If you’re a serious camper – short of somebody who carries camp on his or her own back – chances are you probably look at a cast iron skillet and Dutch oven as core to your camping gear. Cast iron is the original non-stick cooking surface. With a skillet and a Dutch oven, there’s basically nothing you can’t cook in camp … at least anything a hungry camper wouldn’t want to eat.
To stay non-stick and perform well, cast iron cookware needs to be cleaned and cared for properly.
To Wash...Or Not to Wash Cast Iron
The tradition is that you should NEVER put soap on your cast iron … at least on the cooking surfaces. While many camp cooks still live by that rule today, there’s a growing group that says, “Go ahead and wash it.”
All cleaning should begin with scraping. Feel free to use a metal spatula and dig in. You’ll wear down your spatula long before you hurt the cast iron.
Most common is to fill the skillet or oven half to three quarters full of clean water and bring it to a rolling boil for several minutes. Then carefully stir and scrape again. Swirl and pour out the boiling water. Then return the skillet or DO to the heat to dry completely. It will only take a few seconds. Pour in a tablespoon of your favorite cooking oil, and wipe evenly with a clean paper towel.
You can clean cast iron well without any water, too. After scraping pour a tablespoon of your favorite cooking oil onto the cooking surface and add a couple teaspoons of course salt. Then with a paper towel scrub the cast iron using the salt as your scouring powder. When it’s clean, dump out the salt and use a clean paper towel to wipe out any remaining salt slurry.
Tip Watch Video: How to Cleaning Cast Iron Without Water
Another great tool to clean cast iron in a chainmail scrubbing pad. It’s even more handy and durable than steel wool and works great for cooking grates and griddles as well. Just add a little cooking oil, get in there, and scrub away the dirt.
If you decide to use soap on your cast iron cooking surfaces don’t use anything harsh. A number of companies are producing dish soaps especially blended to not strip away the critical seasoning on cast iron cooking surfaces. For example, Camp Chef makes both cast iron cleaner and a cast iron conditioner that is highly recommended for use on cast iron. The cleaner loosens stubborn sugars and food particles, but won’t hurt the surface. The conditioner helps maintain and restore the seasoning. It works even better than most cooking oils to leave a glassy smooth finish.
Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron chefs have it s-o-o-o-o-o good today. It used to be when you got a new piece of cast iron cookware, the first thing you had to do was season it – that is, bake the oil coating into the cooking surface. Today, top-quality skillets and Dutch ovens from manufacturers like Lodge Cast Iron Camp Dutch Oven and Camp Chef come pre-seasoned and ready to cook. In fact, the process Lodge uses to factory season its cast iron cookware is as good or better than you could replicate with years of tender, loving cooking and care!
If you properly clean and care for your cast iron (as described above) chances are you may never have to re-season it. However, if you cook a lot of acidy dishes in cast iron (like long-stewing tomato sauces and the like), there may come a time when you notice that portions of the cooking surface become more prone to foods sticking. In that case you’ll want to re-season.
It works best if you have an enclosed area where you can precisely control the temperature like a household oven or a gas grill. Warm the cookware slightly, and with a paper towel gently wipe cooking oil onto all surfaces including the Dutch oven’s lid. Then place the cookware back into the oven or grill and bring the heat up to about 375 degrees. Maintain the heat for about 20 minutes, then shut it off. Let the cookware cool inside the oven or grill. This will take awhile, but the extra time is definitely worth it. Re-seasoning will put you back into the non-stick game.
Pick Your Cooking Oil or Cast Iron Conditioner
Cast iron cooks all have preferred types of oil for cooking in and seasoning their cookware. Because of their tolerance for high heat peanut oil and grape seed oil are the favorites of many.
While a lot of bacon is fried on cast iron (it works GREAT for that), bacon grease and other animal fats should not be used as the primary conditioning oil. It has a lot of salt in it which can eventually rust the surface, and animal fats turn rancid more quickly than plant-based oils especially if stored for a period of time between uses.
Whether you choose cooking oil or a specially formulated conditioner to condition and store your cast iron cookware, you do not need a heavy layer of oil. The best method is to pour a tablespoon or less of oil into the pan, then wipe as much as you can out with a dry paper towel. The thin layer left behind is plenty to protect the surface from moisture which is cast iron’s biggest enemy.
Tip: You can also use the same oiled paper towel over and over if you store it between wipes in a zipper top plastic bag. After a few uses, you won’t even need to add more oil. There’s enough held in the towel to do the job nicely.
Store cast iron in a dry environment! The more often you use it, the better, too.
If you’re going to store your Dutch ovens with the lids on, tear 3-4 strips of dry paper towel and fold them over the top rim of the oven before replacing the lid. This will prevent any damaging moisture from getting sealed inside.