I’ll always remember the first meal I made outside. It was pancakes out of a box and I was 8. I whisked eggs and milk into the mix, my mom lit the camp stove, and I carefully poured batter onto the skillet, trying my hardest not to touch the round puddles of flour and eggs until I saw bubbles pop up in the center. It was the most impatient I can remember being as a kid, waiting with anticipation for the moment I got to slide my crooked spatula under each cake, flip them over and watch them sizzle once more.
We were on our annual family camping trip with dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins, playing under Jeffrey pines and basking in the sun for hours on Lake Tahoe’s Nevada Beach. Running around in the dirt was fun, but what I loved most about spending a week sleeping in a tent was the excitement of firing up the camp stove outside; maple breakfast sausage, campfire apple crumble and extra crispy roasted potatoes were all served from the same hefty skillet. If you asked my parents, I’m sure the reality was that I made one or two pancakes before losing interest and running back to the beach. But I credit those early flapjack-flipping years as the start of a lifelong love for cooking and eating in the woods. The smell of melting butter on cast iron will forever take me back to those carefree summers.
Twenty years later, my recipe book has (thankfully) grown to include more than pancakes out of a box. But whether we’re caravanning to the desert with a dozen friends, parked at a pull-out before an early morning ski mission or racing to our favorite local campsite at 5pm on a Friday, the first question that pops into my mind is: What are we going to cook?
Without fail, when pondering the next recipe to try, I always turn to my 12-Inch Lodge Cast Iron Skillet. Whether it’s frying up a round of home-prepped mushroom potstickers, pouring out batter for banana chocolate chip pancakes, searing elk burgers or stirring together a heaping pan of spicy pork sesame noodles, it’s the ultimate skillet for plein air cooking. Cast iron cooking has stood the test of time, dating back to the Han Dynasty development of techniques to pour molten iron and steel into molds to create high-strength tools, weapons, and cookware. Cast iron Dutch ovens and skillets took off in Europe by the 18th century, becoming a staple in household kitchens because of their rugged, indestructible nature. To this day, cast iron is some of the least expensive yet longest-lasting cookware you can add to your kitchen.
There are plenty of fancy cookware options that add convenience to your camp kitchen: stainless-steel pots and pans, collapsible mugs and bowls, portable coffee grinders. I’m a sucker for a lightweight backpack-friendly pan, but my well-seasoned cast iron skillet shines brighter than the rest. Lightweight camping pans may pack well, but sear a burger or crisp up roasted veggies in a roaring hot cast iron skillet and you’ll be converted for life. The pan’s classic black patina provides an even, nonstick cooking surface that also retains heat to sear or fry food; and the more you use it and take care of it, the better seasoned it becomes. Sure, if you’re backpacking the cast iron skillet will drag you down, but for tailgate dinners and front country camping, there’s no excuse not to bring it along. Like any good cast iron frying pan, mine is well-loved, seasoned with the memories of spring-break tailgates, family camping trips and impromptu weekend getaways in the woods.
Another plus to the cast iron skillet while camping is that it doesn’t require soap to clean. Once you’re done cooking, use a food scraper or warm water to remove grit from the pan, then dry it completely with a towel and rub a tiny bit of oil on the surface. Voilà! You’re ready for your next meal.
The beauty of cast iron extends far beyond camp cooking. I use mine regularly for home cooking, too, but the memories in front of my skillet in camp are the ones seared deepest into my heart. Like the time my whole family stood around a gravel parking lot after a bike ride in Idaho, ravenously scooping up the homemade potstickers as soon as they left the pan. Or the time in college when I spent almost two hours slinging pancakes and bacon for 25 fellow students in a dark, crowded yurt on Cameron Pass in Colorado, finally accepting help from the guy who would become my future life partner. Or the time we pulled into a campsite in Moab, Utah, late at night, long past dinner, hungry and too exhausted to figure out what to eat—we dumped stale tortilla chips, eggs and cheese into the skillet and enjoyed campfire chilaquiles under the bright light of a full moon.
Morning or night, even when we’re scattered about watching the sunset, skipping rocks by the shore or snoozing hard in the tent, firing up the stove and dropping a pat of butter into the cast iron draws everyone back to camp, reeled in by the smell of pepper-crusted bacon or the sweet mix of burnt chocolate chips and pancake batter.
Enjoying a meal outside brings people together, and nothing has contributed to that more than my faithful cast iron skillet.
Skillet Banana Oat Pancakes
Recipe from Lily Krass’s cookbook, Beyond Skid: A Cookbook for Ski Bums
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 1 1/4 cup milk of your choice
- 2 eggs
- 1 large ripe banana
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Dash of salt
- 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil or butter, for cooking
- 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips (optional)
- 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (optional)
- Maple syrup
- Fresh berries
- Greek yogurt
Preparation at home:
Add oats to a food processor and blitz for 15 seconds until they resemble a coarse flour.
Add milk, eggs, banana, baking powder, cinnamon and salt, and blend until smooth.
Pour mix into a large jar or sealed plastic container and store in fridge or cooler until you’re ready to pack for your camping trip. Pack everything (including toppings) into your cooler to bring to camp.
Preparation at camp:
Fire up the camp stove and preheat your cast iron skillet to medium heat with 1 tbsp. butter or coconut oil.
Pour 1/4 cup of batter at a time onto the skillet, adding chocolate chips and/or blueberries if you want them.
Flip pancakes once bubbles start to form (about 2 minutes) and cook for another 2 minutes. Repeat until you’ve used all the batter, adding more butter or coconut oil as needed. As the pan heats up, the pancakes may start to cook more quickly, so turn down the burner if they start to blacken.
Top with maple syrup, berries and yogurt; or let them cool, wrap them up and enjoy them on the trail.