By Tamia Nelson
October 28, 2003
Ask any group of cooks what their favorite
kitchen tool is, and you'll probably get as many answers as there are cooks.
are fickle, too. My batterie
de cuisine has evolved over many years, but it still changes with
almost every trip. I started out with a Boy Scout cook kit borrowed from my
brother. Later, I moved up to classy spun-aluminum Sigg pots, and to skillets
lined with every conceivable kind of non-stick coating. And I didn't stop
there. I've carried folding toasters and portable grills, quaint little tea
kettles that wouldn't look out of place on a hobbit's table, and
sophisticated coffee makers with enough pumps and filters to force a smile
from the lips of a NASA engineer. Sometimes I've hauled so much clutter that
it threatened to sink an XL Tripper, yet at other times I've ventured out
with nothing more than a military
surplus canteen cup, a soup spoon, and a sheath knife.
"Fickle" is uncomfortably close to the truth, I guess. But some things
never change. No matter how much I've come to like my copper-bottomed
stainless steel billies or my non-stick spun-aluminum frying pan, they'll
never find a place as near to my heart as my ancient 10" cast-iron skillet.
Sure, the slick new stuff is lightweight. And, yes, it's easy to pack. But
efficiency isn't everything. My skillet is an old and trusted friend. It's
crusted with a rich, black non-stick coating all its own, built up over many
years and maintained with loving care. I use it every week at home, and it's
baked more bannocks
in the backcountry than I can remember.
Still, I'm not so besotted that I'm willing to ignore practicality
altogether. Notwithstanding its heft, cast iron is surprisingly
efficient. It won't warp even in the hottest fire. Better still, it holds
that heat for a long, long time. And nothing in my cook kit is more
versatile. I've used it for everything from frying fresh-caught trout to
crisping an apple tart. It's been my backcountry companion for more than a
quarter-century now, and unless I drop it on a rock, it'll be good for at
least another 25 years. I hope I can say the same about myself.
OK. Cast iron has its faults. But then again, who's perfect? And its
shortcomings are pretty small beer. A cast-iron pot is a poor choice if
you're planning on simmering a tomato sauce. (The acidic sauce leaches iron
from the pot. This doesn't improve the flavor.) But aluminum's not so great
here, either. It, too, is vulnerable to acid attack. Does this mean you'll
have to forgo drizzling lemon juice over a frying fish, or adding a splash of
red wine to beef stroganoff? Not at all. It takes a lot more than that to do
any damage. Just avoid long, slow cooking with high-acid foods and you'll be
Iron will get into any food cooked in an cast-iron vessel, of
course. Is this something you need to worry about? Probably not. Iron
poisoning is uncommon, and most cases apparently involve children who've
accidently ingested large quantities of iron supplements. A little extra iron
in the diet may even benefit some women. The trace amounts that leach from
cast-iron cookware can help to protect them from "iron deficiency" anemia.
Still worried? Then play it safe: ask your doctor.
And, no, I haven't let love blind me to cast iron's other drawbacks. It
is heavy. My cast-iron skillet weighs nearly five pounds, and it's
simply too large for most portable stoves. When conditions
are right for a wood
fire, though, nothing can touch my old friend.
Caring for cast iron on the trail also takes some thought, but it's mostly
common sense. You don't want to wrap a cast-iron skillet in your sleeping
bag, for instance. I slip mine into a paper grocery sack first, then cover it
with a sturdy plastic bag. The paper gets pretty oily, but this helps keep
the skillet from rusting. I dry it carefully after cleaning it, too. At
trail's end, back at home, I store all my cast-iron cookware where air can
circulate freely around it.
In fact, much of the work associated with cast iron is best done at home.
Seasoning is the key to making cast iron perform, and it's not hard to do.
When you get a new cast-iron skillet (or pot, come to that), pour a few
teaspoons of liquid COOKING oil I use corn oil into the pan,
then spread it over the entire surface, both inside and out. Use a piece of
paper towel or a small square of clean cloth as an applicator. Once that's
done, heat the pan in a 350°F oven for an hour or so. After it cools
off, mop up any excess oil. That's all there is to it, though the process is
really a never-ending one. Your skillet will season further each time you use
it. Before long, it will acquire a rich, black "varnish." Don't scour
this off. Not only will it protect the skillet from rust, but a well seasoned
cast-iron skillet is nearly as "non-stick" as any miracle of modern
technology. Some folks are so proud of the finish on their cast-iron cookware
that they refuse to wash it at all. You needn't go this far, however. Just go
easy on the elbow grease.
Cooking with cast iron may require a bit of an attitude adjustment, too,
particularly if you're fat averse. While it's certainly not necessary to deep
fry everything this mistake has ruined more than a few shore lunches!
you can't expect to get good results without adding some fat or oil to
the pan. Fortunately, a little goes a long way. A thin film is usually enough
for making pancakes, browning potatoes, cooking fish, or baking bannock.
You're really sautéing, after all, and not frying. Be sure to use an oil
that has a high burning point, though. Good choices include corn, canola
(rapeseed), or peanut oils. Save the butter for your bannock. It burns at too
low a temperature.
Technique's also important. Let's assume it's your first night out, and
you're treating yourself to plump hamburgers, made from ground beef that you
picked up on the drive to the put-in. Heat your skillet first, but don't add
any oil yet. How hot is hot enough? There are no controls or thermostats on a
wood fire, so you'll need a rough and ready measure. Allow a single drop of
water to fall on the pan. (Logging-camp cooks simply spat, and few loggers
dared to complain. Cookie's word was law in camp.) If the drop immediately
beads up and dances across the surface before disappearing, your skillet is
ready. Don't let it get any hotter. CAUTION: If the pan is smoking, it's
already too hot.
Once your skillet has reached working temperature, add the oil. Usually a
tablespoon or so will be more than enough. Now let it heat for a minute or
two. When the oily film starts to shimmer, it's hot enough. Don't allow it to
smoke, and never add water to hot oil. If you do, you'll have a steam
explosion, and probably suffer a few burns into the bargain. Can't see any
shimmer? Then drop a very small piece of raw hamburger into the pan. If it
bubbles and sizzles vigorously, all is well.
Next, place your burgers in the pan. They'll sizzle robustly. Let them.
Resist the temptation to play with your food. Smashing a hamburger flat does
not improve it. Once the first side has browned, use a spatula to lift the
burgers and turn them over. Easy does it! Now let them cook till done. (Move
the pan as necessary to keep the temperature constant.) I usually cover the
skillet with the lid from a large aluminum pot at this point, leaving only a
small gap for steam to escape. Other cooks prefer to keep the meat under
direct observation, even if that means having to dodge the occasional
splatter of hot fat. The choice is yours.
When your burgers are cooked through, remove the skillet from the fire and
serve. If any sticky bits cling to the bottom, wait for the pan to cool
somewhat, and then put a small amount of water in the still-warm skillet. By
the time you're ready to wash up, the cooked-on scraps of meat will come away
Ah, yes. Washing up. The inevitable end of every meal. Like I said, I wash
my skillet with the other dishes. I don't scour it, though. There's
only one exception to this rule. If (when) small rust spots appear, I polish
them with fine steel wool and re-treat the spot with cooking oil. Only when
rust becomes a recurring problem, or food begins to stick badly, do I
re-season the pan.
Cast iron isn't for everyone, of course, nor is it suited to every trip. I
don't take it on sea kayaking jaunts, and it wouldn't be my first choice for
a marathon weekend of pond hopping. Whenever I'm traveling at a leisurely
pace in a big boat, though, my skillet always comes along for the ride. I
guess this makes me an old-timer at heart. And it puts me in pretty good
company. My Adirondack
guide grandfather would have had no use for titanium pots. He even
regarded aluminum with suspicion. In his view, oatmeal and beans tasted best
when they came out of a coffee-can billy, and nothing fried up a mess of fish
like cast iron. I didn't agree with him about the oatmeal and beans, but when
it was time for a shore lunch of freshly-caught trout, we never argued.
That's the joy of cast iron.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights