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Dateline: August 1, 2006

Ask Dr John

While we are repainting the waiting room and installing more AC, the good Doctor is going to take care of some things he's been wanting to do for a while.

The Cast Iron Cleaning Dilemma
First of all, we get an awful lot of questions about the care and feeding of cast iron cookware. Most of the folks want to know how to take care of a pot or pan that has rusted. The first thing you do is remove the rust. If it's just a wee bit, you can more than likely remove it with warm soapy water and a scouring pad. Deeper rust will require some steel wool or sandpaper. If you have sanding in mind, use about 100 grit wet/dry paper.

The rust is caused by water. You never let a cast iron pot or pan sit with water in it. Always set your freshly cleaned utensil on the fire a couple of minutes to evaporate all the moisture. When it's dry, apply a thin coat of oil all over it, inside and out. Don't forget the inside of the lid if it has one. If it turns out a tad oily for you, wipe it down with paper towels.

The "cure" that makes cast iron work is a thin layer of carbon made by oil/grease being burned onto the surface of the utensil. The carbon fills the pores of the cast iron and makes a very smooth surface. A properly cured cast iron skillet is just as non-stick and the high dollar Teflon varieties.

After a few years of use, the cure can build up to where it's unattractive and has formed a rough surface around the edges of the cooking area. Removing the excess carbon from a well-used pan can be simple or it can be a chore depending on how you approach it. The original way is to put the utensil in a hot bed of coals in a campfire where it will get red-hot. You leave it in there until the campfire goes out and the pot or pan is cool enough to handle. You will find all the sludge has turned to ash and can be wiped out with a paper towel or, if it's still a bit tight, you can use a wad of aluminum foil or a stiff brass bristle brush.

There are two opinions on the second method of cleaning cast iron. We have the self-cleaning oven technique. As you may or may not know, the self-cleaning cycle on your oven just elevates the temperature so that it gets hot enough to turn the dirty stuff to ash. It's like an inside out campfire cleaning. I have talked to several people who have used this method. About half say it works just fine. The other half says it will smoke the house up something awful. I guess you'll just have to give it a try and determine your feelings about it.

Next we have the chemical cleaners. Regular oven cleaner will remove a light coat of excess carbon. You warm the utensil and then give it a good spray of the cleaner, let it set a bit then scrape and wipe. This is usually too time consuming for the average cook. Be sure if you are going to try this to take it outside. You don't want that smell in the house.

I did get an email from a reader who said he had perfected the chemical cleaning method. He sprays his iron with the cleaner and then puts it in a heavy duty plastic trash bag and seals it for a couple of days. He says this really gets the job done. I haven't tried it.

The last method for really, really bad dirty cast iron is to haul it down to the sandblasting service and having it blasted. (If you have a friend who has an automotive machine shop and has a glass bead cleaner, this will work too. It's just sandblasting using tiny glass beads.)

Best thing is to just clean your pots and pans after every use and don't let the mess build up. No soap for the cleaning process. Just rinse them out with warm water using a plastic scrub pad or brush to get the gunk off. Dry it and put on a coat of oil. I have another reader who says using medical grade mineral oil works real good on cast iron. Again I have not tried this. I do know the mineral oil won't go sour like some of the vegetable or animal products.

Cooking the Whole Hog
Another subject that comes up quite often starts out "I want to cook a whole pig in a hole in the ground for my daughter's/son's graduation/wedding/birthday next week. Tell me how."

I am too polite to tell them it isn't worth the time and effort involved to accomplish such a project. You just end up with steamed pig or whatever.

The primal cooking methods involving holes in the ground and banana leaves or wet tow sacks is akin to voodoo or astrophysics. It takes someone who knows the ropes and has a great deal of experience. This experience comes from serving an apprenticeship under another experienced cook.

Things involved are: size of hole required and someone to actually dig the hole, a quantity of clean sand and a bunch of large rocks, a pile of hardwood fire wood, something to wrap the meat in, the knowledge of how much wood to burn in the hole, and the knowledge of how long the cooking will take. Digging something up and finding it undercooked is not all that pleasant.

If you really want to learn how to do this kind of cooking, find a copy of Smoky Hale's The Great American Barbecue and Grilling Manual. Your local book store or some online outlet should be able to find it for you. Smoky goes to greater length to explain the process but ends up with the same advice I have, which is "It ain't worth all the trouble."

Pigs and other large cuts of meat can be cooked in a regular smoker of the correct size. One of the best pig roasters I've seen was made from half a 55 gallon barrel. The barrel was split in half to hold the coals and the pig turned aloft on a homemade spit.

The big problem with cooking large cuts of meat is you have to have the fire hot enough to cook the meat before bad things start happening inside and cool enough so that nothing chars on the outside.

If you take a ten-pound shoulder roast out of the icebox and mount it on your spit, it could take several hours for the internal temperature of the meat to come up to the safe 140F degrees. You need to get the inside of the meat warm as fast as possible without burning the outside.

That's what makes barbecuing so much fun, learning all the tricks of the trade. Maybe if I live another 100 years I will know half the tricks of the trade.

See you next month.

If you have a question for Doctor John, send an email to moc.oohay@nevarkeerc
end article

Traditional Texas Food Articles
By Dr. John, Ph.B.

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