Cooking over a campfire is a tradition that many campers have considered vital to their experience for ages. Though some people prefer to use modern gadgets like camping stoves, those who prefer to prepare their food the old fashioned way need a durable and handy skillet available.
Cast iron skillets have been around for centuries; most people know about these and use them for almost everything, including campfire cooking. The trouble is, though, that cast iron skillets can be cumbersome and heavy, and they require a lot of special care.
As time goes on, more and more campers have expressed their need for a cast iron alternative. One alternative that has been gaining traction in recent years is carbon steel. Little is known about this cast iron substitute in camping circles, and some fear that it might not be safe for campfire cooking.
If you are one of these concerned campers, stick around because we’re going to give you all of the info that you need on carbon steel cookware and answer the question, “Is carbon steel safe for campfire cooking?”
First, we will give you a direct answer to, is carbon steel safe for campfire cooking?
Carbon steel cookware is safe for cooking on a campfire. There is only a 1% difference in the make-up of carbon steel over cast iron. This small difference not only means that carbon steel may be slightly better than cast-iron for a campfire but they are just as safe to cook in over a campfire.
Be sure to read through this whole article as we will break down not only the differences between carbon steel and cast iron but we will also tell you how they compare to each other. We wil also show the pros and cons of using carbon steel over a campfire.
Carbon Steel v. Cast Iron: What’s the Difference?
As a camper, you likely have used cast iron cookware in the past to do all of your campfire cooking. You trust these skillets and many other campers do, too. That being said, you may be wondering how carbon steel differs from cast iron and if it could really be an improvement.
At the most basic level, carbon steel contains more iron than cast iron skillets do. Carbon steel cookware is typically composed of 99% iron and 1% carbon while cast iron contains 98% iron and 2% carbon.
The differences are important because they affect the properties of the cookware you will be using. Carbon makes cookware more brittle and disrupts the grain pattern. Carbon steel, in this case, is more durable than cast iron.
Because carbon steel has a uniform grain structure unlike cast iron, it can be shaped and molded into thin sheets. As a result, carbon steel cookware is lighter than cast iron.
While carbon steel and cast iron are very similar in performance, the differences can make carbon steel more appealing to many campers.
If you are interested in finding out about all the different types of skillets you can use on a campfire and how to use them, you will want to read an article that we wrote here.
Carbon Steel v. Cast Iron: Similarities
Now, in order to determine whether or not carbon steel cookware is safe for campfire cooking, we need to go over the similarities between this material and cast iron. You know that cast iron can withstand a campfire, but is carbon steel similar enough to pass the safety test?
Your most pressing question when noting similarities between the two materials is probably whether or not you have to season carbon steel skillets. Unfortunately, this is one way in which carbon steel is similar to its cast-iron counterpart. If you don’t season the skillet before you go camping, it’ll be sure to rust, which makes it definitely unsafe for any campfire cooking.
However, both carbon steel and cast iron can withstand high temperatures without accruing damage as other cookware would. This makes carbon steel much safer to cook with over an open flame where the temperature can’t be controlled at all times.
Carbon Steel: Safe for Campfire Cooking
The verdict is in. Carbon steel cookware is safe for campfire cooking. Its similarities to cast iron give it the strength needed to withstand the high temperatures and the longevity to give you many more enjoyable camping meals for years to come.
However, is carbon steel an improvement on the tried and true cast iron? We’ll let you decide after going over the pros and cons of camp cooking with it.
Carbon Steel: The Benefits
There are several benefits to using carbon steel cookware when cooking over a campfire. As long as you have seasoned your carbon steel skillet beforehand, that is. If you don’t perform this first step, your skillet will become worthless.
One major benefit of using a carbon steel pan/skillet on your camping trip is that it will be much lighter than its cast-iron brother. If you need to pack light, this cookware is the most ideal! This is especially good news for backpackers because…
Carbon steel can cook just about anything! This cookware is so versatile that you can prepare almost any meal in it. Cast iron is similar but combined with the added benefit of being less heavy, carbon steel is perfect for most campers, including backpackers.
Carbon steel pans/skillets heat food more evenly than cast iron in many cases. The worst thing that can happen when you are cooking over a campfire is for your food to burn and be inedible while other spots are cold and undercooked. After all, you can’t just run back to the supermarket and get more food. (You could, but it would take a long time and defeat the purpose of a nature retreat.) Carbon steel will ensure that your food is cooked as evenly as possible so you can enjoy your meal in peace and waste no valuable resources.
It is the consensus of other campers and even professional chefs that carbon steel pans heat up more quickly than cast iron. When you’re camping, the last thing you want to do is spend hours waiting for your pan to get hot enough to cook food in. This is a trivial detail when you are cooking at home on a proper stove, but it can be a real relief when doing all of your meal prep over a campfire.
Carbon Steel: Downsides
Overall, carbon steel pans are an excellent choice for campfire cooking. They are versatile, light, and easy to use – however, with every product comes a few potential deal-breakers that you should be aware of before you buy.
Because carbon steel heats quickly, you get less temperature control when cooking over an open flame. You’ll need to prepare your meals quickly so you don’t burn your food. Cast-iron skillets may heat at a slower rate, that’s true, but they give you more time to cook if you can’t whip something up quickly.
As is true of a cast iron pan, your carbon steel will be dangerous to handle after it heats up unless you have safety mitts and a lot of space to maneuver with it. The handle gets extremely hot; you won’t be able to touch it with bare fingers unless you want to take a trip to the hospital. However, you would encounter this issue with just about any cookware you would be using otherwise.
Carbon steel pans require maintenance just as cast iron pans do. You must season them first to ensure that they won’t rust, and then you have to periodically season them again. (If you don’t know how to season a pan, take a look at this article for proper methods and advice.) When it comes to clean up, you also have to follow certain rules to make sure that you do not rub the season away. If you don’t want to spend time maintaining your cookware, you should find an alternative to both carbon steel and cast iron.
If you would like to know more about cast iron as well as how to season cast iron and carbon steel, try this article that we wrote.
Is Cast Iron Good for Camping? (pros and cons, seasoning, and care)
Tips for Campfire Cooking With Carbon Steel
If you do decide to make your campfire meals with a carbon steel pan, you need to keep a couple of things in mind. This will allow you to make delicious food without incident.
- Don’t complicate the recipes. When cooking with carbon steel, you need ingredients that will cook at around the same temperature range. If you try and make complicated meals, you could end up with some ingredients overcooked while the others aren’t cooked enough. If you cook these things separately, you should do so quickly or the first ingredients will cool down.
- Bring a thick oven mitt. Just as you would with a cast iron skillet, you need to bring an oven mitt on your camping trip. The handle of the carbon steel pan will be too hot to handle, as was mentioned before. Take safety measures to prevent burns.
The Verdict on Campfire Cooking with Carbon Steel
Now you know that carbon steel pans are safe to cook with over a campfire, but you may still be unsure of whether or not tossing out your cast iron is really a good idea. The truth of the matter is that your situation dictates which type of pan is better for you.
If you plan to pack light and can make simple meals that do not require many ingredients that need to be cooked all at different temperatures, carbon steel is a great choice for you! If you’re cooking for a host of other campers, carbon steel might get too hot to handle very quickly and can leave the last of your food burned.
Overall, both pans are safe to use and will last you a long time if you take care of them properly. Carefully consider the food you will be preparing and how many people you will be cooking for over your campfire before making a decision either way.
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