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Cast iron is a rugged pan perfect for car camping as well as in posh homes. It will last for generations; if you know how to take care of it.
Never use harsh chemicals to clean cast iron and, in fact, try not to use soap! A little water, abrasives such as sand or salt, and a bit of heat should be all you ever need or use to clean your favorite piece of cast iron.
Cleaning cast iron is not as straight forward as cleaning your standard household stainless steel or copper pots and pans. The rituals and traditions surrounding cast iron exist for a purpose; these pans are different! Cast iron has a porous surface, meaning anything you put in it will flavor what you cook. So keep things away from it that you wouldn’t want to eat or taste in your next meal. Plus, simply cleaning and washing a cast iron pan could damage the one thing on the pan that makes it so special: the seasoning.
- What is Cast Iron?
- How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan While Camping
- How to Clean a Dutch Oven While Camping
- Cast Iron Cleaning in Bear Country, or Following Leave No Trace:
- How to Season Cast Iron
- What Does Seasoned Cast Iron Look Like?
- What You Should Never Cook in Cast Iron
- How to Maintain Cast Iron Seasoning
- Where to Find Quality Cast Iron
- Is Enameled Cast Iron the Same as Regular Cast Iron?
- How to Store Cast Iron Long Term
What is Cast Iron?
A cast iron pan is essentially two parts.
- The standard iron pan
- The seasoning that has built up over many uses.
The actual pan is iron alloyed with carbon (similar to steel, but with a higher carbon content) and has been used in cookware for centuries. The seasoning is a thin, baked-on coat of oil that coats the cast iron pan.
While I have not heard any term associated with cast iron, the Chinese, who build up a similar seasoning in their carbon steel woks, refer to the flavor imparted by the seasoning as Wokchoy, or an essence of the wok. The seasoning on cast iron is essentially the same thing; it imparts flavor as well as a nearly magic ability to keep food from sticking. In fact, the first step to using a wok and cast iron is to season it and to maintain that seasoning requires careful treatment and proper cleaning.
The important difference between cleaning other cookware and cleaning cast iron is the need to preserve the seasoning. Let’s get to it!
How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan While Camping
There are many different ways to clean cast iron. Some methods will ruin your pan; others will maintain it for future generations. With any cleaning, you need to understand that the seasoning is what makes the pan. The seasoning provides flavor, as well as maintains a relatively non-stick surface that is healthier than most of today’s modern chemically created coatings. Earlier pans that you may have gotten from your grandparents were manufactured with a smooth finish. This adds to the non-stick surface and makes it easier to clean.
For proper cleaning, a cast iron pan does not always need to be washed; a simple wipe down with a cloth or paper towel is usually all that is necessary. For stickier bits, a paste made with a salt slurry can be used as a mild abrasive with a quick rinse off to remove the salt.
To Use a Salt Slurry
- Add a tablespoon of table salt to the pan
- Add enough warm water to make a paste (just a few drops will do)
- Scrub the salt into the pan, and any stuck-on food particles with a clean cloth
- A warm pan makes cleaning easier
- Rinse all salt off with warm water and thoroughly dry the pan
- Wipe the pan with oil before storing (and preferably while still warm)
If food is really stuck, your options can get a bit more aggressive, but you risk damaging the seasoning.
- Use a cloth with a bit of sand, followed by a chainmail scrubber to remove burnt-on food particles.
- A more aggressive method is to heat the pan up and then pour boiling water, NOT cold water, into the pan to help release the stuck-on food. Adding cold water to hot cast iron will crack the pan, so never do this.
You do not want to boil water overly long in the cast iron pan or allow the pan to simply cook over the fire to bake off food particles, as this could possibly damage the seasoning. Once the seasoning is damaged, food will stick worse, and the cycle of injuring the pan and seasoning each time you use it will continue until you are so frustrated you toss it.
If the pan is cool, you can put cool water inside and heat the water just to a boil, and this is often more than enough to loosen any food particles.
However, the worst thing you can do to a cast iron pan is to put in in a dishwasher or use soap. Cast iron is porous and absorbs everything that is placed in it. If you use soap or harsh chemicals, that is what you will taste for many meals afterward.
To be fair, many use a tiny bit of soap here and there while cleaning cast iron without negative effects. It’s actually quite a bit of a controversial subject. In general, soap can be avoided and your cast iron can be cleaned in other ways.
Following any cleaning where you use water, place the pan over low heat to dry it out. Once the pan is dry and still warm, wipe the pan both the cooking surface and outside with a high-temperature oil such as grapeseed oil to maintain the finish.
How to Clean a Dutch Oven While Camping
If you don’t have a dutch oven, many dutch ovens have different properties and advantages and disadvantages. If you are in the market, we made a huge post about choosing a dutch oven that will fit your needs. There’s more dutch oven options out there than you might think!
Dutch oven care is not unlike its fry pan counterparts listed above, with the only exception that you are more likely to use the pan for soups and sauces as well as baking.
Cast iron is excellent for baking, as it heats evenly and can withstand direct fire and contact with coals. However, this heating process is hard on the metal and the seasoning, and so deserves extra care.
After using a cast iron dutch oven,
- Carefully brush off any soot and ash on the outside of the pot, being sure not to burn yourself.
- Starting with the inside of the pot, wipe high-heat oil onto the surface,
- End with a wipe down of the outside as well.
- Be sure to use a disposable rag or something reserved for just the outside of the pot, as it will become very sooty and oily.
If using the dutch oven for soups and liquids, keep the acid level low, as it may damage the seasoning and cause it to peel, which will result in the need to re-season. Once you are finished cooking, remove the liquids. Wipe out the pot and scrub out any stuck-on food before rinsing out the pot with a little warm water. Heat the pot until it is dry and then wipe down the inside and outside with oil.
Cast Iron Cleaning in Bear Country, or Following Leave No Trace:
Having a cast iron pan while camping is awesome, but the very nature of how it is cleaned can be a strong attractant to the local wildlife population. Imagine cooking some nice greasy bacon, wiping out the pan, and now having a couple of tasty paper towels, and a bacon grease flavored pan while in bear country!
In bear country, it’s best to burn towels used to wipe out the pan in a campfire if you have one. If you aren’t having a fire, place towels and the pan in a hard-sided container and pack them out to dispose of later. This same rule applies if you clean the pan with sand. That sand can serve as an attractant and should be isolated and packed out or tossed into the fire.
How to Season Cast Iron
Should you ever pick up a vintage pan at a flea market, have a new pan gifted to you, or somehow manage to damage your seasoning, you will need to give it a new foundation to build a solid seasoning base. To do so, there are two seasoning methods. The first is quick and simple. For either, you will need a bottle of grapeseed or canola oil.
The first method is perfect for the traveler, as it only requires a stovetop burner or a campfire.
- Heat the pan
- When hot, very carefully apply the oil to the cooking surface of the pan with a paper towel, being careful not to burn yourself!
- Allow the oil to smoke off.
- Repeat this procedure as many times as you want; there is no limit to how many you can do because each application is creating a seasoning base.
The second method takes longer and requires an oven, but is considered by many to be superior.
- Coat the pan in oil
- Then place it into an oven at 400F to bake on the oil.
- Keep the pan in the oven for fifteen to twenty minutes. It may smoke, but this is normal.
- Carefully, remove the pan
- Wipe more oil to the cooking surface, just like the first method.
- Place back in the oven for another fifteen to twenty minutes.
- Repeat as much as you can, ending with a final wipe of oil before allowing the pan to cool slowly.
Another great way to finish the seasoning to add a bit of flavor is to cook bacon in the hot pan. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel afterward, but do not wash.
What Does Seasoned Cast Iron Look Like?
A seasoned cast iron pan has a glossy surface that looks almost like black glass. In contrast, a pan that isn’t seasoned or has a damaged seasoning is dull gray and may appear like it has chips or cracks on the surface. Those chips are actually places where the seasoning has flaked off due to improper care.
Compared to antique pans, newer cast iron has a rougher surface; this shouldn’t be confused with an unseasoned pan. Seasoned pans are glossy.
Most modern manufacturing techniques have removed a final casting process that results in a smooth-as-silk surface that you find in pans made in the 1950s and earlier. If your cast iron pan is very rough and unseasoned, or the seasoning is so severely damaged you don’t care about maintaining it, you can sand it down to improve the finish before re-seasoning. This will enhance the surface and help keep things from sticking.
What You Should Never Cook in Cast Iron
You can cook anything you want in cast iron, but with some things, you may end up damaging the seasoning that results in a huge headache. One of the big things you should avoid is very acidic dishes, for they can dissolve the seasoning right off. I once stewed tomatoes and ended up with quite a few black bits floating around in my sauce as my seasoning became a tomato sauce ingredient.
Another thing that you may want to consider is that the seasoning will flavor the following dish, so you do not want to cook a strong fish right before a pastry. This ability, however, can be a benefit as I will occasionally roast coffee immediately before I cook a Pineapple Upside Down cake. The coffee gives the cake a deep, robust, yet subtle flavor.
It is also best to avoid boiling water in cast iron. This very quickly damages the seasoning and will require some maintenance as soon as you dry off the pot. So, if possible, it is best to avoid making pasta in cast iron or only to do so occasionally.
How to Maintain Cast Iron Seasoning
To keep cast iron easy to clean and cook on so that food doesn’t stick, you should maintain the seasoning after every use. Warm up the pan and wipe it down with a high-heat oil such as grapeseed or peanut. Olive oil will cause the pan to smoke more than other oils and may go rancid over time.
When you are off the road and at least once a year, spend an afternoon re-seasoning your pan by following the methods listed above, especially the oven method. This will keep the seasoning going even when your cleaning and re-seasoning methods aren’t ideal like that one time it was raining, and you just tossed the dirty pan on the floor of the back seat.
Where to Find Quality Cast Iron
There are several manufactures making new cast iron, but new is not always better and not all brands are the same. US based manufactures tend to have a better product with less air in the metal. This makes a more rugged pan that is less likely to break due to drops, being banged around in a car, or occasionally splashes of cold water while hot. Also, less air in the metal will result in even heating; air pockets will lead to hot spots that burn off the seasoning and cause food to stick.
There are numerous small, cottage industry cast iron manufactures popping up that utilizes a process similar to historic pans. These pans might be expensive, but they will have a smooth finish that will last for decades with care and seasoning. That slippery base will help keep food from sticking and is worth the cost.
If you can’t afford a new pan, check out flea markets and antique shops. Look for pans without any cracks or visible flaws. The cooking surface should be smooth to the touch and may or may not be glossy, depending on how the seasoning has held up. Be sure to check the bottom as well as any cracks on the heating surface are a terrible sign and should be avoided.
While many modern cast iron pans come pre-seasoned, it is always advisable to process a new pan, even an antique one, like it isn’t seasoned. That way, you will add your own flavor and ensure the seasoning is well baked on.
Is Enameled Cast Iron the Same as Regular Cast Iron?
While enameled cast iron has a cast iron pan as its base, it is an entirely different pot. It will heat evenly like any cast iron pan, but unlike traditional cast iron, you don’t need to worry about seasoning it. In fact, you can put enameled cast iron in the dishwasher!
Enameled cast iron is not porous and will not pick up the flavors of oils, dishes, and cleaners. Instead of worrying about maintaining the seasoning, you need to make sure you take care of the enamel. Any nicks in the enamel will cause rusting as well as food sticking. For this reason, enameled cast iron isn’t as rough and tumble as its “naked” relative. Keep it from bumping and banging or anything hitting it, and your enameled cast iron will outlast you!
One downside to enameled cast iron is that it doesn’t withstand high temperatures. Cooking over a gas camping stove should be fine, but cooking with enameled cast iron over a fire is not recommended.
How to Store Cast Iron Long Term
If stored for a long time, it may rust. And if you use the wrong oil, you may cause the seasoning on the pan to go rancid.
Before storing cast iron, wash it thoroughly with warm water without any soap. Then heat the pan to expel any moisture before coating it fully with a non-animal based oil such as canola or grapeseed oil. When the pan is cool and ready to be stored, wrap it in a paper bag or newspaper. Never store cast iron in a plastic bag as that will hold moisture and cause the pans to rust.