How to Prepare Your New Potjie or Dutch Oven for First Use

Elsewhere on this site, we've reviewed the 10 Best Potjies and Dutch Ovens of 2017. Although it is had to find any special offers on these items, they are usually well-worth the apparently premium price you pay for them. In fact very often the most expensive one is the best deal. To understand why, it is important to recognize that potjies are very much part of the culture of outdoor cooking in hot climates. The name itself is of Dutch/Afrikaans origin and they are very popular in South Africa.

When you buy a potjie pot or Dutch oven - or indeed any heavy, cast-iron pot - it is very rarely ready to use. No matter what the manufacturers say about it being “factory cured” or “pre-seasoned,” it simply isn’t true. It may have industrial oil on it from the manufacturing process. It may have bits of sand stuck to it from the casting process. It may have loose, rough bits of iron on the inner surface. The only exception to this is if the pot is enameled on the inside.

So how do you prepare the potjie or Dutch oven for first use? There are a number of suggested methods. Let’s take a look at them.

The Throwaway Meal Method (with Vegetable Waste)

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Throwaway method with vegetable waste

This is similar to the method that I learned from a South African couple. It basically involves the following steps:

1. Put some water into the pot.

2. Light a fire under the pot.

3. Put a large quantity of potato peelings, vegetable leaves and skins into the pot.

4. Add enough water to almost fill the pot.

5. Simmer away for two to three hours.

6. Throw the water and vegetable waste away.

7. Dry out the pot (when it is cool enough).

8. Rub a very light layer of oil onto the inner surface (to prevent rust) until you are ready to cook your first real meal in the potjie.

The Throwaway Meal Method (with Fatty Meat)

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Throwaway method with fatty meat

This is the actual method that I learned from the South African couple. I am reliably assured that this is the true and authentic method. It is based on the premise that to get the oil out you actually have to use fatty meat, because fatty meat can actually absorb oil better than water or vegetables. It goes like this:

1. Scour the inside of the pot thoroughly with sandpaper.

2. Wash the pot with warm soapy water.

3. Rinse out the soap thoroughly.

4. Dry the pot with a clean towel or thick paper towels.

5. Grease the pot with pork fat (inside and out).

6. Fill the pot to the brim with pig’s trotters or other off cuts containing fat plus vegetable scraps as above.

7. Fill to the brim with water, place the lid on tightly and cook over a low fire for three to four hours, or longer, topping up with water so it is always full.

8. Let the whole thing cool and then discard the food. 

9. Wash the pot with dishwashing liquid and water and rinse it thoroughly.

10. Dry out the pot thoroughly.

11. Rub a very light layer of oil onto the inner surface (to prevent rust) until you are ready to cook your first real meal in the potpie.

The above method involves using soap, which others warn against. However, some say that it is all right to use soap when preparing the pot for first use, but that you shouldn’t use it after that. The curing and cleaning process creates a patina which protects the pot. Using soap will (allegedly) destroy that patina.

You can, of course, modify the above method by using water without soap in stage 2 of the method.

You can in fact apply a thin layer of liquid soap to the OUTSIDE of the pot AFTER you have cleaned it or before you cook with it. This will apparently stop soot building up. Although, the truth of the matter is that soot on the outside is not really a problem - other than maybe an aesthetic one.

The Boiling and Coating Method

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Oil and coating

1. Light the fire (or use a gas burner)

2. Fill the pot with water and add 5-6 tablespoons of salt.

3. Bring the water to the boil and let it simmer for about three hours.

4. Throw away the water but keep the fire going (if you’re using wood or charcoal).

5. Rub a generous amount of oil and salt on to the inner surface of the pot (when it is cool enough for you to do so).

6. Then heat the pot once again and let it get very hot.

7. Remove the pot from the fire and let it cool down.

8. Rinse the pot thoroughly.

9. Rub cooking oil onto the inside of the potl and stuff a newspaper or paper towelling in it to absorb moisture. (This will prevent rust.)

10. Store the pot somewhere dry.

The Oven  Method (NOT Suitable for Large Pots)

Oven method

1. Wash the pot with hot, soapy water using a thick-bristled brush.

2. Rinse it out and dry it thoroughly.

3. Oil it (inside and out) with MELTED solid vegetable fat.

4. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

5. Turn the pot upside down and place it on the top rack of the oven.

6. Put aluminum foil on the bottom rack to catch any excess drippings.

7. Leave there for one hour at 350°F.

8. Turn off the oven and let the pot slowly cool there.

9. Store, uncovered, somewhere dry once it has cooled.

Alternative (Simpler) Oven Method (NOT Suitable for Large Pots)

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Simpler oven method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

2. Apply a coating of cooking oil and salt to the inner surface of the cast iron pot

3. Place the pot in the oven for several minutes.

4. Then turn off the oven and let it cool down.

5. After the pot has cooled, wipe off the oil and salt with a clean paper towel or kitchen cloth.

The act of wiping off the oil and salt from the inner surface leaves a thin layer of non-stick coating. Also any pits or crevices in the pot (left by the sand-casting process) will be filled by the salt and cooking oil mixture.

The Fire-In-The Hole Method

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Fire inside

It’s not actually called that. I just invented that name (or rather appropriated it from the demolition industry) because it seemed so appropriate.

1. Light a wood or charcoal fire inside the pot.

2. Let it burn for a couple of hours.

3. Empty out the ash.

4. Wash the inside of the pot with hot water to clean it out.

5. Dry it thoroughly and then rub a thin coat of oil (or a mixture of oil and salt) on it.

Soon we’ll be bringing you some ideas for what to cook in your potjie - a South African favourite called Potjiekos

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