cast iron cooling down naturally together.

When drying on the stove, use low heat, and stay attentive.

 

  What Product or Seasoning should I use?

Wow...this is like talking Politics or Religion.  Once you throw out something is better than this or that, the zealot's are going to crawl out from under their cast iron lid.  They are going to start throwing hot charcoal briquets in your direction.  Some might even hit you up side the head with a burning log.

 

I have tried just about everything over 40+ years of cooking with, and collecting cast iron cookware.  It all boils down to personal preference.  I have even tested and evaluated some of the commercial products specifically made just for cast iron seasoning.  My conclusion is that all work equally well if you find the proper Polymerization temperature, and time duration of holding the temperature on your piece being seasoned.

There are a variety of vegetable oils, vegetable shortenings, animal shortenings - grease -lard, and commercially available products.  All of which work.  After all, the pioneers weren't using something they found at the store and squeezed out of a tube.  Some of their cast iron cookware is still around today being used or admired.

Some claim products such as vegetable oils and shortening will go rancid during storage. Others claim animal products will do the same thing.  (I will come back to this later)

 

My suggestion is to pick something you normally have on hand in both your home kitchen, and while out camping if that is your passion too.  Get to know what that products Polymerization point is.  Also the heat duration time for your product to season correctlyBoth the temperature and time in that formula are important but also very forgiving.  When you get it right it will produce a deep black and slick seasoned finish.  All common products, will get you there.

For me that is plain Crisco (Vegetable Shortening).  It is inexpensive and always on hand.  I know how to make it adhere and turn glossy black.

For the naysayers of this product, especially the "rancid" subject, I have never experienced that issue.  But it will if your cast iron is not cared for correctly.  Vegetable oils will also go rancid if wiped on as a protective coat, and left to sit long enough.  It makes sense animal products will do the same given time.

 

Anytime I put my cast iron in long term storage it is always seasoned first.  Heat seasoning, using the techniques that follow in this article.  Seasoning is not wiping a cast iron piece with a product after cooking or cleaning.  Sure that is great protection until its next use if that is a matter of days, weeks, or a month or two.  Beyond that, regardless of product, it is advisable to do a complete heat seasoning cycle.  For lack of a better term, don't leave your product wiped on "raw" for extended storage.

In storage I always create a gap between the bottom and the lid with a rolled up paper towel.  Some use a sock with one new charcoal briquet in the toe.  The toe goes in the pot, the other end hung over the edge with the lid cocked on top of the sock.   Don't store in damp/humid places, directly on concrete, or in overly hot area's.

 

Lets touch on Polymerization

Without going scientific on everyone, let's just say "polymerization" in the cast iron season process is the temperature point that a particular seasoning product begins to bond to the surface and create that desired slick, durable, and dark surface.  This is dependent on temperature and duration.  Products will differ. 

 

People that have seasoned and get bad results, then move on to another product that proves to be successful simply did not hit the sweet spot for polymerization to occur.  Over decades I have used about every known product out there.  They all work with very similar results, but at different temperatures and time duration.  The trick is finding the temperature that works....and how long to keep the heat on it.


Note:  Using too high of heat can actually cause the seasoning to start crystallizing, flaking, and coming off.  At this point of the heat range you are approaching, the temperature that your valued seasoned coating will start burning off and leave bare metal.  Be careful at temperatures 500°F and higher depending on what product your seasoning was or is.  If you start getting flaking you need to strip it to bare and start over.

For an example I use my ovens self cleaning mode to completely strip my cast iron to bare metals when I want to start over from scratch.  Especially on pieces I pick up at garage sales or flea markets.  In the self cleaning mode, temperatures exceed any reasonable baking temperature.  Most people never bake above 475°F.  I understand self cleaning ovens approach close to 900°F?

 

Applying seasoning product

 Any choice of seasoning product should be applied to a slightly warm piece of Cast Iron.  Coat all surfaces, corners, and crannies.  Coat inside and out.  This should then be wiped with an absorbent link free cloth.  Paper towels should be avoided since many will leave small fibers or even little balls stuck in the seasoning product.  If a paper towel is a must, purchase the higher grade that doesn't disintegrate into the surface your food will be cooking on.

Some claim you have to warm the cast iron to open the "pores".  Others scoff at that notion and claim there is no such thing as "Pores" in cast iron.  Perhaps a misconception.  Modern day cast iron is definitely much more rough than their older vintage cousins that were produced with nearly glass like finishes on the inside.  So some do refer to the rough case iron as having "Pores". 

Another way of looking at this is there are "Peaks and Valleys" in the surface of the rough cast iron.  To get a fine seasoned appearance and smooth cooking surface requires multiple layers that need built up.  In essence, fill in those "Valleys".  That info is for those that don't want shamed by the "Pore" police.  If you say pores to me I will know exactly what you are talking about.  No problemSome people keep this cast iron business too close to their hearts.

Regardless, pre-warming your cast iron (not hot), prior to applying your coat of product helps liquefy your product.  It allows you to apply a thinner coat of product.  You can easily wipe away excess.

Saving your absorbent towel and reusing it will stretch your product since the towel will retain residual product.  At some point you can simply wipe your cast iron with the towel to apply an adequate coat.

 

"Pooling" or Sticky finish

Several things can cause either of these conditions.  Too much product applied is the number one cause.   Newbies quite often apply too much product. It is better to have too little, than too much.

The other factor is temperature.  Temperature never hitting the polymerization point of the product you are using.  If you do not know your specific temperature point, start out by using 400°F.  Upping that to 425 or 450°F if need be.  Every product and even your oven is different.  Once you hit the temperature & time for your product it should not cool down and be sticky.

 

 Length of Seasoning time & method

On new Cast Iron (Never Seasoned) be prepared to apply at least 5 coats before you start cooking with the piece.  The first couple coats will more than likely result in a caramel to brownish colored finish.  You want to keep seasoning until you obtain a black and slick finish.  People that complain food sticks have not seasoned well enough.  Those cooking food at higher temps and trying to hurry things along will also find their food sticks.  But that is another conversation for another article.

The general rule of thumb for the seasoning process is 1 hour per coat.  In reality it is longer.  That one hour is just the heat cycle once your cast iron is up to seasoning temperature.  

After your slightly warmed piece is properly coated with your choice of seasoning product, place the piece inside a cold oven. Place upside down on the first coat.  This includes any lid too.  This is so any excess liquefied product runs and drips out.  (but if this occurs on the first coat you know you have applied too much product.  Also line the bottom of your oven with foil to catch any drips.

Turn the oven on to your temperature choice;  I personally would start at 425°F.  Allow the oven to heat up.  Heating the cast iron inside as well.  Once the set temperature is reached set your timer for 1 hour.  Maintain the oven at your set temperatureDo not open the oven door during this process. 

At the one hour mark turn the heat off, do not open the door even to peek.  Allow your oven and the cast iron within to naturally cool down slowly.  Don't open the oven even to peek.  This cool down typically takes 1 to 2 hours.  This completes the first coat.  If you feel any stickiness, do not recoat.  Return to the cold oven and repeat this process upping the temperature another 25°F from your last go around.  Go 1 hour on the heat cycle....then 1 to 2 hours to again cool slowly.

 

Once you get that first coat to adhere with no stickiness, and allowed to cool, repeat the coating and heating process.  Apply a minimum of 3-5 coats of seasoning before ever cooking with the piece.  I prefer closer to 10 coats.  Your piece should be a slick black looking finish when done properly and ready for use.  This may very well take you over several days to complete.  If you are patient and apply many coats you will be rewarded with cast iron cookware that is nearly stick free as teflon is.

 

If you short cut any of this and start using improperly seasoned cast iron, you will probably find you are in the group complaining that cast iron is not worth beans for cooking with.  You can mail your worthless cast iron to me.  :-) 

 

 Below are various stripping methods to remove old or damaged seasoning

Kitchen Oven on Clean Cycle method

If you have a kitchen oven with a self cleaning cycle you have one of the easiest and most common methods for removing old seasoning.  The advantage is no chemicals and no set up cost associated with using soaking tanks or electrolysis.  

Place your pots upside down on the oven rack and turn your oven on "Clean Cycle".  Let it run its course.  You may have to open doors and windows though since these method will often times set off your smoke detectors.  Burn off any seasoning that might remain. 
Wash the cast iron in very hot soapy water. Dry over low heat (stove burner) and wipe with a paper towel. If rust appears on the paper towel repeat the hot soapy bath and rinse. Once again dry over heat immediately.

Once thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towels.  Immediately heat on the stove and lightly coat with a very thin layer of Crisco.  The heated surface will liquefy the Crisco.  Wipe off any excess.   This process will protect the cast iron from immediately starting to rust.  Once cast iron is stripped to a bare unseasoned state it is unbelievable how quickly rust will show up.  This step is not seasoning.  Proceed with seasoning next

Seasoning Process: Place the cast iron pieces that have been lightly coated with Crisco (or your favorite seasoning product), upside down, in a pre-heated 425° oven.  (Remember to use a light coat to avoid runs and drips)   Protect the bottom of your kitchen oven with aluminum foil to collect any drips that do happen.  If you have it right there will be no drips.  Bake for 1 hour.  Leaving the cast iron in the kitchen oven, with the door closed, turn off the heat.  Let the cast iron naturally cool in the kitchen oven.

Repeat seasoning step a minimum of 5 times.  Repeat the seasoning step only after the cast iron has cooled.  Season the cast iron at least 5 times before attempting to cook food.  Alternate the upside down seasoning to right side up  Once at least 5 coats have been built up your cast iron should be turning a darker color with a very slick surface.

                         Heavy Duty Easy Off Brand (Yellow Can) Oven Cleaner Method.

Removing old seasoning: Warning.: Wear eye protection and chemical resistant rubber gloves.  Do not get the oven cleaner on your skin or in your eyes.

The easiest method is to first clean your cast iron item(s) with hot soapy water. Then dry with a paper towel.

Place the cast iron item in a plastic garbage bag.  Heavily coat the cast iron with oven cleaner on all surfaces. (i.e. half a can for a Dutch Oven)  The Oven Cleaner will immediately foam up upon contact.

Close the bag and let the oven cleaner work on the cast iron for 12 hours.  Then take a wire brush and remove all the old built up seasoning, burnt food, etc. (Again using Rubber Gloves and Eye protection)

Remove the Oven Cleaner treated cast iron and thoroughly clean and rinse several times in hot soapy water.  Change water between each cleaning.  And be sure to wear rubber gloves and eye protection.  You are working with lye.  

Once thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towels.  Immediately heat on the stove and lightly coat with a very thin layer of Crisco.  The heated surface will liquefy the Crisco.  Wipe off any excess.   This process will protect the cast iron from immediately starting to rust.  Once cast iron is stripped to a bare unseasoned state it is unbelievable how quickly rust will show up.  This step is not seasoning.  Proceed with seasoning next

Seasoning Process: Place the cast iron pieces that have been lightly coated with Crisco, upside down, in a pre-heated 425° oven.  (Remember to use a light coat to avoid runs and drips)   Protect the bottom of your kitchen oven with aluminum foil to collect any drips that do happen.  If you have it right there will be no drips.  Bake for 1 hour.  Leaving the cast iron in the kitchen oven, with the door closed, turn off the heat.  Let the cast iron naturally cool in the kitchen oven.

Repeat seasoning step a minimum of 5 times.  Repeat the seasoning step only after the cast iron has cooled.  Season the cast iron at least 5 times before attempting to cook food.  Alternate the upside down seasoning to right side up  Once at least 5 coats have been built up your cast iron should be turning a darker color with a very slick surface. 

To Remove Rust - Common Kitchen ingredients Method



Here is a method for removing stubborn rust.  This can be made from common kitchen ingredients.


½ Gallon White Vinegar
1/3 Cup Salt
8 oz bottled lemon juice

Multiple this recipe enough times to mix a batch that you can submerge your piece.  It is preferred to use a plastic container as a soaking vat.  Both the Vinegar and Lemon juice are mild acids and will react with metal.

You can reuse the solution over and over.  Test your piece about every 6 hrs.  Do not soak over 15 hours without constant hourly checking to avoid pitting the cast iron.  Once the rust has loosened up use a nylon bristle brush, scotch brite pad, 00 Steel Wool, or similar means to remove all residues.  Sand paper or a wire brush is not recommended.  Scratching will reduce the collector value.

Once thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towels.  Immediately heat on the stove and lightly coat with a very thin layer of Crisco.  The heated surface will liquefy the Crisco.  Wipe off any excess.   This process will protect the cast iron from immediately starting to rust.  Once cast iron is stripped to a bare unseasoned state it is unbelievable how quickly rust will show up.  This step is not seasoning.  Proceed with seasoning next.

To Remove Rust - Evapo-Rust product

Many people report even better results using a product called Evapo-Rust.  This product is currently available at Harbor Freight for around $25 a gallon.  I am sure it can be found in other hardware type stores.  Use a plastic tub sized to your piece of cast iron, and enough product to completely submerge the Cast Iron.  Length of soaking will depend on the severity of the rust.  Some say no longer than 24 hours.  Spot check periodically unit you see how it does. 

 

This product is reusable so pour it back into its original containers and seal them up.  As it is used over and over and looses its effectiveness it will need replaced. 

 

As soon as soaking is complete remove your piece and scrub well with hot soapy water.  Rinse and immediately heat on the stove on low heat to thoroughly dry.  Wipe a very thin coating while still hot, using your preferred Lard, Oil, Crisco, etc.  Proceed with proper seasoning next. 

 

Seasoning Process: Place the cast iron pieces that have been lightly coated with Crisco, upside down, in a pre-heated 425° oven.  (Remember to use a light coat to avoid runs and drips)   Protect the bottom of your kitchen oven with aluminum foil to collect any drips that do happen.  If you have it right there will be no drips.  Bake for 1 hour.  Leaving the cast iron in the kitchen oven, with the door closed, turn off the heat.  Let the cast iron naturally cool in the kitchen oven.

 
Repeat seasoning step a minimum of 5 times.  Repeat the seasoning step only after the cast iron has cooled.  Season the cast iron at least 5 times before attempting to cook food.  Alternate the upside down seasoning to right side up  Once at least 5 coats have been built up your cast iron should be turning a darker color with a very slick surface.

Lye Bath Method

Use a lye product marked 100% Sodium Hydroxide Crystals.  Ace Hardware is still a source, but the product is becoming increasingly hard to buy.  Just make sure you purchase a brand that is marked 100% lye.

Use 1 lb of Lye crystals per 5 gal of clean water.  Always add the lye to the water.....NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE LYE.  When mixing and pouring always use eye and skin protection.  Wash any splattered clothing immediately.

Use Plastic containers as your lye bath tubs.  Cat litter boxes, plastic mortar mixing boats, heavy plastic storage tubs, all work.  Preferably something that can be covered to keep children and animals out of the lye water.  Your Cast Iron item must be able to be completely submerged.

You need to completely submerge your item from a few days, or more, to soften up the old baked on seasoning and old food.  

Once softened remove all residue with a wire brush (Use eye and skin protection). Once all surfaces are scraped clean, neutralize the lye with a mild acid (vinegar).  Then rinse and clean with hot soapy water. 
Thoroughly clean and rinse several times in hot soapy water.  Change water between each cleaning.  And be sure to wear rubber gloves and eye protection.  You are working with lye.  



Once thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towels.  Immediately heat on the stove and lightly coat with a very thin layer of Crisco.  The heated surface will liquefy the Crisco.  Wipe off any excess.   This process will protect the cast iron from immediately starting to rust.  Once cast iron is stripped to a bare unseasoned state it is unbelievable how quickly rust will show up.  This step is not seasoning.  Proceed with seasoning next.



Seasoning Process: Place the cast iron pieces that have been lightly coated with Crisco, upside down, in a pre-heated 425° oven.  (Remember to use a light coat to avoid runs and drips)   Protect the bottom of your kitchen oven with aluminum foil to collect any drips that do happen.  If you have it right there will be no drips.  Bake for 1 hour.  Leaving the cast iron in the kitchen oven, with the door closed, turn off the heat.  Let the cast iron naturally cool in the kitchen oven.



Repeat seasoning step a minimum of 5 times.  Repeat the seasoning step only after the cast iron has cooled.  Season the cast iron at least 5 times before attempting to cook food.  Alternate the upside down seasoning to right side up  Once at least 5 coats have been built up your cast iron should be turning a darker color with a very slick surface.


Electrolysis

This is method is more elaborate and is used by Cast Iron Collectors that are processing larger volumes of pieces for re-seasoning.  Perhaps a little too technical or more complicated for the occasional piece you wish to recondition?

This process requires an electrolysis tank, a car battery charger, and a piece of metal that will serve as a anode from which the current will flow from, to the piece being cleaned.  

A water solution with Washing Soda added  is used to increase conductivity.

If you are considering this method, search on the internet for more details and setup.

Fire to Clean Cycle method

Note: STOP!!!  We do not recommend this method at all.  We can show you photos of wrecked cast iron.  We only list this method because many swear by it or have heard it is a preferred method.  We also want you to stop and reconsider before proceeding.  We swear if you don't know what you are doing it is the easiest and quickest ways to wreck a piece of cast iron.  It will have you swearing too...in a most negative way if you wreck a collector piece.  When the cast iron is heated at too high of a temperature it may warp, crack, crystallize, or become "red iron".  Red Iron is exactly what it suggests...it looks red.  Not a rust that can be cleaned off....but an indicator the Cast Iron has been at a very high temperature.  In most cases Red Iron is beyond fixable and reconditioning won't normally fix it for cooking.  If you find such an item used, you wish to purchase I would pass on these.

Some use the fire method.  Which is exactly what the name implies.  The cast iron cookware is placed in a bed of wood or charcoal coals and covered with them also.  The idea is the intense heat will burn everything off.  

We imagine this method was used in the early days since it seems to be the most logical.  A campfire would sure to have been available.  But we caution those contemplating this method.  We have many giving us feedback and photos that this method can result in warped and cracked cookware.  Also this causes what some refer to red iron.  Too intense of heat can give the iron a reddish color and for some reason these red iron pieces are impossible to season after this occurs.  Basically ruining your cookware.  

But we do list this method since a few are adamant it works.  We can only caution you and let you know we won't be using this method, especially on collector pieces.  Types of wood and other conditions could create a wide range of heat.  It might be difficult to control this method.

But if you proceed and do remove most of the old seasoning or burned on gunk you would then want to continue with finishing the iron and re-seasoning.
Wash the stripped cast iron in very hot soapy water. Dry over heat (stove burner) and wipe with a paper towel. If rust appears on the paper towel repeat the hot soapy bath and rinse. Once again dry over heat immediately. Then wipe a very thin coat of crisco over all surfaces.

Once thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towels.  Immediately heat on the stove and lightly coat with a very thin layer of Crisco.  The heated surface will liquefy the Crisco.  Wipe off any excess.   This process will protect the cast iron from immediately starting to rust.  Once cast iron is stripped to a bare unseasoned state it is unbelievable how quickly rust will show up.  This step is not seasoning.  Proceed with seasoning next

Seasoning Process: Place the cast iron pieces that have been lightly coated with Crisco, upside down, in a pre-heated 425° oven.  (Remember to use a light coat to avoid runs and drips)   Protect the bottom of your kitchen oven with aluminum foil to collect any drips that do happen.  If you have it right there will be no drips.  Bake for 1 hour.  Leaving the cast iron in the kitchen oven, with the door closed, turn off the heat.  Let the cast iron naturally cool in the kitchen oven.

Repeat seasoning step a minimum of 5 times.  Repeat the seasoning step only after the cast iron has cooled.  Season the cast iron at least 5 times before attempting to cook food.  Alternate the upside down seasoning to right side up  Once at least 5 coats have been built up your cast iron should be turning a darker color with a very slick surface.




 

3 comments:

  1. Rick, thank for posting this. I am spending Labor day seasoning the cast iron grates for my new grill. Good info to have.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you Rick. I have been extremely side tracked and am just now getting ready to repeat the process. I must not have used enough easy off or I let it dry. Three babies ages 4, 3 and 1 distracted me. I really appreciate the info.

    ReplyDelete