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What is the best cookware for camping?

Disclaimer: This article is intended for people that want to eat real food outdoors, we are not talking about sub 3 minute boil times. 

 

Have you noticed that all seasoned outdoor chefs always cook using Cast Iron or Carbon Steel? If you have ever attempted to cook over a campfire with thin and lightweight cookware you might understand - you probably burnt food onto the pot and spent the next fortnight trying to clean it.

 

To get an understanding of which cookware is the most suitable for your needs, we will give you a brief guide which outlines the key differences between materials and how the outdoor environment affects cooking.
 

Indoor vs. Outdoor

Regulating temperatures in your home kitchen is easy, you turn a knob, and the temperature increases or decreases. High winds blowing out the flame on your hob is uncommon indoors. It is these two things (wind and temperature control) that make outdoor cooking such a dark art.

 

When cooking over a campfire you can't dial down the flames with the turn of a knob, you have to skillfully coax the fire into a workable heat source. When you put your onions into your pan to soften, you can never truly know if it's going to boil your onions or burn them so badly that they fuse with the bottom of the pan. If you're lucky, you will have achieved a gentle heat, and delicious sweet onions.

Have you ever been starving while cooking a meal outdoors but the wind has other ideas? Sometimes the best wind defenders still don't cut it. One minute your food is cooking, then next it's stopped. You turn up the gas to accommodate the wind but then your food catches and burns.

Most cookware is designed to react quickly to changes in temperature and this is seen as a positive when cooking indoors. The opposite is true when cooking outdoors, we want slow changes. We want Heat Retention.

What is heat capacity (heat retention)?

Heat Capacity aka Heat Retention is arguably the most important factor when selecting high-performance outdoor cookware.

Heat capacity is like a battery. Imagine that when you place your cookware on a heat source it begins charging. When that heat source is turned off (wind blowing), the battery begins to drain. The bigger the battery, the longer your food keeps cooking. Having lightweight cookware is like having a tiny battery - when you unplug the charging cable, it quickly drops to 0% and turns off (food stops cooking).

Ok, so Heat Retention is good for outdoor cooking, but what materials are best?

MATERIAL

VOLUMETRIC HEAT CAPACITY           (J/K.m )

3

3

10

Carbon Steel

3925

Copper

3486

Stainless steel

3750

Cast Iron

3128

Aluminium

2366

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BEST

WORST

Should I have a coating on my cookware?

A number of years ago non-stick coatings were demonised. In the production of PTFE (non-stick) coatings, a toxic chemical PFOA from the group of chemicals PFAS was found to cause devastation to our environment and pose a significant health risk to customers. Many still debate the health implications and you will find most new marketed "safe, non-stick" cookware is now ceramic. If you want to guarantee your cookware is risk-free, make sure it doesn't contain PTFE.

We believe all coated cookware is unsuitable for cooking outdoors. PTFE begins to break down at 260 degrees centigrade - that's not very hot. It's pretty easy to accidentally get your pan hotter than that on a campfire or your powerful gas stove. Regardless of the potential health risk, you are damaging your equipment!

The same goes for ceramic/enamel coatings. Outdoor products are meant to be tough, ceramic coatings are brittle and will soon chip, leaving your beautiful and expensive cookware useless.

If you really want a coating on your cookware, hard anodised (without non-stick) coatings are durable enough to use outdoors and relatively inexpensive. Just don't expect it to last more than a few years.

Uncoated cookware

Aluminium*, Cast Iron, Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel are all safe to cook in without a coating. The beauty of Cast Iron and Carbon Steel is that you can create your own non-stick layer using nothing more than cooking oil. This process is called seasoning. Seasoning is like a DIY coating, the major benefit is that it can be maintained and actually improves with use. Uncoated Aluminium will degrade faster than any other metals, which is why it is typically coated.

*It is important to note that Aluminium has previously been linked to Alzheimer's disease but there is no conclusive evidence supporting the theory. Even if this were true, the amount of Aluminium that finds it's way into your body from cookware is negligible. We see no reason to be concerned with cooking on bare aluminium.

Sustainability

There are three major factors to consider when selecting low-impact cookware: the impact of creating the cookware, how long will it last and how easy is it to recycle?

Cast Iron and Carbon Steel release the least amount of Co2 and use the least amount of energy in production. This is followed by Stainless Steel. Aluminium production releases a whopping 5 times more Co2 and uses twice the energy (kg per kg) when compared with Cast Iron and Carbon Steel.

Frying pans are a culprit to a throw-away economy. Most people expect to replace a non-stick pan every 3 years. This isn't good enough. Select cookware for longevity. Generally, anything that is uncoated will last far longer.

The most recyclable cookware is made from one singular material. Stainless Steel and Aluminium are easy to recycle individually, but once bonded together (e.g. 3-ply) the material is very difficult to separate and recycle. The same goes for coated cookware, you will find that most recycling centres do not accept cookware with ceramic or PTFE non-stick coatings. The one exception is Hard Anodised cookware, this can easily be recycled.

The definitive list of cookware materials that are safe to use on a campfire

Uncoated Aluminium

Pros: Lightweight, even heat distribution

Cons: Can make your food taste metallic, poor heat retention

Hard Anodised Aluminium (no "non-stick" layer)

Pros: Lightweight, even heat distribution

Cons: poor durability, poor heat retention

Stainless Steel

Pros: Corrosion resistance, longevity

Cons: Food sticks, uneven heat distribution

Stainless Steel Clad Aluminium

Pros: Corrosion resistance, longevity

Cons: Food sticks, heavy

Uncoated Cast Iron

Pros: Longevity, DIY non-stick, exceptional heat retention

Cons: Very Heavy, acidic sauces damage seasoning layer

Uncoated Carbon Steel

Pros: Longevity, DIY non-stick, good heat retention

Cons: Heavy, acidic sauces damage seasoning layer

The ultimate high-performance outdoor cookware materials

The best cooking performance - Uncoated Cast Iron

There is no doubt that a 10KG Cast Iron Dutch oven is going to produce some amazing food on the fire. It has remained a favourite for a good reason, it really does have unbeatable cooking performance and that's all down to its exceptional heat capacity. The major drawback is weight, and it's a biggie. Even for car camping, it is a pain to carry.

The best balance of cooking performance and weight - Uncoated Carbon Steel

Carbon Steel shares the same great characteristics of Cast Iron: DIY non-stick, excellent longevity and large heat capacity. As Carbon Steel is tougher than Cast Iron it can be made thinner and therefore lighter. This is a huge advantage over Cast Iron.

The least maintenance - Stainless Steel clad Aluminium

If looking after your kit isn't your thing then Stainless Steel is the way to go. Do not buy thin Stainless Steel cookware if you plan to cook real food outdoors, make sure it has an aluminium disk or better still 3-ply. Anything more than 3-ply is just a pissing contest in our opinion.

Whats more...

The three cookwares named above are not limited to outdoor cooking. You are looking at the three most versatile pieces of cookware you can own. Seamlessly go from home to van to campfire to pizza oven. Just make sure they don't have a plastic or wooden handle!