Cast Iron Cookware Tips
If you want to cook a wide range of delicious meals in your campsite, you should discard your aluminum cookware and buy a cast iron skillet and Dutch Oven. Cast iron allows you to fry a variety of foods to perfection, simmer stews and soups (without scorching) for extended lengths of time, and occasionally bake breads, deserts, and other foods. If you have never used cast iron cookware, you will have to learn a few details and procedures for using it. Here are some tips I learned over the past three years that have helped me get the best results from our cast iron.
What to Buy
Start with a medium-sized skillet (#7) and a medium-sized dutch oven (#7). As you cook in them, you will gradually determine whether they are the best sizes for your particular needs - or whether you need a larger or smaller piece.
Look for cookware that has a flat bottom (not warped), no cracks, little to no rust, and a smooth cooking surface.
Cookware with gate mark on bottom were made before 1900.
Cookware with “Heat Ring” (wood stove retention ring) were made before 1950.
Cookware marked “Made in U.S.A. were made after 1960.
Older pieces have smoother cooking surfaces while newer pieces have rougher surfaces.
Vintage unmarked Wagner, Birmingham Stove and Range (BSR), and Lodge 3-notch are great for camping because they have a smooth cooking surface and usually cost less than $50.
If you want the best cast iron pieces (Griswold), go to eBay and search for Ironspoon. Jay’s skillets and dutch ovens will cost between $100 and $200 but he does a great job of stripping and re-seasoning them. They will be ready for cooking as soon as you get them and Griswold iron is unmatched in cooking excellence.
If you want a budget priced piece, Lodge cookware is reasonably priced ($10 to $50). But be aware that the cooking surface will be rough. Many owners grind the cooking surface smooth before using them.
Other nice American made cookware (Bayou Classic, Camp Chef) can be found but check it carefully before buying.
We avoid pieces made in other countries but knowledgeable cooks report that some good cast iron has been made in other countries.
Where to Find Good Cast Iron Cookware
Good-quality vintage skillets are relatively easy to find in local antique stores and flea markets but high-quality vintage Dutch ovens with their original lids are more difficult to find. If you want a good one with a flat lid, you may have to buy it new.
eBay is the easiest place to find good used cast iron cookware - but the price may be higher than the price of similar items in flea markets (if you could find them) and you will usually have to pay about $15 extra for shipping. As mentioned above, check Ironspoon’s inventory first.
Yard sales and garage sales are especially disappointing because antique dealers visit these sales and buy all the good stuff before most people wake up.
Check parents and grand parents kitchens.
I stumbled upon a very nice unmarked Dutch Oven when talking with a former Civil War reenactor who decided to retire and sell his gear.
If you buy a used piece of cast iron, you may have to remove rust and/ or baked on food.
Several stripping methods have been recommended on YouTube and other Internet sources. Many collectors recommend electrolysis but I have never used this procedure. Some recommend placing the iron piece in the oven and running the self-cleaning cycle but I’m afraid of starting a fire. Others recommend sanding, using a wire brush, or scrubbing with coarse salt and a potato. I have used white vinegar with good results. A few people recommend throwing the piece in a fire but most knowledgeable users do not recommend this method.
Seasoning is the process of baking thin layers of oil to the inside and outside surfaces of your cast iron cookware to protect it from rust and give it a nearly non-stick surface. After seasoning, food can be easily cleaned from the inside surfaces with hot water and a brush - and soot can be easily cleaned from the outside.
Seasoning steps are: heat pan or Dutch oven on a stove eye or in oven, apply thin layer of oil with a rag or brush, continue heating until piece begins to smoke, wipe away excess oil with a cloth rag or paper towel, continue heating for a few minutes, and then allow to cool.
The best oil to use for seasoning has been debated extensively. Ironspoon and a few other experts recommend Flax seed oil as the initial layer and Crisco for subsequent layers. Wagner and Griswold collectors recommend Crisco. Kent Rollins recommends olive oil but several other experts disagree with this recommendation. We use Crisco and are pleased with the results.
Some experts recommend cooking bacon a few times and allow bacon fat to season the pan.
The best size depends upon your family size and available packing space. Many campfire cooks recommend 12 and 14-inch diameter pans but these large skillets are too large for small families and require considerable packing space.
We prefer a #6 (9-inch) skillet because it is large enough to cook many meals for us and a few family members or friends, but yet is small enough to pack into our cookware milk crate. If you can’t find a #6 pan, a #7 (10-inch) is almost as packable as the 9-inch pan and gives you more cooking capacity.
Dutch Ovens typically have no legs and domed lids. Camp Ovens typically have three legs and flat lids with a lip around the edge.
We prefer a Camp Dutch Oven with a flat lid and no legs so we can use it on our home stove and in camp but these ovens are difficult to find. After searching for a year or so, we discovered that Bayou Classic makes 2 and 4-quart ovens with flat lids and no legs. We bought the 2-quart model and are very happy with it. Larger families may want to consider the 4-quart model. When baking, we use a Lodge Folding Lid Stand as a trivet to keep the oven above the coals.
The best size depends upon your family size and available packing space. Many authorities recommend #10 or #11 ovens (6-quart) but this size is too large for small families and requires considerable packing space.
We use a 2-quart oven and have concluded that this size is ideal for our camping needs. It is perfect for baking bread or deserts for two people - or cooking enough soup or stew for two people - but is large enough to cook many foods for 4 to 5 people. Larger families may find that 4-quart ovens are better suited for cooking larger amounts of food.
If your dutch oven is the same diameter as your skillet, you can use one lid for both pieces.
It takes time and practice to determine the exact number of coals to place below and above your oven and the length of time to cook various foods. You can find guidelines on the internet but I have discovered that those guidelines under cook many of my foods - so I use more coals than standard recommendations.
Heat cast iron cookware and put a few drops of oil in it before placing food in it. We use corn oil for meats and butter for most other foods.
Cook most foods with medium heat. High heat can damage your seasoning layers, cause flash rust, and cause your pan or pot to warp or crack.
In cold weather, warm cast iron slowly to prevent warping and cracking.
Avoid cooking tomato or lemon based foods (such as spaghetti sauce) because the acid could damage the seasoning.
Avoid soap. It could dissolve some of the seasoning and may leave a bad taste in the pan.
Never pour cold water into a hot pan. A radical temperature change could crack it.
Heat pan or Dutch oven, pour in a small amount of hot water, scrub with a brush, and rinse. Repeat if necessary. If food is really stuck, use a wooden spatula or plastic credit card (not a metal scraper as I stated in the video below) to dislodge.
When clean, dry, heat, apply thin layer of Crisco, heat until it smokes, wipe away excess Crisco, heat a few minutes longer, and allow to cool.
Cast iron can get dangerously HOT! Focus attention on cooking. Do not get into a hurry or attempt to do other tasks away from the cooking area. Wear leather gloves and use hot handle holders.
Avoid metal utensils because they could damage seasoning. Try to use bamboo, wood, or nylon utensils as much as possible.
Be extra careful with domed lids. They can easily fall off of crowded counter tops and crack.
Read Internet Blogs and watch YouTube videos to learn how to cook and care for cast iron. My favorites are Cowboy Kent Rollins, Cast Iron Chaos, Cast Iron Cookware, Backwoods Gourmet, and The Culinary Fanatic.