Cast iron wild game camp cooking in the BWCAW

After a long day of portaging, hunting, and fishing, Jack Hennessy (l) and Lukas Leaf whipped up some culinary masterpieces in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last week. (Rob Drieslein photos)

Though my camp cooking skills have improved from my “one ramen brick or two?” heyday of the early 1990s, I remain a novice. That was clear last week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness while hunting and fishing with Lukas Leaf and Jack Hennessy.

Leaf, now sporting outreach director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, previously worked as a full-time chef for a southeast Minneapolis Italian restaurant. Hennessy, a Twin Citied-based freelance outdoors writer with his own cooking blog built his culinary credentials working as a line cook during his grad school days in Spokane, Wash.

Suffice to say, with these two gentlemen on hand, I’ve never eaten as well in a wilderness setting … or any camping setting, for that matter.

The cornerstone of their camp cooking tools during our early October BWCAW trip? A pair of hefty cast iron pans. When portaging in gear, Boundary Waters campers try to shed unnecessary weight, but neither Leaf nor Hennessy considered leaving behind the 8-pound, 12-inch-plus iron skillets.

Cast iron is heavy, but iron retains heat very well, and it imparts more, better flavor to the food. That’s because cast iron is porous, so it retains residual flavor that amplifies future cooking. (Some research suggest it leaches iron into the food, too, which isn’t a bad thing.)

“My stainless steel grate on my Weber grill rarely applies a sear, as meat cools it off too quickly. Iron scoffs in the face of cold meat,” Hennessy says.

Hennessy mentioned an example of a Chicago pizzeria that uses cast-iron pans. Some people attribute the pizza’s great flavor to using these pans for decades, and when new locations open, customers often complain that the pizza is not the same. Foodies attribute the difference to the decades-old, cast-iron pans at the original location.

“Bottom line, cast iron provides a big advantage when cooking on an open flame, especially when the (October evening) temperatures were dropping around us,” Hennessy said. “Cast iron retains that heat. It takes a few minutes to heat up and apply a good sear, but it also takes longer to cool down.”

As a line cook, most of Hennessy’s professional cooking cruised at a fast and furious pace without slower-cooking cast iron skillets. But he’s developed a strong appreciation for them and the techniques in maintaining and “seasoning” iron. When you first purchase a cast iron skillet, you should season it to help prevent rust and to develop a nonstick surface. You can find mountains of debate and arguing over the exact seasoning techniques in cooking forums.

I’m not going to break that process down here, but Hennessy provided some solid links to follow if you’re interested in more information.

At home, Hennessey wipes out the dregs from his cooking from his cast iron skillet, then runs under hot water with a little soap and a clean sponge. He immediately dries it (to avoid rust) then places it on a burner on high or even in the oven. After it cools, he rubs a thin layer of flax seed oil over it, again to retain the oils and flavors that it’s accumulated.

Again, research cast iron pan cleaning a bit and some folks suggest avoiding soap altogether because it can clog the iron’s pores.

Afield, we used paper towels to wipe the skillet after cooking (then burned the paper towels), rinsed with water, reheated over the fire grate, then applied some canola oil to the pan after it cooled.

We used plastic spatulas to avoid scratching the pan, but you can find advice that says metal spatulas are just fine.

Regarding brands, Hennessy owns a Lodge Manufacturing Cast Iron skillet, a Tennessee foundry that’s been around for more than 100 years. Per Wikipedia, it’s the only American company still making cast iron pans; the rest come from overseas.

As for the results, I watched Leaf and Hennessy create some culinary masterpieces, from spatchcocked ruffed grouse with wild juniper berries to all-American bacon and eggs to a pork loin that tasted like it should be illegal. (Worth mentioning that Leaf and Hennessy rubbed those grouse down with some remarkable seasoning – dry powdered wild chanterelles and lobster mushrooms.)

All meals required a vigorous, hot campfire, which wasn’t necessarily simple given the wet conditions in border country (and across Minnesota) last week. Those of us not cooking made finding dry fuel a priority after tasting the first dishes our companions prepared.

I’m just learning about cast iron cooking, but I’ll be buying – and hauling one – myself before my next BWCAW trip.

And I won’t complain about the weight.

For more cooking tips from Jack Hennessy, check out his Facebook page or blog  Other folks who made our trip possible last week included Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Rockwood Lodge.

The author, hauling a canoe over the Stairway Portage between Duncan and Rose lakes off the Gunflint Trail last week, may or may not have also had a cast iron pan in his backpack during this video.

Find wild game recipes by Chefs Lukas and Hennessy in the Outdoor News Taste of the Wild feature.

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