It’s 1991. My tiny kid hands are rummaging through the ice chest that has the gallon of milk in it. It’s probably not organic milk and I’m probably about to spill-pour it into a Styrofoam bowl of sugar-filled Frosted Flakes while my father starts the fire. It’s my first campout breakfast but definitely not my last. My father will take my sister and me on dozens of these throughout the Gulf Coast before we become too-cool-to-camp-with-dad-teenagers.
It’s 2006 and I’m stirring instant grits into a dark grey pot that my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I picked up at the local Walmart in middle-of-nowhere South Carolina. The propane that fuels the creek water-filled pot leaves behind a noxious smell that reminds me of boat exhaust and rotting eggs. It’s not exactly an ideal way to start the morning but it’s all we feel safe cooking with in the woods. Campfires don’t offer enough control for my hesitant college kid hands.
It’s 2016. I’m pulling three clear mason jars from our ice chest while my husband soaks the coffee grounds in just barely simmering water. The firewood is already burning, making the kind of small crackles that break up the unmistakable roar of the Pacific Ocean behind us. There’s a mist in the air, the kind of mist that purges lungs and quiets minds. I haven’t experienced mist like this anywhere else but the Pacific Northwest, where it’s become my personal antidote to stress.
Back at the ice chest, I mix the buttermilk and egg yolks and butter melted over the campfire with the flour and baking powder, sugar and salt. I pick up the smallest jar, filled with egg whites, and shake it until they’re foamy like the sea. Doing this, I’ve learned, gives a light fluffy texture to the pancake interior without compromising the crisp exterior. I don’t have a bowl to fold the sea foam egg whites into the buttermilk batter, so I pour them directly into the mason jar with the rest of the batter and roll it around in my hands, the hands that can now confidently cook with just about any kind of heat source, until they’re incorporated. A quick cook-flip-cook in a cast iron skillet set atop amber-filled flames and breakfast is served.
These are what I like to call Mason Jar Pancakes. These are, arguably, and I will absolutely argue if you’d like, the best damn pancakes. Ever. These are my response to twenty-five years worth of cereal and grits campout breakfasts, in which I ask: Why the hell can’t you have made-from-scratch pancakes with real maple syrup on a campout?
And you know what? You absolutely can.
- 2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt or 1 teaspoon of regular table salt
- 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 2 cups of buttermilk
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, plus more for serving
- vegetable oil, for greasing skillet
- maple syrup
- Combine the flour, salt, sugar, baking soda, and baking powder in an 24-ounce mason jar or container with a tight-fitting lid and add the egg whites to a separate 12- to 16-ounce mason jar or container with a tight-fitting lid. In yet another 16-ounce mason jar or container, combine the buttermilk and egg yolks (you'll add the butter to this jar later, once you've melted it over the campfire). Store all three jars in your campsite cooler until ready to cook.
- Build your fire directly under one side of the grate, arranging it so that you have a hot side and a cool side of the grate so that you can move the skillet away from the fire if it gets too hot.
- Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over the fire. Melt butter over a low-heat side, allow to cool slightly and add to the jar of wet ingredients (buttermilk and egg yolks). Wipe out skillet and brush with vegetable oil.
- While heating, shake up the ingredients of the flour mixture container and the buttermilk mixture container separately. Next, add the dry contents to the container of buttermilk contents and shake again until just mixed. It’s okay if there are some lumps in the batter. Finally, shake the egg white container vigorously until just foamy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg whites to the batter, seal the top, and gently rotate the jar to gently incorporate the egg whites without breaking down all of the air between the egg white proteins.
- Return the skillet to the grate on top of the fire. Once the pan is hot – and you can check by flicking a few drops of water on it and making sure they evaporate – add the vegetable oil to the skillet, swirl it around, and pour about ½ cup of batter into the skillet. The batter will be thick, so you may need to use the back of a spoon to shape and smooth it. Cook until you notice bubbles appear on the top, about 3 minutes, and then flip and cook for about 2-3 minutes more, or until the pancakes are browned on the bottom. The hardest part about cooking pancakes over a campfire is heat control, which is why I recommend offsetting the fire under the grate. If you notice your pancakes start to burn too quickly before cooking through, move the skillet to the other side of the grate and allow to cool slightly before adding your next ladle of batter. (See my "Guide to Campfire Cooking" for more tips on building a fire that is good for camp cooking.)
- Serve with butter and maple syrup.