The Banks Fry Bake pan is the most expensive backcountry frying pan you can buy. Is it worth the money?
My first introduction to the Banks Fry Bake pan came from reading an old copy of the NOLS Cookery. Inside the pages of this slim, brown book was an elaborate system of expedition ration planning that focused on a “pantry” of bulk staples instead of detailed menu planning. NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School) uses this system for most of their courses, and meal prep and planning is an integral part of the NOLS experience.
I’ve never taken a NOLS course, but I did begin to experiment with the bulk ration system on my own trips. One of the unusual components of the bulk ration system is its focus on baking in the field. Breads, cookies, bars, pizza–all manner of baked recipes fill the pages of the NOLS Cookery, and the Fry Bake pan is the backcountry oven that makes this possible.
For years I tried to cobble together a frying pan and lid that would let me bake bread or cookies on the trail. The closest I was able to come was a 12″ frying pan covered with an enamel plate and rigged with the Outback Oven heat diffuser and cover. This setup worked, but I wasn’t really satisfied with how much heat the system could direct at the top of food. Recipes cooked through, but never browned on top.
This year I decided to spring for a Fry Bake Expedition pan with lid. I purchased a cosmetic second for $80–the most I have every spent on camp cookware–and hoped it was worth the price.
First effort was a simple cinnamon roll using a refrigerator bread dough recipe that we had on hand. We rolled out the dough, cut chunks of butter onto it, sprinkled it with cinnamon, sugar and crushed pecans and rolled it into a long tube. Cut lengthwise and laid into the 10 in pan the whole works went into the oven.
I put the lid on the pan to simulate conditions with a small “twiggy fire” built on top of the lid. The twiggy fire is the key to baking in the Fry Bake pan. You build a small fire on top of the lid and keep it stoked with tiny sticks. This directs heat toward the top of the food in the pan. Heat from below is provided by a camp stove or open fire.
The cinnamon rolls were a big success. Sugar, butter and cinnamon melted together and ran down to the bottom of the pan where it formed a hard, sweet glaze. The buns were puffed up and cooked through with no burning on the bottom. The glaze stuck to the pan, but we were able to pry the rolls free with the metal spatula that lives in our canoe camping utensil roll. They were delicious.
Metal utensils and sticking buns? Yep. The Fry Bake pan is not non-stick. Instead it features a hard anodized surface that is scratch resistant and safe to use with metal utensils. You can scrape the pan clean with abrasive pads and scratch any residue free with a spatula. A little oil in the pan serves to keep most foods from sticking.
Canoe Country Shakedown
The real shakedown for our Fry Bake came on last summer’s Boundary Waters trip. We packed a variety of bulk foods for baking and planned a few dinners to take advantage of the pan. Results were impressive. Here’s a quick visual rundown:
This trip proved the worth of the Fry Bake pan and insured that it will go on every canoe, kayak, car or winter camping trip that I take. The pan effectively bakes breads and biscuits and does double duty as a frying pan. The hard anodized surface is easily cleaned and stubbornly resistant to deep scratches. The pan is heavy, at 29 ounces, so it isn’t a good option for backpacking, but there is a smaller version called the Alpine pan that tips the scales at only 12 ounces. This smaller system would be extremely tempting for lighter weight backcountry trips.
Tips and Tricks
I’ve come up with a few tips and tricks that are helpful for baking with this system. First off, it’s important to have a pot lifter that is strong enough to pick up the pan and also has some kind of hook so you can remove the lid for a look at your goodies. Banks sells a sturdy pot lifter on their website, but it was out of stock when I ordered my pan, so I was forced to come up with my own system. I modified an MSR Pan Handler pot lifter by adding a hook made from rebar tie wire. This hook is plenty strong to pick up a lid covered with a twiggy fire if you need to check for done-itude.
Take it easy on the heat under the pan. Especially if you don’t plan to flip your baked goods halfway through cooking. It’s much easier to heat up the bottom of the pan over a campfire or stove than it is to get the top really roasting with a twiggy fire. Most of my cooking mistakes came from too much heat on the bottom and not enough on top. For best results, focus on the twiggy fire and back off the heat under the pan.
Since the pan isn’t non-stick it is helpful to give it a good shot of oil or butter whenever you are cooking something particularly sticky like eggs or potatoes. I’ve found that scrambled eggs cook well but usually stick. Careful scraping with a metal spatula during cooking will keep the pan clean and insure all the eggs go onto your plate.
I’ve added a heat diffuser to my Fry Bake kit for cooking over a white gas stove. My diffuser came from the old Outback Oven, but a similar diffuser could be made from a stainless steel pot lid like the one that comes with the MSR Alpine Cookset. I did this with my old Alpine set before I purchased the Outback Oven diffuser. You put the pot lid onto your cook stove with the open side up. This will warp the heck out of the lid, but it creates an air space between the stove and pan that helps to spread heat across the whole surface of the pan.
By spreading heat across the entire pan, a diffuser dramatically reduces scortching when frying or baking. A diffuser adds weight but this isn’t much of an issue on canoe, kayak or car trips, or when pulling your gear on a sled in the winter. It’s definitely a big help.
Buy This, Not This
So, is the Fry Bake pan worth the cash? Yes. It is. I’ve worn out a handful of non-stick pans and struggled to find an effective system for backountry baking over the past twenty years. The Fry Bake is durable and effective. It hurts a little bit to plunk down eighty bucks on a pan, but it only hurts once. I anticipate many, many years of service from this system, and look forward to expanding my backcountry baking skills in seasons to come.
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