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The Average Care of Your Boat's Cast Iron Cookware

by Fred Brennus

Just about every boat you work on or visit is going to have cast iron pots and frying pans somewhere.  Cast iron is great to cook with and will help the worst stove turn out some pretty good grub.  After you work in that galley for a while, you'll hear a different method of how to care for these from every member of the crew that sees you handling the iron gear.  Sometimes the unsolicited advice starts flaring up into heated debate.  We decided to find out once and for all, how the pans are supposed to be cared for.  In our search, we came up with nothing conclusive, so we put it all together and developed and average method for keeping your cast iron in tip top shape.

The three major points always discussed about cast iron are restoration, seasoning, and cleaning.  There was never an agreement about the proper methods of each, either.  We couldn't figure out who was more qualified to give advice, so after countless pages on the subject, we found the averages.

Restoration means exactly that.  The first thing you must do to a cast iron pan in a boat is take off the years of rust, carbon, and general crud that has accumulated.  It has to be done.  On one side, you have the purists who say you should leave it on there.  Then the other side of the argument shows up and says to get a case of oven cleaner and chemically remove it all.  The average opinion seems to be to take it off, but not with chemicals.  The build-up of crud will keep the pan from heating evenly and the chemicals can get into the pores of the iron and flavor the future meals.  Best bet?  Needle guns.  That's right.  Take the ancient pan into the engine room or back to the stern and clamp it in a vice.  Run a needle gun over it until it's smooth as new.  You can always season it up again.  It will give you years more service and look good doing it.

Seasoning seems to be nothing more than burning grease onto the the cooking surface of the pan.  Put the pan in the stove all night, then wipe the hot iron with cooking oil.  No.  Cook a pound of bacon and then wipe out the pan and bake it till you smoke the galley up.  That's wrong too?  Well then, take some salt and.......Never mind.  The methods start to conflict and then the crew is yelling at each other about it.  The average of all the methods seems to be to get a paper towel and moisten it with cooking oil.  Wipe the cooking oil onto the inside of the pan until the metal looks shiny and smooth.  Put the pan into an oven at 375.  When you can smell the oil cooking, take the pan out and wipe it out with a dry paper towel.  If there are any dry spots when you first take it out, then you may want to cool the pan and repeat this process.  What you're after is a pan that looks like it's wet even when it's cool.  That will make for a mostly non-stick cooking surface.

Cleaning is the grand daddy of all conflicts when it comes to the care of cast iron.  The biggest debate?  Should detergent be used or not?  Restaurant owners and chefs are required to use detergent and they say their favorite cast iron does just fine.  Other would completely lose their minds if they saw someone cleaning a pan with anything other than some salt for scouring and a damp rag.  Still others insist that you can cook the grime on and "season 'er up".  The average seems to be this: Avoid the deep sink and avoid the scouring pads, if possible.  Use only good old hot water if you can.  When some food gets cooked onto the surface, just put some water in the pan and boil it for a few minutes.  The hardened food will soften right up and then will come clean with a wet wash rag.  After that, just dry the pan well and apply a very light coat of cooking oil to keep the surface looking wet.
Accidents happen and the pan may become completely fouled with incinerated dinner.  No worries.  Scrub it, scour it, do whatever you have to do to get it back to the restoration phase and just season it back up.  Simple.

The single most important step you can take to keep your cast iron looking good and performing well is to finish the cleaning with a light spray of no-stick cooking spray.  Wipe it out thoroughly with a dry paper towel and the pan should stay shiny for weeks.  Regular oil will work for this but it goes on fairly heavy so use it sparingly.

The average tugboat has average cooks using average gear to do the cooking.  If you use the average methods to clean you cast iron, it should be just fine.  Everyone is genuinely interested in how your grandmother took care of hers but there's no comparison in the time that a full time home maker has to maintain her gear.  The crews of the boats have gotten smaller and it's up to the average Joes like us to do the job.  Keep it simple.  Keep it average.  Things will be just fine.






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