Nearly a decade passed before I decided to tackle the clean-up. I did some research, and learned that it wouldn't be as difficult to strip and re-season it as I'd imagined. In fact, I had all the materials I needed, and surpisingly, many were stashed in my baking, canning, and pickling supplies in my kitchen cupboards!
Here is the process I followed:
Disposable latex gloves
A sink or plastic tub big enough to submerge the pot.
About half a gallon of white vinegar
Newspaper or old towels
Coarse Kosher salt
Crisco shortening or lard
First, I cleaned off the loose dirt and cobwebs in a sink of soapy dishwater. Normally, you wouldn't use soap to clean cast iron, as it can remove the layer of seasoing. In this case, it was fine, as I was going to strip off the old seasoning and rust anyway. This is what the pot looked like, once I'd removed the loose dirt.
Next, I placed a plastic tub in my sink, so the white enameled sink wouldn't be stained with rust. I filled the tub with a mixture of half white vinegar, half water, just enough to cover the pot. I submerged the pot in a plastic tub in my sink. I had a couple of gallon jugs of white vinegar on hand, because I use it to pickle produce, and also to clean my kitchen and freshen my laundry. If you don't have a large quantity on hand, it costs less than a dollar to buy a gallon at the grocery store.
My pot wasn't excessively rusty or flaky, so I let it soak about 2 hours. Pots with a deep layer of rust may benefit from an overnight soak.
Before proceeding to the next portion, which mostly requires patience and elbow grease (also known as pure muscle power!), I recommend that you put on disposable gloves. It isn't absolutely necessary, as you aren't working with any caustic or poisonous chemicals, but trust me, if you have any little cuts on your hands or hang nails on your cuticles, you WILL find them quickly during the next step. It is also a little messy, and you'll likely end up with a rim of black under your finger nails. I worked for about an hour bare-handed before I remembered the gloves, purchased for chopping hot peppers, in my towel drawer. I wish I'd thought to put them on before I started!
If you are working indoors, I also recommend covering your counter or table with a layer of newspaper or old towels. I didn't, and had a mess to clean up afterward. Rust can stain, so protecting your work surface is wise.
Next, we proceed to what I jokingly call the Cast Iron Spa. Think of this as exfoliating your pan with your very own specialty salt scrub! Set the wet pot or pan on your protected counter, and liberally sprinkle coarse salt over it. I used coarse Kosher salt, as the size of the crystals was ideal for polishing away the rust. Regular table salt would probably work, but it is so fine, it would take a lot longer. Cut a potato in half, and use it to scrub the salt into the pan. I found the potato so much easier to hold onto than any plastic scrubber! The shape also worked well for getting right up to the ridges and edges, where there tends to be an accumulation of grease or build-up of dirt.
Add more salt as needed, and keep scrubbing! You'll find your potato will turn black fairly quickly. You can cut off a slice to renew it, or just rinse it off and keep going. I did most of the pot with one potato half, and only switched to the second half of the potato for the lid. I spent approximately an hour scrubbing the rust from both the lid and the Dutch oven. In areas with a gooey build-up of grease, like around the ridges of the lid, I added baking soda. It is mild, but safely and effectively removes that greasy build-up. I do the same on my baking pans whenever there is an area with cooked-on grease.
Once I had removed most of the rust, I switched over to steel wool to do the fine finishing and be sure every bit of rust was gone. In the past, I've done the whole thing with steel wool, but it seemed to take longer, and I ended up with cramped fingers from trying to grasp that little wad of steel wool for so long. If you do use only steel wool, start with a coarser grade, and finish up with the finer stuff. I just used what we had in the basement, leftover from a refinishing project a few years ago.
Compare the first picture, with rust, to the second, showing what it looked like after scrubbing off the rust, but before beginning the seasoning process:
Before and After Soaking and Scrubbing
This shows the color difference between bare cast iron, with no seasoning, and well-seasoned cast iron.
Be sure you've removed ALL of the rust before proceeding to the next step. Rinse the pan thoroughly, and dry with an old towel or paper towel. (You don't want rust stains on your favorite color-coordinated kitchen towels!) Heat your oven to 400o F, and put the pan or pot and lid inside for about 10 minutes, to be sure it is fully dry. You can do this while the oven is preheating. Remove from the oven with hot mits (it will be HOT!), and check to be sure it is completely dry!
Increase your oven temp to 450o F. Fold a couple of paper towels into a pad, thick enough that you won't feel the heat from the pan through the layers, and get a small amount of solid Crisco shortening or lard on one side. Carefully rub a very thin layer of shortening over the entire pan, inside and out, paying special attention to crevices and angles. Get it down into the holes in handles, and into the ridges where the rim meets the pan. You want every bit of the pan to have a very light coating of fat. Then use an old dish cloth or terry towel to wipe off as much of the Crisco as you can. You don't want it to bead up on the surface and cause spotting, after all of your hard work scrubbing it bare!
Place the pan upside-down on a rack; however, place the lid rightside up. This will prevent any excess oil from pooling in the bottom of the pan or lid and making a gooey mess. If you apply a light enough coating, this shouldn't be an issue, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. Bake the pan at 450oF for 30 minutes, then check to see if there are any areas where the oil is pooling or spotting. If so, wipe again with the dish cloth. Continue baking for half an hour more, totaling one hour, then shut off the oven and let it cool inside. You can lightly wipe it with a paper towel to remove any excess Crisco, though it probably won't be necessary.
Repeat the light layer of shortening, baking for an hour, and cooling in the oven twice more, for a total of three times, to build up a layer of seasoning on the pan. You can do this at any temperature between 350 and 500. Be aware that the Crisco may smoke if you use a high temperature. Some people prefer to do this seasoning process outdoors on their grill, to avoid heating up their kitchen. I baked the Dutch oven alone the first time, but then just made a point of giving it a skim coat of Crisco and popped it in the oven the next couple of times I baked something. I figured if I was heating up the oven anyway, I might as well use that heat to increase the layer of seasoning on my pot! I did find that higher temperatures gave a harder, blacker coating than my first attempt, at 350o F.
Now your pan is seasoned and ready for use! The more you use your pan, the better the layer of seasoning will become. Be cautious cooking delicate foods, such as eggs, on a newly seasoned pan. They may tend to stick a little more than on a well-seasoned pan or non-stick pan, such as Teflon, unless you add a little extra butter. As the seasoning layer builds and matures, however, you'll find that foods release more easily.
A few helpful hints for cooking in cast iron:
If you are cooking over an open fire or coals, coat the bottom of the OUTSIDE of the pan with liquid dish soap. The smoke and ash will rinse right off!
Avoid cooking high acid foods, such as tomato or lemon-based recipes, in a newly seasoned pan. It can remove the seasoning, which will require you to repeat the above steps of coating with shortening and baking. Once a good layer of seasoning is built up, however, cooking acidic foods in cast iron can be very beneficial to your health! Many people don't get enough iron in their diet through food alone, and need iron supplements to correct their anemia. Cooking in cast iron safely increases the iron content of your food, especially in foods with a high liquid content, and acidic dishes. If you have a specific medical condition that makes elevated levels of iron unsafe for you, please consult your doctor before using cast iron cookware. For the vast majority of the population, however, it is a safe and effective way to increase your daily iron intake!
If baking in cast iron, preheat the pan along with your oven, then place the ingredients inside. Thick cast iron pans take longer to get up to temperature than thin, standard pans, so placing the food in a cold pan will increase your cooking time.
Cast iron also holds heat longer, so be careful not to overheat it on your stovetop! Be patient, and heat the pan on medium, not high, even though it may take a couple of minutes longer. Once your pan is too hot, it will remain too hot much longer than a lightweight pan. It is easy to burn your butter or fill your kitchen with smoke if you're not paying attention. The upside of this is that it retains heat well, and doesn't require as high a heat or flame to maintain the temperature you want. Cautiously experiment with your favorite recipes, and you'll see that it doesn't take much adjustment to get used to cooking in cast iron.
I find I reach for my cast iron pans more and more often now. Meat sears so much better in my cast iron frying pan than any other pan I own, and there is no substitute for the way the crust of my corn bread and other quick breads comes out when I bake it in my cast iron pan, as opposed to a metal or glass baking pan. Deep dish pizza comes out crisp and light in my cast iron pans. I've even begun experimenting with baking slow-rising yeast breads in my Dutch oven with the lid on, and found that the crust is exceptional.
I can't wait to take the Dutch oven camping with us, and introduce my kids to some of my old favorite camp recipes, like Slumgullion Stew, and Cherry Dump Cake.
Cast iron is also easy to clean up. An often-recommended cleaning method is to put a little salt and oil in the pan, and rub it around with a paper towel. Just brush the loose bits out afterward, and wipe as dry as possible.
While I may use the salt method while camping, I can't bring myself to do it for kitchen use, especially if I've cooked something particularly messy. If I have stuck-on food residue, I usually let the pan cool a while, then add several cups of water while it is still warm. (I never pour cold water into a hot pan! I'd be devastated if it cracked my beloved pan!) Let it soak a bit while you eat, preferably less than an hour. Prolonged contact with water can lead to rust! I rarely have to do any real scrubbing to get food to loosen. Usually, by the time our meal is done, I pour out the water, give it a good swishing and rubbing with a washcloth or plastic scrubbie, and rinse. I rarely use dish soap on my cast iron, as I don't want to remove the lovely layer of seasoning I've built up. I've never noticed it retaining any flavors, even though I cook with onions and garlic frequently. A little mild dish soap isn't the end of the world, if you feel you can't get a pan clean without it. Most warnings against using soap on cast iron date back to the days when soap was made with lye, which will quickly strip the seasoning from a pan.
I dry it thoroughly, and then heat it a few minutes on my stovetop (or in a still-warm oven) to be sure it is completely dry. Once dry, I wipe a tiny bit of Crisco (or even liquid canola oil, or Pam cooking spray) around on it, and put it away in my cupboard, with paper towels separating it from both my shelf and the pan I store inside it, to keep them from getting greasy. Moisture is the #1 enemy of cast iron, so don't leave water standing in it for long periods, and be sure it is completely dry after washing. If you do find any rust on your pan after a long period of storage, simply scrub it away, using the same process as above, and re-season it.
With a little care, cast iron cookware can last for generations. We don't know the age of the Dutch oven we rescued from his grandmother's basement, but it is likely around 80-100 years old, and still in wonderful shape! We plan to use it often, and someday pass it along to our own kids!
All photographs used in this article are my own. Please do not use without permission.