Black Iron – Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The following article on the care of cast iron utensils, by Soc Clay,
is taken from the January/February 1992 issue of The Louisiana
Conservationist.

Black Iron and Black Magic

When the earliest white hunters and settlers came to Louisiana, one
important piece of equipment they carried was a cast iron Dutch oven.

Antique Cast Iron Dutch Oven

This highly practical cooking utensil was essential in the kit of even
the lightest traveling adventurer in early America. In fact, long before
Columbus began his quest of discovery, hunting parties around the world
depended uon some form of the classic Dutch oven to handle a multitude of
cooking chores.

The Dutch oven and other black iron cooking untensils continue to be
essential in hunting and fishing camps across Louisiana. An iron pot with
a tight fitting lid is still the prized possession of many camp cooks. More
than a few are also found “back home.” The fancy copper-bottomed and tinted
glass cookware may be prominently displayed, but the black iron is tucked
away close at hand.

Properly seasoned, a flat-bottomed Dutch oven is an ideal pot to whip
up a venison stew, work up a batch of gumbo or jambalaya, fry a mess of
quail or bake a round of sourdough biscuits. The late Ted Trueblood, one
of America’s most loved hunting scribes, was sold on the dutch oven as
being the most important piece of cookware. Trueblood was an open fire cook
of the first order. He saw no use whatever in packing in a camp stove and
fuel when he was in a serious hunting situation.

Trueblood, writing in the August 1960 issue of Field and Stream, talked
about the then-modern equipment available to hunters and fishermen. He
said, “Among all these good new items there are a few old ones that
survived with undiminished popularity. Almost without exception, they are
things that the working outdoorsman adopted as his own. The canoe and the
axe are classic examples. The Dutch oven is another old favorite.”

Trueblood’s observations ring true. According to America’s largest
manufacturer of black iron cooking utensils, Dutch oven users are thicker
than they have been in years. There’s even a Dutch Oven Society and a
bunch of Dutch oven cook-offs popping up all over the country.

Amazingly, more and more folks are going back to ironware, not only
because of its unique cooking and flavoring characteristics, but also
because cast iron has stood the test of ages as one of the safest forms of
cookware.

While a dutch oven is still a favorite tool of the open fire cook,
probably the most used piece of ironware in today’s camp kitchens is the
ever-faithful cast iron skillet. Throughout Louisiana, it is safe to say
that at least 80 percent of all households have at least one black iron
skillet in regular use.

Dutch Oven in Action!
Dutch Oven in Action!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ironware was made for the cook who takes time to do things right. The
thick walls of the casting were designed to absorb and evenly distribute
heat from a licking outdoor flame or the flat top of a wood burning
cookstove. With modern camp stoves fueled by electricity, natural gas or
propane the iron pot continues to do a superior job. It just takes less
energy than most of the other cookware on the market.

Cookware made of glass, stainless steel, enamel, porcelain or copper,
or lined with a space-age non-stick surface, strives to leave no influence
of taste in foods. Properly seasoned ironware, on the other hand, emits a
savory seasoning “flavor” that no other cookware can duplicate.

But if black iron makes such black magic in the kitchen, how come even
more folks ain’t using it?

The answer is simple. Sweetnin’ the pot, as the old timers call it,
takes some time and patience. And once the initial job is accomplished,
some thought has to be given to maintaining the pot. When done properly,
fried foods won’t stick and the bitter taste characteristic of a new
casting won’t leak into your food. If you have picked up a new casting,
found a treasure at a flea market, or want to recondition a neglected
family heirloom, here are some tips I gleaned from an old Cherokee lady who
has used black iron to perform black magic in her kitchen for
three-quarters of a century.

First, inspect your black iron casting for a smooth interior surface.
The finish on the outside is unimportant. Quality ironware has a smooth
interior that readily accepts sweetening and provides a slick surface to
eliminate sticking.

Wash the new utensil, or one that has lost its seasoning, both inside
and out with a mild dishwashing deturgent. New castings come with a
protective coating that must be completely removed. Use a scouring pd if
mecessary, but this is the last time a black iron utensil should ever see a
scouring pad. Dry the casting throughly with paper towls and allow it to
air dry for at least 30 minutes

Use unsalted lard or shortening to completely coat the inside and
outside of the dry pot or skillet and then bake it in a 350-degree oven for
a total of 10 hours. This can be accomplished a few hours at a time while
baking other items if you make sure the old grease is wiped clean and a
fresh coating is applied each time the pot goes into the oven.

After 10 hours of baking, test the pot by using a little vegetable oil
to fry an egg. If the egg sticks, wash the pot lightly with soapy water
and a cloth or brush, re-coat it, and bake it for an additional three hours
or so. Then test it again. The sweetening process allows the porous cast
iron to absorb as much grease as possible. When completed, the pot will
take on a deep, shiny black finish.

Once the pot has been properly seasoned, never scour it or let the pot
sit in soapy water. Never place it in a dishwasher. Old time camp cooks
would break your arm for washing a black iron pot at all. They simply wiped
it clean and used it frequently to keep it in top condition.

When boiling foods in a newly seasoned pot, keep the water content low
and be sure to remove the lid from hot foods to avoid steaming the
seasoning off the lid.

Once the pot is conditioned, store it in a dry place without the lid on
between uses. A paper towel in the pot will absorb moisture. Most folks
who use black iron regularly like to apply a light film of cooking oil or
grease to the insides during storage. Finally, when you get ready to pass
along that treasured old pot or skillet, be sure the new owner also gets
these instructions.

There are other methods for sweetening black iron cookware, but none
has ever worked as well for me as the old Cherokee recipe.

Some would say black magic occurs in many forms throughout Bayou
Country. For good cooks, in camp and at home, across Louisiana some of the
very best black magic takes form when well seasoned black iron bubbles and
sizzles up some of the finest grub in the land.

2 thoughts on “Black Iron – Cast Iron Dutch Oven”

  1. I have had a Wagner’s 1891 cast iron skillet for forever. It just, of all things, cracked. I didn’t know that could happen. The crack is from the upper edge all the way down through the bottom of the middle of the pan and it leaks when I cook in it now.

    I have used this pan day in and day out for years and years and years. i adore this pan. i cannot believe it cracked.

    is there anyway that you could help me out? Any kind of warranty or guarantee or something that would help me with a new pan to replace this beloved one?

    thank you.
    Stephanie

    1. Hey Stephanie,
      Sorry to hear that the skillet cracked! That is a real sad thing to happen to a pan you used so much. Technically, Wagner isn’t around anymore so there is no way get get any kind of warranty on the pan. Sorry.

      One thing to note is that the “1891” version was actually a centennial celebration version. So the pan you had was not from the 1890s if it makes you feel any better. I would suggest you head over to eBay to see if they have anything in the same size that you had. I think you would like one of the older versions too and you can start to have new memories form with the new pan.

      How did the pan crack? Typically, it only happens when it is overheated, cooled too fast (like putting it in cold water while hot), or from dropping it. Just curious…
      Hope that helps,
      Billy

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