Cast iron Dutch ovens, if properly cared for, will last for many generations. Constant and proper Dutch oven care beginning from the day the oven is purchased will keep it in service for many years. All quality ovens are shipped with a protective coating that must be removed prior to seasoning. Removing the protective coating requires a good scrubbing with a little soap, some hot water, steel wool, and a little elbow grease. This is the only time you will ever use soap on your Dutch oven. Once the oven has been cleaned, it should be rinsed well, then towel dried and allowed to air dry.
You can use your kitchen oven to season a Dutch oven but just a word of warning, You will smoke up your house if you season your Dutch ovens indoors. I recommend using an outdoor gas barbecue in a well ventilated area. Preheat your barbecue or kitchen oven to 375°. After your Dutch oven is dry, place it on the center rack with the lid ajar. Allow it to warm slowly so it is just barely too hot to handle with bare hands. This preheating does two things, it drives any remaining moisture out of the metal and opens the pores of the metal.
Note: You can also season a Dutch oven in your fireplace. I installed a cast iron pot hanger to the back wall of my fireplace so I could hang my ovens over the fire. If your chimney flu has a good draw you won't get much grease smoke in your house, however, I still recommend opening a few windows and doors.
Now, using a paper towel or a clean 100% cotton rag, apply a thin layer of cooking oil. I prefer using vegetable oil over peanut and olive oils because the burning point of vegetable oil is lower so it will set up and harden at lower temperatures. Tallow or lard can also be used but they tend to break down over time so are not recommended on ovens that will be stored for long periods of time. Make sure the oil covers every inch of the oven, inside and out and replace it on the center rack, this time upside down with the lid resting on top of the legs. This will keep oil from pooling in the bottom of the oven. Bake the oven for about an hour or so at 375°. This baking hardens the oil into a protective coating over the metal.
After baking, allow the Dutch oven to cool slowly. When it is cool enough to handle, apply another thin coating of oil. Repeat the baking and cooling process. When the oven can be handled again apply another thin coating of oil. Do not leave any standing oil in the oven! Standing oil can turn rancid ruining the protective coating you just applied. Allow the oven to cool completely. Now it should have three layers of oil, two baked on and one applied when it was warm. The oven is now ready for use.
This seasoning procedure only needs to be done once, unless rust forms or the coating is damaged in storage or use. This baked on coating will darken and eventually turn black with age. This darkening is a sign of a well kept oven and of it's use. The seasonin's purpose is two fold, first and most important, it forms a barrier between moisture in the air and the surface of the metal. This effectively prevents the metal from rusting. The second purpose is to provide a nonstick coating on the inside of the oven. When properly maintained, this coating is as nonstick as most of the commercially applied coatings.
Note: Avoid cooking anything with a high acid content such as tomatoes, or a lot of sugar such as cobblers for the first 2 or 3 times after seasoning your oven. The acid and sugars can break down the protective covering before it has a chance to harden properly.
Aluminum Dutch ovens do not require a "seasoning". Most aluminum ovens are shipped with a protective coating and a simple washing with soap and hot water will remove it. Since aluminum doesn't rust, no further protection is required. However, if you season an aluminum oven like you do a cast iron oven, food will not stick in it as often as it would if left untreated.
Dutch oven care starts with the seasoning of the metal, but the second step is to make sure you clean your ovens properly after each use. More often than not, cleaning cast iron Dutch ovens is much easier than scrubbing pots and pans. For cast iron, the cleaning process is in two steps. First, food is removed and second, maintenance of the protective coating. To remove stuck on food, place some warm clean water into the oven and heat until almost boiling. Using a plastic mesh scrubber or coarse sponge and No Soap, gently break loose the food and wipe away. After all traces have been removed, rinse with clean warm water. Soap is not recommended because it will break down the protective covering and will get into the pores of the metal to taint the flavor of your next meal.
After cleaning and rinsing, allow the oven to air dry. Then heat it over the fire just until it is hot to the touch. Apply a thin coating of oil to both the inside and outside of the oven and the top and underside of the lid. Allow the oven to cool completely. If you do not oil the outside of the oven, then with use, the protective barrier will break down and the oven will start to rust. As a suggestion, it is a good idea to keep a scrubber for cast iron and never use it with soap.
For aluminum ovens, the cleaning is the same as for ordinary pots and pans. Use soap and water and scrub them as you would your other pans.
It was inevitable that someone would eventually figure out a way to produce cast iron cookware with the same type of heirloom finish that made your grandmother's cast iron skillet such a prized possession. The manufacturers of these "Ready To Use" cast iron products have taken the work out of having to season your new cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens by seasoning them for you. Lodge, Camp Chef, Cabela's, and Cee Dubs are just a few of the manufacturers and retailers of these fine products. With proper care and maintenance these cast iron utensils will service you well for many generations. I have outlined the proper care instructions for these products below.
1) Before using your "Ready To Use" cast iron cookware for the first time simply rinse it out with hot water (do not use soap as it will remove the seasoning). Towel dry the utensil thoroughly.
2) Before each time cooking, prepare the cooking surface by wiping it down with vegetable oil or spraying it with non-stick cooking spray.
3) After each time cooking, clean your utensil with a stiff brush under hot water (do not use soap) and towel dry thoroughly.
4) After the utensil is dry and while still warm from cleaning, wipe all surfaces down lightly with vegetable oil or spray all surfaces lightly with non-stick cooking spray.
5) Allow the utensil to cool and then store in a cool, dry place. Do not store pots or ovens with the lid on top to allow for air circulation.
6) If you notice a metallic taste or notice signs of rust on your cookware simply follow the steps for Stripping Rusty Or Rancid Dutch Ovens outlined below then follow the steps for Seasoning Your Dutch Oven outlined above.
Inevitably there will come a time when you will need to strip and re-season a rusting or rancid Dutch oven. Relax! It's not that difficult. I've found the easiest way to strip an oven is to place it upside down on the bottom rack of a self cleaning oven with the lid placed on top of the legs. Set the oven to self clean for 2 hours and let it be. Allow the oven to cool completely before removing the Dutch oven.
If you don't have a self cleaning oven or would prefer not to heat up your house then you can use an outdoor propane stove to accomplish the same thing. I like to use my Cache Cooker for this because it has a large burner that generates a lot of heat. The secret to successfully stripping an oven over a propane burner is to keep moving the oven around so every surface of the oven has a chance to be diretly over the burner, this also helps prevent warping should the metal become to hot. Light the burner and adjust it to generate a medium blue flame. Place the Dutch oven upside down over the flame and let it slowly heat for 10 minutes or so. Once the oven is hot turn up the burner to it's hottest setting and let the oven heat until it smokes heavily for about 5 minutes then rotate the oven to burn a new surface. Make sure to burn both the inside and the outside of the oven. As the metal burns it will take on a shiny oily look and may look white in some areas which is fine, keep heating the oven until all surfaces inside and out have this look then remove the oven from heat and allow it to cool slowly.
Once the Dutch oven has been burned and allowed to cool the remaining detritus must be removed from the oven surfaces. This is done by scrubbing the oven with a piece of steel wool or a metal scouring pad under hot running water until all surfaces are clean. Once clean, towel dry the oven then allow it to air dry. The Dutch oven is now ready to re-season.
Recently I came across this interesting web page authored by Bill Dickerson entitled Rust Removal By Electrolysis where Bill has documented how to clean rusty metal and cast iron using electricity, water, and a little washing soda. He has included pictures of his setup so you can see how the process works. The setup takes a little time and a few items but the results look fantastic (he's cleaning car parts but rusty Dutch oven's or cast iron pans will clean just as well).
Rust Removal By Electrolisis
It is important when storing your Dutch ovens to keep the lid cracked so that air can circulate into it. This can be accomplished by laying a paper wick, made from a napkin or paper towel folded accordion style, across the rim of the oven leaving a small amount outside, and then setting the lid down on top of it. The wick also acts to draw any moisture out of the oven. If air cannot circulate into the Dutch oven, the oil used to protect it will turn rancid and will permeate the pores of the metal with a sour odor. DO NOT cook anything in a rancid oven, you will not be able to stomach the food! A rancid oven must be stripped of its protective coating and then be re-seasoned again.
When storing my Dutch ovens I like to put them in a protective cover to keep them from collecting dust, and to keep anything that might brush up against them from getting dirty. The covers also help protect the outside finish on the ovens from being scratched up in transit when camping or transporting ovens.
1. Never, and I repeat, NEVER allow cast iron to sit in water or allow water to stand in it. It will rust despite a good coating.
2. Never use soap on cast iron. The soap will get into the pores of the metal and won't come out very easy, but will return to taint your next meal. If soap is used accidentally, the oven should be re-seasoned, including removal of the present coating.
3. Do not place an empty cast iron pan or oven over a hot fire. Aluminum and many other metals can tolerate it better but cast iron will crack or warp, ruining the metal.
4. Do not get in a hurry to heat cast iron, you will end up with burnt food or a damaged oven or pan.
5. Never put cold liquid into a very hot cast iron pan or oven. They will crack on the spot!