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* THE CARE & FEEDING OF CAST IRON

by Brook & Barbara Elliot

We were coaxing a breakfast fire from wet wood after a night of thunderstorms. Everything was soaked and sodden.

A woman from another camp, on her way to the hooters, stopped to watch us. For several minutes she stared at our fireplace with a bemused look on her face. Finally, she approached. "Did you keep your cookware in the tent last night?" she wanted to know.

It was our turn to look bemused. "Of coarse not," we responded, "why do you ask?"

Her reply really set us to thinking. "You have the only pots and pans in camp that aren't rusted from the storm."

Looking around, we realized she was right. That was several years ago, and nothing much has changed. At every event we attend, if it rains, skillets, kettles, and Dutch ovens all around us take on a red patina.

Considering how much cast iron is used in living history camps, its incredible how few re-enactors know how to care for it. Cast iron cookware must be cured, and that cure maintained properly. If done correctly, the iron will not rust, nor will food stick to it and burn.

The curing process is basically the same, whether you start with new or used cast iron. But there are minor differences. Let's look at new cookware first.

There are three sources of new cast ironware. Two American companies --- Wagner and Lodge --- still produce it. The rest comes from Asian sources. You are better off with the American made goods, because they are finer grained. The imports, though cheaper, have a course grain that is hard to cure, and which requires more attention once it is cured.

If you have a choice, avoid modern designs such as self-basting lids. They are far from being period proper, and are more difficult to care for, because steam, condensing in the depressions and on the nipples, tend to draw out the cure. The result is rust on the inside of the lid.

Wooden handles, while acceptable, are not authentic. What's more, they are likely to burn when used on an open fire.

New iron has a protective coating on it which must be removed. American companies use wax. The imports are covered with a water soluble shellac. In either case, using straight hot water, scrub the item with soap and a scouring pad. Use the hottest water you can stand. Once all the coating is removed, you will never again let soap touch the iron.

Let's repeat that: Do not use soap on cured cast iron. the cure is based on grease, and soap's job is to remove grease. So, if you use soap, you'll be destroying the very effect you are trying for.

As the iron comes clean, immediately dry it and wipe a film of shortening over it. Originally, lard was used for this purpose. But it has a tendency to turn rancid, so shortening is a better bet.

Heat your oven to 400 degrees, and put the pieces in it for about an hour. Remove them, and blot up any puddles of oil with a paper towel. Let the iron pieces cool. Do not be alarmed if, at this point, they feel sticky. They'll lose that when the cure is complete.

Cast iron makers instruct that ware is now ready to use, but recommend that you use it only for frying the first few times. We've found that oiling and heating at least one more time before use makes more sense. For camp use, the iron is only partially cured at this stage. To complete the cure, build a high-flamed fire. Any fuel will serve, but avoid softwoods because they'll deposit creosote on the iron, which is no good for you.

Grease the iron on all sides, fairly heavily, and sit it in the flames. When a good coating of soot has been deposited, turn each piece and brush the sooty surface with more shortening. Be sure to use a natural fiber brush for this, because synthetics will melt. At the appropriate time, turn the pieces again, and grease the first side. Remove the pieces from the fire, and let them cool.

Now comes the messy part. Liberally grease paper towels and use them to wipe off the iron. Lots of soot will come off, so you need plenty of towels. Try not to reapply this loose surface soot to the ware.

Your iron should now have a deep, black finish that normally takes months of use to acquire. What you've done is fill-in all the pores and voids in the iron, creating a smooth, non-stick surface. In addition, the black finish helps absorb and hold heat evenly.

You can use the iron right now, or clean it to remove additional soot. we always clean it, because we use the same cast-iron pieces at home as in camp, and don't want the soot messing up the kitchen stove.

Properly cleaning cast iron is the secret of maintaining the cure. Let us repeat: Do not use soap on cast iron, ever! Instead, all you need is hot (the hotter the better) water and a scrub brush.

Once again, use straight hot water from the tap, or water you've heated in camp. Pour a small amount (a cup or so) in the iron, and use the scrub brush to vigorously scour all surfaces. Rinse the surface with more hot water. If you are concerned about sterilization, pour boiling water into and over the iron after you have brushed it.

Immediately dry the iron, and wipe a thin film of shortening over it. This replaces any you have lost through cooking and cleaning, and futher assures there will be no rusting.

Iron that's been used on an open fire will always have loose soot on the outside. Rather than dirtying the scrub brush, we use one of those plastic pads instead. We keep them reserved for that purpose, so the soot is not transferred to other cleaning products.

In camp, we only clean the insides of cast ironware. Then, before leaving, we wipe down the outside with shortening soaked paper towels to remove the loose soot.

Used cast iron requires a different approach. Depending on where you aquire it, you are likely to find it coated with everything from paint (collectors are big on that), to crusted-on old food, to a thick coating of burned lard.

Much of this can be simply burned off by leaving the iron in a very hot fire. We used to heat the iron, then plunge it into cold water. This, in effect, steam-cleaned the iron. But the folks at Lodge warned us against this practice, because it can cause the iron to warp and even crack. We never had it happen, but why take the chance? Besides which, we've found a better way.

First, wash the iron in hot soapy water to remove any loose crud. Then soak it in an acid bath.

To create this, fill a plastic drum with water, adding a quart of battery acid for each five gallons of water. Let the iron sit for several days, checking it each day and mixing the solution to assure fresh acid is against the iron each time. After three or four days the iron should be ready to clean.

At this point, follow the directions for new iron. One caution: the paint can be real messy, and you may want to work outside.

The buckskinner who taught us this trick follows up with a baking soda bath to remove any traces of acid. But we've found that unnecessary, because you'll be flushing it all out when you wash it.

Some old iron pieces will, after the soapy water wash, look like new. Others will have stains that won't come out no matter how hard you scrub. Don't worry about them, as the cure will cover and hide them.

Once the iron is clean, oil and cure it as usual.

By following these instructions, you'll never again have rusted cookware, unless you let rainwater sit in it for any length of time. Rain, almost everywhere in the country, is now at least slightly acidic. If you let it sit in your iron, it will eat through the cure and you'll have rust. So be sure to drain and dry any rain-soaked ironware as soon as possible.

One final word. As you search out old cast iron in flea markets, antique malls, and other locations you'll be shocked at how high the prices can be. Collectors have skyrocketed the value of cast iron, especially that made by Griswold. So shop carefully. Overall, you'll find better bargains at flea markets and auctions than you will in antique malls and shops.

And don't expect to find pieces from the 18th century. Most of them are safely tucked away in collections.

 

  COOKING BULK GRAINS & BEANS

Bring liquid to boil, add grains or beans, cover reduce heat and let simmer.

Grains (liquid: cooking time)

Short or broken grain Wild rice, Brown rice, India rice: 1 cup: 2c: 50 mins.

Medium or long grain Wild rice, Brown rice, White rice blend, Basmati rice (brown), Barley-pearl: 1 cup: 2.5c: 45-55 mins.

White rice (instant), Basmati rice (white), Amaranth, Buckwheat, Oats (rolled & steel-cut), Wheat-course: 1 cup: 2c: 15-20 mins.

Millet: 1 cup: 2.5c: 30-45 mins.

Cornmeal, most meals-blended-etc.: 1 cup: 3c: 10-12 mins.

Couscous, Quinosa: 1 cup: 2c: 15 mins: let stand 15 mins.

Wheat berries: 1 cup: 3c: 2 hrs: presoak 8 hours.

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Beans (presoak beans: short soak, boil & soak 1 hr. or long soak for 8-12 hrs., then cook)

Adzuki, Fava, Lentil, Split peas, Smith: 1/2 cup: 2c: 40 mins.

Black, Cannelli, Soy: 1/2 cup: 2c: 30 mins.

Kidney, Lima, White beans: 1/2 cup: 2c: 60 mins.

Black eyed peas: 1/2 cup: 2c: 75 mins.

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There's an old Chinese proverb - it goes something like "Speak only if it is an improvement upon silence" - these recipes have been updated to today's available products and measurements.

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Until next time, we leave as friends and followers of those that went before us.

Buck Conner 

"One who trades”

"Uno quién negocia"

“Unqui commerce”

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