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Portable Pantry

Cast-Iron Joy

By Tamia Nelson

October 28, 2003

Ask any group of cooks what their favorite kitchen tool is, and you'll probably get as many answers as there are cooks. We foodies are fickle, too. My batterie de cuisine has evolved over many years, but it still changes with almost every trip. I started out with a Boy Scout cook kit borrowed from my brother. Later, I moved up to classy spun-aluminum Sigg pots, and to skillets lined with every conceivable kind of non-stick coating. And I didn't stop there. I've carried folding toasters and portable grills, quaint little tea kettles that wouldn't look out of place on a hobbit's table, and sophisticated coffee makers with enough pumps and filters to force a smile from the lips of a NASA engineer. Sometimes I've hauled so much clutter that it threatened to sink an XL Tripper, yet at other times I've ventured out with nothing more than a military surplus canteen cup, a soup spoon, and a sheath knife.

"Fickle" is uncomfortably close to the truth, I guess. But some things never change. No matter how much I've come to like my copper-bottomed stainless steel billies or my non-stick spun-aluminum frying pan, they'll never find a place as near to my heart as my ancient 10" cast-iron skillet. Sure, the slick new stuff is lightweight. And, yes, it's easy to pack. But efficiency isn't everything. My skillet is an old and trusted friend. It's crusted with a rich, black non-stick coating all its own, built up over many years and maintained with loving care. I use it every week at home, and it's baked more bannocks in the backcountry than I can remember.

Still, I'm not so besotted that I'm willing to ignore practicality altogether. Notwithstanding its heft, cast iron is surprisingly efficient. It won't warp even in the hottest fire. Better still, it holds that heat for a long, long time. And nothing in my cook kit is more versatile. I've used it for everything from frying fresh-caught trout to crisping an apple tart. It's been my backcountry companion for more than a quarter-century now, and unless I drop it on a rock, it'll be good for at least another 25 years. I hope I can say the same about myself.

OK. Cast iron has its faults. But then again, who's perfect? And its shortcomings are pretty small beer. A cast-iron pot is a poor choice if you're planning on simmering a tomato sauce. (The acidic sauce leaches iron from the pot. This doesn't improve the flavor.) But aluminum's not so great here, either. It, too, is vulnerable to acid attack. Does this mean you'll have to forgo drizzling lemon juice over a frying fish, or adding a splash of red wine to beef stroganoff? Not at all. It takes a lot more than that to do any damage. Just avoid long, slow cooking with high-acid foods and you'll be fine.

Iron will get into any food cooked in an cast-iron vessel, of course. Is this something you need to worry about? Probably not. Iron poisoning is uncommon, and most cases apparently involve children who've accidently ingested large quantities of iron supplements. A little extra iron in the diet may even benefit some women. The trace amounts that leach from cast-iron cookware can help to protect them from "iron deficiency" anemia. Still worried? Then play it safe: ask your doctor.

And, no, I haven't let love blind me to cast iron's other drawbacks. It is heavy. My cast-iron skillet weighs nearly five pounds, and it's simply too large for most portable stoves. When conditions are right for a wood fire, though, nothing can touch my old friend.

Caring for cast iron on the trail also takes some thought, but it's mostly common sense. You don't want to wrap a cast-iron skillet in your sleeping bag, for instance. I slip mine into a paper grocery sack first, then cover it with a sturdy plastic bag. The paper gets pretty oily, but this helps keep the skillet from rusting. I dry it carefully after cleaning it, too. At trail's end, back at home, I store all my cast-iron cookware where air can circulate freely around it.

In fact, much of the work associated with cast iron is best done at home. Seasoning is the key to making cast iron perform, and it's not hard to do. When you get a new cast-iron skillet (or pot, come to that), pour a few teaspoons of liquid COOKING oil — I use corn oil — into the pan, then spread it over the entire surface, both inside and out. Use a piece of paper towel or a small square of clean cloth as an applicator. Once that's done, heat the pan in a 350°F oven for an hour or so. After it cools off, mop up any excess oil. That's all there is to it, though the process is really a never-ending one. Your skillet will season further each time you use it. Before long, it will acquire a rich, black "varnish." Don't scour this off. Not only will it protect the skillet from rust, but a well seasoned cast-iron skillet is nearly as "non-stick" as any miracle of modern technology. Some folks are so proud of the finish on their cast-iron cookware that they refuse to wash it at all. You needn't go this far, however. Just go easy on the elbow grease.

Cooking with cast iron may require a bit of an attitude adjustment, too, particularly if you're fat averse. While it's certainly not necessary to deep fry everything — this mistake has ruined more than a few shore lunches! — you can't expect to get good results without adding some fat or oil to the pan. Fortunately, a little goes a long way. A thin film is usually enough for making pancakes, browning potatoes, cooking fish, or baking bannock. You're really sautéing, after all, and not frying. Be sure to use an oil that has a high burning point, though. Good choices include corn, canola (rapeseed), or peanut oils. Save the butter for your bannock. It burns at too low a temperature.

Technique's also important. Let's assume it's your first night out, and you're treating yourself to plump hamburgers, made from ground beef that you picked up on the drive to the put-in. Heat your skillet first, but don't add any oil yet. How hot is hot enough? There are no controls or thermostats on a wood fire, so you'll need a rough and ready measure. Allow a single drop of water to fall on the pan. (Logging-camp cooks simply spat, and few loggers dared to complain. Cookie's word was law in camp.) If the drop immediately beads up and dances across the surface before disappearing, your skillet is ready. Don't let it get any hotter. CAUTION: If the pan is smoking, it's already too hot.

Once your skillet has reached working temperature, add the oil. Usually a tablespoon or so will be more than enough. Now let it heat for a minute or two. When the oily film starts to shimmer, it's hot enough. Don't allow it to smoke, and never add water to hot oil. If you do, you'll have a steam explosion, and probably suffer a few burns into the bargain. Can't see any shimmer? Then drop a very small piece of raw hamburger into the pan. If it bubbles and sizzles vigorously, all is well.

Next, place your burgers in the pan. They'll sizzle robustly. Let them. Resist the temptation to play with your food. Smashing a hamburger flat does not improve it. Once the first side has browned, use a spatula to lift the burgers and turn them over. Easy does it! Now let them cook till done. (Move the pan as necessary to keep the temperature constant.) I usually cover the skillet with the lid from a large aluminum pot at this point, leaving only a small gap for steam to escape. Other cooks prefer to keep the meat under direct observation, even if that means having to dodge the occasional splatter of hot fat. The choice is yours.

When your burgers are cooked through, remove the skillet from the fire and serve. If any sticky bits cling to the bottom, wait for the pan to cool somewhat, and then put a small amount of water in the still-warm skillet. By the time you're ready to wash up, the cooked-on scraps of meat will come away easily.

Ah, yes. Washing up. The inevitable end of every meal. Like I said, I wash my skillet with the other dishes. I don't scour it, though. There's only one exception to this rule. If (when) small rust spots appear, I polish them with fine steel wool and re-treat the spot with cooking oil. Only when rust becomes a recurring problem, or food begins to stick badly, do I re-season the pan.


Cast iron isn't for everyone, of course, nor is it suited to every trip. I don't take it on sea kayaking jaunts, and it wouldn't be my first choice for a marathon weekend of pond hopping. Whenever I'm traveling at a leisurely pace in a big boat, though, my skillet always comes along for the ride. I guess this makes me an old-timer at heart. And it puts me in pretty good company. My Adirondack guide grandfather would have had no use for titanium pots. He even regarded aluminum with suspicion. In his view, oatmeal and beans tasted best when they came out of a coffee-can billy, and nothing fried up a mess of fish like cast iron. I didn't agree with him about the oatmeal and beans, but when it was time for a shore lunch of freshly-caught trout, we never argued. That's the joy of cast iron.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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