I think I alluded to my (obsession) love for cast iron in a past post about camp kitchen cookware. Cast iron is so amazing, pieces are often passed down through family generations; I know of one family who still has and uses a cast iron frying pan their ancestors immigrated with in the late 1800’s. I’ve only had mine for 10 years; my mother has a set of cast iron from when her mother was a child.
Although it is usually quite heavy (it’s made of iron after all), it travels well and requires very little cleaning and upkeep. Today I will cover two main cast iron pieces you may want in your camp kitchen: the all-purpose skillet and the Dutch oven.
Bare cast-iron vessels have been used for cooking for hundreds of years. Before the kitchen stove started being used in the middle of the 19th century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace and cooking pots and pans were designed for use in the high heat and flames there. A commonly used cast iron cooking pan, called a spider, had a handle and three legs used to stand up in the coals and ashes of the fire. Cooking pots and pans with legless, flat bottoms were designed when cooking stoves became popular; this period of the late 19th century saw the introduction of the flat cast iron skillet, which is very similar to the pan we still use today. I can cook anything in my skillet. Scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits for breakfast? No problem. Beef Stroganoff hash for lunch? Absolutely. And I’ll even fix steaks, sauté veggies and do an apple brown Betty…all in my well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
The Dutch system of using dry sand to make their molds for cast metal cooking vessels was more advanced than the English in the late 17th century. This process gave their pots a smoother surface, making them a very popular import in Britain. Someone from England went to the Netherlands, studied the process, and went on to patent the process in Britain; he started producing pieces for his home country and her Colonies. Over the years, the Dutch oven used in the American colonies began to change. The pot became shallower and legs were added to hold the oven above the coals. A flange was added to the lid to keep the coals on the lid and out of the food. Although the casting process has changed over the centuries, the term “Dutch” oven has remained strong since the 1700’s. Dutch ovens can be used for boiling, baking, frying, stews, roasting and pretty much any other use. My father-in-law recently made a camp pot roast with root veggies in his Dutch oven; Scouts have a long list of Dutch oven recipes (I would LOVE to have a Boy Scout cookbook! hint, hint).
There is no doubt cast iron is perfect camp kitchen gear. If you do not have any pieces of your own, I recommend the Lodge Company. They are tried-and-true. Yes, they can be pricey, but if you care for your pieces properly, you will get back your investment ten-fold. Let’s look at seasoning and care procedures….
When you get your new piece of cast iron, you will want to season it. First, wash it in very hot water and a stiff brush. Do not use soap of any kind, as the pores of the iron will just soak up the soap. I dry my iron in the oven, but some people will tell you not to do this because the iron can crack; it has never happened to me in 30 years of seasoning. When your iron is dry, apply a thin layer of some source of fat. If you use oil, use vegetable-based oil over an animal-fat base; the animal fat will turn your iron rancid and can ruin the piece over time. (I prefer to use vegetable shortening for this job, or, for my skillets, I tend to bake high-fat peanut butter cookies.) After you have applied the oil heat your piece over medium heat or bake it at about 350F (check manufacturer instructions). Over time your iron will develop a non-stick surface.
Again, do not use soap when washing your cast iron. To that end, do not put your piece in a dishwasher. If you must use water, make sure it is clean hot water and use a stiff brush to scrub the piece. Unless I have cooked something super-messy in my cast iron, I just wipe it out with a couple of paper towels. An old camping friend of mine just lets the food burn right off his pieces; he turns the cookware upside down on the campfire until the food is gone. I don’t recommend this method but I do think it’s interesting.
Cast iron has and will continue to be a mainstay in American cooking and camping. Do you have a piece you absolutely love? Tell us about it in the comments section!