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The Portable Pantry

Out of the Frying Pan — Is This the End of the Iron Age? Who's on Top?

By Tamia Nelson

April 16, 2013

Frying pan or skillet? That's up to you. But whatever you call it, if you cook in camp, you probably find it indispensable. I know I do — on most trips, at any rate. And how do I use it? Let me count the ways. Sautéing meat and fish. Cooking pancakes and eggs (scrambled or fried, it makes no difference). Preparing hot sandwiches. Stir‑frying veggies. Making skillet pasta or rasta, along with a profusion of other rice dishes. Baking personal pan‑sized skillet pizzas and minipizzas, not to mention breadstuffs like flatbread and bannock and baked treats like skillet cookies, apple crisp, and brownies.

The upshot? Unless you're a spartan minimalist, it's a safe bet that you have a skillet in your kitchen pack. But which kind? Most outfitters give you a choice between cast iron and aluminum. (The latter usually sports a nonstick coating. If it doesn't, it's not worth considering.) And the big‑box retailers follow suit. Steel skillets also make their appearance from time to time, but they don't stay in the catalogs for long. And I think I know why. Steel makes great bike frames, and steel‑clad aluminum cookware has quite a following among professional chefs, but the steel camping skillets I've used have been disasters. Even my beautiful Sigg steel skillet proved temperamental. No matter how much care I took to season it, and how much oil I used, food still stuck. (Have you found the secret to cooking on steel? If so, please let me know.)

So it's down to two: cast iron and nonstick‑coated aluminum. I own both, but which is better? It's not an easy question to answer. Let's begin by looking at …

Cast‑Iron and Aluminum Skillets, Side by Side

First, though, I'd better declare an interest, as they say in government circles. My heart belongs to cast iron. The oldest item in my batterie de cuisine is my great‑grandmother's Griswold Dutch oven. In it, she prepared the cabbage stew which kept her family fed through the Great Depression, and more than 80 years later, it's still going strong. By contrast, my 10‑inch Wagner cast‑iron skillet is just 30 years old, while his little brother, an eight‑incher, is also his junior in years, being only 20. Having crossed continents and oceans in its youth, my great‑grandmother's Dutch oven now stays at home, but both cast‑iron skillets are regularly called up for field service. Each is a seasoned campaigner, in other words.

As much as I love cast iron, however, it doesn't do everything well. In fact, there are some things it doesn't do well at all. Which is why, some years back, I bought an aluminum GSI Outdoors skillet with a nonstick, heat‑resistant plastic liner. It also boasts a folding handle — a great convenience when it comes time to pack up. And it's not just a one‑trick pony. While it's sold as a camping skillet, it does occasional duty in my home kitchen, too.

You can see the GSI and the smaller of my two Wagner cast‑iron skillets in the photo at the head of this column. (The larger Wagner only goes along on group outings.) They're roughly comparable in size and depth. But that's where the resemblance ends. Before we pit them against each other, though, let's take a few minutes to explore the relative merits of their respective lineages. Here, then, are …

The Pros and Cons of Cast Iron

To begin with, cast iron is nearly indestructible. With proper care, it will last far longer than you will. It also excels at browning food without burning. Do you like your pancakes light and airy, with a crispy edge? Use a properly seasoned cast‑iron pan, and that's how you'll have 'em. Cast iron also stands up well to the rigors of open‑fire cooking. It won't warp, and once you get it hot, it holds the heat for a long, long time. This makes it a good substitute for an oven when preparing baked goods like breads and pizzas. It even contributes trace amounts of iron to your diet.

A well‑seasoned cast‑iron skillet is also easy to clean. In fact, the interior is almost as slick as the latest nonstick coatings. And cast iron is cheap.

So far, so good. Cast iron is sturdy, functional, and easy to take care of. But it's not light. Even my little Wagner could double as a "lunch hook" (small anchor) for a dinghy. And while cast iron will hold up indefinitely under the wear and tear of everyday use, iron castings are brittle. Drop your cast‑iron skillet on a riverbank rock, and it will likely break. Think of cast iron as a muscular boxer with a glass jaw, and you won't go far wrong.

Cast iron has its limits in the camp kitchen, too. If you simmer acidic foods like tomato sauce in cast iron, they'll often acquire an unpleasant metallic taste. The acid is actually dissolving the iron surface of the skillet, and who wants to eat a dish that tastes of the foundry? Aesthetics aside, some folks should avoid foods with high iron content. Paddlers on low‑fat diets probably won't warm to cast iron, either. Delicate foods like eggs and fish require a well‑greased pan. That's good if you need the calories, but bad if you don't want the extra fat.

What's more, cast iron's storied ability to retain heat can be a nuisance when time presses, as it sometimes does when you need to pack up and make miles before a storm blows in. And if you try to hurry the cooling process along by plunging a still‑hot skillet into the cold river, it may crack. You have to let cast iron cool in its own time. It's that "glass jaw" again. (WARNING! Cast iron is capable of inflicting terrible burns long after an aluminum pan is cool to the touch.)

Finally, cast iron is still iron, and iron can rust. The remedy, a thin coating of cooking oil applied both inside and out, creates a new problem. If you're not careful how you stow your well‑oiled cast‑iron skillet, you may find that you also own a well‑oiled sleeping bag. So slip your cast‑iron skillet inside doubled plastic bags when you're under way. (You can also use a paper bag as a liner to help contain the grease. I do.) But remember that plastic can hold moisture in as well as keep it out. Unless you like the look of rusty iron, therefore, be sure you take your skillet out of the bags when you store it at home.

Let's sum up:

Cast Iron's Virtues

  • Traditional
  • Stands up well to everyday wear and tear
  • Browns food nicely
  • Withstands high heat
  • Holds heat a long time
  • Adds iron to your diet
  • Easy to clean
  • Cheap

Cast Iron's Vices

  • Heavy
  • Brittle
  • Imparts a metallic taste to acid foods
  • Adds iron to your diet
  • Needs extra fat when cooking delicate foods
  • Holds heat a long time
  • Can rust
  • Requires careful storage

Now it's time to consider the competition. And here are …

The Pros and Cons of Nonstick Aluminum

To begin with, a good nonstick coating does what it says. You'll won't need to add much oil when cooking eggs or pancakes. This is good news if you're on a low‑fat diet. And the coating also keeps acidic foods from reacting with the aluminum. You can simmer your chili as long as you like.

More good news: Aluminum camp cookware is lightweight. My eight‑inch GSI skillet tips the kitchen scale at just under 13 ounces. That's about two and one‑half pounds less than a cast‑iron skillet of comparable size. And while aluminum won't retain heat as long as cast iron — a drawback when you're using your skillet as a stovetop oven — it's much quicker to cool down when you're in a hurry. It's also easy to clean. The nonstick coating sees to that. The folding handle makes packing easier, too. Cost? It's comparable to cast iron.

Downsides? You bet. It's hard to brown foods in a nonstick pan, though I've had reasonably good luck with skillet chocolate chip cookies and frittata in my GSI skillet. More importantly, perhaps, a nonstick pan is only as durable as its coating. And even with meticulous care, the life expectancy of that coating is measured in years, not decades. High heat — whether from a wood fire or a blowtorch‑like roarer‑burner stove — will speed the process of deterioration, as will injudicious cleaning or the use of any type of metal utensil. Even pot‑grips can do damage to the delicate plastic lining, and a really hot fire can warp the thin aluminum of the pan itself.

Unfortunately, camp kitchens are rather rough and tumble affairs, camp stoves are notoriously hard to regulate, and plastic spatulas and spoons don't last long around open flames. Which means that the convenience and light weight of nonstick aluminum are offset by the added burden of caring for the vulnerable coating. And when the day comes that the plastic liner blisters and peels — as it will, sooner or later, rest assured — you've really no option but to chuck your skillet and buy a replacement. Better hope that the end comes in your kitchen at home, and not in some riverbank camp.

To summarize, then:

Nonstick Aluminum's Virtues

  • Nonstick in fact as well as name
  • Requires little or no added fat for most cooking
  • Acid‑food safe
  • Lightweight
  • Quick to cool
  • Cleans easily
  • Compact (if fitted with a folding handle)
  • Cheap

Nonstick Aluminum's Vices

  • Poor at browning and caramelizing
  • Quick to cool
  • Not fire‑safe (high heat can warp pan and blister liner)
  • Nonstick coating easily scarred
  • You won't be handing it down to your grandkids


OK. We've tallied the two contenders' virtues and vices. What's …

The Bottom Line?

As is so often the case, there's no clear winner. You'll need to answer two questions before you can come to a decision. First, what's on the menu? And second, how much weight are you willing to haul?

If your day isn't complete without a pancake breakfast, a shore lunch featuring crispy fried fish, and breadstuffs baked over the coals in the evening, then cast iron is the runaway winner. The extra weight will be worth it. If, on the other hand, you're staring a couple of five‑mile portages in the face and every ounce tells, and if you're happy not making a meal out of making your meals, then you'll probably find nonstick aluminum more to your taste.

Me? I ring the changes. If I'm planning a leisurely trip, a sort of moveable feast served out along some placid stream, the Wagner skillet goes into the kitchen pack. (And my canoe settles a little lower in the water.) But if I'm traveling fast and far, on a river where I know there are rapids around every bend and the portages are long and steep, the Wagner gets plucked out and the nonstick GSI takes its place. Nonstick aluminum is also my first choice for amphibious treks, and anytime eggs will be making frequent appearances on the menu.

That said, if I had to choose only one skillet for all trips, there'd be no contest. I'm my great‑grandmother's great‑granddaughter, after all. And cast iron is in my blood.

A Watched Pot

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)? I've tried to set aside my antediluvian prejudices and weigh the evidence objectively. Now it's over to you. Drop me a line and let me know what you turn to when the heat's on in the camp kitchen.



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