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Author: Melissa Baltzell
Here are some do's and don'ts for care, cleaning and storage of your cast-iron cookware.
Dutch oven care, cleaning and storage are topics that raise a number of questions and even more opinions among Dutch oven enthusiasts. If you were to ask 20 different Dutch oven cooks a "How do you...?" or "What do you recommend...?" question, chances are no two chefs would give you the same answer. Here are some basics on Dutch oven care and maintenance.
Keep it Clean! To Soap or not to Soap, That is the Question
The ways and means of cleaning Dutch ovens vary over time and generations. They range from simply flipping the oven over in the fire and letting the stuck on food "burn off" a method practiced by mountain men, cowboys and pioneers in the 1800's, to scouring with today's steel wool Brillo pad. In any case, one point remains constant across the board, NEVER pour cold water into a hot Dutch oven! This could weaken, and even crack the cast iron. This damage is permanent. Though very tough, cast iron will break. Take care not to drop it or allow it to bounce around in transport. If cared for properly, Dutch ovens can last for generations.
Soap! Do I or don't I? Whether to use soap to clean any cast-iron cookware is a point of contention among many Dutch oven aficionados. Among most, using soap is strictly forbidden. Some will say the cast iron absorbs the chemicals in detergents resulting in a soapy taste to food. Many think soap simply strips precious oils, damaging the patina and causing rust spots. Others use mild dish soaps and claim not to experience any of these problems. Here, personal preference enters in. It really depends on how often you use your Dutch oven, how well cured it is and how much elbow grease is required to clean it.
Some frequent camp cooks will scrape the ovens of baked on foods at camp, then wash more thoroughly at home with warm water and a small amount of mild detergent. A gentle plastic scrubbing sponge is recommended to eliminate marring the surface of the iron. If you use this method, dry the oven thoroughly then apply a little oil to the oven's surfaces. A good quality olive or vegetable oil is best. Spray coatings are not recommended. Avoid lard or other animal products. These will spoil and can cause rancidity. But if rancidity does occur, all is not lost. One method of correcting this is cleaning the oven using steel wool - Brillo pads work well - then re-season as you would a new oven. Another common practice is to spray the oven inside and out with a 50/50 blend of water and cider vinegar and heat until dry.
One thing is certain, NEVER put your cast-iron cookware in the dishwasher. Cast iron is full of carbon and will rust. Let's face it, rust is a pain but the damage is reversible. Rust can be removed easily with an abrasive pad or steelwool. Re-seasoning your Dutch oven afterward is a must.
The use of salt as a cleaning agent on a Dutch oven is yet another matter. It is conceivable salt, mixed with oil could be used as an abrasive in scouring cast iron. This is a lot of work compared to other methods and if not rinsed well, salt pitting of the iron can occur. Salt attracts moisture and iron and moisture don't mix! Rust, rust, rust! Salt and oil scouring is not a recommended method among most Dutch oven pros, so save the salt for seasoning your food.
There are a number of variables that seem to affect the success, or lack of same, of one storage method over another. For example, your location can be a factor. Warmer, humid climates may facilitate rancidity in an oily Dutch oven. A common practice to prevent this is to clean with hot water and a plastic or natural fiber brush, rinse and repeat as necessary, return the oven to heat until totally dry, then store dry. In dusty environments or if insects are a problem, you may want to store your oven in a heavy, cardboard or wooden, lidded box. This would also enable you to stack a number of ovens to save space.
Another factor that can affect your Dutch oven's condition and performance is how often you use it. If your oven sits unused for a long time, six months or more, rancidity may occur. Correct this by using one of the aforementioned methods. Storing with wadded up paper towels or newspaper inside the oven is always a good idea. Leave the paper hanging out in several places or use a piece of cardboard to keep the lid from sealing tightly. This allows air to circulate inside the oven. Some practitioners use pieces of clean burlap cloth as the open weave allows for good circulation.
Whatever your conditions, a clean and dry storage environment is paramount to maintaining a healthy Dutch oven.
Oven Care ExtrasThere are a few extra FYI's that every new Dutch oven cooking fan should know.
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