Tag Archives: Farm Life

Cast Iron – Always In Season


Cast iron skillet we found buried on our property.  This is after being seasoned with flaxseed oil.  Surface is not entirely smooth but it is as nonstick as our new, flat surfaced skillets.

Cast iron skillet we found buried on our property. This is after being seasoned with flaxseed oil. Surface underneath seasoning is not entirely smooth since we did not use an electrolysis bath, but it is as nonstick as our new, flat surfaced skillets.

Cast iron.  Those words often evoke an image of a woman in a long dress and apron, standing over a wood burning stove.  Or of someone being hit over the head with an iron skillet in a slapstick comedy routine.  No matter which image comes to mind, they both demonstrate the versatility and durability of cast iron.  Cast iron has been around for literally ages, and when taken care of, can have a long, productive life.

A couple of years ago I decided to get serious about getting rid of our non-stick skillets due to the dangers from the fumes given off by the pans.  Although I have some nice stainless steel skillets, they are a pain to clean sometimes when things stick to them.  While the idea of the mostly non-stick surface of cast iron was appealing, I wasn’t completely sold on the thought of going to cast iron because of prior experiences with it.  We had packed away our few pieces of cast iron years ago, because we never could get a seasoning on it that we liked.  The skillet always had a bit of stickiness to the touch, and it attracted every piece of dog and cat hair in the house.  Cooking with a furry skillet – yuck.  So many people have extolled the virtues of cast iron that I decided to try it again.  But there was a difference this time around.  This time the internet existed and I could get online to do a bit of research.  Turns out that there is a much better way to get that nonstick feel to your cast iron without the stickiness that we had encountered when seasoning with vegetable shortening and vegetable oil.

Enter flaxseed oil.  I found a website explaining about the properties of flaxseed oil and the science behind seasoning cast iron.  After doing my own research on the properties of flaxseed oil, I discovered that linseed oil is the non-edible version of flaxseed oil and that it is a drying oil.  Our ancestors used linseed oil to make waterproof coatings on cloth (think oil cloth and the canvas of a prairie schooner wagon).  If our ancestors knew that they could make a waterproof coating on fabric hundreds of years ago using linseed oil, then this idea of using edible flaxseed oil to season cast iron sounded plausible.  So I tried it.  And it worked!  Not only did it work, but my pan wasn’t sticky to the touch.  No more need to shave my cast iron skillet before I used it, since it was no longer attracting all the floating animal hair in the house.

Seasoning Cast Iron

The seasoning process is a bit long, but it is well worth it.  If you live where it is hot in summer like we do, it’s better to season cast iron in winter to avoid heating up the house so much.  Here’s what it takes:

1.  Heat your cast iron over a burner to get it warm so that the pores of the iron open up

20 year old cast orpm pans with surface rust before seasoning.

20-year-old cast iron pans with surface rust, before seasoning.

and any moisture on the iron dries.

2.  Wipe a thin coating of flaxseed oil onto the entire surface of the cast iron, inside and out, including the handle.

3.  Wipe OFF the flaxseed oil.  Even though you think the oil is not there, it is.  You want very thin layers to build up, so it will look dry, not greasy, every time you wipe off the oil.

4.  Put your cast iron in the oven and turn it on to bake at 500 degrees (or as high as it will go).

5.  Bake for an hour.

6.  Turn off the oven.  Do not open the oven door.  Leave the cast iron to cool inside the

Cast iron cactus pan after flaxseed seasoning.  Surface is dark black, shiny, and smooth.

Cast iron cactus pan after flaxseed seasoning. Surface is dark black, shiny, and smooth.

oven for at LEAST 2 hours.

7.  Repeat this process at least 6 times.  More times doesn’t hurt.

To get more information on this process, check out the site that gives more detail – the Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning

Taking Care of Cast Iron

There’s a lot of websites out there that can give you different ways of taking care of cast iron.  The one thing that is very important is

Grill side of reversible grill/griddle pan after seasoning.

Grill side of reversible grill/griddle pan after seasoning.

not to shock your cast iron – like taking it from the stove and sticking it under a faucet running cold water.  The temperature shock can crack it like glass.  But otherwise, most ways to care for cast iron are a matter of preference.

To avoid the temperature shock of pouring cold milk or water into a hot skillet when making gravy, I pour the liquid slowly onto a lump of the flour and fat mixture instead of onto the skillet surface itself.  Otherwise I try to warm the liquid up a little first at least to room temperature.

As for cleaning cast iron, I don’t use soap.  Soap is a degreaser.  And even though the right process of adhering the oil to the cast iron should prevent the soap from removing the seasoning, I avoid washing cast iron with soap just in case.

Before you get grossed out by the thought of not using soap – remember soap does not kill germs.  Soap is a merely an aid that helps get between water and the food particles to get the food off the pan easier.  The heat of cooking helps kills any germs on the pan, so soap is not a necessity.  And when the seasoning is done properly, the chances of needing the help of soap to get the food off the pan is greatly decreased.

Some people say to never use any metal utensils or metal scrubbers on cast iron.  Others say it makes it better to use metal on the iron.  Personally, I use some metal utensils with my cast iron and I also use a non-soapy stainless steel scrubbing pad.  So far, it’s worked just fine for me.

It is much easier to clean any pan if you clean it soon after you use it.  But even when I do let something sit and dry onto the surface of my cast iron, it isn’t that difficult to get off.  If it seems like it’s going to take a little bit of extra scrubbing to clean dried-on food, put some water in the pan, heat it up to boiling on the stove for a few minutes and then scrub.  Depending on what you cooked in your pain, sometimes all you have to do is wipe out the pan with a towel.  And just to make sure for any cast iron newbies – DO NOT put cast iron in the dishwasher.

After you wash your pan, throw it back on a burner to get it completely dried off.  Then wipe it with a little bit of flaxseed oil and heat for a few minutes longer.  This will help keep off rust and maintain that smooth coating of seasoning you put on it.

Cast Iron Cooking

A great thing about cast iron is that it can be used on the stove top, in the oven, and even over an open fire.  It takes a bit to get accustomed to how the iron heats and holds the heat, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a breeze to use.

Until you get the hang of using cast iron, if you’re going to use it on the stove top, set your heat on low to avoid burning things.  Once you get accustomed to how the iron pots and pans cook, you can turn up the heat right off the bat.

Heating up the pan a little before you put food in it will help it have a better nonstick/low stick surface.

Sometimes you still have to add in a little fat to cook with, just like with a steel or aluminum pan, depending on what you’re cooking.  You can use your no-stick-spray, oil, butter, shortening, or animal fat just like you do in any other type of pan.

You can use water and other liquids in your pans when cooking.  Some people recommend avoiding putting tomato/acidic foods in the pans to avoid the acid eating away at the seasoning, but I haven’t found this to be a problem for me when making soups, stews, and sauces that have tomatoes or lemon juice in it.  But I wouldn’t leave acidic foods in cast iron for storing leftovers.

Things you can cook in cast iron – pretty much anything.  You don’t need a special cast iron recipe book.  There are some cast iron cookbooks out there and they are great – especially the ones that give instructions on how to cook over an open fire or using coals.  But you can use your cast iron just like you use your stainless steel or aluminum pots and pans.

In my very large, and heavy, skillet, I can fry things or use it as a pizza pan.  It works great to make pan-style pizza and goes right into the oven no problem.  You can buy the nifty cornbread pans that come in triangle shapes or corn or cactus shapes, but you can also pour cornbread batter right into a skillet or dutch oven.  A dutch oven can be used to make soups and stews or even bake bread.  I use my dutch oven to render beef tallow.  Cast iron is so versatile that you can do just about any type of cooking or baking in it.

Buying Cast Iron

Cast iron is actually something that some people collect.  Some of the oldest and well-known makers of cast iron from the 19th century were Griswold and Wagner.  There are also a lot of other cast iron makers from those days whose cast iron implements are still in use.  You can find antique cast iron implements in antique stores, flea markets, and estate sales, as well as online.  Prices for some pieces are a bit on the outrageous side, but for serious collectors, paying out the nose for certain items is worth it.  Another great thing about cast iron is that not only is it fun to collect, but you can still use it.  So it isn’t just another collection that gathers dust.

There are cast iron griddles and grills.  There are pots of varying sizes.  There are waffle irons, cake pans, biscuit pans and loaf pans.  With just a few acquisitions of a large skillet, a smaller skillet, and a dutch oven, you can cook pretty much anything.  Or you can spend the money and get all kinds of cast iron implements that are both neat looking and functional.

Until recently, as far as I knew, Lodge was the only American company still making cast iron pots and pans today.  They have been in business since the end of the 19th century.  There is a lot of cast iron being made in China.  I would beware of this stuff.  I have a small Chinese made cast iron skillet that came in one of those holiday gift packages, but the quality of it does not compare to my Lodge cast iron.

I’ve found a new company making cast iron called the American Skillet Company, here in the US.  They are a niche company making cast iron pans in the shape of the different states.  I don’t have personal knowledge of the quality, but if I were in the market for some novelty shaped skillets, I would be willing to try them for the mere fact that they are made in the USA.

Restoring Cast Iron

There are a number of ways to restore cast iron depending on how much rust and/or crud is on your cast iron piece and how much elbow grease you want to use.

Vinegar is a low-tox way to get rust off but it can sometimes take more elbow grease depending on the level of rust.  Some people use oven cleaner spray, lye, products sold to remove rust, and even electrolysis baths.  Sometimes it takes a wire brush to scrub the rust off.  There are a lot of choices that you will fit to whatever level of rust you have on your cast iron piece and what works for you.  But don’t discount a piece of cast iron just because it looks gross.  Ugly, bumpy, rusty cast iron can often be fully restored and used – like the skillet pictured above that was buried for an unknown length of time.

The Joy of Cast Iron

I just cannot say enough about how great cast iron is to have.  The larger pieces can be a bit heavy.  Sometimes I have to use two hands to carry large pieces like my giant skillet or pick them up and have someone else scrape all the food out of the pans.  But it’s worth it.  It isn’t cheap to buy,like an aluminum pan from the local mass-merchandise store, but if you take care of your cast iron, you can use 150 year old cast iron and still have it passed down to your descendants 150 years in the future.  You’re not going to find that kind of durability with an aluminum pot or pan.  You also can’t throw your aluminum pots into the oven, so you have to have stovetop pots and pans as well as oven safe cookware in your kitchen.  And if you have a storm that knocks out your electricity…you can build a campfire in your back yard or fireplace to cook, bake, and heat water for washing and laundry in your cast iron pots.  It is darn near impossible to do that with an aluminum pot.  And with cast iron, you won’t be killing any pet birds or small pets with toxic fumes like certain modern-day non-stick pans can give off.


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Winter Gardening – Lessons Learned

Beautiful sugar snap peas.

Beautiful sugar snap peas.

It’s been about a week since we had the night time temperature get down to 32*.  And then the temps bounced back up into the 80s.  Around here, temps can be all over the place in one day, making chicken and garden chores “interesting”.  But it does look like Old Man Winter is gone and it’s time to get things ready for new crops.

Our Winter garden was a success overall.  We have been getting some delicious lettuce from it.  The chickens have enjoyed arugula, kale, and mustard greens.  The arugula has already started going to seed, so we’re waiting for that to finish so we can harvest seeds before we dig up that section of the garden beds.  The broccoli…well we didn’t get anything from those plants.  They started growing the “flowerets” that most people like to eat, but then they suddenly started having flowers and never really gave us anything to eat.  Although we could eat the stalks, I am thinking about just letting it finish going to seed and trying to harvest the seeds.  The cabbage kept getting eaten by varmints and something else, never producing anything edible for us.  We thought the carrots were dead – something ate the green tops off.  But they have re-sprouted and we may yet see a few carrots.  The parsnips took off finally, and I am thinking we may get a good handful of parsnips to eat soon.  And just this past week we harvested a good bunch of sugar snap peas along with a few snow peas.

Freshly harvested lettuce, sugar snap peas, and eggs from our little farm.

Freshly harvested lettuce, sugar snap peas, and eggs from our little farm.

We didn’t get as much produce as we would have liked out of our winter garden adventure, but since it was the first year we’d ever tried to garden in winter, we’re still pretty pleased with the results.  We learned quite a bit and know we need to do some things differently next time.

For one, the long sides of our garden beds had to be replaced.  The stress on the boards from the weight of the hoop railing system and the high winds twisting the hoops and the rails attached to the boards, were making it very difficult to slide the hoops along the rails.  We had used 1 inch x 6 inch boards, stacked on top of one another to make 12 inch high sides.  The top board was just too thin and too long to take so much stress.  Hubby replaced the sides with 2 inch x 12 inch boards.  That made things a lot sturdier and the boards are no longer twisting and bending in the middle, no longer keeping the hoops from being able to slide out of the way so we can access the garden beds.

The end of the winter crops - still growing with a few going to seed.

The end of the winter crops – still growing with a few going to seed.

The end flaps of our plastic tunnels also needed to be longer.  We cut them off at the ground, but that was not long enough to firmly secure them so that they could not lift up during high winds and allow freezing temperatures to reach the plants on the end of the beds.  We ended up losing most of the arugula from exposure when a storm blew the end flaps back into the bed and behind a couple rows of plants.  Plants in the middle of the hoop tunnels survived freezing temperatures without a problem since it was warmer in the middle of the tunnels.

We also need to plant sooner in the Autumn, so that we can have more things to eat during December/January.  Even though the plants survived the abnormally cold winter we had, they weren’t growing and producing as well because of the low temperatures.  If we can get things planted perhaps in October, the plants would have a better start and we might be able to have a larger crop to be munching on during the coldest winter months instead of having to wait for eating most of the things later in Winter.

Kale and broccoli - the chickens LOVE their kale.

Kale and broccoli – the chickens LOVE their kale.

Our largest hoop tunnel that was about 6 ft tall did not survive the winter.  The 6 ft tall, 12 ft long plastic “sail” turned out to be no match for the gusty winds that came from the north some days, the south other days, and still on other days buffeted the plastic hoop tunnel from all directions.  The 4 ft tall hoops did fine, but since we could not get long enough PVC pipe for the tall hoops and had to piece together pipe to make it 6 ft tall, the stress on the joints was just too much.  After one too many high winter winds came along, the PVC pipes of the tall hoops actually broke apart and splintered like thin wood.  If we want taller hoops, we’re going to come up with another plan.

We also need to reexamine our staking of the hoops.  By the very end of winter weather, we actually had stakes in the ground that had broken in half from the stress put on them by the ropes trying to hold those plastic tunnels in place against the high winds.  We’ll be adding more stakes to the hoop houses and also looking at finding some heavy duty metal stakes rather than the plastic tent stakes that they had at WallyWorld.

And I do need to get my end panels of “wildlife netting” put into the beds.  As much as I love little furry creatures, it was annoying that the kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, and carrots kept lagging behind every time they took a hit from a hungry varmint.  We do have bunnies that live in our dilapidated barn area and suspect they enjoyed themselves immensely, sneaking under the plastic for a warm place to eat a good meal of our greens.  Perhaps we’ll need to make them their own winter garden spot so they’ll leave our food alone.

Tangle-o-peas - what happens when your tall hoops break and your peas have no trellising to climb on and still be covered in plastic during the winter.

Tangle-o-peas – what happens when your tall hoops break and your peas have no trellising to climb on and still be covered in plastic during the winter.

This week I have gotten the plastic off of the garden hoops and the chicken pens.  Really need to get some summer crops in but with some of our winter crops going to seed, I don’t have room for everything yet.  So we’re also going to need to build more garden beds.  We do have one new bed built – a small one for onions that we planted a couple of months ago – onions need to grow mostly when it is cold, they don’t do well in hot weather.

It’s been interesting to learn more about different crops, since neither hubby or I had ever grown any of the items we grew this winter.  We found out that potatoes do better when they grow in cool weather – which is probably why our crops never did that well when we planted them in Spring, since temps can get into the 90s in Texas even during Spring planting season.  So we also built two new potato planters using the wood planks that we replaced on the long garden beds.  The new potato planters are supposed to yield more potatoes in a smaller space, by giving the potatoes more room to grow vertically, adding more dirt as the plants get taller.  We’ll see how it turns out.  Kept having a problem with the seed potatoes getting mushy and rotten – we may need to order seed potatoes from a good online source instead of just buying them at the local garden center.

There is a ton of things still to do with the garden.  There are tomato and eggplant seedlings in the house that need to be transplanted.  More garden beds built, the old crops cleared out and new things planted.  But we learned a lot with our winter garden experiment and we are anticipating to improve on the results we had this year.  Even though we’ve gardened before, we can’t get over how neat it is to go “shopping” for dinner out in our pasture.

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The Little Chore Train That Could

August was miserably hot, as it usually is here in Texas, but the chickens still had to have their wading pools and drinking buckets refilled with fresh water every day.  Of course we hadn’t thought about what would happen with me having carpal tunnel surgery and not being able to use my hand for a while.  Hubby was good and did chicken chores for a few days, but after that I was on my own and still couldn’t use my hand.  Leave it to my imaginative hubby to come up with something to help make one-handed chicken chores easier – The Chore Train.

The Chore Train

The Chore Train

Instead of having to fill numerous milk jugs and buckets with water (like I had been doing for what seems like forever), tote them outside to a utility cart, and then pull the cart by hand around the pasture, the Chore Train saves time and lets me haul heavy supply laden carts around the pasture more easily.

The train starts with our garden tractor/mower.  A water tank mounted on a cart comes next, with a utility cart making up the caboose.

The water cart isn’t just any old water reservoir.  A battery-powered bilge pump is attached to the water tank, allowing the water to run much faster through the hose and out to the chickens than simple gravity feed does.  I just hook the pump clamps to the battery terminals, and I’m in business.  A solar panel helps to recharge the battery.

The utility cart lets me haul frozen water bottles, feed, treats, and other supplies at the same time as the water.  Not having to make multiple trips to and from the house is a time saver and saves wear and tear on me, trying to haul heavy stuff around by hand.

(click the photos to see them closeup if you need a better look at how the pump assembly is put together so you can make your own)

Moral of the story:  Necessity is often the mother of invention.  Work smarter not harder.  If you’re still hand-carrying supplies to do your chicken chores with, consider making your own chore train to help decrease your workload a little.  A chore train like this is easy to put together and you can customize it to suit your needs.

I’ve been told that I have too much fun with my little train.  Have to admit, it IS kinda fun to drive around with it – kinda like riding those little kiddie trains that they have at carnivals and zoos.  I love my chore train, but I sure wish the hubby would have thought of this sooner!  🙂


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