January 13, 2022
By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
No piece of cookware in my kitchen sears steak as beautifully as cast iron—nor is any piece as low maintenance. This has helped to make cast iron cookware a staple of backcountry basecamps.
Cast iron is extremely durable, and versatile—from frying eggs, to baking bread, to searing a hard-earned backstrap, cast iron cookware does it all, making it a do-all piece of gear in your kitchen kit. Additionally, hot water and soap aren't always easy to come by in the wilderness, which makes cast iron cookware even more desirable in camp. A simple wipe down with water is all that’s needed for cleanup. The leftover grease from cooking goes a long way to protect your cast iron skillet from rust and adds a bit of seasoning for the next backstrap that hits the heat. Here’s why you should consider adding a cast iron skillet to your basecamp gear.
Cast Iron: A History
Although the history of cast iron dates back to 5th century B.C. China, cast iron did not become an important metal in Europe until 15th century A.D.—nearly 2,000 years later. Still, early uses of cast iron in Europe were mainly military, not culinary. It was Henry VIII who called for the casting of cannons and shot in England, which replaced more expensive bronze cannons, allowing England to bolster her navy.
The use of cast iron for cooking remained limited until 1707 when English inventor Abraham Darby created a new method of casting pots and kettles more cheaply than traditional methods, thus launching more widespread use of cast iron in western cooking. According to Southern Kitchen, the bottoms of these early pots were raised by three feet at the base and ideal for cooking over live fire—similar to the types of Dutch ovens we use today to cook over coals.
As indoor kitchens became more accessible, flat-bottomed cast iron cookware became popular in American kitchens throughout the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. These resemble the Lodge, Griswold, Camp Chef, or Wagner skillets and pots we recognize today.
Caring for Cast Iron
Cast iron can last for generations with proper care. If you’re looking to purchase your first piece, look for one that is pre-seasoned to save yourself some work. This seasoning is the shiny black patina that protects the metal from rust and keeps it nonstick. However, this patina won’t last forever. You will have to maintain cast iron after each use and occasionally reseason your cookware.
After each use, wash cast iron with water, a brush and/or scraper to clean off food stuck on the surface. Dry cast iron completely before lightly rubbing vegetable oil onto the entire surface before storage. For stubborn messes, boil water in the pan to loosen stuck food. I also will occasionally use soap, which won’t hurt the cast iron too much if used sparingly.
Expect to reseason your cast iron pieces throughout their lifetime, perhaps a few times a year, depending on the amount of use. Cooking with acidic foods, excessively high heat, or using abrasive utensils and scouring pads can strip cast iron of its seasoning. When food starts sticking and the surface of your skillet begins to look dull, it is time to reseason.
Seasoning your cast iron simply means oil baked onto the skillet through a process called polymerization. This process allows a layer of carbonized oil to bond to the iron to help make the pot or pan nonstick. It also helps to fight off corrosion and rust.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to reseason your cookware. This process generally includes a simple wash, dry, oil application, and baking in the oven for a time to allow the oil to adhere to the iron.
If you’re lucky, you might have inherited a Griswold or Wagner skillet. These pieces were truly nonstick, as the bottoms were polished smooth after casting. Newer cast iron will mostly come seasoned and ready to cook, like the Camp Chef Heritage Cast Iron pieces. However, look closely at your cast iron skillet or Dutch oven—is the surface rough? This can hinder its nonstick performance.
To get the most out of your cast iron, here are some tips:
- To cook foods that can easily stick, such as fried eggs and fish, make sure to start out with a well-seasoned pan.
- Use fat and do not disturb the food until a good crust has formed. This will help with the release.
- A cold pan equals stuck-on food. Allow the skillet to heat up before cooking.
- Start with the food that sticks easily first. For example, if cooking steak and eggs, cook the eggs first.
- Tomato, wine, vinegar, etc.: Do not simmer acidic ingredients for longer than 10 minutes in cast iron. These can pull metal particles from the pan and impart a metallic taste in your food. Instead, use enameled cast iron for these types of recipes.