How to Take Your Cast Iron Camping and Which Cooking Method to Choose
All you need to know about camping with cast iron pans is right here! We’ll help you determine if a camp stove, charcoal briquettes, or a campfire fits your needs best.
If you love going on camping trips but have never brought your cast iron pan along, this summer is the perfect time to throw it in with the rest of your gear. Not only are cast iron pans more durable than modern makes (you can literally put one on a burning coal), they are also great at delivering extra flavorful food without packing your whole spice rack.
If you want to give your favorite pan a go on your next trip, it’s important to keep a few technical matters in mind so you get the stellar results that camping with cast iron can bring. The last thing you want is to pop your trying-to-be-one-with-nature bubble by inadvertently burning dinner. That would be a bummer any day, but if you perfectly rationed food for your trip, it could be more of a problem. If you’re far from a supermarket or local stores don’t have the ingredients you need to replenish, you may find yourself looking at a grim granola bar lunch. And if you’ve got kids with you? Forget it.
But, don’t be scared off from cast iron camping! It is such a fun camping experience and adds layers of flavor to whatever you’ve got on the menu. So, let’s get into how to successfully go camping with cast iron pans or Dutch ovens.
Cast Iron on a Camping Stove
If you have a camping stove you’re taking along with you, the main thing you want to remember is to pay attention to your heat setting. One of the key benefits of using a stove is that you can control the heat level more precisely than when cooking with charcoal or logs.
So simply start with low heat and be patient. You don’t want to overheat your cast iron because it will take far longer to let it cool back down and you’ll probably have burned some food in the process. If patience isn’t your strong suit, consider gazing into the foliage, posting that perfect #nature photo to social media, or playing I Spy with the kids.
If the slow-and-steady requirement seems like a detriment, it can also be an advantage if you’re camping in a group. Since cast irons stay warm far longer than pans made from other metals, they are ideal for preparing several dishes over one firepit or for making a single dish for people who might be coming back to the campsite at different times.
Cast Iron over Charcoal
If you don’t have a portable stove or just want to try a ‘campier’ cooking method, charcoal is a great option.
Charcoal brings a smoky flavor to your food that is largely absent in stovetop meals. Of course a traditional campfire is going to give you a richer smoky flavor, but charcoal provides a more easily controlled heat source that lasts longer than sticks and logs. The downside? Some people have said charcoal is messier. Those people were right.
But, if you decide to brave the fun charcoal dust (which has been known to provide camping cred even with an Instagram filter), we particularly like instant charcoal briquettes because they are quicker than regular charcoal. If you prefer standard charcoal, we recommend adding a collapsible charcoal starter to your camping gear to jumpstart cooking.
Once you’ve got your hot coals going, you have two options for cooking: directly on the coals or on a grill.
Direct contact with hot coals is going to provide high heat cooking. This is great for searing ingredients or for foods that you don’t need to cook for a long time. Don’t forget that it’s important to arrange hot coals safely with charcoal tongs so you have a relatively even surface to place your cast iron pan or dutch oven on. You will also get the best cooking results if you spread charcoal pieces fairly evenly underneath so that one half of the pan doesn’t get way hotter than the other.
If you are looking for a longer, slower cook with fewer chances of burning, using a heavy duty camp grill or even rocks to elevate your cast iron above hot coals is the way to go. This will provide low to medium heat.
Cast Iron over a Campfire
If you want the most idyllic camp cooking experience, then nothing can beat the age-old campfire. Not only will it add a deep, rounded smokiness to your meals, it also will stave off the cold and provide light once the sun says farewell for the day.
But, as picturesque as campfire cooking seems, there are a couple of things to consider before charging into the forest to collect sticks. First, campfires can be dangerous. That lovely crackling sound of wood burning can also send sparks jumping out in random directions. If there is any dry brush around, that can be a big problem.
Second, campfire cooking isn’t the best if you want a really even cook but don’t have a lot of time on your hands. In order to reduce your wood pieces to coals for a more stable source of heat, you have to start a fire well before you want to cook. So if you have the tendency to already be fully hangry before even starting to cook, you might want to choose instant charcoal or stovetop cooking. But, if the meals you’re cooking don’t need more consistent heating, you can always cook right over the flames of a campfire.
If the campsite you’re vacationing at doesn’t already provide a cooking grate, that heavy duty camp grill with folding legs we mentioned before is a must, unless you’re a Ron Swanson type and like to fashion your own cooking tripod. If so, you probably don’t need to be reading this article.
Cooking With Meat While Camping
Before you start planning your next camping trip, we do want to add a note about meat. If you are going to be cooking meat while camping – especially when using a brand new cooking method – just remember to pack a digital read thermometer. Having food poisoning away from your own dependable toilet may be the biggest no-no of all no-nos.
You can also download our free PDF Meat Temperature Guide and easily consult it on your phone while away from wifi.
Other Camping and Cast Iron Resources
If you’ve been wary of vacationing with your cast iron in the past, we hope these tips will empower you to take your cast iron camping for the first time this year! If you’re a big campsite lover but know there are probably some better ways to do things, you should check out our Camping Food Ideas with tips on food organization, camping equipment, and easy recipes. This Instagram Reel shows a few of the ideas in the article:
If you’re more of an RV family, we’ve also got Tips and Tricks for RV Cooking.
Also, if you want the ins and outs of cast iron pans, we have several helpful articles to peruse:
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