Backcountry cooking doesn’t have to be all freeze-dried mush. It can be delicious, satisfying and primitive. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about eating a steak in the backcountry that makes it taste so much better. Maybe it’s the starvation… hmmm.
Here’s what you’ll need to nail it on a BWCA camp steak dinner:
- Camp Stove & Fuel
- Cast Iron Pan
- Cleaning Brush & Paper Towels
- Coconut Oil (easiest oil to carry in)
- Instant Mashed Potato Packet
- Water, filtered/treated
Camp Stove & Fuel
We prepare our steaks using a propane fueled camp stove. With the cast irons being so heavy, I like to use a low sitting stove. It’s less likely to tip over. That’s why we use my parent’s Colman camp stove when they are along. We also have a single burner that sits atop the fuel tank, a smaller cast iron would be required if using that style. The two burner also works well for preparing the steaks and the potatoes at the same time.
Cast Iron can also be used over a fire. If using this method, there are three things to keep in mind. First, cooking over a fire does not allow for even cooking. Second, it’s the hot coals that’s important, not the flame. Last, the soot is annoying to clean off of the pan and blackens everything it touches. Bonus number four, we usually have a fire ban while camping in the later summer months anyway. This year it has already started in June with the fire bans.
It is important to bring a well seasoned cast iron pan. Don’t pack a brand new one, it’ll cause a sticky and frustrating mess. Test out your pan on your camp stove prior to your trip to ensure it fits on the burner and that your steak size will fit in the pan.
Steak Cuts & Prep
This meal can vary greatly in cost. We acquire high quality steaks from our local butcher for this trip, but that isn’t necessary. Good steaks can be purchased on sale at the grocery store too. Our favorite is Ribeye beef steaks for the BWCA. These are tender and flavorful, and cooking on the cast iron always adds a little something. We also recently prepared a filet mignon, yum!
A Word on Bones: Bring your favorite cut of beef, but a word of caution; avoid bone-in steaks. They’ll fry up just fine and be delicious, but the bone takes up space in a small pan, and when disposed of, it can poke a hole in the trash bag that must be packed out. Bones cannot be buried in the BWCA. It’s less fuss with boneless cuts, even if you’re sacrificing a bit of flavor.
Seasoning: Season your steaks ahead of time. Doing so will eliminate a step out in the woods, allow the steak to soak in the flavor, and remove unnecessary items to pack in (like seasoning and marinades). We prefer a dry rub, but you can us a marinade as well. Keep in mind that you have to pack everything out. A bag of marinade is bound to cause a mess.
Freezing: Once the steaks are properly seasoned, wrap them in freezer paper and freeze them completely solid. Having them completely frozen will allow them to last longer. Steaks that have been thoroughly frozen will assist in keeping the cooler cold.
Transport: A good quality cooler will be needed for transporting these scrumptious chunks of cow into canoe country. I do not mean a large hard sized igloo or yeti. No way, that’s going to be horrendous and hazardous to hang from a tree. Use a soft sided, well insulated cooler that will fit in the food bag. Place the steaks in a one gallon Ziplock freezer bag to keep the meat juices from contaminating anything else in the cooler.
Thawing & Flexibility: We don’t have specific days set for our meals. Flexibility is key. When we eat our steaks is greatly dependent on two things; how long it takes to thaw and how the fish are biting. Last year, we caught fish for our second dinner and waited on eating our carried in protein. The temperature was also much cooler than usual, so the steaks stayed frozen until the last night of our trip. If you’re needing to cook steak sooner, take them out and warm them in the sun on a rock. Don’t leave them unattended! A bear can absolutely smell them and would love an easy treat.
Instant Mashed Potatoes?
Okay, so this isn’t the freshest option, but it’s the easiest for potatoes. You can bring whole potatoes out there with you. You’ll need to wrap them in foil and place in the coals or on the fire grate. Fresh potatoes take a long time to cook, instant is quick, easy, and light to carry. They can be ready quickly, making it easy to time it with the steaks.
Idahoan Instant Potatoes makes a variety of different flavors. We like the loaded or sour cream and chive. Whatever the flavor you choose, be sure there is no milk required. Most suggest putting a little butter in, we use coconut oil out in the woods. Dairy spoils easily.
Cooking the Steak
Level Camp Stove: Place the camp stove on a level surface. This could be a fire grate, flat rock or even a picnic table for really luxurious campsites. It’s important to keep that stove level for safe camp cooking.
Prep the Cast Iron: Light the burner and place the cast iron over the flame. You’ll have to play with your settings as each camp stove is different. Find a good medium high setting for searing.
Grease it up: Add a chunk of coconut oil to the cast iron to keep the pan non-stick. Be sure that the entire base of the pan is coated.
Sear the Steak: Once the oil is headed in the pan, place the steaks in the pan, sear one side for 5-7 minutes depending on cut thickness and stove strength. Using your tongs, flip the steak over and repeat on the opposite side.
Potatoes: To time the potatoes right, start heating the water after the steaks are flipped, if using a dual burner. Follow the instructions on the package. Only used water that has been treated or filtered.
Cover: If you have a cover for the cast iron, feel free to cover the cast iron to help trap the heat. We don’t have a cover, it’s also extra weight in the pack. If you like your steaks more well done, reduce the heat and cover for longer more thorough cooking.
Devour: Monitor the steaks closely and remove from the cast iron just before they’ve reached your preferred level of doneness. They will continue to cook for a few minutes once they’ve been removed from the heat. Enjoy!
Clean Up: Be sure to clean up the cast iron while it’s still warm. It makes the cast iron easier to clean up and you won’t be wasting any fuel reheating the cast iron.
This is where that cleaning brush and paper towels come in. Cleaning your cast iron right away is important, especially in the backcountry. Cast irons are porous, so you’ll want to clean it while it’s still warm to keep anything from being trapped. Here are the steps taken to clean a cast iron in the BWCA.
- Dig a hole 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and the shoreline per BWCA Regulations.
- Pour any grease left in the pan into the hole, do not burry yet.
- Return pan to camp stove and turn on the burner.
- Add enough clean water to cover the bottom of the pan (no soap).
- When the water begins to bubble, use the scrub brush to loosen up any stuck on food.
- Pour dirty water into the hole previously dug, rinse once more with a small about of clean water.
- When the pan is clean it’s time to re-season it. Return the pan to the stove once more and allow the water to evaporate off.
- Once the water has evaporated, remove from heat. Immediatley, take a small amount of coconut oil with a paper towel and oil the pan.
- Allow to cool completely before storing.
For more on back country dish washing check out How to Wash Dishes in the Backcountry.