By Joan S. Larsen, author of Lovin' Dutch Ovens
Once, well-seasoned Dutch ovens were heirlooms passed from generation to generation. Wood burning stoves with built-in ovens started their decline in the late 1800's and into the early 1900's. Later in the 20th century, gas and electric ranges almost completed their demise. Nationally, the Boy Scouts of America kept the manufacturing of Dutch ovens going, according to Billie Hill of Lodge Manufacturing, the largest producer of cast iron cookware in the United States. In the West, cattle ranchers, sheepherders, river runners and a few diehard campers preserved their use.
Unfortunately, a common practice was to bury Dutch ovens in old sheds, basements and antique stores instead of beds of hot coals, a practice that produced more rust than rolls.
During the past couple decade, well-seasoned Dutch ovens have regained their usefulness and are making food preparation a favorite pastime for cooks and trenchermen alike. So I ask three questions: Is your Dutch oven in an old shed, a basement or headed for an antique store? Or is it stuck on a garage shelf waiting for the first cookout? Or is it still in its original box? Wherever it is, now is the time to dig it up, check it out, and get it ready for use.
Remember, whatever your oven looks like, the pot and lid are a team and should be treated equally.
A well-seasoned oven should have a consistent finish without any signs of rust or scents of rancid oil. If this describes your pot and lid, just rinse them in hot water and dry completely with paper towels. Then, finish your seasoning with a very light coat of oil and wipe away any excess with dry paper towels, and you're ready to cook.
If your oven has small rust spots or rusty scratches, wash it with a mild dish detergent and hot water, then rinse it in the hottest water possible. Next, dry completely with paper towels and immediately cover the inside and outside surfaces of the pot and lid with a thin coat of oil, starting with a puddle of vegetable oil about the size of a quarter and adding more as needed. Using clean, dry paper towels, wipe the surface until all excess oil is removed. The metal retains heat from the hot water, helping it absorb the oil.
If your oven is mostly rust with a few spots of seasoning or if it smells rancid, the oven needs to be stripped and seasoned again.
The easiest way to strip it is to run it through a self-cleaning oven cycle. Be sure your Dutch oven is room temperature or preheat it in the gas or electric range to about 150-200 degrees before starting the self-cleaning process to prevent thermal shock. If a self-cleaning oven is unavailable, soak the oven in tomato juice or a cola product until the metal is clean.
Next, wash and dry it as instructed above, then season it according to original instructions. For a harder seasoned surface, increase oven heat from the recommended 325 to about 400 degrees. Never use excess amounts of oil. Surplus oil puddles and results in sticky spots that either pull back off the iron or turn rancid. Instead of one heavy coat of seasoning, 3-5 light applications of oil, baked for 45-50 minutes between each layer, works much better.
When finished baking the last layer, turn the range or grill off and leave it alone until cool enough to handle with bare hands. The oven should feel somewhat smooth and hard, not cracked or sticky. Seasoning done in an outdoor gas barbecue grill takes the smoke and smell outside.
If you own a "hand-me-down from-great-uncle-Harry" Dutch oven or find one at a yard sale that looks like a red clay pot with legs, a bail and lid, it still has potential. Some say sand blasting or glass bead blasting will clean it but be aware that sand blasting may impregnate the surface with silica and glass bead blasting may impregnate the surface with glass fragments. The metal shot used for shot blasting is usually too large and can pit the oven's surface.
The best treatment for this oven is to use a wire brush or a wire wheel powered by a drill motor to remove the loose dirt and rust. If a few deep pockets of rust remain, use tomato juice or a cola produce, then season as instructed above.
Old timers, I hear you chastising me even as I write! "Soap and water should never touch a Dutch oven, it ruins the seasoning." My Grandma used to have a large cast-iron frying pan that cooked mounds of chicken, endless pounds of beef and pork, and anything else she wanted to cook in it. However, after each use, that pan was scrubbed in hot soapy water and then dried completely. While Grandma has been gone for thirty years, her pan is still in great condition. The idea is to never let the oven or lid soak in soap and water. Work with one part of the Dutch oven at a time.
If your oven is still in its original box, get it out, season it and start using it. If unsure of yourself, look for a good instructor or a fun class to attend. Also, take time during the summer to visit some of the area's Dutch oven cookoffs. Usually, the participants are people out to have fun and share their experiences.