For today’s column, I ventured out of my kitchen to the Rotary Pavilion on Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania, where naturalists John Laskos and Jared McGary were offering a cast-iron cooking class.
I have a moderately sized collection of cast iron, but very limited experience cooking over an open fire, and with spring and summer coming any day now, I thought it would be fun to learn how. You know, just in case I ever got up the nerve to ask my highly suburbanized, plugged-in, homebody husband and son to go camping somewhere, sometime.
I like the outdoors and grew up in a family that camped on countless vacations. John, not so much. He got enough outdoor time from sports and taking care of the cows, pigs, chickens and maintenance on his family’s farm. He spent his leisure time indoors, lying comfortably in front of the television watching whatever sports the antennae could snatch out of the air.
But even we did not cook with cast iron. We were either backpacking and adding hot water to freeze-dried whatever-in-a-pouch or fighting with the ancient-when-I-was-a-kid Coleman stove.
As it turns out, you can make a darned delicious breakfast with a few 50-pound pots set just right over some hot embers. It sure beats freeze-dried whatever-in-a-pouch. All it takes is time. Lots of time. And patience, which is the same thing as time.
Five things I learned:
1. As I just mentioned, this is not microwave fare. While eggs, bacon, diced potatoes and cobbler wouldn’t take more than an hour total in your kitchen, outdoors using cast iron on open flame is something of a half-day project. But you’re outdoors, you’re not too worried about the mess, you can make a lot of food at one time, and it’s time unplugged, time you can use to have conversations, commune with nature and play with fire.
Just be prepared for the fact that it’ll take a while to make a meal, and if you’re really camping, someone will probably have to start making dinner as soon as you’re cleaned up from breakfast.
2. One of the reasons it takes so long is that you cook over coals, not fire. But you have to have fire to get coals. In fact, you have to have a pretty big fire to get enough coals to make a meal. Don’t underestimate how much wood — and space — you’ll need. You’ll need places for four flat piles of coals, and enough coals to keep a pot cooking for 20 minutes to an hour, depending on what you’re making. Be generous with the size of your fire, and keep it going while you’re cooking in case you need to replenish your piles during cooking.
Figure on at least an hour to get the fire going and get some useful embers.
3. You don’t want to put your pot right on the coals, or the bottom of the pot will get too hot and burn your food. Many pots and skillets that are designed for outdoor cooking have spikes on the bottom that elevate the pots over a layer of coals. If yours don’t have spikes, you can buy little cast-iron trivets ($6.45 at Walmart.com) to rest in the coals to elevate your pot to allow airflow underneath.
You also need lids for your pots, because you’ll want to cover the lids with coals in some cases. In these cases, you’ll need to invest in a Dutch oven lid lifter ($12 to $25 on Amazon.com), because you do not want to be lifting these fire-hot coal-laden lids with any old oven mitt. The lid lifters make three points of contact with the lid, which helps to keep it from tipping and spilling coals into your food.
4. Laskos and McGary offered several fire-making tips. First, they built the fire with logs like a log cabin: Two logs on the bottom, two more crosswise over those, etc., making a square tower until it was a few feet high with an empty square in the middle that they filled with newspapers. They said you can squirt the newspaper with hand sanitizer or add alcohol-soaked hand wipes to aid in starting the fire.
Ray Reed, 54, who attended the class with his wife, Sherri Reed, 58, said he enjoys cooking outside when they camp.
“I use cast-iron pans,” he said, adding that he’d never have thought to use hand sanitizer to start a fire. He said he uses cotton balls with alcohol or petroleum jelly.
5. A few other tips:
— If you don’t have a lot of wood for cooking, you can use charcoal briquettes, Laskos said.
— Use wooden utensils when stirring or scraping the inside of your cast iron. Metal utensils can scratch the seasoned surface.
— If you find cast iron pots or pans at garage sales or second-hand shops, pick them up. Even if they’re rusty, they can be re-seasoned and brought back to life.
— When cleaning, some people say it’s OK to use soap, but you really shouldn’t. Just wipe them off with hot water. “I’d rather have flavor from food in my Dutch oven than soap,” Laskos said.
Dutch Oven Campfire Breakfast Potatoes
¼ cup butter, in small pieces
6 cups potatoes, diced small
1 tablespoon seasoning of choice
Combine ingredients in a 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven set over a pile of hot coals.
Carefully cover lid with coals. Cook 20-30 minutes, keeping coals under Dutch oven to medium heat. Remove lid with lid lifter, being careful not to spill coals into potatoes. Stir potatoes with a wooden spoon. Cook 20 to 30 more minutes, or until potatoes are soft.
— Jared McGary
Dutch Oven Campfire Cobbler
1 (18.25-ounce) box yellow or white cake mix
1⁄2 cup butter or 1⁄2 cup margarine
2 (21-ounce) cans fruit pie filling
Cinnamon, to taste
25 charcoal briquettes (at least)
Place dutch oven over approximately 15 charcoal briquettes or over coals on a flat spot in the fire ring.
Empty pie filling into Dutch oven.
Spread dry cake mix on top of pie filling and spread evenly. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste.
Cut butter or margarine into even sized pieces and arrange on top.
Put the lid on a Dutch oven and arrange 10 hot charcoal briquettes in a checkerboard pattern on top or scatter hot coals over the lid.
Bake until done (10 to 45 minutes depending on how hot your fire/coals are).
— Jennie Geisler can be reached on Twitter: @ETNGeisler.