I do a lot of cast iron cooking. This week alone I’ve done two Cowboy Cookouts for bus tour traveling through our state. Most people marvel at being able to cook a meal in iron pots on the ground.
Quite a few people know that I’m into cast iron and I get a lot of questions about the topic. I had a reader pose this question to me recently. He had inherited a few pieces of cast iron cookware, but they had gotten a little rusty and wanted to know if his pots and pans were still good. Unless the cast iron has rusted so badly that it is severely pitted or has holes rusted through it, you can rejuvenate it.
First, you need to clean it. You can sand it with fine grit sandpaper or steel wool, but I have a suggestion to make it even easier…sandblast it. Even if you don’t have a sandblaster, you can take it to a body repair or metal shop and have them sandblast it for you. It will cost you a few bucks, but it will be a lot easier than spending all your spare time and elbow grease getting rid of the rust.
Once you have the metal clean, you’ll need to re-season it. This is done my coating the metal surfaces with a vegetable oil and “baking” it at about 350 degrees. You can do this in the kitchen, but you will probably smoke up the house. There is a better way.
Through some trial and error I have developed a portable seasoning unit. It consists of:
1 - An 18-inch round metal pan that is about 4-inches deep
2 – A wire tomato cage that has been cut down to about 15-inches tall
3 – A 20 gallon metal trash can
Note: Use heavy gauge wire tomato cages. The weight of your cast iron may cause lighter frames to collapse and any kind of plastic frame will melt.
Here’s the procedure. Cut your heavy wire tomato cage until it’s about two sections tall. You’ll have a “wide” section and a “narrow section. You’ll want to use the wider section and set it in the base of your metal pan. This wire rack will hold your cast iron piece above the charcoals, but in the “heat zone” for the seasoning process.
Set out you metal pan on a non-combustible surface. Put it someplace that the eventual smoke from this process won’t bother anyone. Pour in a generous amount of charcoal briquettes, probably 30 to 40, into the pan. Light your fire and let it burn until the flames are gone.
Take your cleaned cookware and coat it completely with a vegetable oil. I like to use Crisco, but any brand of vegetable oil will work. Rub it on all metal surfaces. Set the cast iron piece on the tomato cage stand. Make sure it is turned upside down so the oil will drip off as it heats up.
Next, invert the 20-gallon trash can over the top so that it holds in the heat, but leave a little open space so the trash can does not touch the ground. An inch or two of space should be sufficient. You need to have enough oxygen getting in to keep the fire going.
Even with small number briquettes I recommended above, you will have a temperature inside the trash can of 300 to 400 degrees or so. You’ll get some smoke (sometimes quite a bit), but since it is outside, who cares?
Lift the trash can after about an hour let your cast iron cookware cool a little while still sitting on the stand. It will still be quite warm, but you can wipe off any excess oil that may have pooled in low spots. Put the trash can back over your cookware and let heat for another 10-15 minutes. Remove the cookware from the rack and let it cool down enough so that you can touch it again. Oil the cookware up again and repeat the process. To get that dark patina that you see on well-seasoned cast iron, you may have to go through this process several times.
Once you’ve got your cookware seasoned, it is ready for use in camp. The seasoning process helps prevent the cast iron from rusting and it also helps keep food from sticking. To maintain the seasoning, all you need to do is clean the cookware between uses and lightly recoat with a little oil. Most of the time, you can clean your cast iron by boiling water in it. It will almost steam clean itself.
For long term storage, coat the metal with a heavier layer of oil and keep them in a spot that water is not likely to get to it. Even the best seasoned cast iron will rust if water stays in continual contact with it.