The Basics of Cauldron Cookery


Step 1: Obtaining the cauldron

Unless your grandmother has a butcher kettle rusting away in her garage, you’ll have to start searching for a cauldron. In this area at least (rural eastern PA, the ‘left atrium of Pennsylvania Dutch Country’, 1994-95), the going price for a used kettle is just over a hundred bucks. Doesn’t matter whether your buy it at auction or at a fleamarket; I’ve only once seen one go for under $80. Then again, you might be able to dupe some witless suburbanite into parting with that rusty hulk of a planter sitting in his yard for under $30.

Check out the kettle before you make a bid. Are the 3 legs intact and firm? Is the handle secure (but see step 4 below. Your kettle is still serviceable without a handle. It even gives you reason to dicker down the price)? Are there deep pits in the iron? Is a kettle stand included (these can go for about 40 bucks, but you won’t often see one). Don’t worry about surface rust unless it’s so far gone the kettle’s good only as a colander. And don’t worry too much about prior repairs either: sometime in the life of my cauldron, one of its legs broke off, and a blacksmith attached a replacement limb. He had to punch a hole through the base to do it, but any competent smith can seal such a wound to prevent leaks. Again, if you have an unknowledgeable seller, you may be able to haggle down the price on this point as well.

Step 2: Bringing it up to snuff

Assuming you bought a kettle that hasn’t seen use since the invention of television, the first thing you’ll want to attend to is the rust. Don’t even think about wire-brushing it. You really want to work on the rings and that handle? Take it to a sandblaster. They’re listed in the yellow pages. Really. But you may do even better if you take it to a local mason. Frequently they have a sandblaster on hand, and if you can lug the kettle to his site in the back of your VW, it may cost you all of 5 bucks for his 25+ minutes of labour to get all the rust removed. And don’t worry about the exterior. You’re just gonna soot it up anyway.

Step 3: Care and maintenance

A garden hose, a plastic brush and some detergent is all you should need to clean it. You should never (well, almost never) use steel wool on any of your iron. Scrub out any remaining grit or sand from the interior. Dry it thoroughly (which is to say, do this on a sunny day). Were it any other iron cooking implement, you’d now coat your piece with a thin layer of grease (I use vegetable oil out of habit, but you could use lard) and heat it very gently, over a heat, just warm enough to open the pores to let the oil seep in. But with a piece this large, you’ll never be able to get an even heat. I know, I tried: even over a small fire, the base of the empty kettle got so hot, the grease incinerated completely off the bottom, while the sides got only warm. So grease the interior lightly to prevent it from rusting, but forget about heating it.

Step 4: Preparation for cooking

There are three ways to support your kettle over a fire. One: sitting on a kettle-stand (a 3-legged iron ring which raises your kettle about a foot from the ground). Two: a platform of bricks or cinderblocks under each leg. Three: hanging it by its handle from a tripod. Kettle-stands are wonderfully handy but not cheap. You’re not likely to stumble across a used one (but check out that suburbanite with the planter), and a new one will flatten your wallet by about as much as your kettle. Bricks and/or cinderblocks are easily transportable, if heavy, but the stability of the set-up doesn’t inspire confidence: to bring a kettle 12 inches off the ground, you’ll need a stack of five bricks under each leg (though I’ve gotten away with 4) and the firewood gets awfully cramped in there. One log tumbles too forcefully into those bricks, and you’ve got one helluva mess, not to mention no meal.

Your third option is a tripod: three steel poles (check your local plumber’s scrap pile for discarded inch-thick galvanized steel pipes), secured at the top by a chain or other fastener, and from the apex of which hangs another length of chain which ends in the hook that holds the handle of your kettle. As long as you have two strong men and an equally strong two-by-four to support the kettle while you readjust the support chain, a tripod is the only set-up that lets your change the distance of the cauldron from the fire source while you’re cooking.

We recommend you use a lid with your cauldron. You might not be able to finely control the heat under your kettle with a wood fire, but a lid will help you control how much of the heat is retained. If you use a kettle stand, you can use an oversized lid, but if you hang your cauldron by its bail, you need a lid that covers the diameter of the kettle but isn’t so wide that it cuts into the bail lift. You may have only half an inch of leeway. Which says don’t purchase an off-the-shelf lid. Make some measurements and call a local tinsmith. He’ll find the task an interesting diversion, and you’ll gain an inexpensive perfectly-fitting topper. While galvanized tin is much sturdier, it’s not food-safe over heat. Have him stick to regular tin; he can fashion a ring around the base to add rigidity.


Mind you, these are 1995 prices, not 2010.

While we cannot vouch for their price or quality, in 2010 brand-new cast iron kettles, stands, and tripods are available from vendors of Amish goods like Lehman’s of Ohio and repro casters like Cypremort and Krazy Kajun Cookware out of Louisiana.