Can this Dutch oven be saved?
July 16, 2015 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I let my Dutch oven get really, really gross. Can I safely return it to usable condition?

(Warning: gross) For reasons I'd rather not get into, I let a nice enameled cast iron Dutch oven sit in my fridge, full of food, for a year and a half. When I finally went to deal with it today, it was so moldy and gross that I rage-quit and threw it away. I figured that it was better to toss it than expose my roommates and our communal sink to a spray of germs while I attempted to clean the thing.

But now I'm racked with guilt for chucking it. I really feel awful about it. Should I dig it out of the trash and try to clean it? What kind of nasties am I up against here, and what kind of precautions should I take to get this back to usable condition without turning my sink into a biohazard zone? I really have no idea what kind of horrors can incubate for over a year, and what it would take to eradicate them. I'd really like to keep this thing, but not if it's going to be a health hazard.

Nota bene: I 100% realize that I could be overreacting, and I definitely learned my lesson about cleaning out the fridge...
posted by delight to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't throw it out, but I am extremely cheap and not at all germ-phobic. I would probably, if possible, wash it out with the hose in the yard before bringing it into the sink, where I would wash it in hot water and rub the cast iron surface with a mixture of oil and salt as many times as it took to get it looking and smelling better. Then I'd let it sit, oiled, for a day or two and repeat. I think the key here is to wash the actual moldy grossness off outside if at all possible.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 11:20 PM on July 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

What kind of food was it? What was the condition of the enamel when the food was originally cooked? It would have to be pretty amazing food or amazing decay to get through enameled iron/steel. Even with a year and a half to work on it, I'd be really surprised if after a good cleaning it left an indelible mark.

When I'm cleaning something fermented, moldy, or otherwise gross, my biggest biohazard-like concern is mold spores. In general, I've not encountered anything truly toxic (from a skin-contact or inhalable or smelly standpoint) and even when I've accidentally inhaled spores and odors or touched decayed food slime, the experience was mostly just gross or unpleasant.

My recommendation would be to scrape out the majority of the decay into the trash or compost, then work with lots of soap and water and sponge or scrubby things to get the rest out. If you're feeling extra creeped out by the situation, use kitchen gloves.

If you are still concerned about cleanliness after a thorough cleaning with soap and water, you could try sterilizing by roasting the cookware in an oven at high heat. Most enamel Dutch ovens are rated for 400F - 450F, so don't go highest heat or broil, but you can sterilize the cookware that way.

If after you clean it you find that the inside enamel is chipped, you may want to have a look at this advice. (TL;DR: There's some debate on what to do if enamel chips; some cooks throw the piece away and some treat the exposed metal and keep cooking with it.)

Whatever happens, good luck! But keep in mind that many cooks and chefs use and reuse their cookware as long as it remains whole and functional, no matter what nasty things happen inside the vessels.
posted by kalessin at 11:23 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would totally clean the pot. Scrape it out (outside in the fresh air if it's really that gross), soak in hot water, rinse and repeat.

If there is food hard caked on to the enamel, don't chip it off or use a harsh scrubber - it will damage the enamel. If the soaking doesn't work, the nuclear option is to empty the pot, add a couple of tablespoons of bicarb soda, a squirt of dishwashing liquid, a couple of tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide, and a little water. Mix and heat gently until it starts foaming. Use a wooden spoon to prod the caked-on goo and it will lift off. You might need to repeat once or twice if the food is carbonised on, but this will return every pretty crap enamel to something approaching new.
posted by ninazer0 at 11:35 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't feel bad, I have a marvelous set of high end cookware (including several Le Creuset pieces) that have been rescued over the years from thrift stores where they were sent after their owners tossed them rather than clean them. You are not the only person who has rage quit their dutch oven.

So to rescue your pot, get a tall kitchen trash bag (those stretchy kind are ideal) and position your pot inside in the bag, nearish to the open end. Tie shut the bag opening with a rubber band. Then, with the bagged pot resting on its side, from the outside of the bag, use your hands* to gently shovel as much of the solids out of the pan and into the slack, inner reaches of the bag. Once you feel like you've gotten all the chunks out, add another rubber band (or string) between the chunks and your pot. Laid out in a line of sausages, it would be [sealed end of trash bag > gross stuff > rubber band or string > pot > rubber band > bag's open end ]. Unseal the open end of the bag to get your pot out: if you're super worried about spores, you can hold the bag's end in a tub of soapy water while pulling off the rubber band so the pot never hits open air.

Let it soak overnight to soften up any dried up parts, then follow the above advice re using soft scrubbers and gentle cleaners.

*This will feel only as gross as you allow your imagination to get. Remember, the bag is a barrier to scent and sight of the pot's contents so for all you know, it's Play-doh in there. Just stay calm and think "Play-doh." I advise using your hands rather than a utensil to minimize the chances of getting a rip in the bag.
posted by jamaro at 11:58 PM on July 16, 2015 [23 favorites]

Enameled cast iron is amazingly resilient. Pull it out of the trash and follow jamaro's instructions. Even if it's not as beautiful as when you bought it, you'll still have a lifetime's use out of it.
posted by trip and a half at 12:14 AM on July 17, 2015

I went on vacation for a month and when I got home, I realized I accidentally left coffee in my coffee pot the whole time and it got super moldy and gross. I considered never using it again and just going to Starbucks from now on. But I just disinfected the hell out of it with various antibacterial soaps and I even used Lysol. Then, of course, I had to rinse it very thoroughly so I wasn't drinking chemical cleaning products either. I scrubbed it a bunch and ran it through the dishwasher twice.

That said, if you don't want the thing and won't use it, just throw it out. It's like when I feel bad about throwing out that shirt I bought but never wore. The thing is, I never wear it and I won't wear it! What would holding onto it and continuing to not wear it do? If you already let that thing sit in your fridge for a year and a half, maybe you don't actually want or need a dutch oven?
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:23 AM on July 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I would, and have, just thrown things away like this when I got lazy about something or forgot about something. I feel like it's worth the peace of mind knowing that you don't have that thing just hanging out in your life anymore, shaming you and making you feel like you messed up. Also, I would think about it every time I used it afterwards. (My imagination is vast and unfettered 98% of the time.)

I think it's ultimately up to how much effort you want to put into salvaging something that you lived without for a year and a half.
posted by Merinda at 12:26 AM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would toss it just because I'm squicked out by this sort of thing and would never feel like it's was ever truly clean. Also, a new one costs $60 on Amazon, which isn't nothing, but doesn't seem worth torturing yourself over.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 2:35 AM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would clean it, unless the enamel is crackled and broken. When I've burned things into my Dutch oven I've soaked it in boiling water and Oxi Clean - the laundry stain remover, not the generic Oxi Clean - and a squirt of dish soap. The next day all the yuck has just rinsed away, and then I've run it on a hot cycle through the dishwasher (I know you're not meant to, but I've been doing this for years and the Dutch oven (a cheapie from Aldi) is good as new.
posted by essexjan at 3:34 AM on July 17, 2015

Enamel is used precisely because it doesn't absorb food/spoilage and doesn't interact chemically with its contents. It's fine under there..

I came to this thread because I thought you had years of baked-on discolored grease to remove -- that's difficult, and I could use some advice on that kind of thing myself. But moldy food? That should come out very easily.

Please don't just throw something out because it _contains_ something unpleasant. The container may not cost much $$, but a lot of water and energy were used to create it -- a _lot_ of energy and water. Cast iron? Enamel? These substances don't just appear magically.

Even if you have a psychological block against using it yourself again, someone else will be very happy to get it, and could get decades of use from it. It will be fine even after many such mishaps. That's why we make things out of cast iron and enamel in the first place.
posted by amtho at 6:57 AM on July 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

Yeah, seconding everybody who says clean it, sanitize it, and use it if the enamel is intact.

If you want some real peace of mind about it, after you've cleaned/washed/scrubbed it thoroughly, pour two inches boiling water in the thing and put it in your oven at 500 degrees for three hours. Pull it out carefully, carefully pour the water down the drain, and let the thing cool and dry. That is as clean and safe as when it came out of the factory.
posted by gauche at 7:15 AM on July 17, 2015

I feel your pain. I gave away a new BBQ when I found a family of rats set up household in it on the grates. I'm sure a lot of bleach, scrubbing and high heat would have made it good as new, but I knew what was living in there and I couldn't bring myself to eat something cooked on it. The person I gave it to was fully informed and had no qualms about using it after a good cleaning. So I agree with those above, if you don't want to use it after cleaning, someone else will! It doesn't sound trash worthy unless whatever was in there ate through the enamel.
posted by cecic at 7:49 AM on July 17, 2015

Enamel on the outside or enamel on the inside? Because if it's just enameled on the outside you could clean it really well with Barkeepers Friend and then put it in the oven with a coating of vegetable oil for 30 min at 375 and it would be totally OK. Enamel on the inside is a little more difficult and will be gross looking forever after but safe after a good couple scrubbings with baking soda.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:53 AM on July 17, 2015

For those waiting with bated breath:

I dug it out of the trash (the dumpster, no less). I poked around in there with vinyl gloves until I heard the familiar clatter of my abandoned cookware. I then put it in 3 or 4 garbage bags and put it in the freezer; my roommates are setting up for a big party at our place and I don't want to horrify them with my little biology experiment.

I really couldn't have done this without your encouragement, and I welcome further cleaning suggestions.

Vive Le Creuset!
posted by delight at 9:03 AM on July 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

years of baked-on discolored grease to remove

Boil water in the pot (or if the staining is on the outside of the pot, boil water in a pot big enough to hold the stained pot), add 2 tablespoons of baking soda/quart of water, simmer. I like to drop a cube of melamine foam (Magic Eraser) in there and use a wooden spoon to nudge the sponge across the pot's surface while it's simmering.
posted by jamaro at 9:43 AM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes! You're gonna love this thing so much more now you've saved it!
posted by Namlit at 12:23 PM on July 17, 2015

Is it.. still in the freezer?
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

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