I’ve tried many different types of skillets and pans for cooking on a campfire.
When it comes down to it, I have found that only two types have the strength to hold up to outdoor conditions.
So what kind of skillets can you use on a campfire? You can use any kind of skillet on a campfire as long as you know how to do so but the two best skillets to use are cast iron or carbon steel. Both of these types are best for beginners or someone who does not want to worry about damaging their skillet.
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Cast Iron Skillets
Cast iron comes in as the best skillet to use on an open fire due to its unsurpassed durability, long-lived reputation, and heat retention.
It can be used both elevated over an open flame or placed directly on top of hot-glowing coals. Cast iron will not bend, dent, or warp.
Seasoning cast iron.
“Seasoning” is a task that you must do to take full advantage of your cast iron skillet. This is a process that gives cast iron it’s non-stick ability that you’ll need to prevent all of your food from sticking to the pan.
To season your skillet, simply coat the entire pan with a thin layer of cooking oil or shortening. Once coated, place the skillet, upside down, in the oven at 350 degrees for one hour. Place a cookie sheet on the lower rack to catch any grease that may drip from the pan in the heating process.
When you remove it from the oven, let it cool to a warm temperature, wipe the excess oil off the pan, and it’s ready to use!
Seasoning a cast iron skillet at camp
If you do not season your skillet before you get to the campsite, don’t fret! You can season your skillet over an open fire by rubbing oil or shortening on to the cooking surface, placing the pan in the fire, and allowing to heat until the oil begins to smoke.
Again, remove the pan from the heat, let it cool to a warm temperature, and wipe the excess oil from the pan.
Seasoning will have to be done on occasion, but as long as you clean your cast iron properly, it will not have to be done often.
Each time you cook with your pan, the non-stick layer that has been created by seasoning, will become more and more effective. This makes cast iron one of the best camping skillets you can ever buy.
Buy a pre-seasoned skillet
If long preparation isn’t really your thing, you can purchase seasoned cast iron. Although this is a bit of an easier option up-front, the pan may need to be re-seasoned after a few uses as the nonstick layer is never a permanent thing with any cast iron cookware.
The downside of cast iron
One disadvantage of cast iron is that it gets hot-spots. This simply means that the skillet does not heat evenly, and the area directly over the flame will be significantly hotter than the rest of the cooking surface. This isn’t a bad issue over hot coals as much as it is when cooking on a stove.
Although hot-spots are a true disadvantage, cast iron retains heat better than any other skillet. If you’re preparing food for multiple people, who may be eating at different times, this is a huge advantage over other pans, as it will keep your food hotter, longer.
Cleaning Cast Iron
Cleaning your cast iron skillet properly is crucial to keeping your frying pan in great, non-stick condition. To prevent buildup and dried on food, always make sure to clean your pan immediately after use. If you have burned on food, use a mild, non-abrasive sponge, and coarse sea salt and water mixture to break up the food.
Never soak your cast iron. Soaking the skillet in water can, and will, cause rust at a much more rapid rate than you would think. Always rinse and dry thoroughly when cleaning up after cooking.
Use soap only when needed.
Most people say to “never use soap on your cast iron”. Dishwashing detergents are designed to cut grease, which will reverse the seasoning process that you did before you used your pan. If you do feel like the skillet is too dirty and needs a deep scrub, there’s nothing wrong with a good hot, soapy scrub.
However, it should not be necessary after each use. Thoroughly dry the pan before putting it away. If you find the need to clean your pan in this manner, it will need to be re-seasoned before it’s next use.
Carbon Steel Skillets
Steel skillets are the second-best option to use on an open fire. Quality steel skillets are a little trickier to shop for, as there a lot of cheap, flimsy, and poor-quality steel pans out there. Cheaper is not always better.
Be aware that the frying pans you find at a yard sale or thrift store may not be designed to stand up to the rigorous heat of a campfire. Never purchase a pan with a plastic handle for the obvious reason, it will melt on the first attempt to cook over a campfire!
There are two main types of steel skillets on the market today: stainless steel and carbon steel.
If you do the proper shopping, some steel pans can actually be a better option than cast iron, but this comes with a steeper price.
Carbon steel skillets are somewhat of a crossover between a stainless-steel skillet and cast iron cookware. A carbon steel skillet will also need to be seasoned to retain its non-stick properties. Seasoning a carbon steel skillet is very similar to seasoning cast iron.
Seasoning steel skillets
To season your carbon steel, simply coat the cooking surface with cooking oil, heat until the oil starts to smoke, then wipe the excess oil. It’s as simple as that! Slightly easier than cast iron, as it doesn’t require you to place the skillet in the oven for an extended time.
The advantage of steel over cast iron
One advantage that carbon steel has over cast iron is heat distribution. Carbon steel tends to heat faster, and more evenly than cast iron, making it a bit easier to cook on.
Carbon steel frying pans with legs are also a great way to go. These are normally larger than the normal frying pan.
The legs allow you to place the pan over the coals without rigging a platform. The disadvantage is the legs only allow one pan use. They are designed to fit the pan that comes with the legs.
Stainless steel is another option for cooking over an open fire. Although typically not quite as effective, stainless steel skillets can be seasoned in the same way as the carbon steel skillets.
What to Avoid When Choosing A Skillet
- Non-stick coatings are a major thing to avoid for several reasons. Many non-stick coatings can be harmful to your health if heated too much or too quickly.
Although they have no odor and you cannot see them, these coatings can release fumes when not used on a controlled-heat stove.
In addition to the fumes, most non-stick pans require specific utensils to avoid scratching or chipping the coating off into your food. Breathing in fumes is definitely bad, but it’s even worse if the coating is literally in your dinner.
- Aluminum skillets are one type of skillet to avoid when you plan to cook over an open fire. The typical temperature of a campfire is around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about 800 degrees more than it takes to melt aluminum. No one wants melted aluminum in their food!
Building the Perfect Fire for Cooking
Building the correct fire is imperative to making sure your skillet performs at its best when cooking over an open fire. Campfire cooking is not about the biggest flame, or the prettiest fire, it’s about heat.
Coals are what make the perfect cooking surface. Without coals you’ll get inconsistent heat, a fast-dying fire, and in the end, undercooked food. This is why building a strategic fire is so important.
To build the perfect fire for cooking, you must start planning before you even begin to gather wood. Make sure to grab plenty of small sticks and twigs, as these will be used for both starting your fire and maintaining your fire if it starts to die.
Second and equally as important, make sure that you get plenty of large pieces of wood. Once these begin to burn, they will produce those large coals that give you your primary heat source.
Building your fire with the cabin method or teepee method is the most effective practice for a fire that you plan to use for cooking. These fires tend to produce more coals in an evenly spread out area.
The cabin method is when you cross your wood into a square shape, making a very even stack that looks like a box. This is why it’s called the “cabin method”. Simply light your small sticks and twigs in the center and stack your larger pieces around the fire to form the box shape.
The teepee method is just as self-explanatory. Build your small fire with the sticks and twigs, and lean sticks against each other making a cone-shaped formation. Although you won’t get a flat surface to set your skillet on with this method, it tends to produce coals much faster than the cabin method.
Depending on your preferred method, you will also need two flat rocks or pieces of wood that you can place in the fire when you’re ready to cook and use them to balance your skillet on. When placing these into the fire, make sure they’re spaced just enough to have plenty of coals directly under the skillet, without risking your pan spilling out into the fire.
No matter which frying pan you decide to use, the ability to fry over a campfire is almost a necessity on any camping adventure. Whether it’s bacon for breakfast or frying up the catch of the day, the capability to fry over a campfire will make the difference in every camping experience!
Some related questions
Can you cook with stainless steel over a campfire?
Yes, if you season the skillet this is possible. Using stainless steel requires a little more work as even a season skillet can stick if heated too fast.
This makes them best suited for someone that knows how to properly use a stainless steel skillet.
Can you cook brats over a campfire?
Yes, but it takes a bit of experience to keep them evenly cooked.