The Dirtbag's Guide To Cast Iron Cooking
You’ve probably seen it: your climbing partner’s cast iron. It might be haphazardly thrown into a Rubbermaid container in the back of a Subaru, or maybe it’s lovingly tucked into a tiny cupboard in a Sprinter van. Regardless, no self-proclaimed dirtbag’s cooking kit is complete without a cast iron pan. They’re indestructible, dirt cheap, and — if they come with a well-fitting lid — can be used to fry, scramble, grill, or bake just about anything.
Frying is easy, but baking takes a little more finesse. The concept is simple: frying, scrambling, and grilling use high-intensity heat sources focused on the bottom of the pan, but baking uses lower temperatures that are more evenly distributed throughout the dish. This has classically been done with a cast iron Dutch oven in a campfire, where you can easily stack ingredients into the pot, close the lid, and scoop coals over the whole container. But it can also be done on a grill or over a camp stove: just turn the heat source to low, cover the dish (ideally with a well-fitting cast iron lid, but anything —included a double-layer of aluminum foil — will do), and do your best to diffuse the heat. It’ll take longer than you think, but be patient. It’s difficult to overcook casseroles in a Dutch oven.
Here are a few of our favorite easy recipes, inspired by the upcoming holidays:
Ingredients: Sausage (meat or vegetarian), potato cubes (fresh or frozen), chopped vegetables (also fresh or frozen), Bisquick (you know, the powdered biscuit mix you can buy in most grocery stores).
Prep work: Chop all ingredients into bite-sized pieces. If the meat and/or potatoes aren’t pre-cooked, fry them in the cast iron pan until they’re cooked through and tender. Add chopped vegetables, then stir the veggie-potato-meat concoction together. In a separate bowl, mix the Bisquick according to the recipe on the back of the box — it should look like a lumpy biscuit batter. Pour the batter over the veggie-potato-meat concoction, then cover. Bake—in a campfire, over a camping stove, or on a grill—until the Bisquick no longer looks raw. Serve and enjoy.
Ingredients: A package of stale (or fresh) tortillas, a can or two of beans, a can or two of chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese. Optional: jalapenos, fresh chopped onion, avocado.
Prep work: Tear your tortillas into chip-sized chunks. Put them in your cast iron pan with the beans and chopped tomatoes and mix together. (Optional: add finely chopped onion, cubed potato, and/or pre-cooked meat.) Top with shredded cheese. Cover and bake via whatever method is handy until the tortillas are soft and the mixture is heated all the way through, then remove from heat. Scoop into bowls, then garnish with fresh avocado, chopped cilantro, hot sauce, etc. For bonus points, serve with a fried egg.
Ingredients: Fresh fruit, instant oatmeal, butter and/or coconut oil, brown sugar.
Prep work: Chop whatever fresh fruit is in season (berries, apples, nectarines, peaches, etc.), then toss the fruit into the bottom of your cast-iron pan. Mix a couple of spoonfuls of sugar (and, if you feel like it, powdered cinnamon, ginger, cloves, etc.) in with the fruit. For the topping, use a separate bowl to mix a packet or two of instant oatmeal with some butter until the mixture gets crumbly. Sprinkle over the fruit mixture, cover, then bake until the fruit is squishy. To impress your belay buddies, serve with whipped cream.
Still working to master the technique? Try these tips:
—Season the shit out of your cast iron. To season, cover the cooking surfaces with oil, butter, or bacon fat, then leave on low heat for as long as possible. It’s the best imaginable nonstick coating, and it’s way better for your body than Teflon.
—Never wash your cast iron with soap—that’ll remove the precious seasoning from the cast iron, which will make things stick to the pan. If food gets stuck to the bottom, use a plastic scraper or a regular issue putty knife (with rounded edges) to scrape off the tough stuff, then scrub well with water and an abrasive sponge.
—Make sure that you pre-cook the potentially dangerous ingredients: meat, eggs, raw potatoes, etc. Once you’ve cooked the sausage, it’s hard to screw up the pot pie—but you don’t want to be the guy who serves raw meat or eggs.
—Keep the heat low. Lower than you think. It’s easy to burn the bottom of a dish and leave the top raw, but it takes patience to let the heat percolate gently through a whole Dutch oven.
—Resist the urge to check on your masterpiece every thirty seconds. Baking takes longer than you think, and every time you crack the lid you’re letting out heat. Trust the process, and you might just be blown away.
Photos courtesy of Bryan Aulick.