The bush plane had just disappeared over the treeline, not to return for a week, when I discovered the outpost camp bare of useful cookware. There was only detritus: remnants of Boy Scout mess kits, flaking Teflon fry pans, and pitted aluminum pots-good for burning food, not cooking it. But all was not lost. Hanging on the wall was a big, blackened, oiled iron skillet. It was the only utensil in camp that had been accorded such a high place. With good reason: It’s made for campfire cooking. A cast-iron skillet is heavy (a 10-inch skillet weighs 5 pounds) and thick-walled (3/16 inch). It is built to tame the extreme temperatures of open flames and red-hot coals. It heats evenly (no hotspots or scorching) and holds a steady cooking temperature for a long time, something steel and aluminum cookware don’t do. Forged to “take the heat,” it won’t warp like stainless steel or burn through like thin aluminum. Indeed, making the most of open fires is an iron skillet’s pedigree and purpose.
It’ll cook anything. For frying, braising, or saut¿¿ing, there’s no finer (nor more forgiving) pan for a campfire cook. A medium-size skillet (10 inches in diameter, 2 inches deep) will easily boil a quart of soup, sauce, or stew. A deep skillet (3 inches) will deep-fry, poach, or steam pretty much whatever you like. With a pie tin and aluminum foil, it also makes a very serviceable bake oven. Evenly sprinkle some pebbles in the skillet, set the pie tin (filled with cornbread, biscuits, scalloped potatoes, or cookie dough) on top, cover tightly with foil, and place the skillet on hot coals.
It improves with age. The more an iron skillet is “seasoned” and used, the better it gets. Proper seasoning turns it black and forms a durable, protective carbon coating that prevents sticking and burning, stops rust, and imparts a wonderful flavor.
The initial, three-step seasoning process is easy. First, with a paper towel, lightly wipe a thin coat of vegetable oil or shortening (not butter or margarine; see “Dos and Don’ts”) on the skillet. Second, put it in a 350-degree oven for one hour. Third, remove carefully (it’ll be smoking hot), let cool, dry, and wipe it again with a coating of oil. After each use, just clean (see “Dos and Don’ts”) and give it another thin coat of oil or shortening.
Why season an iron skillet? When molten iron is cast (poured into a mold) and cools, air bubbles leave microscopic pores in its surface. Unseasoned, those pores are an iron skillet’s Achilles’ heel; the gateway to corrosion, rust, and hotspots. An application of vegetable oil fills the pores. At high heat, the oil carbonizes (blackens) to form a very tough, nonstick, rust-free, and practically wash-free protective coating.
It’s economical and will outlive you. Cast-iron cookware is a bargain. A new 10-inch skillet costs only about $10. Properly cared for, it’ll outlive you and your great-grandchildren.
It’s been on camp lists forever. On his long hunts, Daniel Boone took along an iron “spider,” a three-legged, long-handled skillet. On his Maine canoe treks (cooking for three), Thoreau took only two pieces of cookware: a 4-quart tin kettle for brewing tea and an iron frying pan for everything else. Emigrants following the California and Oregon Trails were advised that every party carry at least “one frying pan of wrought iron.”
Part of the reason is durability: Cast iron is hard, nonmalleable, and except for rust, all but indestructible-ideal for life in the bush. Mostly though, it was sheer culinary practicality: No one piece of cookware did so much, so well, with minimum maintenance. That’s still true today.
1. To season a skillet: First, use paper towel to apply a thin layer of vegetable oil or shortening.
2. Then place the skillet in a 350-degree oven for abouut one hour.
3. Remove from oven, let cool, and wipe again with oil or shortening. The skillet is ready to use.