Cook like a pro, even when you’re camping. Here’s what you need to know about using a skillet over a campfire.
There’s nothing like a hearty meal to nourish the body and warm the soul after a long day of hiking in the wilderness. And, although portable cooking systems like JetBoil and MSR are good, a campfire is the ultimate stove for the great outdoors.
Campfires also burn hotter than anything else you cook on. Most types of firewood ignite at 572°F (300°C) and, once the gasses have burned off and the moisture has evaporated, burn at 1,112°F (600°C). This is well above the oven-safe temperature for certain types of frying pans, posing a challenge to the outdoor cook.
Suppose you’re headed to the campground in a truck or, better yet, with a caravan—and you can afford to take any cooking vessel from your kitchen cabinets with you. The question is: Can you cook in a frying pan over a campfire? And, if so, what kind of frying pan should you go for?
Yes, you can cook in a frying pan over a campfire as long as you use the right kind of pan. Opt for a cast iron or carbon steel skillet with a heavy bottom and thick walls. It will withstand the high heat of the fire and distribute it evenly so that you can prepare food without burning it.
Let’s talk about the types of frying pans you can’t use over a campfire.
Don’t Use These Pans to Cook on Fire
First of all, don’t use frying pans with plastic or wooden handles, even if they’re touted as oven-safe to some degree. Whatever that degree is, you will exceed it, and the high heat of the glowing coals will melt the plastic and burn the wood.
This ain’t a pretty sight, I can tell you that. The only thing you want smoldering when you’re cooking outdoors are your coals, and not the handle on your frying pan. Not only will it release toxic fumes into the air, but, by Murphy’s Law, the wind will blow them to your food and in your face.
Second, and this is important, avoid ceramic and non-stick frying pans. Ceramic pans can withstand high heat but most of them are not necessarily built to do so. Non-stick pans, depending on the quality of the PTFE coating, can only be heated to 932-1,022°F (500-550°C) before they outgas with fumes known to cause polymer fever.
Last but not least, don’t use enameled cast iron skillets or Dutch ovens lest you want their porcelain coating to crack or chip. This type of vessels doesn’t get along well with fire. Once damaged, it’s impossible to fix and expensive to replace.
The Best Frying Pans for Cooking Over a Campfire
The best type of pan for a campfire is a cast iron skillet or its lightweight cousin, the carbon steel skillet. These thick-walled, heavy-bottomed cooking vessels hold heat for a long time and distribute it evenly, smoothing out the fluctuations of glowing coals.
Generally speaking, a deep skillet is more practical than a shallow one. The high sides allow you to fry food and boil liquids without splattering, and they keep watery food in even if you’ve placed the cooking vessel on the ashing coals, an unleveled grate, or in-between rocks.
Make sure your skillet is well seasoned, both on the inside and out. This will protect it from corrosion and rust, especially if you put it on damp ground, and prevent your food from sticking. Whatever you cook, make sure to include something fatty or use an abundance of fat, butter, or cooking oil.
Refrain from cooking foods with lemon or lime juice, canned tomatoes, vinegar, and wine. The acids in the cooking liquid will react to the bare metal cooking surface and your food will get imparted with a strong metallic aftertaste.
What about stainless steel?
Well, it stands somewhere in the middle. Depending on the make and the model, stainless steel fry pans should seldom be heated to temperatures above 500-600°F (260-315°C).
Since stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat on its own, most cookware manufacturers make their cooking vessels out of a stainless steel exterior and an exterior of aluminum or copper. When cooking with them over a campfire, the intense heat of the coals and the thermal shock that occurs when you remove the pan from the fire can cause it to warp.
Tips for Cooking Over a Campfire
As long as you have the opportunity to do so, cook over dry, seasoned firewood. Freshly cut wood will burn poorly and give off heavy smoke that can make your food taste bitter.
Since properly seasoned firewood is not readily found in nature, you can accomplish this by looking for dry wood to pick up off the ground, dead trees that you cut down, or seasoned logs that you buy from a wood supplier and throw in the bed of your truck.
Despite lore to the contrary, don’t cook over the flame. This is a sure-fire way to burn your food and have it come out blackened and acrid. Keep a three-zone fire instead: a left zone with wood that you just lit, a middle zone with wood that’s turned into coals, and a right zone that’s wood-free.
The left zone provides you with heat and, when the logs burn down, coals, which you rake to the middle zone. The middle zone is where you lay out the cast iron grate and put your skillet to cook on. The right zone is where you leave the hot skillet and/or Dutch oven with the cooked food.
This fire configuration is the closest you can get to having a cooktop with multiple zones out in the wilderness. It not only keeps you warm but allows you to brown meats and simmer liquids without burning or boiling them over. Try it, and you will never build a single-zone fire again.