by Devin Northrup | Mar 13, 2018 | DIY
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.
by Devin Northrup | Nov 1, 2017 | Travel
One question we get asked frequently is how do we connect to the internet in our RV. The simple answer is that we are on Verizon’s Unlimited Data plan. The long answer is that we had to make several adjustments to our setup in order to keep all devices connected and operating, no matter where we are camped. After a great deal of trial and error, we’re finally happy with our setup and we’re ready to share it with the four people who read the blog. This setup could be used by anyone living in an RV, or who is forced to rely on Verizon (or another cell company) as their only source of internet.
iPads and iPhones
The best internet experience is with devices that connect directly to Verizon’s network: our iPhones and iPads. The iOS devices each have unlimited LTE data (with some important caveats which I’ll explain later). This means they have the fastest, most reliable connections. As a result, my wife and I both use our iPads a lot, and our laptops very little. I’ve been using my iPad as my primary work device for a couple years now, and working from the cellular iPad is, for me, a dream. We recently got another iPad so my wife could enjoy the benefits of a cellular iPad. The iPad isn’t as ideal for her real estate work. For instance, many bank systems are antiquated and don’t support touch devices well. She’s adjusted and found a good setup for her tasks.
Initially, we thought we’d simply tether other devices to our iOS devices, but this proved to not work. At. All. Not only was it inconvenient (imagine re-tethering 5 devices every time you return home), some devices never operated properly when using a tethered connection.
Occasionally, for work, I’ll tether my laptop to my iPad or iPhone. Fortunately I don’t need to do this very often. I also have to be careful because I’m limited to 15gigs of LTE tethering per device per month.
Our love/hate relationship with the Jetpack
The rest of our devices get internet from a Verizon Jetpack device. A Jetpack is a small device, about the size of a deck of cards, that gets internet from Verizon and shares it with up to 15 devices via WiFi.
The Jetpack doubles as a wireless router. In the name of minimizing, we left our high quality Netgear router in storage and used the Jetpack for our wireless network. This proved to be a mistake—the Jetpack is a terrible router. While it allowed each device to connect to the internet, the signal strength wasn’t great and didn’t reliably broadcast its signal throughout our RV. It also didn’t handle local network connections very well. This meant playing movies on our Apple TV via Airplay or over Plex was out of the question, as was doing file transfers between devices.
So, we pulled our Netgear router out of storage, only to discover you can’t connect the Jetpack to a router. It seems they designed it this way as the Jetpack has no Ethernet output, only USB output. The USB connection is meant for giving internet to a computer, so hypothetically it could connect to a router with a USB input. But, apparently they’ve locked down the USB connection on Jetpacks to only work with Windows computers.
So, as a temporary fix, I did something clever with my wife’s laptop. Macs allow you to share internet connections from any source to any other source. So, I connected the laptop to the Jetpack via WiFi which gave me an internet connection, and I shared that connection out using the Ethernet port on the Mac, and plugged it into our router. Boom.
However, having an expensive laptop basically only functioning as an internet forwarding device seemed silly and wasteful, so I started looking for other options. I found this IOGear Ethernet to WiFi Adapter on Amazon. It’s designed to connect older devices, like TV’s that have Ethernet connections only, to a WiFi network.
This seemed like a promising option, but my limited networking knowledge made me concerned. I’ve learned that more links (or devices) there are in a network chain, the more likely I am to encounter problems that I can’t resolve. Thankfully, I was able to get all the pieces working. The Jetpack connects to Verizon, the IOGear connects to the Jetpack and shares the connection via Ethernet to my router, and all our wireless devices connect to the router. The router basically functions in bridge mode and it all seems to work fine.
We finally have a good internet and WiFi solution. We have a high quality WiFi router for allowing our devices to talk to each other on the local network, and each of these devices has access to the internet (albeit slow internet) because the Jetpack is connected to the router.
One of the reasons we’ve been Verizon customers is their outstanding network coverage. RV living means we’re always pushing the boundaries of where we can connect like never before, especially since we are always looking for remote (and free) camping options.
When planning our travel route, and especially when trying to select a location to camp, we always check a coverage map to make sure we’re going to have service. Two apps in particular have been helpful.
- Coverage which has quite detailed coverage maps for all networks
- Sensorly which aggregates user submitted data about signal strength and speeds.
These two apps help us predict what kind of coverage we can expect in a new area. They aren’t 100% accurate, but for the most part they’ve been dependable.
Generally, we’ve been able to find good camping areas that also have Verizon coverage. There’s only been one or two occasions we’ve had to scramble to find different camping options because we couldn’t find coverage in areas we thought we’d be able to connect. It would be nice, on occasion, if we could park in areas with no signal (such as inside of National Parks) but we still have bills to pay so we stay where we have service.
To help us stay connected in rural areas, and to increase the number of amazing places we can camp, we use a WeBoost Drive 4G-X system. Basically, this system can take you from 1 bar to full bars. If you are constantly on the edge of connectivity, like we are, this system is your best friend.
We’ve camped in several areas where the signal strength was essentially fluctuating between one bar and No Service. We flip on the booster and we have almost full signal strength. I’m able to do my video conferencing for work, stream videos, and more. This thing works.
The system we purchased is the trucker version with a heavy duty outdoor antenna. We mounted it to the rear of the RV. To avoid feedback, your outdoor antenna is supposed to be far away from the indoor unit, and ours certainly is.
The indoor antenna that came with our bundle works well, but only if you’re sitting right next to it. In fact, I often have to set my phone or iPad right on the antenna to get the boosting effect. It works, unquestionably, but the range is terrible.
We recently bought a new indoor antenna, but haven’t had the chance to test its efficacy yet. Our recent camping spots have had very strong signal strength, so we haven’t been able to test. We hope it allows all devices in the RV to get the boosting effect.
Verizon’s unlimited plan has some important restrictions that we always bump up against.
Once each device uses 22gb of data, that device is still allowed to connect at speeds “up to” LTE speed, but your data is prioritized behind other customers. I’ve spoken to Verizon to better understand this limitation, and I was told the prioritization happens at a specific cell tower, not the entire Verizon network. So, in some areas you won’t notice any slowdown! In others, you can barely load your email.
We’ve observed that the closer we are to cities, the slower our internet is. We suspect the cell towers in cities are far more overloaded than rural ones. However, crowds in rural areas can overload a tower, and when that happens the internet feels broken since there are fewer cell towers supporting the crowds.
Perhaps the most interesting case was in Moab, Utah a few weeks ago. We happened to be here during Fall Break, when all the Utah schools had a long weekend. Moab was extremely crowded, and our internet barely functioned. However, as the weekend came to a close and people started leaving, we watched our speeds slowly return until we were finally enjoying decent internet again.
The second important limitation is our Jetpack. It only gives you LTE speeds for the first 15gigs of data. After that, it’s down to 3g speeds. Each month when our data resets, we don’t even get to enjoy this momentary bit of speed. Our connected devices gobble up that data before we even wake up. Once a month I wake up to texts that say “Congrats, its a new month. You have 15gig of LTE Speed” followed by “Your 15gig of LTE speed has been used. You will have 3g speeds until the billing cycle resets in 30 days”.
I’d love LTE speeds for our Jetpack. However, the 3g speeds are enough to allow our other devices to function. It is incredibly slow, but at least it works.
What about free WiFi?
Many RVers take advantage of free WiFi at businesses, libraries, or RV parks. There are WiFi boosting antennas that even allow you to connect to networks over a mile away.
For us, 90% of our camping has been miles away from civilization and businesses who might offer free WiFi. At some point, we may look into this option further, but so far it doesn’t seem like it’d be much help for us.
Hey, at least it’s internet!
Our internet feels nothing like the high-speed residential WiFi networks we were used to. It’s nowhere near as fast, or reliable. Many of our devices feel like crippled versions of themselves (goodbye Xbox live, goodbye Netflix streaming on Apple TV).
That being said, we wake up most mornings in places like this (this photo is a view from my bedroom window). We stay out in the middle of nowhere, and we’re able to communicate with the world. We are able to do all of our work. We can still watch Youtube and Netflix (on our iPhones and iPads). We haven’t had to sacrifice much (from an internet perspective) to make this lifestyle work.
by Devin Northrup | Oct 25, 2017 | Travel
We started living full time in an RV on April 24, 2017, and people frequently ask us how we’ve liked it. Since I’ve only recently begun to write things on the inter webs, I’m going to rely on the cliche pros/cons list.
I feel like Captain Obvious even listing this, but it’s been really fun to travel. We’ve always had a travel itch, but other obligations have sucked up all of our disposable income. Now, we’re able to travel in a very nice motorhome, but our monthly budget is actually smaller than living in a house.
The United States is an amazing country, and we’ve been really lucky to have seen so much of it this year. Just this year we’ve been to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. We’ve seen beaches, magical forests and deserts.
Downsizing is liberating. Being surrounded by useless clutter is frustrating. Living in an RV forced us to downsize and it keeps pressuring us to get rid of more. Sure, we’ve purchased a few things along the way, but we have gotten rid of far more than we’ve acquired.
The benefit is that you’re surrounded by the things you absolutely love or can’t do without.
Also, it’s great to not have a massive house (and yard) to clean and take care of (but, we do have some RV chores that home owners don’t have).
Family relationships and memories
Living in an RV is helping my wife and I develop a stronger relationship with each other. We’ve become better communicators and are constantly improving our ability to work together.
We’ve been creating some great memories together. I took my son whale watching at Depoe Bay, Oregon. It’s been a few months since our outing but he still talks about it. He gets excited to find camping spots and isn’t shy to share his opinion on whether we picked a good one. I hope he remembers these journeys well into adulthood.
Social life (or lack thereof)
My wife and I are both solidly in the “introvert” category. We both felt stress due to the social obligations which are a normal part of the home owner life. We have lots of people we enjoy spending time with, but now we get to do it on our terms and our schedule.
We have enjoyed meeting a wide variety of people since starting RV living. While we may not seek new friends as actively as other RVers, we still get to have some great interactions.
Off grid living
There is something primitively satisfying about off grid living. Understanding the basic elements of nature and being able to leverage them for your benefit without the assistance of anyone else is incredibly rewarding. It’s difficult to describe. You feel a deeper connection to the earth and life.
The more efficiently we can live, the longer we can stay in primitive, beautiful environments. And seeking out these efficiencies has become enjoyable, almost to the point of becoming a hobby.
There are also environmental benefits of living off grid, but I’ll admit I wasn’t seeking out ways to live more green. Hopefully our efforts offset the environmental impact of our gas guzzling engines.
Only one item goes in the Neutral zone, and that is homeschool. We didn’t really have a choice here. It wasn’t something we were thrilled to implement, for several reasons. Like most kids, our son seems to more readily internalize advice from anyone besides me and my wife. To add to the mess, my wife and I often struggle to be patient teaching Kalepo.
Now that we’ve been doing it for a few months, it’s getting better. Dolly has taken the lead in teaching, since I work full time and Dolly’s work is more cyclical. We’ve been able to see Kalepo’s progress, and it’s clear he’s learning and progressing. We’re learning not to push him too hard, but instead help him learn to enjoy learning. We still have our moments, and it’s still not super fun, but we see it as a necessary sacrifice to make RV living work, and it’s worth it.
Traveling and seeing new things has also enriched his education. For instance, being able to see a variety of animals and how they live has provided memorable teaching moments for us.
Prepping to start RV living was way more work than I imagined. It took a tremendous amount of research and work to get everything lined up. We needed to make sure we could afford it, figure out how to get mail, learn about RV’s (which we had no experience with), find and buy an RV (and hope we didn’t make an expensive mistake), dealing with the RV loan and transaction was way more work than planned, learning how to use an RV, figuring out how to tow a vehicle, learning how to drive a huge bus, determining which parts to buy for towing, figuring out parts we’d need for the RV, etc, etc. There was so much, and I’m glad it’s behind us.
Finding places to stay
Finding places to park and camp is extremely time consuming. In order for this to work financially, we have to camp in free areas as often as possible. Even if we wanted to camp in parks (which would have been convenient on occasion), RV parks in popular areas are often booked way in advance, which isn’t great for people like us who don’t plan that way.
So, we have to scour the internet looking for free or cheap places to stay. We have to check to make sure:
- We can fit our RV
- Our RV can handle the roads (lots of camping is requires driving on rough roads that are impassible for an RV)
- The area is within strong internet service (so we can work)
- Allows pets
- Allows large pets (some places only allow lap dogs, essentially)
Beyond that, we ideally like places that:
- Have good weather
- Are near great natural wonders
- Allow us to not be surrounded by neighbors
- Aren’t parking lots
- Have services relatively close by (within 30min or so)
Every time we move, we have to go through the entire search process again. It’s not a search process either of us enjoy, so this goes on the con list.
Beyond places to stay, we also spend a lot of time figuring out:
- How to avoid low bridges or overpasses
- Where to shop for groceries
- Where to do laundry
- Where to get gas
- Where to attend church each Sunday
- Where to fill up on fresh water
- Where to dump waste (fortunately, we don’t have to worry about this one anymore thanks to our composting toilet)
I’ve been an Amazon addict for a long time. I love being able to find high quality or obscure items and have it show up 2 days later. On the road, it can be hard to get packages. We have a mail forwarding service that scans our mail, which is awesome, but packages prove to be a bit trickier. There are plenty of articles that dive deeper into the struggle of getting packages on the road, and they are all true.
We were really lucky to start our journey around the time Verizon announced their unlimited data plans. We jumped on that and are pretty happy with how it’s worked out.
Some things just work better over WiFi. You can’t download OS updates on cellular data, and backing up data is often slow.
Also, the internet can be really slow when too many people are using the Verizon network at once. We don’t experience this too often, but when we do, it’s painful. Larger cities are often the worst. Nothing was as bad as Moab, UT during Fall Break. The entire area was packed with people, and there were times we couldn’t even load email or open Google.
For the most part, our internet needs are met. But, from time to time, I miss my WiFi.
So far, I think the pro’s outweigh the cons. We’re still enjoying the experience and we feel like we get more proficient at this lifestyle every day. I’d be lying if I said I enjoy every moment. I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone. But for us, for now, it’s working.