The four-legged cast-iron Dutch oven sat just outside the kitchen window, masquerading as a planter for wild things. Tetanus, maybe. Running a hand across its rust-roughened surface, it was hard to tell if it had sprouted tumors or succumbed to the pitting of an acid rain.
I had an uneasy, love-hate relationship with cast iron even when the Dutch oven was new. Someone had explained “seasoning the pot” to me by pointing out that cast iron expanded with heat, opening up unseen spaces for the oils to seep into the metal and meld with it over time and use. In the dark recesses of my mind, I could hear echoes of my mother’s dire warnings about botulism, and the notion that cast iron cookware wasn’t supposed to be touched by soap made me hesitant to eat anything that had touched it. There were microscopic things crawling around in its invisible crevices and pores.
Still, the Dutch oven had served us well; I’d used it, once, to make a coq au vin in the back yard, and another time to win a Dutch oven dessert contest with a lemon pound cake, mixed up in a Zip-Loc freezer bag on a chilly, February night, that reminded our Scoutmaster of his grandmother’s lemon pound cake and brought a tear to his eye. It had been used for a variety of meals and desserts, even contributed its share towards raising funds for Relay for Life.
I looked away from the dusty-orange corrosion. It seemed like a betrayal: first, to have left it outdoors, neglected, in the rain; second, to entertain the thought that it would make more sense to replace it than to repair it. Even my husband was skeptical when I asked if I could borrow his power drill.
Repair it? I lifted it by the handle – ironically, the steel handle was the only bit that hadn’t rusted. I checked quickly under the heavy lid for spiders. I imagined muscular arachnids using the Dutch oven for what? A fallout shelter? Nothing moved; the interior was still shiny and black, with only a few rusty rivulets dripping down from the edges. I wasn’t even sure it could be repaired, but surely, cast-iron wasn’t so fragile it should be discarded.
The accursed Dutch oven became a metaphor. Would I be so easily discarded, one day? Looking at all the things that were wrong with this four-legged rust-bucket, it seemed the logical thing to do. If I were that pot, I’d discard me. I looked at it; I looked at the trash can. Had it been deeper, I might have leaped into it, headfirst.
Now this accursed rust-bucket was a dismal symbol of mortality and death and doubts about my own self-worth. I wanted to kick it. My son looked at it and asked if my tetanus shot was up to date. It’s not. This pot and I might do each other in, yet.
I looked at Amazon. I made a quick cost-benefit analysis that, to be honest, was heavily weighted in sentimentality and the need to salvage my own psyche. It would be $90 to buy a new one. If I’d needed one at all, that probably wouldn’t be a bad price. But if I abandoned this effort now, I probably wouldn’t bother replacing it. I’d spend the money on some high-end Calphalon, or something.
I felt ashamed of me and of our throw-away attitudes towards people and things. The Dutch oven challenged me to spend hours in 90-degree heat, scraping it clean of its rust barnacles. I turned to the collective wisdom of the Internet, and YouTube. Turns out, it could be done, but you might need your own metalworking shop out in the garage.
Restore a Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Strip Off the Rust and Old Seasoning
I found various methods:
- Self-cleaning oven
- Vinegar (acid bath)
- Coarse steel wool (and a tanker truck of elbow grease)
- Power drill and a coarse-wire sanding attachment
I tried everything but electrolysis, though that was the most tempting “experiment.” There was one man who explained that some of the materials he’d seen used and recommended, such as rebar and scrap metal, weren’t suitable for cookware, since they contained lead or other chemicals that could be harmful.
I started out with steel wool, but soon ran out of elbow grease and ordered up a hot shower and a tanker truck of Advil.
The power drill seemed promising, at first, and might have been, with enough time and more power. Ours has variable speeds and you have to keep squeezing the trigger – my trigger finger was soon aching and swollen and I’d only managed to etch an interesting swirly pattern into the lid of the Dutch oven. A bit of progress showed me the futility of steel wool, alone, though. Five years of rust will not give up its hold that easily.
The best combination turned out to be this: Overnight in a self-cleaning oven set to clean, followed by vinegar and steel wool to remove the loosened up coating of rust. I kept at it until I could rub a paper towel across the surface without it changing color. See this video from Gene Lonergan – it’s probably the best of the fifty or so I watched for ideas, and shows a pretty good represention of what I started with:
Best Seasoning for a Cast Iron Dutch Oven
I’ve begun the process of seasoning the pot, using sesame oil. Why sesame oil? I don’t know. That’s my current favorite flavored oil, and if it’s going to impart a “flavor” to the food, why not? Also because, by now, I am both grateful for and tired of the collective wisdom of the Internet and its slavish devotion to cast-iron cookware and endless debates over which oil is best for seasoning. Hell, if the microbes and residual iron dust don’t kill me, I can afford to make a mistake in the “seasoning” of this pot and start over. I am woman, hear me roar.
It turned out to be more work than I’d imagined, but as I scraped, sanded, acid-bathed, and baked off layers of accumulated rust, I felt satisfaction in the work. The Dutch oven and I became friends. Seriously, I’ll probably die of tetanus in a week, but the Dutch oven will be there to tell future generations that I lived – and learned to use power tools and cook with courage, laughing in the face of crevices and microbes.
There were so many more layers, so many more years, so many more stories left in this Dutch oven. What I did to this thing to “restore” it would have destroyed a modern, non-stick coated pan. Utterly destroyed it. But this heavy-bottomed, cast-iron workhorse? Hours of torturous abuse only revealed its inner strength and decades of remaining potential. The metaphor that had left me grudgingly making a half-hearted effort now energized me and lifted my spirits.
Take that, whippersnappers.