Traditional Equipment Myths

by Kathy and Bruce Jacobs

We believe that one of the main reasons people have problems cooking outdoors is the equipment they use. This article will de-bunk several of the main myths associated with outdoor cooking equipment.

We were both trained in the Girl Scout/Boy Scout tradition. It is our belief that the best equipment for you is:

  • Equipment you are comfortable using
  • Equipment you can comfortably afford
  • Equipment you probably already have

We try not pay homage to cooking techniques that were inspired by what could be produced quickly for the military during wartime. Cooking and material science has improved tremendously since World War I.

The cheap aluminum mess kits that many are given to cook on have only two good qualities. They are very light weight and they are as inexpensive as possible if you are buying cookware for the sole purpose of cooking outdoors.

Myth: The folding light weight aluminum mess kits are the best for novice cooks to learn to cook with.

If you were going to fry an egg for your breakfast on your stove at home would you use a mess kit? Do you see anyone cooking on there home range with a mess kit? No, because the frying pan is so light weight, it is hard to control the heat. The hot spots on the bottom of the pan (and helped by the material the pan is made of) make it very hard to cleanup when you are done. If you were going to teach your son/daughter to cook by frying an egg at home would you have them use their mess kit? Probably not. You would want them to have the best chance possible to succeed.

Myth: The lightweight folding mess kits are needed because they are used for backpacking. Any weight in outdoor cooking equipment is a sin.

Backpacking cooking is now done almost entirely with freeze dried foods. If possible filters or other means are used to obtain water on the trail instead of bringing it with you. You should not expect to backpack with bacon, hamburgers and eggs, as the accompanying weight of water and the overhead/weight of keeping it cool makes it too hard to carry. If you are backpacking you heat water to boiling. Add the food. Put a lid on the food. Eat the food. Clean up your dishes. If you go to a back packing store and look at the high end equipment, the better quality cooking equipment is made of stainless steel.

But if you aren't backpacking, you don't need lightweight, you need strength and durability.

Myth: Indoor cooking equipment should not be used outdoors. It is too fragile.

Indoor cooking equipment is intended to be used hundreds of times. The durability standards for inexpensive outdoor cooking equipment are not nearly as high. Most outdoor cooking tools are going to be used only a few times in their lifetime. Yes, some people go camping most weekends, however unless they are backpackers or have similar weight requirements, you will probably find at least some indoor equipment in use.

There is some truth to the above statement however. Some indoor equipment can be damaged by use outdoors. Most damage is caused by misuse of the equipment. A surprising number of people have never cooked on a gas stove. Because of this they do not realize how hot a frying pan can get when placed on the heat with no food in it. On an electric range, you can put a frying pan on the stove turn on the heat and slowly add food to it. The delay in heating the burner allows the food to get into the pan before it gets excessively hot. Trying the same over propane burner or over a hot fire can be the end of non stick coated pan. This problem has two solutions, education and using a higher quality, thicker pans. If you are not familiar with cooking on a non electric stove you can innocently do damage to almost any frying pan or pot. (We have never seen anyone cause permanent harm to cast iron with just heat). Learning to control the heat is always important. The heat that causes a non-stick pan to bubble will frequently damage the cheap mess kits but it is harder to appreciate the damage.

We avoid anything made of glass. The world of the outdoors is a rough and tumble place. Some places even have rules against glass. Anything really thin should be avoided in both the kitchen and outdoors. It can be more important to have thicker bottoms on your pans when cooking over a fire or when cooking on gas stoves.

When cooking in a kitchen the source of heat is very controlled and localized. When cooking outdoors this should be the case as well. Sometimes a lack of control can show problems that are not as obvious when using traditional cooking equipment. If your cooking fire is too large, the heat will spread out and get the handle too hot. If you have a traditional metal handle, you expect the problem of a hot handle and use a pot holder to remove it from the fire. The problem here is not the equipment, put the lack of control of the heat.

Myth: I can not afford to buy indoor equipment for outdoor use.

The simplest solution to this is to use your existing indoor equipment outside. When we do cooking classes we use almost entirely indoor equipment with the exceptions of Dutch ovens and propane stoves. Some equipment is quite a bit more expensive when purchased for outdoor use. The large boiling pots that we use to heat water to wash dishes are very expensive when purchased from a camping supply store. However, we can buy large tamale (or canning) pots which can be used to heat this water, are easier to clean and weigh a lot less for $US15 or less on sale.

Another example is Revereware, other similarly "expensive" pots. We have two Revereware, copper bottomed pots that go with us on every outing. One is a spaghetti pot, the other a large sauce pan. Class participants are always amazed when these pots and their lids are pulled out of the boxes. However, each of the pieces was bought at outlet stores. The lids cost less than $US5 apiece, the sauce pan was $US15, and the spaghetti pot was $US10. Now, there were dents in each of the pots, but we didn't care. These pots hold up great to any outdoor cooking environment and are still easy to clean.

Myth: I should have a separate cooking set up for outdoor cooking

To this question we generally reply: Why should you? The added expense of two sets of measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoons, knives, and cutting boards leaves less money to spend on the things you really need, such as good Dutch ovens, strong pots and pans, and comfortable outdoor living equipment.

The other justification for separate outdoor equipment cooking equipment is to prevent germs from spreading to your indoor equipment. This is a valid concern. However, if you wash everything thoroughly when you get home, there will be no germs to spread. Since you would want to do this anyway with your outdoor equipment, why have the split?