Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

By Keith Fisher

In all the classes, demos, and cook offs I’ve done over the years, one of the questions I always receive is, "How do I clean a Dutch oven?" The question came up again this week, so I decided to answer the question here.

I told the inquirer that cleaning a Dutch oven is quick and easy, but she didn’t agree.

In every Dutch oven event, you will find a group of hard-liners that will tell you never to use soap on a Dutch oven. There are others who invert the cast iron over a campfire and burn out the remains of a meal. I have a friend who listened to all the advice on the subject, shook his head, and tossed his Dutch oven in the dishwasher. I’ve also seen another, more experienced cook use a big tub of soapy water to clean hers.

The point is it’s your Dutch oven, do with it what you want. That being said let me provide some insight:

I once heard a story about a man that cooked a meal for a neighbor. He left it in the Dutch oven and took it over. He got worried when the pot didn’t come back right away. When he finally got it back, the neighbor apologized and said, "I scrubbed and scrubbed and I just couldn’t get all the black off. Remember when I wrote about seasoning your cast iron? See below. It’s the seasoning that is the question, the reason for all the fuss.

It has been proven, harsh detergent removes seasoning, but so does sugar and acidic foods like tomatoes. Not to mention what can happen with a metal spoon. It is a constant battle to protect the seasoning, but in time, your cast iron will have a seasoned surface that is much better than Teflon. When that happens, cleanup is easy.

Here are the rules. Remove the leftovers. If the meal was moist or sticky you may need to soak the Dutch oven in hot water. Use a soft rag to wash it out then rinse well, and dry. Next, feel the surface. If it feels rough and sandy, use a light coating of vegetable oil. If it’s smooth, you won’t need oil. The oil protects against rust but it also turns rancid so use only what you need, or heat up your oven after oiling it, starting the seasoning process again.

I have a Dutch oven that I use as my cake oven. The seasoning is so perfect I never oil it. I never wash it either. I use a paper towel and wipe it clean. Most times a paper towel is sufficient, but make sure you get it clean.

Now a note about sanitation:

Use common sense. You can tell when something is clean. If it isn’t, use soap. A tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water will sanitize, but use your favorite method. Remember food-born illness can’t exist at certain temperatures. If you heat up your oven before using it again, it should be safe.

Our ancestors did it everyday, but even they had trouble with lost seasoning. I read an account once about a mountain man who wrote in a journal saying he was glad to get some bear meat because after boiling roots for three weeks, the seasoning was wearing off.

A final note:

Cast iron is porous. When it’s heated the pores open and every taste that has been in that oven goes into what you are cooking. Some say that includes detergents. Thus the argument to avoid using soap in your Dutch oven, if possible. Don’t be afraid of the molehill. You can always scrape off the old, and start a new seasoning.

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G. Parker said...

We have three dutch ovens sitting in my kitchen waiting to be cleaned. I'd heard you couldn't use soap because then you have to season it again -- so it's good to have your take on things. Have a good one!

C.L. Beck said...

Good advice here! I've heard all kinds of stories about whether to wash or not wash a dutch oven. I like your version of it--common sense should rule!