If there’s a more fulfilling way to cook than over a campfire with a cast iron skillet, I certainly haven’t found it.
The smell of smoke. The crackling fire. The immense satisfaction of preparing a meal in the great outdoors. And if that meal consists of ingredients you hunted, caught, foraged or grew? So much the better.
Bushcraft cooking on cast iron skillet is a hot trend these days—no pun intended—but of course it’s nothing new. Go back a couple hundred years, and bushcraft cooking was just cooking.
Once upon a time, any family headed west by wagon train would have a dutch oven and cast iron skillet in tote. The Louis and Clark expedition, which I suppose you could call the greatest camping trip of all time, included a selection of cast iron cookware. According to some accounts, it was among the expedition’s most prized and protected gear.
History is full of stories like these that attest to the values and traditions attached to cooking on cast iron. George Washington’s grandmother evidently valued her cast iron cookware so highly that she left it to her daughter Mary—George Washington’s Mother—in her will.
These days, it’s easy to feel disconnected from our roots, and from the natural world. We live and work in our little boxes, eating meals that have been prepared for us, completely cut off from where our food came from, and how it came to be on our plates.
Maybe that’s why bushcraft cooking is making such a comeback. Of course, bushcraft cooking on an open fire with a cast iron skillet can seem a little intimidating if you haven’t done it before. As someone whose early attempts weren’t always the pinnacle of success, I can tell you that your concerns are not unfounded.
I’ve endured facefuls of smoke, fizzled-out fires, scorched food and rusty pans on more occasions than I care to recount. But we learn by doing, and when it comes to bushcraft cooking, I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share.
First and foremost that cast iron requires care. A good cast iron skillet is something you can pass on (like Washington’s grandma did) to your grandchildren. But you have to take good care of it. Here’s what you need to know about getting started in cast iron bushcraft cooking:
Why Cast Iron?
Cooking on cast iron isn’t just about nostalgia or making yourself feel like a cowboy. It has real advantages when you’re cooking in the great outdoors. Cast iron is ideally suited to bushcraft and camp cooking for several reasons:
Durability. Few things in this world are as simply and durably designed as a cast iron skillet. It’s practically impossible to damage one, and they’re able to withstand astonishingly high temperatures. The only thing cast iron is really vulnerable to is rust, but we’ll get to how you can prevent that in just a little while.
Even heating. One of the challenges of bushcraft cooking over an open fire is controlling the heat. A cast iron surface holds and distributes heat very easily, which means your pan won’t have cold spots, even if it’s windy or your fire is a little less than perfect.
Versatility. There’s an amazing variety of cast iron cookware out there, from sauce pans and bread pans to griddles and dutch ovens. But a single cast-iron skillet is a versatile tool that you can use for almost any kind of cooking. You can pan-fry, deep-fry, bake, broil, make soups and stews with this single, simple piece of equipment.
Affordability. Cast iron isn’t exactly cheap, but it isn’t expensive either. You can get a good quality cast iron skillet for $20 to $40. It’s an investment, but when you consider that your skillet will probably outlive you, it’s a great example of getting what you pay for, and then some.
Are There Disadvantages to Cast Iron?
The most significant downside of cast iron is its weight. This stuff is HEAVY.
Cast iron skillets aren’t really meant for backpacking. You don’t want to walk up and down a mountain with one on your back (lightweight backpacking cookware is usually made of stainless steel, titanium or aluminum).
That being said, the heft of cast iron is part of what makes it durable. For camp cooking, there’s simply nothing better.
Another potential drawback is that cast iron is susceptible to rust. Fortunately, that can be avoided with proper care.
How Do You Care for a Cast Iron Skillet?
A cast iron skillet requires some care, much like any tool. Just as a knife needs be sharpened and a good pair of pliers needs its hinges oiled from time to time, cast iron cookware needs to be taken care of. Think of it as protecting your investment.
Seasoning your skillet is a big part of its care. The seasoning on your skillet is an accumulation of oils. There are a few reasons why you want this:
It protects your skillet from rust.
It makes your skillet easier to clean and care for.
Perhaps most importantly, it creates a non-stick cooking surface.
If you’ve bought a brand-new cast iron skillet, the first thing you should do is season it. It’s actually pretty easy to do. Start by preheating your oven to 350°F. While it’s heating up, thoroughly wash and dry your skillet.
Once the skillet is clean and dry, spread a thin layer of vegetable shortening or lard in the bottom. Use a paper towel or lint-free cloth to evenly distribute the oil over the entire skillet. Top, bottom, sides—all of it!
Place the skillet upside-down on your oven’s middle rack, with large baking sheet or a piece of tin foil on the rack below it to catch drips. Bake it for about an hour, and then turn off the oven and let the skillet cool before removing it.
Voila! You have a seasoned cast iron skillet. It should appear black and a little shiny, as opposed to the dull dark-gray color of un-seasoned cast iron.
You could also do all of the above outside over a fire, which is a little more tricky… but a lot more fun.
Can You Wash Cast Iron?
The short answer is yes, but there’s a right and wrong way to clean your cast iron cookware (spoiler alert: putting it in the dishwasher is the wrong way). Keep a few cast iron washing tips in mind:
Don’t use soap on your cast iron Soap breaks down oils, which you might think would be a good thing, but there’s a problem. The seasoning on your cast iron skillet is essentially oils that have hardened to the surface. Soap will undo all the hard work that went into your perfectly seasoned pan!
Be gentle The key to washing cast iron is getting rid of the food waste without getting rid of the seasoning. To do that, clean the pan thoroughly but gently. Use gentle scrubbing tools, like a soft plastic scraper or one of those green scrubby sponges. Don’t use steel wool or anything that will scratch and scour the pan. For really tough, hardened on food, put some water in the skillet and return it to the fire to loosen the residue.
Wash your pan ASAP Your cast iron skillet will be easiest to clean if you do it as soon as possible after preparing your meal. Try to clean your skillet before the food has a chance to dry, congeal or solidify.
Dry it thoroughly Rust is the enemy! Seasoning your pan will make it less vulnerable, but it can still rust. So once you’re done washing your pan, be sure to dry it quickly and thoroughly. To really make sure it’s clean and dry, put your skillet back on the flame to let it boil out, and then give it one last good wipe.
What’s a Good Cast Iron Skillet?
You’re often working against the elements in bushcraft cooking, so it’s important to know that your tools won’t betray you. A quality cast iron skillet is a must.
Lodge is a great brand that makes high-quality cast iron cookware that won’t break the bank. It’s perfect for bushcraft cooking. High-end brands like Le Creuset, Smithey Ironware Co. and Staub also make excellent premium cast iron products if you’re willing to pay a little more.
Used and vintage cast iron can also be great, even though it may take a little work to get it back in shape after years (or decades) of disuse. I’ve found some great cast iron pieces at antique stores and yard sales!