Step into any camping supplier or good RV specialist and you will quickly find yourself feeling overwhelmed by their vast array of cooking accessories. These accessories come in a variety of materials ranging from light-weight aluminium through to unbreakable glass. While it’s nice to have a choice, I still always opt for traditional cast iron for camping and here’s why you should too.
Why is Cast Iron Good for Camping?
For starters, cast iron camping cookware has been around forever. There is a good reason for that. Cast iron is almost indestructible and, at the same time, it performs brilliantly. Cast iron pans tend to become family heirlooms that pass on from generation to generation.
Cast iron cookware can be used on different heat sources and, even if you only have one pot or pan, it can usually be used for multiple purposes. For example, my Dutch oven can be suspended over an open fire to slow cook a stew or placed directly into the coals to make home made bread.
Cast iron cookware might be heavier than some of the more modern-day alternatives, but for heat retention, it can’t be beaten. Cast iron heats evenly and is simple to cook with. It is also incredibly versatile. You can make everything from a plate of cast iron nachos, to belly filling cast iron meals, to yummy campfire desserts. In your RV, you have the luxury of being able to transport cast iron cookware easily, regardless of weight.
That said, cast iron pots and pans come in such a wide variety that you can slip in a small cast iron skillet or pan that is small enough to pop into a backpack for those hiking trips where you might be away from the RV for a day or two.
Finally, when is comes to cleaning, cast iron is a cinch, as you will see later in this article. For these reasons, many people prefer to use cast iron while camping.
What You Need to Cook with Cast Iron
Cast iron cookware comes in many forms but for the passionate RV camper, we will look at five of the most popular and practical options. Remember, because cast iron cookware is so versatile, you can start with one or two of these items, and then build up your collection as you go along.
Cast iron has become so popular with campers that many new types of pans have come to market, giving the camp cook a wide variety of choices. If you are like me, you will not be able to help ourself collecting a nice set of cast cookware.
The Cast Iron Skillet
This baby comes in a breath-taking variety of sizes and is a staple for camp cooking. If you are going to start with just one cast iron utensil, then the cast iron skillet is probably a good place to kick off. If you want to make pancakes, fry eggs or poach fish, there will be a cast iron skillet for the job. What’s more, that skillet will be perfect for carrying out all three of those tasks.
Cast iron skillets are offered in a range of diameters but also come in many different depths. You can pop one under a grill, sit it on the coals of your out-door fire, or use it on a camping stove.
You can have a smaller one that is portable and perfect for warming canned or dehydrated foods when hiking. Because it has a bit of depth to it, you can even use it to boil water when making that all essential cup of coffee while out on the trail.
Next up is a larger one that is great for cooking breakfast or whipping up a few pancakes when your crew is small. With a bit of careful positioning, this cast iron pan will allow you to fry up two medium sized steaks at the same time. This saves time and allows you both to sit down to your meal together rather than having to cook one steak and then keep it warm while the next one is being prepared.
This skillet is a workhorse in the group, and you will use it for all sorts of amazing cast iron skillet recipes!
Finally, there is the big beast for when the kids join you or you hook up with fellow RV campers, which seems to happen all too often when you are on the road. You can cook a huge breakfast in one daring assault or prepare a mountain of scrambled eggs that would placate a small army.
The Cast Iron Griddle
The cast iron griddle is another versatile piece of cookware. These too, come in the usual wide range of size options. The main difference between a cast iron griddle and a cast iron pan is the height of the sides. A griddle tends to have low sides thus making it very easy to use a spatula for turning things like pancakes or flapjacks.
The other main difference is that a griddle gives you a much larger cooking surface. So it is great for large breakfasts, eggs, pancakes, etc.
Most cast iron griddles are flat bottomed but some come with shallow furrows and ridges. These are very popular for searing steaks as not all of the meat is in contact with the hot metal surface at the same time.
This option also allows you to easily roast vegetables or even make the odd cheese sandwich for those occasions when you don’t feel like cooking a full on blow out meal.
If you really want to get classy, you can find cast iron griddles that are flat bottomed on one face but can then be flipped so that you have the furrows on the other, like the Lodge griddle above. Maximum flexibility in one great pan.
The Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Perhaps it’s just because this piece of cast iron cookware was the first that I ever owned (the one that kicked off the addiction), but the cast iron Dutch oven holds a special place in my heart. These pots are hugely adaptable and are particularly suited to the RV camper.
Despite their name, the Dutch oven is actually a cast iron pot with a close-fitting lid. It is called a Dutch oven because it can perform many of the same tasks that a hot oven would. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are potbellied with legs, rather like a witch’s cauldron. Others are flat bottomed.
Another type of dutch oven cooker are the enameled type. Enameled dutch ovens are notable by their exterior coating and are typically used more in the home- they can be used in the oven and are a bit more decorative for the home kitchen.
The shape isn’t really what makes cast iron Dutch ovens so incredibly useful. It is the fact that one can use them for everything from making hearty stews through to baking bread, or even scrumptious cobblers. (This one is a bit above my skill set but it can be done). One of our favorites is campfire nachos!
If it has legs, the cast iron camping dutch oven can be placed in hot coals, though some of the flat-bottomed ones also come with a stand thus offering the user the best of both worlds. The lid seals in the heat causing it behave like an oven. Often the lid has a lip or indentation so that coals can be stacked on top of the pot/oven and thus all-round heat is achieved.
The Cast Iron Combo Cooker
Some people dream of fast cars or luxury boats. My dream is to own a cast iron combo cooker. I know it sounds sad, but use one of these for a while and you will soon see why it is high on my aspirational list.
The cast iron combo cooker is a Dutch oven but the lid is a cast iron skillet. How cool is that? Instead of the lid only have one primary use it now has two. You can bake bread in the oven and then, when the bread is prepared, you can let is stand in the oven while you use the lid to fry up the next part of the meal.
Camp Cooking Methods for Cast Iron
The Open Fire
Sitting around an open fire while preparing a meal has to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the RV camping experience. Cooking with cast iron cookware opens a range of culinary options beyond the simple grilling experience that the open fire usually affords.
Now you can bake bread, cook up a stew, fry a steak, or roast a chicken. Suddenly, with a small collection of cast iron items, the open fire becomes the heat source and you have most of the cooking methods that you would have available in your home kitchen.
With a cooking grate, you can create a nice cooking surface to hold any kind of pan.
The Camping Stove
Let’s face facts, we can’t always enjoy the pleasures of an open fire and there will be times when it is simply more practical to cook on a camp stove. This may be the gas hob in your RV or you might be carrying a small portable stove while you hike through the wilderness.
The beauty of cast iron pots and pans is that the same equipment you used on the open fire can be used on the stove even if it is electric or an induction hob. No need to have one range of equipment for indoors and another for the outdoors.
If you own a gas or electric grill you can slide a cast iron skillet beneath it without worrying about damaging the integrity of the skillet. Great for making toasted sandwiches or heating up that home made pizza.
Cooking Over Charcoal
Open fires made with charcoal or briquets can generate a high intensity heat. Your cast iron pots and pans will easily cope with this extreme heat. Regulating the cooking heat is a simple matter of increasing or decreasing the distance between the embers and the cast iron cooking utensil that you are using.
Charcoal briquettes burn longer then wood, and are great for use on the lid of the dutch oven due to the heat regulation.
A commonly use accessory is a cast iron tripod from which the Dutch oven can be suspended. This makes it very easy to lower or raise the pot to achieve the perfect cooking conditions no matter how hot or cool the coals become.
Care and Maintenance of Cast Iron
Seasoning is a term you will hear a lot if you are with anyone who is a cast iron aficionado. It sounds quite complicated, but in fact is very easy and something you will soon become accustomed to doing on a regular basis. What seasoning means is to clean the pot or skillet and then treat with heated vegetable oil so that it is ready to cook with.
Cleaning Cast Iron
Whether you purchase your cast iron cooking pots new or second hand, the first thing you will need to do is clean and season them. If they are dirty, they can be cleaned using hot water, chainmail, or a scratch pad. Don’t bother with any chemical products. They simply aren’t necessary.
Once you have the pot clean, then dry it with a dish towel. Next, place it on a heat source such as a gas stove or fire. This will steam off the last of the water residue. Now you are ready to move onto the seasoning process while the iron is still hot. All that is required is to wipe the inside down with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil.
Because the cast iron is hot, the oil will smoke and leave a thin shiny sheen on the inside of your pot. This may take more than one pass, but once you can see that shine your pot or skillet is effectively cured.
Cleaning While Camping
To maintain your cast iron cookware in tip top condition you will need to re-season it on a regular basis. It is simply a matter of following the method above. When camping, it is possible to clean sticky items from the surface of the cookware using salt or even river sand.
It is quite a harsh method so you might not want to do this on a regular basis but it is handy when you are on the trail. After that, simply season it in the regular way.
Storing Cast Iron Cookware
Before storing you pots and pans you will want to have seasoned them well. Remember to only use a vegetable oil for this process or you run the risk of the oil becoming rancid. The biggest risk to cast iron items comes from rust. A good seasoning provides a protective layer of oil that will prevent this, though good storage is essential.
Don’t fall into the trap of storing cast iron in plastic or any other non-breathable membrane. Instead, wrap it in old newspaper or keep it in a heavy-duty paper bag. This facilitates air movement and rust ceases to be a problem.
Another safe storage option is a towel and my wife has a towel for each piece of cookware. After seasoning, she wraps the item in its own towel and places it in a cupboard. The fabric is breathable and also offers protection from knocks and bumps while on the road.
If, after a long period in storage, you unwrap your pots and find slight traces of rust, don’t let that worry you too much. Just clean in the normal way and then re-season. Your cast iron will be as good as new.
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Buying Cast Iron Buying For Camping- A Guide
If you are buying cast iron cookware don’t forget that you are purchasing an item that will last you a life time and more, so don’t be put off by the price. Buy the best quality that you can afford. Using cast iron for camping will enhance the cooking experience and give you a whole new level of possibilities.
You also don’t need to buy all of your cookware at once. The best way to build up your collection is over time. This will allow you to use what you have and gain enough experience to know exactly where your collection is lacking.
For the domestic kitchen, I would say the enamelled cast iron offers some real advantages but if you are into camping you are better off with traditional raw cast iron.
Enamelled cast iron has become very popular in recent years. There are advantages and disadvantage here. The enamel is easier to clean and it doesn’t need to be seasoned. The disadvantage is that enamel is prone to chipping and it can be marked or even damaged over an open fire.
I have had wonderful experiences with what is quaintly referred to as vintage cast iron cookware. Second hand items, for the less pretentious, offer great value for money and because cast iron cookware effectively lasts forever, there is no reason not to take advantage of this situation.
Flea markets, garage sales and second-hand shops all often offer these gems at knock down prices. We live among a generation of people who have lost the ability to see the value in things that aren’t shiny and new, and that can play to our advantage.
Remember, if a piece of cast iron cookware looks dull or even rusted, you now have the ability to restore it to perfect condition simply by cleaning it and giving it a good re-seasoning.
The only warning I would give when looking at second hand cast iron is that the base should not be heavily pitted and there must be no cracks. Other than that, it is great and allows you to purchase items that you might not otherwise have been able to afford. Also many of the older designs are no longer available new.
Where would we be without accessories? It seems that everything we own these days comes with some sort of optional accessories and even traditional cast iron cookware has now got in on the act. One or two of them, I have to admit, are quite useful.
The Helper Handle
The helper handle is an item that clips onto the side of a pot so that you can lift it easily when the pot is hot. Some of them are item specific and others are more general purpose. They can be very useful but check that they can be used with your particular cookware items before buying one.
As their name suggests, these are covers that you can slip onto the handles of your hot cast iron pan so that it can be handled when hot. They tend to be made from padded fabric or leather but for my money a simple oven mitt offers the same advantages.
The Oven Mitt
Oven mitts don’t need to be expensive; they just need to be effective. For years I tried to get away with a couple of dish towels when moving hot cookware from one place to another. Invariably, at a point halfway between the fire and the table, they would start to let heat through to my hand.
This would be followed by some ooh, ooh noises and perhaps even some impolite expletives. After that I would be forced to choose between putting the pot on the ground halfway to its destination or engaging in an embarrassing little jog. A good oven mitt is more of a must have than an optional extra.
Here is one for the lover of open campfire cooking. This heavy-duty item is for suspending pots or Dutch ovens above the fire and has the advantage of allowing you to alter the distance from the heat source, thus altering the cooking speed. Make sure it corresponds to whatever cast iron pot you are planning to hang from it.
I think that it will be pretty easy to see from this article that I am all in favor of cast iron cooking. Sure, there is a weight disadvantage when compared to some of the modern-day cooking equivalents.
On the other hand, you are looking at a piece of cookware that is easy to maintain, provides a good even heat, and will last you a life time. Top that off with the fact that just a few well-chosen cast iron items can give you a huge range of cooking options, and you end up with a bit of a no brainer.