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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Portable Pantry

Family Jewels—Pots and Pans for Paddlers

By Tamia Nelson

February 18, 2003

Pots and pans. Not very glamorous, are they? But what if they're in an outfitter's catalog? That's different. On the glossy pages between the fleece and the float-bags, even a humble kettle takes on an air of high adventure. Folks whose day-to-day cooking is limited to heating something up in the microwave will stop, sit down, and debate the merits of titanium pots and nonstick coatings at great length. This makes sense. Paddlers, like armies, travel on their stomachs.

That's particularly important to remember if you're planning a Big Trip. Most of us can miss a meal or two without suffering very much. But no one can go for weeks on short rations and still pretend he's having fun. Good food is an important part of having a good time, and dieting shouldn't be part of any Big Trip. Not for nothing did frontier cooks sometimes christen their collection of battered pots and pans their "jewelry." If you're traveling hard, you need to eat well, don't you? You'd better hope that the cook has the tools to do the job right. Day 5 of a one-month trip is no time to discover that someone forgot the frying pan.

Still, you can't take it all with you. If the backcountry cook doesn't want his knees to buckle under the load, he has to pick and choose his jewelry carefully. It's not an easy job, particularly for members of the heat-it and eat-it brigade. What about you? Want a little help in sorting out your options? No problem. Let's start with a cook's tour of a backcountry kitchen, shall we? Here goes!

We'll begin at the beginning, with pots. And lids. Always with lids—and snug-fitting is better than loose. (But don't imagine that any lid will make a good substitute for a frying pan.) Pots are the most basic cookware. If you have a pot, you can make a meal. If you don't have a pot, you'll need to be good at cooking things on sticks. Fortunately, you have a lot of pots to choose from. The outfitters' catalogs display a bewildering variety. Some pots nest like Russian dolls, and that's good. Some don't, and that's not so good. Some have wire or strap bails. That's good, too. But some don't. Not good at all. It's best to look elsewhere.

And what about sizes? Pots range from tiny (1 cup) to huge (10 gallons). Now for the hard questions: How many? And how big? The answer, as is so often the case, is "It depends." How many people will you be feeding, and what kind of cooking will you be doing?

Let's look at a couple of examples. A solo paddler relying on instant oatmeal and freeze-dried or dehydrated meals won't need anything elaborate, particularly if she doesn't mind waiting between courses. One 1-quart pot might be enough. Read the package instructions and make your choice accordingly. If in doubt, go larger. A pot that's too small is nearly useless. (NB Some pots are sized in liters. A liter is a little bit bigger that a quart, but the difference is small. For most practical purposes, a 1-liter pot and a 1-quart part are identical.)

Cooking for two? Want a more varied menu? Then you'll need more—and bigger—pots. Two is good, but three is better. The small pot (around 1 quart) is just right for brewing tea or making coffee. The middle pot (2 quarts) is your maid-of-all-work. And the largest (3 quarts, say) is the backcountry equivalent of a hot-water tank. It's just the thing for heating water for washing-up.

Larger groups can also get by with three pots, but the individual pots will have to be bigger. How much bigger? That depends. How big's your group? Try a couple of dry runs. Choose the most elaborate meals from your menu. You may find out that a fourth pot is a real time-saver. And don't feel constrained by the ready-made "cook kits" in the catalogs. Mix and match to get what you need. (A hint: Look on the shelves of your local HyperMart. Stock-pots make great boilers. They're cheap, too.)

Material matters, but do you really need pots made of the latest space-age alloy? No. Aluminum is cheap, and it's good for everything but tomato sauces and other acidic foods. Stainless steel is even better (though heavier). Enameled steel looks great but requires careful handling: once it starts to chip, it also starts to rust. And what about ultra-light titanium pots? These are jewels, indeed, and they're priced according. I've never bothered, but if every ounce matters….

Cast iron? It's titanium's opposite number. Where titanium is light and expensive, cast iron is cheap and heavy. Very heavy. It's not a good choice for pots, at least not unless Dutch-oven cooking is your thing. (And you can buy cast-aluminum Dutch ovens.)

Thinking about nonstick coatings? They're not really needed in any pot, but if the pot of your dreams has one, that's OK. Just go easy with the pot-scrubber and metal utensils. I've even seen pots with heat-resistant nonstick coatings on the outside. This supposedly makes clean-up easier, but since I always allow the soot to build up anyway, I've never been tempted. (If you're as lazy as I am, though, don't forget a pot-bag. A little bit of soot goes a very long way in a pack.)

And what about the shape of your pots? This matters, too, though not very much. Short, squat pots heat most efficiently, but you have to size your pot to your stove. If a pot's too wide, it may reflect too much heat back on the fuel tank, or make it difficult for you to reach critical controls. You'll also have to center it carefully on the burner if you want to avoid a sudden spill. The solution? Get your stove, go outside, and experiment. There's plenty of latitude, and efficiency isn't everything. My favorite pots—three nesting aluminum billies of a type that's no longer available, at least in the US—are in fact fairly narrow. They work well on every single-burner stove I've ever used, but I've never found them slow to heat on a wood fire either.

Some specialty items also fall into the pot category. Take pressure cookers, for instance. They're heavy, bulky, and expensive, but they certainly conserve fuel. Some high-altitude climbers swear by them. I've never brought one along on a paddling trip; if I were headed for the Himalaya, though, you better believe I'd give it serious thought. Heat exchangers—baffled metal jackets that clamp around pots—also increase efficiency. They're valuable when you climb up high, to be sure, but I've never bothered with one on the water.

Don't forget a pot-grip or pliers. Burns are nuisance enough at home, but paddling with a badly-burned hand can be agony. So use a pot-grip every time you handle your pots. I usually wear a pair of leather work gloves, too. "Safety first!" is the only sensible rule around fire.

Can't face the day without a cup of coffee or tea? We're in the same boat, then. Just use your smallest pot. Brewing tea is about as simple as anything can be—a tea-strainer will keep stray leaves out of your cup—and making boiled coffee is almost as easy. If "biled" coffee's not to your taste, get a filter-cone. Serious coffee-drinkers may even find it worthwhile to bring a coffee-grinder or a French press. I don't, but I'm fussier about my tea than I am about my coffee.

And what if you make more tea (or coffee) than you can drink? Just pour it into a vacuum bottle and take a painless coffee break later in the day. Don't laugh. Vacuum bottles are heavy and bulky, but I've known folks who wouldn't go anywhere without one. A hot drink makes a great mid-stream pick-me-up, yet anyone who's "boiled the kettle" aboard a canoe or kayak will go to great lengths to avoid repeating the experience. A vacuum bottle is the answer. You can even make hot soup at lunchtime with water you boiled at breakfast.

What's next? A frying pan, of course, though you can also call it a skillet if you prefer—I do. This is a tricky one. Most pots I've used have worked well enough, whatever they were made of and however they were shaped, but I've never owned a camping skillet I was completely happy with. The best I've found (for two paddlers) is 10 inches in diameter and made of cast iron. Heavy? You bet! And fussy, too. It requires careful seasoning before use, and regular oiling under way. (Use cooking oil, and wrap the oiled skillet in both paper and plastic.) It's definitely not go-light gear, but it's a fry-cook's delight. And it does a great job of baking bannock, too.

I've owned lighter skillets. Some, like a steel Sigg skillet I once had, were pretty good. Others weren't. Pot lids—even the thick, beautifully-polished aluminum lid of my old Sigg Tourist cooker—are nearly worthless as frying pans. Hot-spots are one problem. Sticking is another. Modern nonstick coatings work well when new, but I've yet to find one that holds up for more than a year or two, and I don't like eating plastic with my food. So I stick to seasoned cast iron. Food doesn't stick to it.

Minor points to look for in shopping for a skillet: Sloping edges are better than near-vertical sides. It's easier to slide the food out, and the skillet is simpler to clean, too. Avoid any skillet (or pot) with plastic or rubberized handles. They won't last long in the fire, and melting plastic can cause terrible burns.

Alternatives? A cast-aluminum griddle makes sense for a large party, particularly if pancakes will be on the menu often. It's a bulky item, though. And anyone planning on doing a lot of baking may want an oven as well as a frying pan. I seldom take one, but Coleman makes an ingenious folding oven that's much less fiddly to use than the reflector ovens recommended in so many older camping books. The Coleman oven works well on a stove, too, although it needs a high-output burner and a broad base of support. Want something smaller? I've heard paddlers sing the praises of the ingenious Outback oven. I've never used one, however. On most trips I get by just fine with my skillet.

Of course a cook's only as good as his stove. Here's a hot topic, indeed! The choices are legion, and the subject's worth an article all its own. Which is exactly what it's going to get. Until then, Bon appétit!

Still hungry? Then whether you live to eat or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our "Alimentary, My Dear" archive.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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