Cooking over a campfire takes skill. It isn’t like cooking at home with your non-stick skillet or glass casserole dish. To be successful at campfire cooking you not only need the know-how but also the right tools.
Cast iron cookware is essential for cooking while camping. This is because it is very durable, long-lasting, and can stand up hot coals and flames. However, you usually can’t just purchase a cast-iron pan or oven and use it straight away.
It needs to be seasoned. Want to know how to season your cast-iron cookware? There are a few methods.
- Oven seasoning (preferred)
- Fire seasoning
- Natural seasoning
But before we jump into the how let’s look at the why.
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Why Do I Need To Season My Cast-Iron?
Cast iron is a wonderful cooking material. It is especially perfect for cooking with high temperatures, like blazing hot coals or over a fire. This is why cast iron cookware has been a favorite for decades and decades.
A few individuals even have skillets and pots that belonged to their long-gone relatives. This is because cast-iron is very durable and if you take care of it can last for ages. However, it does have a few drawbacks.
Cast iron can rust because it is, well, iron. Another disadvantage is if not treated properly it can be the opposite of non-stick, making cooking difficult.
To prevent rust, keep your cast iron strong, and make cooking a breeze. Your skillet needs to be seasoned. Some cast-iron comes pre-seasoned from the manufacturer, but you will still probably want to season it at home.
What Is Seasoning?
Seasoning is a fancy name for making your skillet non-stick. It doesn’t involve using any seasonings like spices or herbs. The only thing you need is oil and heat.
Cast iron skillets non-stick surfaces can be restored over and over again with seasoning, this is what makes them so hardy. To understand why seasoning works to repair the surface we need to understand a little bit about cast iron.
Cast iron is a group of iron alloys, or metals, melted down and molded into cookware. Though care is taken to remove imperfections, the surface of cast iron is not completely smooth and has ridges and valleys.
When you season a cast iron with oil the oil latches onto these imperfections. When heated the oil fills in all the pits and bonds to them, creating a smooth non-stick surface.
This layer almost resembles plastic, and the process is known as polymerization.
But, as you cook with the cast iron, stirring and scraping it as well as heating and cooling the oil, the layer can break down. For this reason, you will need to regularly season your cast iron.
How To Season Your Cast Iron
Now, on to the main event, how to season your cast iron. There are a few different ways we will discuss this. The first way, which is probably the easiest and most commonly used, is the oven method.
First, before seasoning, determine if you need to restore your pot. This involves getting rid of rust and removing some of the old gunky seasoning. If you do need to restore your pot do that first (and skip ahead to “how to restore a cast iron”) then come back.
It is important to note that you can repeat the seasoning process up to five times until you have a coating that you are satisfied with.
The Oven Method For Seasoning Cast Iron
- Once you have prepared your cast iron, oil your pot. There are a few types of oil you can use, including corn and canola, or even the most preferred, flaxseed, or grapeseed oil. Using a rag or a paper towel, or even your hands, rub the oil all over. Pay special attention to the edges, corners, and nooks and crannies. Also, don’t forget the bottom, the handle, and the lid if you have one.
- Bake it! 400 is a pretty good temperature to heat your oven to. Before heating the oven make sure your rack is in the middle or the lower third, whichever leaves enough room for your cookware item. You will also want a rack outfitted with a cookie sheet or pan below your cast iron to catch any oil drips. Once the oven is hot place your cookware directly on the rack, upside down.
- Tip: if you have a dutch oven, do not put it in with the lid on. Flip the pot upside down and place it directly on the rack with its lid directly on the rack next to it.
- Let it bake for an hour. Then simply turn off the oven and leave everything to cool down.
- Once cool, your cast iron is ready to go! It should be black and appear to have an oily finish.
- seasoning in your oven can be a smoking process due to heating the oil. You may want to have your windows open if you are seasoning your cast iron in your kitchen.
- Some people recommend a longer time at 250 degrees while others prefer an hour at 500 degrees. Usually, around 400 degrees for an hour is suitable.
- The oil you use may change the flavor. For example, grapeseed and corn have a neutral flavor while avocado and coconut oils do not.
Campfire Method For seasoning cast Iron
This method is much less reliable, but it will work in a pinch, should you say leave your cast iron pan out in the rain overnight and end up with rust.
- Oil up your pan with whatever oil you have on hand. Most people love grapeseed or flaxseed oil because of their high smoke points, but it is understandable if you don’t have access to these while camping. Canola is fine. Using a paper towel or rag, coat your cast iron. Be sure to get the edges, corners, handle, and lid. Use a paper towel to remove any excess oil to minimize drips into the fire.
- Build a hot fire. You will want to use dry and long-burning wood. Make sure you build your fire in a fire pit or charcoal pit, you will need an elevated grate, like a grill grate as well.
- When your fire is hot and your cast iron is oiled, move your grate over the flames. Place your cast iron upside down over the fire. The lid can go upside down next to it, never on top of the pot or pan.
- Let the cookware heat over the fire until the fire goes out.
- Let your cast iron cool enough so that you can pick it up. It is now ready to use! Some people like to rinse it with clean water and pat it dry. But this usually isn’t necessary.
- You can also season over a hot coal bed instead of an open fire. Just prepare the pot and rack in the same manner and cook it over the coals until everything is cool to the touch.
- Some people do not like the campfire seasoning method because if you get your fire too hot (as in really super hot) you may nearly reforge your cast iron, or at least alter the alloys, which can leave a weird tint and pattern on your cookware.
Many people inevitably end up naturally seasoning their cast iron because this method involves letting it season as you use it.
- Cook with your pan as often as possible. Use thin layers of oil to cook either over a campfire, on a grill, or in the oven.
- As you continue to use your cast iron, fine layers of oil will build up, forming your seasoning. Sort of like when you repaint your walls every few decades.
- This is how cast iron was historically seasoned, and why some people swear by their great grandmothers cast iron skillet.
- In the beginning, as your layers build, they may look uneven. Different cooking surfaces and temperatures, and even what you are cooking can create spots or patches on your cookware. These should fade as you use it.
- You will find that your cast iron should become better and easier to use with time as you build the seasoning. Don’t expect a high-quality seasoning right away, unlike with the oven method.
Your best bet is to give your cast iron a good oven seasoning prior to its first use. Then, as you continue to use it will naturally be seasoned over and over again. That is until you make a cast-iron blunder.
How To Restore Your Cast Iron
Many people swear by their cast iron skillets, however, if you don’t treat it properly and try to cook with it, you will probably think those cast-iron devotees are crazy! In order to keep your cast-iron performing well, there are a few things you should never do.
- Let it soak in the sink. The small imperfections mentioned at the beginning of this article, the same ones that the oil coats when seasoning, will soak up water. Water on your cast iron leads to one thing…rust.
- Scour it. Put down the scrubby pads and the steel wool. Even though you are dealing with cast-iron, they’re way too rough for its surface.
- Store it in the oven. Many people do this without harming their cookware. However, the first time you accidentally preheat the oven with your cast iron inside, you will understand. It will slowly remove your seasoning.
- Store it empty. Instead of just throwing it in the cupboard, or the empty oven, place a piece of paper towel over it. You can then safely put other pots and pans on it and the towel will soak up any excess moisture.
- Avoid it. Don’t baby your cast iron and certainly don’t save it for cooking only particular dishes. The more you use your cast iron the better it becomes.
Some people recommend avoiding acidic foods or those that need to be simmered for a long time. This is because cooking things like tomato sauce may eat away at the seasoning. However, if you vary what you cook and take steps to restore the seasoning after cooking acidic foods you should be okay!
So let’s say it is too late, you already did one of the “nevers” and soaked your cast-iron in the sink. You are now probably dealing with a rust problem. In which case you will need to restore your cast iron.
To remove the rust you will need to strip the seasoning. There are a few ways to do this, some of them pretty crazy. The most interesting involves a large water tank and a car battery in order to remove the rust by electrolysis. However, if you hope to avoid electrocution we recommend any of the following methods.
- Break the first rule and break out the steel wool. You will need to scour your cast iron and return it to its original state. This will take a fair amount of elbow grease.
- Once you have removed all the rust, wash it with warm water and mild soap. You can give it another scrub with a bristle brush.
- Thoroughly dry it immediately with paper towels and you are ready to season it.
- You can either hand scrub your cast iron with sandpaper or affix the sandpaper to an orbital sander. You are trying to remove all the build-up and rust.
- Once you have removed all the major trouble spots, use steel wool and a mix of equal parts water and equal parts white vinegar.
- Once you are done abusing your cast iron it should appear slightly silver. This means you have stripped the seasoning (and rust). Re-season it with oil, and quickly to prevent oxidation.
Hopefully, your cast iron will rarely rust. But should you accidentally leave it in a washbasin or out in the rain, these hardy cooking utensils are easy to restore.
How to Clean Your Cast Iron
Usually, after cooking you will not need to restore your cast iron. But you should still clean it. You are probably thinking if a scrubbing pad and water is out of the question, what can I use?
Some people do use water and mild soap, especially after acidic cooking. If you have a great seasoning on your cast iron this cleaning likely won’t cause an issue.
But, if you want to play it safe, use salt. You will need a very coarse salt. To protect your hands you may also want a dish towel and a pair of tongs.
Roll the towel and grasp it with the tongs. Then pour a fair amount of coarse salt into your skillet. Scrub the skillet clean with the tongs. Some people add a small amount of oil or water to the salt to make scrubbing easier.
Then, throw out the salt and rinse the skillet with hot water. Immediately pat it dry with a towel or heat it over a medium-low flame to evaporate the water.
If you are camping, you may want to try the water method. This involves covering the stuck-on food with a layer of water at the bottom of your pan or pot. Then heat the water over the fire until it is nearly boiling.
Remove from the heat and allow it to cool slightly, it should only take a couple of minutes. The stuck-on bits should now be easy to remove.
If you need to add a bit of oil after cleaning you can do so. Just swipe the oil around with a paper towel and put it back on the heat for a few minutes.
Taking good care of your cast iron will keep it well-seasoned, which means non-stick and great for cooking.
How to Store Your Cast Iron
If you are at home, you can keep your cast iron with your other pots and pans. Either hanging, in a cupboard, or in a drawer. If you are using the latter, or anything other than stored by itself, it is a good idea to cover your cast iron with a paper towel.
A paper towel layer will help protect the seasoned surface and your other pans. This is because cast iron cookware is notoriously oily.
For this reason, you should take care to pack and store it properly when camping. To protect everything else from getting oily and protect your cast iron from attracting copious amounts of debris and ash, cover it. A plastic grocery bag generally does the trick.
Set Yourself Up for Success
A great cast iron cooking experience starts with a great seasoning. Treat it right and you will love your cast iron. Other than regularly seasoning it and taking care with how you wash it, you can add a little oil to the pan when you cook to help it retain its seasoning layer. Also, preheating your cast iron will help things go more smoothly.
Though cast iron cookware may initially seem a bit high maintenance, it really isn’t! Take good care of it and you can use it for years and years to come!
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