Cast iron is the go-to material for cooking outdoors. Why? It’s so durable, it can withstand laying in hot coals, and can last dozens of years if taken care of, properly. Cooking with cast iron is a skill, and requires a bit more attention than other pans. Cooking with cast iron while camping is the ultimate blend requiring skill and experience. You will have great meals and be undeniably cool.
Cast Iron: The Best Pan Type for Car Camping
There’s a lot of different options for cooking outside, and really, any pan you use in the kitchen you can use outdoors, but there are some advantages and drawbacks to each pan type.
Cast iron is best for car camping because you aren’t overly concerned about weight, and durability becomes more important. However, cast iron is the least desirable pan type for backpacking. If you want to know what other pan options are out there and which pots to think about, check out my article where I talk about different pan options for cooking while camping.
Which Cast Iron Pan Should I Use?
Cast iron cookware comes in as many sizes and shapes as you would imagine, and all of them have different purposes. It all depends on what you want to eat!
If you are pan frying a steak, cooking eggs, doing a stir fry, or making a curry, then a cast iron skillet will get the job done! There are multiple types and it comes down to preference. Some skillets are deeper which adds versatility (and weight). We have a 10-inch Lodge skillet we use all the time. See our post here about it to see why we love it so much.
If you need a larger surface area and want a grilling texture on your food without using a grill, you can use a cast iron griddle. These can work on your kitchen stove on two burners, but can also work on a campfire and give you a clean working surface.
Some of these cast iron griddles actually have a flat side as well, which is great for pancakes, eggs, bacon, and anything else where you just need a large flat surface. (We love our’s if you can’t tell. If you want to see more details, see our article about our favorite griddle here.)
If you are wanting to make a casserole, a stew, a cobbler, or anything else you’d bake in an oven or in a slow-cooker than you need a camp oven, commonly known as a dutch oven. These are the quintessential cast iron cookware that makes your mouth water thinking about fresh and hot peach cobbler or savory and delicious omelets.
What Type of Cast Iron Dutch Oven Is Good For Camping?
There are lots of different types of dutch ovens, and there are even multiple types of cast iron dutch ovens. Which one is best for camping?
The features you are looking for are a dutch oven are the following:
- Legs: A dutch oven with legs gives some distance between the coals and the dutch oven, which prevents your food from burning
- A flat lid with a lip: This is crucial for placing coals on top to add heat from the top.
- A handle that can hang the dutch oven. Although you can use a platform instead of a cast iron suspension system, it’s nice to have the versatility.
Avoid dutch ovens with curved lids, and enameled dutch ovens. Enameled dutch ovens are the colorful (and beautiful) dutch ovens with glass/porcelain inner walls. They are not durable enough for camping and are not made for cooking over a fire or a grill.
Thankfully, dutch oven manufacturers make this easy by stating whether the dutch oven is meant for camping. Make sure and look for the word camping or campfire in the description of the dutch oven you want to buy.
What Can You Cook In a Cast Iron Dutch Oven?
Since skillets and griddles are more well known, we’ll tackle this question for dutch ovens, since you’re here to know how to use cast iron for cooking, and dutch ovens are the most different to cook with than anything else cast iron.
So, what can you cook with a dutch oven?
- Cobblers: A cobbler is essentially fruit, sugar, and flour and creates a delicious crusty dessert that is a go-to treat for many campers. Peach cobblers are probably the most common, but you can do apple cobblers or any other fruit you want to try (not a fruit, but a rhubarb cobbler sounds really good).
- Omelets: If you’re feeding a large number of people, sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try using your skillet to make eggs. Dutch ovens work really well for omelets since you can heat the dutch oven evenly and even melt cheese on top. This post is making me hungry.
- Soups and Stews: A dutch oven also can function as a big pot, so soups and stews work really well.
- Bread and Cakes: You can also bake bread in a dutch oven. King Arthur Flour has a great article on cooking bread in a dutch oven that will work with a cast iron dutch oven just as well.
- Pasta Bakes: Cheese + pasta in a dutch oven is a fantastic meal. You’ll have so many friends if you make this while camping.
- Pulled Pork: Pot roasts, pulled pork, anything in this category works great
- Chili: White bean, pinto bean, black bean, you name it. Hot chili on a cold night camping sounds like one of the best ideas I’ve ever written down.
The possibilities are endless for dutch ovens. Hopefully, this list gives you a couple of places to start looking for recipes.
Can I Use a Cast Iron Dutch Oven In Place of a Cast Iron Skillet?
You can use a dutch oven to fry things just as you can with a skillet. In fact, some dutch ovens have lids that are reversible that have a surface made for grilling on one side.
However, you’ll find that a dutch oven is unwieldy because a dutch oven will commonly weigh over 20 lbs–it’s cookware that you set it in one spot and you want to leave it there until the food’s done. A skillet you can move around and toss your food. So although a dutch oven will definitely work in a pinch, it will be a bit more inconvenient if you’re cooking a lot of things a skillet can cook.
Essential Items You Need For Cooking With Cast Iron:
- Never never never forget a high-smoke-point oil (like vegetable or canola oil). You need oil to ensure that your food won’t adhere to the pan (because you’re cooking with high temperatures) and also for seasoning your pan
- Paper towels: You can, of course, get by without paper towels and use a cloth. In practice, though, paper towels are very convenient for wiping your cast iron clean as soon as you’re done with the cooking. If you play your cards right, you won’t have to wash with water afterwards
- Gloves, a cloth, or a silicone handle: You need something to grip your cast iron while you’re cooking with it. In our experience, the silicone handles work better in the kitchen and less the campfire because the fire damages the silicone handles. A glove or cloth will just fine
- Something to carry your cast iron cookware in: Your cast iron cookware is sticky because of the oil you are using to season the pan. You can’t throw this in the back of your trunk and expect it to be ready to cook without cleaning it. We often re-use a grocery bag as a cover for our cast iron skillet when we go camping.
Additional Essentials For Cooking With a Cast Iron Dutch Oven
In addition to the essentials already named, there are some other things that make working with a cast iron dutch oven much easier.
- Lid Lifter: Since your dutch oven is likely to have coals on top the dutch oven, being able to lift off the lid to check on the food as well as to carry the dutch oven off the fire is a must.
- Coal Shovel or Tongs: You are going to be moving hot coals above and beneath your dutch oven, so having a way to transport your hot coals will make things much easier for you. Using a stick is really tough for having to potentially move dozens of coals.
How To Cook With Cast Iron Over a Wood Campfire
Cooking with cast iron can be a very different experience depending on what type of fire you are using. As you’ll see, cooking with a wood fire can require very different gear.
Heating up wood and coals requires a bit of know-how since some fire configurations (or lays) have different advantages. To see a guide on how to cook over a fire and which fire lay to use, see our article here.
The biggest challenge with cooking over a wood fire is temperature regulation. Because a campfire’s temperature varies, it can make a big difference where you put your cast iron cookware.
Cooking Over a Campfire With a Cast Iron Skillet
Where Do I Put the Cast Iron Skillet?
There are some many options for placing your cast iron skillet. Take a look:
While you can put your skillet directly on the coals, here are some reasons why you don’t want to do this.
- Depending on the coals, this temperature can be too hot which can make not burning your food difficult. This will work fine though if the coals are low.
- If your cast iron does not have a lid. Wood fires make a lot of ash, thus putting your skillet among the coals means ash will be getting into your food unless you have a lid.
- Since you are cooking with oil, it’s very possible for flames to lick up and make your oil catch fire. If this happens, don’t panic, and do not put water on the fire. You may have to watch your meal burn in front of you if you cannot safely pull the skillet away from heat.
This can work if you are cooking something that requires a high temperature, just make sure you are prepared with a lid and the proper temperature of coals.
To make cooking easier, you can use rocks as a platform to give a little bit of distance between the wood coals and your skillet. Remember though, that rocks explode. Check out the exploding rock section of my article on campfire cooking to find out what rocks are safer to use than others. Using rocks as a standoff mitigates some of the disadvantages of placing your pan directly on the coals.
If you’re lucky, then the campground you are staying at has a camp grill. If you’re unlucky, they don’t, or, the camp grill is too far from the coals to be able to cook your food effectively.
Another option is to use your own portable camp grill. This allows you to cook over your campfire without worrying about resting your cast iron on the coals directly. This keeps your cast iron clean and makes it easier to regulate the temperature.
Regulating Heat With a Cast Iron Skillet
Cooking over a campfire with a cast iron skillet is not like cooking over a stove. Here are a couple of ways you can regulate heat:
- Distance from fire: The greater the distance, the less heat
- Removing from fire completely: Cast iron retains its heat for a long time. In fact, some foods you can cook completely off the fire (such as eggs), and then you can put the cast iron back on the fire for a couple of minutes to get the temperature up again. This is a great way to make sure you don’t burn foods that are more likely to get stuck onto your pan
Cooking Over a Campfire With a Cast Iron Griddle
The principles that apply to a skillet also apply to a cast iron griddle. However, there are a couple of new issues.
Most cast iron griddles have two usable sides. This means that whatever side is facing the fire is going to get soot and ashes on it, so be aware of what side you want to be using, as you may need to wipe the side you were heating if you are planning on using it.
Leveling your griddle is much more difficult than leveling your cast iron skillet, so it’s a good idea to prepare your surface (whether rocks or a camp grill) before you light your fire so you’re not messing with it when there’s a fire going. I recommend using a camp grill to level out your griddle as (from experience), it’s much less of a hassle than trying to put your griddle in the fire.
Make sure you have two gloves. You will absolutely need two hands to get the camp grill in and out of the fire.
Cooking Over a Campfire With a Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Skillets and griddles are similar in how they are used for cooking over a fire, but a cast iron dutch oven has some differences.
Where Do I Put the Cast Iron Dutch Oven?
You can put your dutch oven directly in the coals, and this will work wonderfully if you are trying to boil water. This, however, will be too hot for many foods to put the dutch oven directly in the coals of the fire.
The same way you use a camp grill for your cast iron skillet will also work for your cast iron stove, with some caveats. A dutch oven is intended to work as an oven (for many different types of foods, not all), meaning it’s supposed to heat evenly from all sides.
This means that in addition to placing the dutch oven on the camp grill, you need to pile on some of the wood coals on top of the dutch oven. It doesn’t need to be heaping, but enough to cover the surface of the lid.
Cast Iron Tripod/Swing
Rather than resting on a camp grill, you can add some more flexibility to your temperature by using a cast iron tripod or swing.
The dutch oven then is suspended over the fire, allowing heat from the fire to cook the food from the bottom. The chain or whatever is suspending the dutch oven can furthermore be adjusted to regulate the temperature.
Many other options are out there that allow multiple cast iron pieces. To see some examples, check out the tools section of our guide to cooking over a campfire post.
How To Cook With Cast Iron With Charcoal Briquettes
Although not quite as rustic and “cool” necessarily as cooking with a wood campfire, charcoal briquettes are very practical because it is much easier to regulate temperature.
Cooking Over Charcoal Briquettes With a Cast Iron Skillet or Griddle
With charcoal briquettes, you have many options:
Cooking Directly On Top of Charcoal
After you have heated up your coals, you can now place your cast iron skillet or griddle directly on top of them. You can control the heat by how many coals you place underneath. There’s still a danger of adding too much heat with this method, but adding or subtracting coals is the easiest way to maintain a good heat.
Elevate Cast Iron Cookware With a Portable Camp Grill
Just as you would with a wood fire, you can elevate your cookware with a camp grill to lower the heat.
Cooking Over Charcoal Briquettes With a Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Cooking over charcoal briquettes with your cast iron dutch oven should appeal to engineers since it’s easier to be more exact with temperatures, which matters more for baking and more complex recipes requiring specific temperatures.
The 325 Degree Rule
A rule of thumb created to help you get the temperature you’re looking for is the 325-degree rule. Essentially, you start with the diameter of the dutch oven and add 3 coals to the top, and subtract 3 coals from the bottom. So a 10″ diameter cast iron dutch oven would then need 13 coals on the top, and 7 coals on the bottom to reach 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
After that, the rule is that you can add or subtract 2 coals from the top and bottom to increase or decrease the temperature, respectively, by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since this is a little complex, I made a diagram that helps explain it:
The rule isn’t exact. Depending on the wind, temperature, and how hot your coals are, your temperature will vary. But, this rule will get you in the ballpark.
How Not To Ruin Your Cast Iron While Camping
With all the talk about cast iron cookware’s durability, it may come as a surprise to know that you can indeed damage your cast iron. Cast iron cookware is not like a porcelain doll, though–it is actually very forgiving, and if you can make a mistake, you can fix it or just cook through it and it usually works itself out.
- No cold water, please: This one, though, is unforgiving. I suppose cast iron cookware are like the aliens from the movie Signs. If your cast iron cookware is hot, do not run cold water on the cast iron–this can cause rapid contracting of the cast iron which can cause your cast iron to crack–which there’s no real going back after that.
- Be careful to not use too much soap: A little soap here and there isn’t the end of the world, but soap takes off the protective patina. The patina is the layer of cooked on oil and food that accumulates on your cast iron cookware, which gives the cookware its nonstick capabilities, and many say the delicious and distinct cast iron flavor. So, avoid soap if you can.
- Avoid standing water: You have to wash out your cast iron cookware from time to time and that means you have to use water. This is perfectly fine, but remember that iron rusts as it reacts with water. You can burn off any remaining water in your pan once you’ve wiped it out and that should avoid the problem completely.
- Always season your pans: Many pans come seasoned (the process of expanding the pores of the iron and allowing the oil to seep in, creating the protective patina)–although many still want to go through their own seasoning process despite this. If your pan is not seasoned, you will not see any of the benefits of cooking on cast iron. Instead, you’ll wonder why people rant and rave about it while your food gets mercilessly burned.
- Do not use enameled cast iron while camping: I know, this is a little sad since those enameled cast iron pots are so pretty. But, they are not made for very high temperatures and thus are not made for outdoor grills or for campfires. Additionally, anything you are going to be using outdoors will get jostled and the enamel on these cast iron pots is fragile, so it wouldn’t work very well even if it could handle the high temperatures.
How To Care For Your Cast Iron While Camping
Cast iron, if we’re honest, takes a little bit more TLC than your other pots and pans. The durability definitely makes it worth it, however.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron
I don’t know why they picked the word “seasoning” to describe the process of infusing oil within the pores of your cast iron cookware. Whatever the name, seasoning is extremely important for a good cast iron experience. If your cast iron is not seasoned or seasoned properly, then your food will get stuck to your cast iron and burn. Not very pleasant.
Many cast iron items come pre-seasoned, these days, but many people opt to season it themselves. There are many, many approaches to seasoning, so I’ll just list the main ideas here.
To remove existing seasoning:
- Use a strong soap, or oven cleaner and apply on your cast iron cookware
- Scrub the pan until the seasoning is removed
The Basic Guide To Seasoning Your Cast Iron Cookware:
- Baste your entire pan with an oil with a high smoke point, such as vegetable oil or canola oil. Some swear by grapeseed oil.
- Wipe off any excess oil with a paper towel
- Place in an oven (upside down so as to avoid collecting oil) at a high temperature such as 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour.
- Turn off the oven and wait for cast iron to cool within the oven.
- Repeat this process as many times as you want or as needed. Some say 2-3, others 6-7.
There are some instructions which include placing the cast iron within the oven at a lower temperature for 10 minutes and then taking it out and allowing it to cool. As I’ve said, there are many approaches, the key principle is heating up the cast iron uniformly and allowing the oil to soak into the pores of the pan.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron While Camping
One maintenance step that cast iron asks for is to be seasoned after cooking each meal. Not the huge seasoning process I just mentioned, just adding a thin layer of oil to the cooking surface of the pan (not the whole thing like you would when seasoning) and adding heat for a couple of minutes.
While camping, this can easily be done with a paper towel and some vegetable oil. Just wipe the oil on after you’ve cleaned out the food, and add back to the heat for a couple of minutes, and remove it when done.
How To Clean Your Cast Iron While Camping
Since you want to avoid using soap to clean your cast iron, if food gets stuck on there (as scrambled eggs like to do), then cleaning your cast iron may raise some questions.
Thankfully, it’s extremely easy to get stuck stuff off by simply adding enough water to cover the adhered food (usually on the bottom of the pan), and heating up the water to where it’s almost boiling. Remove from heat and wait a minute or two. By this point, most everything that could be stuck to your pan will come off fairly easily.
If all else fails, you can use a small amount of soap with the understanding you could hurt your seasoning a tad. Don’t fret about this, though, cast iron is like a good friend and will forgive you for not being perfect.
How To Pack Your Cast Iron For Camping
Cast iron gets sticky!
Your pan will almost always have a layer of oil on it, so dust and ash love to congregate on your pan if you let them.
Additionally, cooking over hot coals means that soot is going to congregate on the bottom of your pan, which will get everything messy if you don’t plan for it.
A simple way to cover your pan is to use a plastic grocery bag. This is our go-to method to and from camp.
Another method is to purchase the lid that goes with your cast iron. This will only protect the cooking surface though, and won’t protect the rest of your kitchen gear from soot that’s on the bottom of your pan.
Dutch ovens actually have carrying cases which make keeping your cast iron clean and easy to pack a lot easier. See here for an example on Amazon.
How To Keep Your Cast Iron Clean While Camping
Paper towels are your friend here.
The best way to keep your cast iron clean is to clean it immediately after cooking. The pan is still hot and so it makes cleanup much easier than washing after the meal. If you can, just wipe off the food directly with a paper towel, making sure to not let the food scraps fall to the ground (follow Leave No Trace principles).