Cooking off the Path and on the Range

  • Posted on Feb 9, 2017

Published Feb 9th, 2017


Transitioning from a fully stocked and equipped modern kitchen toward mobile living solutions can be a daunting task. Our everyday kitchens tend to focus on specialized equipment for specialized tasks in part for convenience and in part because storage is not an issue. When hitting the road to head out in your range camp, however, you may find yourself reconsidering whether you need that salad spinner or whether there is a way to survive without it. Even in our most spacious solutions, you will have some choices to make when considering how to stock your kitchen. The following will not solve every culinary problem, but we do hope to simultaneously solve a few while introducing one of the joys of life on the range: cast iron.
Cast iron (in particular the cast iron skillet) is often referred to as the workhorse of the kitchen for its range of uses and its durability. Nevertheless, it is often looked over in modern cooking spaces in favor of other metals and finishes. In fact, just pulling the skillet out for the first time or hefting your new dutch oven can be a bit intimidating. But keeping a few things in mind, and with practice, your outdoor and mobile cooking will become increasingly reliant on these staple tools.

Choosing your Cast Iron

In the early 20th century, cast iron cookware was widely used and extremely common in the United States in part do to its durability and versatility. With the advent of modern kitchen gadgetry in the 1950s and on, however, the number of American manufactures decreased, leaving only a few brand choices today. In general, though, cast iron is relatively easy to come by in department stores and camping supply vendors.
The major choices you’ll face when shopping is shape, size and in some cases whether you prefer bare iron or iron enameled with porcelain. For purposes of saving space and getting the most out of as few pieces as possible, you may want to to stick with a solid 12” skillet (for frying and searing) and a 12” shallow dutch oven (for stews, breads, and roasting) with a lid. To decide whether you prefer bare (seasoned) iron or enameled, think about what your primary cooking environment will be. For strictly indoor cooking on ranges or if you are going to be using the cookware in the oven, enameled cookware looks great and is a bit easier to clean. It still has the great qualities of retaining heat and getting scorching hot to sear your food perfectly.
If you plan on outdoor cooking, you may prefer seasoned iron. Being moved about and exposed to the elements means the enamel can get chipped and damaged. Bare iron can be heated with just about any source you can think of including charcoal, wood fires, gas or electric stoves, etc.
One last consideration is whether you need a camp dutch oven or what we’ll call a kitchen dutch oven. The main difference between the two is whether the oven has legs or not and the shape of the lid. On camp ovens, the lid will be only slightly concave inside (to function as a makeshift skillet) and it will have a relatively flat top with an outside onto which coals can be placed to heat from above. Kitchen dutch ovens have no feet, making it easier to slide onto an oven rack, and the lids are generally domed with no outside ridge. While either can be used in either scenario, the feet on camp ovens will make kitchen use difficult, and you will have to play a frustrating game of balancing hot coals onto a dome when using a kitchen dutch oven on the fire or with charcoal.

Preparing your Cast Iron

“Seasoning” cast iron refers to the process of preparing cast iron for use. When first cast, iron has countless little imperfections, tiny holes and pockets in its surface. This is in part how the metal retains so much heat. However, in order to prevent food sticking and to protect the iron from rusting, a thin coat of oil is applied and baked on at high temperatures. As the iron heats, the pores open up and the oil thins enough to enter and fill these. As the iron cools, the oil remains inside and simultaneously smooths the cooking surface and creates a non-stick surface.
Most modern cast Iron will come pre-seasoned and will advertise that they can be used out of the box (after an initial wash). For our purposes, this is generally sufficient, but if you prefer, you can season it again for good measure. The basic process is to heat the iron for 2-3 hours in an oven at 325°F then spreading a thin, even coating of oil (flax seed, shortening, or standard vegetable oil is fine) on the entire surface while it is still hot. Slowly pour the oil in and spread it with a few paper towels. Place the iron back into the oven (place a sheet of foil underneath to protect your oven from drips) and heat for another hour. Turn off the oven and allow the iron to cool. Repeat if necessary.

Caring for your Cast Iron

Once seasoned, your cast iron is fairly easy to maintain. The key is to clean the surfaces without affecting your brand new seasoned surface. The worst thing to do, therefore, is to scrub your iron with steel wool under hot, soapy water or throw it in the dishwasher. Rather, soon after cooking when the iron is cool enough to handle, hand scrub the pan with a plastic scrubber in hot water alone. It should clean fairly easily, but if not, add scrubbing power using coarse salt. Rinse the pan and dry with a towel immediately or, even better, place it back on the fire for a few minutes to dry it out. Apply a thin layer of oil before storing it in a dry place.

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“First, thanks for all of the help and patience in preparing to order our camp. You made sure that we really got what we wanted. From the time we picked up our camp we have really enjoyed it. It pulls great, and is easy to park and set up. This camp is so comfortable. Cooking and cleaning is easy, and everything is easy to get to. You can have people in and not feel crowded. We have camped in camp grounds, by lakes, and in the hills hunting with no problems. We like camping in it best when it is cold so we can use the wood stove. There is nothing cozier than that stove. Summer is nice to; the windows are placed so there is good ventilation. The door coming in from the front is more secure feeling. The kids are fighting over who will inherit it, but we are determined to wear it out before that happens.”

- Pat and Ernie , Sparks Nevada

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