By Keith Sutton, Game & Fish
John Q. Camper and three of his buddies had spent weeks planning a fishing/camping trip in the mountains. Unfortunately for his friends, the naïve Mr. Camper was put in charge of bringing the cookware needed to prepare their meals.
Johnnie Boy had a nesting cookware set he used when he was a Boy Scout, so he packed that for the cooking chores. It had everything a Scout might need to prepare his meals in camp: a little aluminum skillet, two small pots and even a little coffee pot. But when it came to preparing a meal for four grown men, the cookware was hardly up to the task. The fishermen might have gone hungry had one of them not brought along a cast-iron Dutch oven in which they could cook food enough for everyone.
When the four companions later went on a hunting trip, they were much better prepared. They pitched in together and for less than $100 bought a set of stainless-steel cookware that included a big skillet, 4-quart and 8-quart cooking pots, a 6-cup coffee pot plus cooking utensils and dinnerware. With this and the Dutch oven, they were able to prepare scrumptious camp meals, everything from venison stew and omelettes to delicious cobbler and fresh fish.
Well-planned meals make a good camping trip even better. To enjoy our outdoor cooking, however, we first must purchase the proper cookware for our needs. That sounds simple, and for the most part, it is. But many variables should be considered before purchasing cookware such as pots, pans, Dutch ovens and utensils. Having the right gear will save the beginner’s bacon and make the expert’s job easier.
GENERAL CAMPING VS. LIGHTWEIGHT CAMPING
Camp cooking situations are of two basic types: general and lightweight. And the first consideration when purchasing camp cookware is “In what camp environment will I be using this product?”
In the general camp situation, the weight or bulk of the equipment is not of paramount importance. This type of camp typically is a “drive-to” camp, and you can park your vehicle near your campsite and unload your gear. Therefore, you can take along whatever you like, from heavy cast-iron Dutch ovens and skillets to gigantic cooking pots in which you can prepare gumbo for 20 hungry men.
The lightweight camp situation, on the other hand, is one in which the weight and bulk of cookware are of prime importance. You’ll typically backpack to these camps, and your cookware must be carried to the site with the rest of your equipment. Space is at a premium, so nesting cook sets (those where all components fit one inside the other to create a compact package) may be best. You’ll probably also want to consider whether to buy small, individual cooking sets for each person or a cook set with enough components to satisfy the culinary needs of the entire group. To keep weight at a minimum, forget heavy cookware items and use instead cookware made from lightweight materials such as aluminum and titanium.
HOW MANY CAMPERS FOR DINNER?
Another factor important when purchasing cookware is the number of people for whom you’ll be cooking. When cooking for one or two, smaller pots and pans may be fine. But if you’re the head chef at a camp where there are three or more people, you’ll have to look at buying bigger items.
So how do you know what size to buy? Here are general guidelines for cooking pots to get you started. Measurements are in quarts, but if the cooking item you’re considering is measured in liters, don’t worry. A quart is just slightly smaller than a liter, so the measures for this guide are interchangeable.
Less Than 1 Quart
Pots holding less than 1 quart can only serve limited use. In reality, you can’t cook a quart of food in a one-quart pot; if you fill such a pot so it doesn’t overflow, it will only hold about 3 cups. A 3/4-quart pot might hold about 2 cups. Items that size are good only for personal use – for serving a hot cup of coffee, perhaps, or a small amount of soup or stew.
One-quart pots are great when traveling solo. You can boil water for coffee or cocoa, heat soup or oatmeal or prepare a single-serving, freeze-dried meal. This is a great size if you need hot water fast, but don’t use a 1-quart pot for cooking rice or pasta. There won’t be enough water to absorb the starch, and the result will be a sticky, hard-to-clean mess.
This size can do everything a 1-quart pot can do and more. This is a good size for cooking rice or pasta for two people. It’s also excellent for simmering a stew or more elaborate meal in the field.
Two-quart pots can do everything 1-quart and 1.5-quart pots can do and then some. This is a good size when cooking for two to four people. It’s ideal for boiling large amounts of pasta or rice, and a good size for heating several freeze-dried meals.
If you’re with a larger group or car camping with the family, this is a great size to have. You can boil large amounts of pasta or slow-cook a big stew. If you’re hiking into the wilderness, however, you’ll probably want to leave this one at home.
More Than 3 Quart
The biggest pots are overkill if you’re backpacking, but are great when cooking big meals for several hungry people at deer camp or for a get-together at a park campground. When preparing bulky foods that require a lot of water to boil or steam, big pots are mighty handy.
PROS AND CONS OF DIFFERENT MATERIALS
Several materials are used to construct camp cookware, each with advantages and disadvantages.
Aluminum is widely used to make camp cookware because it’s very light, making it a good choice for backpackers, and because it conducts heat fairly well, thus making cooking quite efficient. Aluminum cookware also tends to be less expensive that most other cookware.
Health concerns have arisen however, primarily concerning certain acidic foods that may react with an uncoated aluminum surface. Another downside is that burned-on foods stick tenaciously to aluminum, which is why non-stick coatings are a good idea. Also, because aluminum is soft, it gets banged up easily.
For extreme durability and quick cleaning, stainless-steel cookware is hard to beat. It won’t scratch or dent easily, so it looks good even after years of use. The downside is stainless steel’s inability to conduct heat evenly, leading to scorched food if you don’t constantly watch what you’re cooking. Stainless-steel cookware also tends to be expensive, and next to cast iron, it’s the heaviest cookware material.
In general camping situations, where weight is not an issue, cast-iron cookware is a premium choice. Foods prepared in a properly seasoned, cast-iron Dutch oven or skillet stick very little, making cleanup a snap. No material is more durable, and cast iron heats slowly and evenly, making it ideal for all cooking, whether you’re cooking over coals or preparing a meal on a camp stove.
The downside is weight. Cast iron is the heaviest of all cookware materials, so it’s not a good choice for lightweight camping. Pricing tends to be in the mid-range.
Titanium is the newest material used for manufacturing camp cookware. It’s extremely lightweight and durable, so if you’re counting every ounce in your pack, or going on long trips where durability is an issue, titanium may be the way to go.
Titanium is expensive compared to other materials, however, and like aluminum, it conducts heat poorly. It heats quickly and stays hot, so foods may burn if you don’t tend them.
This may be the best material for the purist, lightweight backpacker, but for the average camper, it’s probably not worth the expense.
Composite cookware usually is made with stainless steel and copper or stainless steel and aluminum. The copper or aluminum typically is sandwiched between layers of stainless steel.
Composite pots and pans, especially those with copper-sandwiched bottoms, offer some advantages over plain aluminum or stainless steel. You not only get the durable, non-stick qualities of stainless steel, but copper also heats and cools quickly. As heat passes through the layer of stainless steel, it diffuses for nice, even cooking. Aluminum adds the same qualities, but is not quite as efficient as copper.
Specialized construction of composite pots adds weight, a distinct disadvantage for backcountry cooks. Also, poorly designed pots with sandwiched bottoms can break their welds, leaving you with useless cookware when the copper plate and protective stainless layer falls off.
Don’t confuse a pot that has a visible layer of copper on the bottom with a sandwiched bottom. The thin layer of copper on the outside of some pots, typically electroplated on, tends to be so thin it adds very little benefit to the cookware.
Enamel cookware is constructed from thin steel coated with a kiln-baked enamel finish. It tends to be inexpensive, looks good, is easy to clean and is hard to scratch.
Unfortunately, the enamel coating tends to chip and dent over time, and rust will appear wherever a chip occurs. Enamel cookware doesn’t have the superb cooking qualities of most other materials, either, but if expense is a major consideration, you should consider purchasing a good set of enamel cookware.
More and more, non-stick coatings are finding their way into camping cookware. Allowing for easy cleanup and helpful for cooking perfect pancakes and fried eggs, a non-stick finish on the inside is very desirable when in the field. Make sure there are no disclaimers on the cookware about using metal utensils while cooking that will scratch the surface. The latest generation of materials is tough as nails and won’t scratch easily no matter what utensils you use.
Some manufacturers also make pots and pans with a black exterior finish. You may want to consider these for several reasons. First, they’re easier to clean. Camp cookware tends to get stained from soot over time, and black finishes help hide this accumulation. Also, a black exterior absorbs more heat, boosting cooking times. Because the finish is coated or sprayed on, however, abuse in the field can scratch the finish.
UTENSILS AND ACCESSORIES
Different cooks prefer different cooking utensils. But there are standard items every camp cook needs. A serving spoon, spatula and knife (or multi-tool) will get you started, but you also may want (as needed) skewers, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, tongs, whisks, a cutting board and other optional utensils. You’ll also want tableware and drinking cups for each diner. You can buy items individually or purchase a complete cook set that has everything you need already included.
Other optional accessories include baking tins, pizza pans, coffee pots and other specialty cookware.
In addition to the items you’ll actually be cooking in or serving with, you’ll want to buy a good camp stove on which to cook as well. That’s the subject of an entire article in itself, but here are some helpful hints that will get you started.
Cartridge stoves are so named because they burn fuel contained in pressurized cartridges. These tend to be the best selection for backpackers and other outdoor cooks who must be concerned about bulk and weight. Most cartridge stoves are small, lightweight, easy to use, dependable and relatively maintenance free. They don’t require priming, and the fuels they use are clean burning. The fuel cartridges usually can be detached after use and then reattached later if they are not empty.
Liquid-gas stoves, which are fueled via refillable fuel tanks, usually are less expensive, more environmentally friendly, and hotter burning in all types of weather – even in subzero temperatures – than cartridge stoves. However, they tend to be more difficult to operate than cartridge stoves and are generally heavier and bulkier and require more cleaning. But for general camping, especially in cold weather, they probably are the best.
Before you spend your hard-earned dollars on a stove, ask yourself these questions:
1) “In what camp environment will I be using my stove?” If you’ll be in a “drive-to” camp, you won’t have to worry about weight or bulk and a multi-burner, liquid-gas stove may be the best option. And if you’re backpacking or hiking into camp, you may do best with a small, lightweight canister stove that will meet your cooking needs. Keep in mind the weight of the stove provided by the manufacturer generally includes only the stove itself and not the fuel.
2) “Where will I be traveling?” If you’re planning to visit remote areas, investigate what particular types of fuel canisters and liquid fuel are readily available and then buy your stove accordingly.
3) “What do I plan to cook?” If you’re simply boiling water for coffee or tea, a canister stove may be all you need. If gourmet trail meals are part of the plan, you may require a multi-burner, liquid-gas stove that allows cooking several dishes simultaneously.
4) “How cold is it likely to be?” If temperatures are frigid, canister stoves just don’t perform well. Avoid them if you can.
Equipped with the information just presented, you now should know more about purchasing the right cookware and camp stove for your needs. There really is no right or wrong way to make a selection. If the gear meets your culinary needs, is within your budget and doesn’t take up your entire backpack or weigh you down when out in the backcountry, then you’ve probably made a good choice.
This article was contributed by Game & Fish, a publication of Intermedia Outdoors. Visit http://www.gameandfishmag.com/index.html for more useful articles.