Several months ago, I read a series of articles about flashlights by Ben Brooks, a blogger whose posts I enjoy. His article convinced me that my iPhone flashlight may not be as useful as I once imagined. I decided to buy a dedicated flashlight and see.
Last year we were given old Dutch ovens. I knew absolutely nothing about cast iron cooking and so, naturally, I turned to the internet for advice. Generally, the internet serves me well for subjects I’m unfamiliar with. Things did not go well for the cast iron, however. I’ve learned, by trial and error, how to use and care for cast iron. If you’re willing to relearn some care and cleaning habits, you’ll be able to enjoy some amazing cookware!
If You’ve Never Used Cast Iron…
If you’ve never used cast iron, like me, here are a few things to know.
Cast iron cookware has been used for a long time, and for good reasons. They’re inexpensive to buy, last for generations, you can use them on almost any heating surface, get better (i.e. slicker) with use, are versatile, handle high heats, and work extremely well. Cast iron retains heat really well, making it great for searing meats, or caramelizing vegetable (or anything else). Once seasoned (seasoning refers to the oil buildup that gets baked into the cookware, resulting in a smooth, non-stick coating) they are slicker than non-stick pans and don’t require bizarre chemicals to achieve that feature.
We started looking at cast iron skillets to use with our induction burner in the RV, which we can use on solar power. Our old non-stick pans were getting worn out, and we wanted a cheap and durable replacement.
Handling cast iron may require you to get a few things you don’t already have in your kitchen.
- Heat resistant gloves—You may be fine with just hot pads, but these make things so much easier, especially for cleaning.
- Wooden spatulas—I’ve started using Bamboo, which is supposedly a harder wood. Here are some that I bought: Flat Spatula and Curved Spatula.
- Lint free cotton rags. Think old t-shirts. We didn’t have old t-shirts in the RV, so I bought a package of cotton rags which are essentially cut up shirts at a hardware store for $1.50
- Don’t use paper towels. They leave behind lint that weakens your seasoning.
Our Dutch ovens were rusted and the seasoning was sticky and splotchy. It needed to be restored.
The internet has good information on the restoring process. Generally, goes like this:
- Strip the cookware of all gunk, seasoning, rust, and grime—get down to the bare metal. The bare metal is a dull silver color.
- Season the cookware several times in the oven
Stripping old seasoning and rust can be really hard. Working with the pan when it’s hot can make old seasoning and gunk come off easier. It does, however, make it harder to handle the pan.
Here are some methods I tried. You’ll find videos and articles for each of these methods. I’ve listed them in order from best to worst:
- Using a wire brush attachment with grinder tool. Highly recommended for difficult jobs.
- Steel wool
- Chain mail scrubber
- Salt + sponge or rag
Do what it takes. Get down to the metal. Then skip to Chapter 3, Seasoning.
Chapter 2—Buying New Cookware
Buy Lodge. They’ve been doing cast iron for years. Their cookware has the best factory seasoning. Worth it. Also, the Wirecutter agrees.
Even though Lodge preseasons their pans, I think you should season it a few more times before using it.
For skillets, we have 3 sizes. 10″, 12″, and 14″. I use the 10″ the most because it’s lighter, making it easier to use. It’s large enough for about 70% of the things that I cook. If you’re getting only one skillet, the 12″ is probably the way to go. I don’t like the size of the 14″ that much. It’s really heavy, but when you need size, you’ll be glad you have it.
For Dutch ovens, we have 12″ Lodge ovens that we were gifted. 12″ seems to be the most commonly recommended size of Dutch oven, and I’ve been happy with the size. We recently re-gifted one of our ovens. RV life mandates minimizing!
Chapter 3—Initial Seasoning
So, now that you have your new or stripped cookware, it’s time to season it. Some people will advocate that simply using the pan for cooking will season it. That’s true, but I think for beginners (like me) getting more seasoning on the pan to start will help.
- Heat it until it’s hard to touch with your bare hands
- Rub a thin coat of Crisco all over the cookware. Inside, outside, everywhere.
- Take a dry cloth and wipe off all the oil. In reality, some of it won’t come off, and that’s okay. This step is to eliminate as much as you can. You may be tempted to put on extra to “shortcut” the seasoning process. This will backfire horribly.
- Bake the cookware, face down, in the oven for 90min+. People claim different temperatures work best, anywhere from 350 to Broil. I use 500° but I’m not certain my RV propane oven thermostat is correct. You want to bake the oil into the cast iron without burning/smoking it off. When my oven is set to broil, the oil just smokes away and no seasoning is achieved. So, get it as hot as you can without all the oil smoking away before hardening to the pan.
- Turn off the oven, let the cookware cool in the oven.
Repeat as many times as you want to. I did mine 5-7 times before using for cooking.
After cooking certain foods, you may want to re-season the pan again and can follow this same process.
Oh boy. Now this is where things get dicey. I’ve found that the internets advice on cleaning is based on working with a well seasoned piece of cast iron. A well seasoned piece of cast iron can deal with abuse. A new or recently restored piece can not.
If you have a new or recently restored piece of cast iron:
- Don’t use the salt scrubbing method for routine cleaning. It strips the seasoning.
- Don’t scrape with metal (ie metal spatulas). It strips the seasoning.
- Don’t use soap. Soap is designed to cut grease/oil. That’s what seasoning is made of. Soap may not be tough enough strip existing seasoning but it does you no favors in building seasoning.
- Don’t use chain mail for cleaning. They say it doesn’t strip seasoning, but it does.
- Don’t use paper towel during the cleaning process. It leaves behind lint that can get baked into the cookware, resulting in a weaker seasoning.
- Don’t let the cookware sit for hours and hours before you clean it. The sooner you clean, the easier it is.
I use a tiered approach to my cleaning.
First Pass Cleaning
If stuff is stuck on the pan after cooking, the first thing I do is:
- Scrape as much food out of the pan as possible
- Put the pan on heat and pour in enough vegetable oil to cover the pan
- Let the pan soak in oil on medium-high heat to soften
- Scrape the pan with a wooden spatula. I use bamboo.
- Don’t use metal spatulas, as some advise
- Don’t buy the plastic scrapers from Lodge. They melt in hot pans. They are worthless.
- Remember to use your heat resistant gloves!
- Dump the oil and burned debris out and dispose.
- Wipe the pan with a dry, lint free cotton rag to remove as much oil as possible.
If this process has sufficiently cleaned the pan. You are done. Wait for it to cool and then store.
Second Pass Cleaning
For new pans, you may have some messy, sticky jobs to clean up. If food has cemented to the pan during the cooking process, the first pass method won’t be enough. However, you also don’t want to strip any seasoning.
- Complete the first pass process
- Run hot water over the pan (which should still be hot)
- Use a stiff dish brush (not a steel one) to scrub off the burned food. Running hot water on the pan during this process helps tremendously.
- Dry the pan immediately using a lint free cotton cloth. Do not air dry or it will rust.
- Heat pan again until it’s hot enough you can’t touch the sides
- Wipe with a thin coat of oil. Use dry rag to wipe off excess.
- Immediately turn off the heat after adding oil. Some people say to leave it on the heat. I found this just smokes off the oil rather than letting it get absorbed into the cast iron.
Third Pass Cleaning
If you have severely stuck food, and the first two approaches haven’t worked, you can try any of the methods used in the restoring process. I’d probably start with salt/sponge, then work up to steel wool or chain mail if needed. Be gentle to minimize the amount of seasoning you remove.
For a newer pan, I’d recommend doing a seasoning pass in the oven afterwards (see chapter 3).
The main thing to remember is keep things dry and exposed to air. For Dutch ovens, put some paper towel between the lid and pot so it can breathe inside the pot.
Chapter 6—Cooking Tips
Here are a few things to keep in mind when cooking:
- You can use cast iron on any cooking surface. Glass flat top stoves, induction burners, gas flame, campfire, or charcoal. It’s heavy, so be cautious on surfaces that can crack, but cook away!
- Add food to a hot skillet to avoid food sticking
- Avoid acidic foods. Tomatoes, vinegar, citrus are common acidic foods
- Don’t store food in the cast iron. Remove it quickly to avoid food sticking. From what I understand, the cast iron has pores that expand when heating. As they cool, they will close again and the food will stick.
- Feel free to use metal utensils when cooking on cast iron
- Cast iron doesn’t always heat evenly. Preheating gradually can help ensure even heating.
Chapter 7—It’s Not That Bad
This looks like a lot of information. It may seem like it’s not worth bothering with cast iron. If you’re not interested in learning some new habits, then that is probably going to be true for you.
However if I was to describe how to cook and clean a normal pan, it would likely be pretty long too. It’s just a different process, but aside from the initial seasoning process it’s no lengthier or more difficult than a regular pan.
It seems like a rite of passage for full-time RVers to install solar on their RV. We’ve been running two 100watt panels as a portable ground setup, but we wanted something permanent and bigger.
There are so many good articles and videos about doing RV solar installs, so I won’t try to do a comprehensive report. Also, despite my intentions to document each step, I got so engaged in the project I forgot to take pictures.
Here’s what I bought for this project:
- Renogy 100w 12v Solar Panels
- 2x Renogy MC4 Y Branch Connectors
- 7x Renogy Mounting brackets
- Renogy cable entry housing
- 5 pairs of MC4 Terminals/Connectors
- 2x 50ft Black + 50ft Red 10awg Solar Cables (I intentionally bought way more than I needed so I could make more extension lines for my ground mounted panels)
- Renogy tray cable
- Renogy MC4 Y Connectors
- Dicor Lap Sealant
- Ring terminal connectors (from local auto parts store)
- 2x 40amp 12v fuse (from local auto parts store)
Here is what I had purchased previously that I was able to reuse:
- Renogy 40amp MPPT Charge controller (can’t find the same product on Amazon anymore. I think they may have replaced it with a new model)
- Magnum battery monitoring kit with shunt (picked this one because it was compatible with my Inverter, which came with the motor home)
To tilt or not to tilt…No tilt!
One decision you have to make during the planning phase is whether to use flat mounted panels or install tiltable brackets. The tilt brackets require you to climb on your roof and set the tilt angle each time you park, although I’ve heard of one person who had motorized tilts on his panels.
I decided not to do tilt mounts based on something I read on an online forum. As I write this, the foolishness of relying on random forum opinions is settling in, and I’m wondering if I’ll regret the decision. The poster suggested that rather than installing tilt mounts and having to climb up your roof constantly, just buy an extra panel to offset the inefficiencies of a flat mount. I was sold on that idea.
Additionally, we still have our ground panels that we can tilt and angle to our hearts content to get some extra juice, if needed.
Reviewing the basic solar setup
Before starting the plan, I needed to review the basic solar layout to help me determine what to buy. The basic structure of a solar system looks like this:
I already had a charge controller and battery monitoring kit, but I wanted to replace some parts. I wanted to replace my basic, 20amp auto fuses with auto resetting 40 amp versions. I also wanted to swap out the cables running from my charge controller to my battery. Previously, I’d used standard solid core 10AWG cables used for home electrical. I know that stranded cables are better, particularly for automotive uses so I picked up some higher quality, stranded cables to replace my existing wiring.
Determining number of panels
Since we already had a charge controller for our ground solar panels, I didn’t want to purchase another one. That meant I’d size the system based on the charge controller’s rating, which is 40 amps.
I already knew how much each panel would generate. On a sunny day, our 2 ground panels generate about 11-13 amps when they are optimally tilted. After some estimating, (er, sophisticated math) I figured each panel would produce around 5 amps max. I already had 2 panels, so I figured I’d get 6 more, brining our potential to about 40 amps (5 * 8).
Amazon screwed up my orders, and so I ended up getting an extra panel out of the deal, so we ended up with 7 new panels, 9 total with our existing ground panels. I diagramed my layout and discovered that by buying 2 sets of branch connectors, I could eliminate the need to buy a ton of Y connectors. Boom!
I’m guessing I wont get a full 5 amps per panel with them being flat mounted, so I doubt I’ll get a full 35amps with my 7 panels. However, I very well might approach tha number on sunny days, and having 7 panels may eliminate the need to use our ground panels every time we park. Time will tell.
So why have ground panels at all? Simple: we like parking in forested areas. We’ve been able to place the ground panels in full sun while our RV sits comfortably among the trees.
I spent an evening on the roof with a tape measure, getting a bunch of measurements which I drew on my iPad. I didn’t want to put the panels in areas where shade from an AC unit or anything else could land on the solar panels, so I decided to group the panels at the rear of the RV.
An additional consideration I took into account was position of the panels relative to the slide outs. I anticipate needing to do slideout or awning maintenance at some point, and don’t want to have solar panels in the way when I do that. I was able to keep my panels away from all slide outs and awnings.
Once the panels arrived, the first thing I did was lay them out on the roof and finalize the position I wanted them to be in. They fit great at the rear of the roof, as I planned, and still allowed me room to get to the front of the roof.
I watched the video from Gone with the Wynns and, since we also have a Fleetwood Bounder like they did, I took wiring inspiration from their video. They routed the wires behind the fridge, cabinets, and finally into the storage bin where the inverter lives.
I took this route as well, but wasn’t able to get the fridge out easily. My workaround was to have the wires enter the RV above the fridge, then simply route the wires down the side of the fridge, fairly close to the front of the fridge. There was a gap in the floor the fridge sits on, and I was able to route the wires alongside a heating duct under the oven and behind the kitchen cabinets.
Once I had the wires behind the cabinet drawers, I saw the backside of our outdoor TV. Using the speaker box as a reference point from both inside and outside the RV, I determined where to drill in order to access the storage box without damaging anything. A few drills later, I had successfully routed my cables into the final place.
I bought tons of wiring, and knew I’d need to cut wires to make the project work. I purchased some MC4 connectors so that I could add them to the ends of my cut cables. This worked out really well, and was quite simple. I followed the instructions in this video for reference.
Once the main wires were in place and connected to the charge controller, I hooked up the solar panels. I’d left them disonnected from the system wires so I didn’t risk a shock. I wired them in parallel since the panels were 12v each and my system was 12v. Parallel wiring maintains voltage, but increases capacity (for batteries) or output in amps (for panels).
The project took roughly 12 man hours to complete, which was spread out over a Friday evening and Saturday. My wife helped with some of the project, so I personally spent about 8 hours on the project.
Much to my surprise, the project was completed without a single problem. I was trying to think about any project I’ve ever done that went this smoothly, particularly at this scale, and I can’t think of one. I think this is the result of adequate planning.
We haven’t had the chance to test the panels in full sun. We finished them on an overcast day with smoke from forest fires adding additional coverage. So, for now, we’re plugged in to shore power at our family’s home. We’ll test production in a few days when we get out on the road again.