Cast iron cookware is a popular choice for camping. Cast iron is extremely durable and can handle the high heat of a campfire.
The key to using cast iron and actually enjoying it is to season the cookware first. Cast iron is porous and the seasoning process fills in the cast iron. Seasoning will give the cast iron a non stick finish.
If you don’t already have a cast iron skillet, Lodge is a popular choice because of its high quality, long history, and wide availability. Old cast iron like Griswald can be picked up at yard sales or flea markets. Many have a great finish from years of use but command an especially high price as cast iron has become somewhat of a collectors item.
Lodge cast iron comes pre-seasoned from the factory. Cheaper brands usually don’t. The eventual (and slow) way to season cast iron is to cook in it. A lot. Grab some bacon and start frying. Then fry some more (especially over a fire). Seriously, when its time to camp, pounds of bacon just magically appear, beg to be fried, and you’re doing the cast iron a favor.
The Oven Method
I wanted to kick start this process though. There’s numerous tips and guides on handling cast iron or seasoning it in the oven. Don’t do it. Its a trap. Your house will fill with smoke. The oven trick involves lightly coating the cast iron (this will work for any cast iron whether its skillets or dutch ovens or griddles) with oil then baking it at around 375 degrees F (around 190-200 degrees C). The oil goes through a process called polymerization that carbonizes the oil fusing it to the iron. Whatever. More importantly, this is what gives cast iron a beautiful shiny black coating.
Oil and Smoke
The problem is smoke. Lots of it. A high smoke point oil like grapeseed oil is best. Olive oil is terrible. Butter, bacon grease, and other animal fats will work too. Baking cast iron coated in oil will result in smoke.
My advice? Take it outside. A regular gas or charcoal grill will work great for seasoning cast iron. The grill removes the mess and smoke from your home.
Grill Your Cast Iron
The process is the same as using the oven. Give the cast iron a very light coat of oil making sure to cover the entire piece. Seasoning helps to prevent rust so seasoning the outside as well as the inside is important. Place it upside down on the grill grates so that excess will drip off. Too much oil can leave a sticky residue. Turn the grill on low for about an hour. If your grill has a thermometer, check it occasionally to make sure its still in that 375 degree range. After an hour, turn off the grill and allow the cast iron to cool on its own. Once cooled, the cast iron will have a beautiful shiny black finish.
If it has a sticky coating, fire up the grill again and stick it back on for another hour or so. Repeat this process until the cast iron is smooth.
The process for a charcoal grill is similar. Light the charcoal, set the cookware over it upside down, close the grill, and wait. The charcoal will burn itself out and the cast iron will eventually cool on its own.
Now that the cast iron is seasoned, go use it. The more cast iron is used, the better it will become.