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The Portable Pantry

Now We're Really Cooking!
Paddlers Reveal the Secrets of Their Kitchen Packs

By Tamia Nelson Lightweight v Heavyweight Bout

October 14, 2014

Tendrils of mist rise from a nearby falls. Drifts of scarlet and yellow leaves carpet the water. A sweet, subtle reek of rot hangs in the air along the riverbank, simultaneously enticing and repelling, like the smell of strongly flavored cheese. Back in camp, the scents of fresh‑brewed coffee and woodsmoke commingle — an evocative perfume. And now that the sometimes oppressive heat of the Canoe Country summer has waned, it's no hardship to spend time next to a wood fire when making dinner. The warmth of the glowing coals is most welcome, and the evening chill serves to sharpen my appetite for such hearty fare as hot bannock, substantial soups, and baked desserts. Which helps to explain why every fall sees me revisiting the Age of Iron. Cast iron, to be exact.

Some time back, in an article titled "Out of the Frying Pan," I tallied the virtues of cast‑iron and nonstick aluminum skillets, contrasting the merits of the Ancien Régime with those of the Young Pretender. And I invited readers to do the same:

Camp cookery flowered in an age of cast iron (and iron men), when a well‑seasoned black iron skillet was the camp cook's best friend. But we've moved on since then. And nonstick aluminum appeals to many paddlers today. What about you? Are you an Iron Age anachronism or a thoroughly modern miss (or mister)?

Not surprisingly, a number of you accepted my invitation to make your druthers known. In fact, I got enough mail to warrant a follow‑up column. So here it is, beginning with …

A Vote for Heirloom Cast Iron

One of cast iron's advantages is its longevity. If properly cared for (and not dropped on a riverbank rock), it lasts as near forever as anything made by human hands. I'm still using my great‑grandmother's Griswold Dutch oven, and I mentioned this in my earlier article. That prompted Gaia to write:

I love cast iron. When my mom died, her cast-iron pan was like satin inside. My dad went out in his homemade boat and caught lake trout, cut it into "steaks," and my mom fried them on the cookstove. I had a cookstove in my house and even had cast-iron bread pans; I now have a cast-iron pizza pan. I know it's heavy, but it's satisfying to use. I do have aluminum pans with "plastic" coatings for some jobs, however, and I must admit taking them on some trips.

As do I. Affection may bow to convenience without apology when the occasion demands. But affection endures. Of course, durability and family history aren't the only reasons that cast iron has won the hearts of paddlers like Gaia. Cast iron is also versatile. In short, …

Cast Iron Can Turn its Hand to Almost Any Kitchen Chore

John Veasey offers an excellent illustration of this:

Cast iron is my preference. My collection, quite extensive for a man, does not go as far back as yours, but covers pots and assorted frying pans. The frying pans include two four-inch square ones (one is enameled), one four-incher with a borrowed lid, a seven-inch round pan with bevelled sides, a 10-inch square pan, and both 10-inch and 12-inch round skillets. Also, I have a collection of four wood-handled pots with lids, a cornbread baking pan, a muffin pan, a biscuit pan, and a Dutch oven. I have two casserole pans and one small oval enamel dish with lid, too. Oh, I almost forgot about my cast-iron wok. I may have left out a few, since I don't use them all.

When camping, I usually take one four-inch square frying pan, the seven-inch round pan, and one or two stainless steel pots. They will usually fill most of my camping needs. I don't mind the extra weight since most of my paddling/camping is in a canoe and usually going downstream on small creeks or rivers. All my portages are very short compared to my northern counterparts. I just don't like the extra work off the water. My favorite area for camping and paddling is northern Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Clearly, John and I are of a mind where cast‑iron cookware is concerned, even if I can't match his collection. But I'd also second his cautionary words about the "extra weight" of cast‑iron pans: Canoeists and kayakers whose favorite routes require them to spend almost as much time walking as paddling have good reason to look for alternatives to the "black stuff." And these alternatives often inspire equally strong loyalties in their users, too. Consider …

The Venerable Woody

That's the Woody cast‑aluminum Dutch oven. And Michael Gray, a frequent contributor to's GuideLines, is a fan, as you'll soon see:

There's another piece of cookware I'd like to share with you: the "Woody" cast-aluminum Dutch oven. It's lighter [than cast iron], easy to season, and square for easy portioning. Both halves serve as cookware for stir fries, saucepans, griddles, fish fryers or together as a baking pan to bake virtually anything. It conducts heat even better than your venerable old Griswold (really, I know, almost blasphemous), nests into itself, is extremely nonstick and functions as well on a camp stove as it does over coals. I may have had a hand in designing it -- Rocky Kimball and I redesigned the original to work better for our purposes, and with permission from the Woodruffs, Rocky has them produced in Michigan -- but I wouldn't leave home without it even if I hadn't had a hand in the design, unless I'm flying to Greenland or the like.

I must confess that I've never owned a Woody. Nor have I ever jetted off to Greenland, though I think it would be great fun to sail to Kap Farvel in a Colin Archer double‑ender. But I did use a heavy‑gauge spun aluminum Dutch oven for many years, and there's a copy of Woody Woodruff's cookbook on a shelf not two feet from my writing desk. It's a bit grease‑stained — a cookbook, if it's used at all, seldom stays pristine for long — but at least I don't need to dust it!

A Well-Used Cookbook

Michael's mention of the Woody also reminds me that it's easy to overplay the idea that cast iron and aluminum are locked in some sort of fight to the death for fireside dominance. In truth, most camp cooks are both pragmatic and eclectic when outfitting their kitchen packs, and sooner or later, they end up owning …

A Bit of Everything

Just ask Jerry:

Waaayyyy back when the wife and kids and I were young and strong, we took a lot of canoe trips up north in Ontario. When portages were few and short, we took a Lodge 10-inch Dutch oven or a combo-cooker along. My little pretty made fresh bread every day in the Dutch oven (used Spruance bread mix -- no bread machines or mixes back then). Real yeast raisin bread with sesame seeds on top. Sometimes baked with briquettes, sometimes with coals from the supper fire. Smucker's peanut butter and jelly squeezed from Gerry tubes. Mmm mmm good! The lid [of the Dutch oven] was used as a fry pan for bacon and eggs, pancakes, and the like.

The combo-cooker is a three-quart pot with a lid that also doubles as a fry pan. When we were not going to bake bread, the combo was a bit lighter, but had no feet or ridge on the lid to hold coals. Mostly the Dutch oven went along. Extra virgin olive oil makes the best seasoning. Yeah, we also took an eight-inch cast-iron fry pan for a second pot kinda thing.

We lined the oven with foil to do fish. Shake 'n Bake'd fish always went down well. (You need the foil so the fish doesn't get into the iron pores.) Or we used a Sigg Tourist cooker for the rest. A double boiler kind of thing that used a naked Svea 123R for the heat source. I still have both, and still use them occasionally. An Optimus 8R made the second burner -- little brother to the 111B, the 8R is better than the Svea 123R to set pots and pans on. Usually that eight-inch cast iron frying pan. I can't tell you how many meals I have cooked or cups of Swiss Miss I've made on that little 8R! I even have the mini-pump for it for winter use. Slips over a special tank cap. That Sigg cooker was not coated with anything. If I was still going to use it for anything that sticks, I would have it hard-anodized.

Which gets to the issue of aluminum. You need to explore good, thick, black, hard-anodized frying pans and pots. Teflon is soft. Anodizing is aluminum oxide -- they make sandpaper out of it, and it's verryyy hard and tough! I have since bought a couple of these at Walmart, with lids, too, and they are great. You need thick metal to distribute the heat to avoid hot spots. Lightly coat with olive oil or other cooking oil before use. You can put these in a dishwasher and not worry about the coating or seasoning. You can even find them with folding handles if you look. Just remember that the frying pan wants to be a good 332-18 inch thick. Thickerer is mo' betta here.

I, too, once owned a Sigg Tourist cooker. (And an Optimus 111B.) Both are long gone, though. I miss them. The Sigg cooker was a thing of rare beauty, proof that mass‑produced items can still be elegant. The Optimus cooker I now own, while functionally equivalent to the Sigg in many respects, simply can't match the Sigg's high standard of fit and finish:


Optimus on the Rocks


And don't get me started about the Optimus 111B! It was a bulky load and a heavy burden, to be sure, and the burner roared like a catapult‑launched F‑18 on takeoff. But it brought water to a boil faster than any kitchen stove I've ever used, and the sturdy pot supports accommodated heavy cast‑iron pans with ease. I wish it were still being made.

OK. Like the Sigg Tourist and the Optimus 111B, cast iron engenders strong feelings, and elicits deep affection. But sometimes …

Too Much of a Good thing Is Just Too Much

Barney Ward — paddler, cyclist, and self‑styled Meanderthal — spends much of the year exploring the waters and wildlands of the American Southwest. He's about as hardy as they come, but the passage of time leaves its mark on us all, even the hardiest among us. And it's forced Barney to rethink his batterie de cuisine:

Your article on cast-iron skillets was good. However, for my situation cast iron is not a good choice. My mother was a big cast iron fan so I have lots of experience with it. Some folks like me reach a point in their lives where the arthritis in the fingers makes cast iron virtually impossible to use. Two years or so ago I purchased an eight-inch cast-iron skillet. I made two attempts at cooking [with it]. It was so heavy that when I tried to move it with my left hand, my fingers could not hold the pan up. It took two hands to move it on the stovetop. Washing was just as big a pain. So it was soon donated to a campground owner who did a lot of outdoor cooking on a wood-fueled grill.

Now I do nearly all my cooking in a three-quart aluminum pot. It certainly keeps the heat around the food well, contains splatters very well, and simmers stews well also. It is the T-fal brand of heavy aluminum. This pot and all my cookware have nonstick surfaces. For one thing, it saves on water when cleaning, and water supply can be critical at times out here in the increasingly arid Southwest, though it is very important to use "Scotch-Brite" or equivalent pads that are intended for use on nonstick surfaces. (The regular pads are what I used to use to remove the chrome on golf club shafts to get a good surface for the glue. They are very abrasive.) I have tried two of the thinner coated pots of aluminum. They definitely fell very short in the cooking ability category.

I can sympathize with Barney. In fact, I can do more than that. The years I spent paddling boisterous, icy rivers ungloved (not to mention hanging from frozen waterfalls by my fingernails in subzero temperatures) have taken their toll. Now I have to limit the demands I make of my hands. I can do just so much in any 24‑hour period — so much and no more. The upshot? I curb my use of heavy cast‑iron cookware on days when I've got a full program of paddling, carpentry, or hauling ahead of me.

Barney also convinced me to substitute a pot for a skillet now and then, with a view toward containing splatter. It works. No surprise there. The Meanderthal knows whereof he speaks. And he has the last word.

A Watched Pot

Camp cooks have strong feelings about the tools of their trade. Some cling to Iron Age relics. Others embrace the latest high‑tech materials. And still others reinvent old standbys, working tirelessly to bring them up to date. For years I've passed along my own prejudices, but I figured it's high time that readers took center stage. And this week that's just what you've done. Now we're really cooking!


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