This is a selection from of my book
"The Essential Guide to Overland Travel in the United States and Canada, The Resource for Independent Travel and Camping".
This web page contains 3 selections from Chapter 12, Cooking on the trail. The selections are the chapter introduction, properties of cookware, properties of charcoal and different types of wood and how they affect cooking and flavor of a meal. Together they represent just a small part of what is covered in this chapter. They are provided to give you an idea of the kinds of information you can expect to find in my book. Please do not copy any material on this web page.
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Copyright 2016 by TeriAnn Wakeman all rights reserved.
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Bad food = Bad mood = a desire to be doing something else
People who set out on a trip expecting adventure and delight can put up with major inconveniences and poor food for about three or four days. Beyond that the level of inconvenience can often eclipse the delight of new vistas and people start yearning for motels, restaurants, and their own bed.
Meals can make or break a long trip. Along with a good night’s sleep, the success of an extended overland trip is strongly dependent upon meals. What this should tell you is that meals should be a critical focus area and not just an afterthought.
Camp kitchens should be carefully thought out. Sanitation is critical for food storage, preparation, cleanup, and the handling of trash. The cook should be able to make a wide variety of dishes using a limited number of ingredients. If you are cooking for more than one person you need to know their food preferences and dislikes. It doesn’t help to cook a meal that you love if others in your group find it unpalatable and only grudgingly eat your offering while picking out ingredients they will not eat. A camp cook needs to be aware of any food allergies or special dietary requirements of the people you are cooking for.
Doing anything outside your normal routine will stress your body, including eating different foods than you are used to eating. Digestion of our food is largely performed by bacteria in our intestines. The types of bacteria in our intestines are largely determined by the types of foods we usually eat and are specialized for breaking down those food types. If we abruptly change our diet to different types of food the bacteria many not be able to properly or efficiently digest it. The result could be queasy, upset intestines, and diarrhea. Our bodies can take a certain amount of stress in stride but become more susceptible to illness and irritation if the stress continues or if there are several collective stress factors going on at any one time.
One way to reduce stress levels is to eat the kinds of food that you eat at home and to rely upon home tested recipes. The trail is no place to rely on untested foods, recipes, or cooking equipment. A long duration trip is no place to rely upon food that you would never consider eating at home.
Every menu choice should be thoroughly tested at home before going out on the trail. This includes using your camp cooking gear to test the recipes you are selecting for the trip. At the end of the day most people prefer to relax and have a satisfying meal that fits their taste and nutritional needs. Eating cold, unpalatable food that is scorched on the outside and undercooked in the middle is seldom anyone’s idea of the perfect way to end a day. No one wants to deal with food poisoning because of improperly stored or prepared meals.
Chapter selection covering different cookware materials
When most people think of cooking gear for camping or vehicle trips they automatically think of specialty camping cookware sold at outdoor stores or in the camping aisle of large department stores. There you will find a mix of back packing cookware and traditional weekend car camping cookware. Common variations of back packing cookware are made of thin sheet aluminum or thin stainless steel.
The three most important aspects of back packing gear are light weight, compactness, and durability. Cooking characteristics of backpacking cookware are not near the top of the list. Most common car camping equipment is just larger and bulkier versions of back packing gear that retain a traditional camp gear look. Since weight and volume are not a critical issues for weekend car camping, cookware is often cast iron or blue enameled steel. These are rugged and have a classic American camp gear look that many Americans grew up with. That’s fine if you are going to use back packing gear for back packing and regular car camping gear for occasional weekend use but these things are not your best choice when you decide to stay on the trail for a week or more. Your cookware should be optimized for cooking the types of food you will be cooking and sized for the number of people that you are cooking for. Cookware should nestle together one inside the other. Ideally it should be the same or very similar to the type of cookware you have at home. Why? Because you already know how your cookware behaves under heat and have already adjusted your recipes and cooking times to the cookware. They are your best bet for an easy transition to successful camp cooking.
Thin, sheet metal pots and pans pass most heat straight from the burner to the food closest to the heat source and conducts relatively little heat away from the heat source to the rest of the cookware surface. The bottom of the pot will be very hot while the sides can be almost warm enough to touch. The uneven temperature distribution causes food at the bottom to overcook and burn before food away from the bottom gets warm enough to cook. Cooking oils tend to break down in the high heat spot directly over the burner adding a burned oil flavor to foods. Even with vigorous constant stirring it will be difficult to produce evenly cooked food.
Water heating in a thin metal pot will come to a boil at a lower temperature than the boiling point of water at your altitude. This is especially true if the thin metal pot is constructed of stainless steel or titanium. The bottom surface of the pot directly over the flame will get hot enough to cause localized boiling at the bottom long before the water in the rest of the pot reaches the boiling point. You end up cooking at a cooler temperature than it appears. When boiling food such as pasta in a thin metal pot it is a good idea to allow for 25% to 40% more cooking time than the package label suggests. You should periodically sample the food for doneness and not rely upon the package cooking time label. A tight fitting lid will raise the pressure inside the pot and slightly reduce cooking time.
Ideally cookware should have walls thick enough to conduct heat evenly along its surface so the sides as well as the bottom are at approximately the same temperature. This allows your food to cook evenly and minimizes burnt food. The metal that you choose also makes a big difference.
Aluminum cookware: Aluminum is a very good conductor of heat. A thick wall aluminum frying pan or pot will cook evenly and the high conductivity of aluminum will let cookware quickly adjust to changes in heat. Aluminum is lightweight and minimally impacts your loaded vehicle weight. It’s biggest disadvantage is that aluminum is very susceptible to chemical reactions with acidic foods such as tomato based sauces and will add its own flavor to your dish. Anti stick coatings and anodized aluminum surfaces are inert to acidic foods.
Thick wall anodized or nonstick coated aluminum cookware is one of your best choices for producing consistently good results under many conditions. They do require a little additional thought to packing in order to protect the finish but they are well worth the effort. Another advantage of using cookware with a high conductivity rating is that it is heat efficient and therefore requires less heat to reach and maintain cooking temperatures. You can cook at lower burner settings which allows your cooking fuel to last longer.
Stainless steel cookware: Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat. Its heat conductivity is less than 10% of aluminum cookware. For the same wall thickness, stainless steel is about ten times more likely than aluminum to burn food at the bottom of a pot while leaving food above the bottom of the pot undercooked. Salt can pit stainless steel and high temperatures will permanently discolor it. The chief advantage to stainless steel is that it is chemically inert to foods and is durable requiring minimal care.
Titanium cookware: Titanium cookware has become popular among backpackers who have serious money to spend on gear. Titanium is light weight and strong. The thickness of titanium cookware tends to be thinner than that of aluminum and stainless steel back packing cookware. However titanium is a poorer conductor of heat than stainless steel which means it has all the same problems with cooking as stainless steel.
Cast iron cookware: Cast iron is a thick wall cookware which has around 20% of the heat conductivity of aluminum cookware. It heats slowly and once it reaches a cooking temperature it maintains that temperature better than any other common type of cookware. This allows for even temperature cooking even under the most difficult of conditions. Because cast iron takes a relatively long time to heat up and retains heat longer than other cookware you will need to adjust cooking times. Lodge Manufacturing® ( www.lodgemfg.com ) carries a section of cast iron cookbooks in addition to their selection of high quality cast iron cookware. Cast iron, like uncoated aluminum, is susceptible to chemical reactions with acidic based foods and can impart its own flavor to acidic foods. It may not be the best choice for tomato sauce based meals unless you choose ceramic coated cast iron. Ceramic coating can crack if abused and should be packed with padding protecting the inside surface.
Cast iron’s ability to provide even heating and to retain an even heat makes it a very good choice for many kinds of cooking as long as you can handle the weight penalty and cast iron’s tendency to rust if not kept dry and seasoned. If you can afford the weight and can store cast iron dry, a large cast iron griddle can be a very useful item to bring along. If you cook mostly by campfire, cast iron cookware usually is your best bet and a good cast iron Dutch oven is the perfect pot to have. It should be the type that has legs on the underside and a flat top with a rim. If you use a dutch oven you should also have a lid lifter and lid stand. Just be aware that if you pack much cast iron you will likely need to shave weight elsewhere to keep your vehicle gross weight down.
Cast iron is a porous material that needs to be seasoned to keep water from entering the pores and causing surface rust. Seasoning also helps keep food from sticking to the cookware. If you are cooking in a dutch oven there are single use liners that keeps food from sticking to the pot and makes cleanup a lot easier. Seasoning consists of coating the cookware with a fat or high temperature cooking oil so it fills the pores, then baking the fat or oil into the metal. New cast iron cookware will come with instructions for initial cleaning and seasoning as well as ongoing maintenance.
Cast iron cookware requires extra care after a meal. Clean it with soap and water much as you would any other cookware. When clean it needs to be heated to get any moisture out of the cast iron pores. Once heated dry, lightly rub the cookware with a fat or cooking oil, then reheat the cookware. When it cools down wipe off any excess oil and stow the cookware. This re-seasoning will keep cast iron cookware in top condition.
Chapter selection covering grilling with charcoal and cooking over a campfire:
Cooking with Charcoal
Charcoal is a product of incomplete combustion made by burning wood at a high temperature in an enclosed container that is as close to air tight as possible. This drives out the moisture and burns off the resins. The result is a compact, lightweight product that produces high heat, next to no smoke and imparts a relatively mild unique flavor to foods. When charcoal burns it produces a great deal of carbon monoxide. Never burn charcoal inside a room or tent. That a very good recipe for waking up dead the next morning. Always burn charcoal outside.
There are two general types of charcoal, traditional charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Traditional charcoal is made from pieces of wood and nothing else. The charcoal flavor while milder than burning wood has the flavor of the wood the charcoal was made from. One can choose from different hardwood charcoals to compliment the flavor of the meat you are cooking. A common hardwood charcoal is made from mesquite wood. Mesquite produces a strong flavor that goes very well with beef and most game but can easily overwhelm more delicate meats such as fish or chicken, and grilled vegetables. Oak charcoal imparts a mild flavor and is a good choice for all kinds of meats and vegetables.
Modern charcoal briquettes were invented by Henry Ford as a way to use waste products from the manufacture of Model T Fords. The original charcoal briquettes were called Ford Charcoal . The company was later renamed for a relative of Henry Ford, E. G. Kingsford The wood source for briquettes is often sawdust which is burned in an air tight container to convert it to wood charcoal dust. This sawdust charcoal is powdered and usually mixed with coal dust and a liquid binder to create a liquid slurry. The slurry is then pressed through a die or mold to get its briquette shape and then dried.
Charcoal briquettes tend to have very little flavor. Sometimes small chips of a hard wood are mixed into the slurry to produce a more natural wood flavor. Instant light charcoal has volatile hydrocarbons added that burn easily at low temperatures. These additives tend to produce a hydrocarbon taste if they are not completely burned off before the food is added to the grill. It is best to keep the grill and food away from charcoal instant light briquettes until they have burned off their hydrocarbon components.
Campfire cooking is as old school traditional as you can get and still eat cooked food. Cooking directly on a camp fire brings you closer to the lives of early travelers and nomads but it requires a special set of skills. The results are variable and it takes a while for coals to build up and be ready for cooking. When humans settled into one place they built stoves and ovens to help better control how things cook, add variety to how they cook, and to better separate their food from the cook fire smoke. Not everyone loved the flavor of a steak flavored by buffalo chip smoke. If you’re not in a hurry, camp fire cooking over a bed of coals lends its self quite well to both Dutch oven and tinfoil wrapped cooking.
Grilling or cooking over an open campfire requires particular attention to the types of wood you use. The smoke from each type of wood imparts its own unique flavor to food. Your choice of firewood can enhance the flavor of your food or make food almost inedible. When cooking over a wood fire with a spit or grill the type of wood you use is critical to the flavor of your food. You will want a fire that has a good bed of coals and little flame. Have a spray bottle with water handy for any grease flareups. An Auspit® (illustrated at the beginning of this chapter) is an excellent product for rotisserie cooking over a fire or propane. The Auspit has a battery powered motor to keep the spit rotating allowing you to sit back and occasionally baste your meat.
If you search for small branches to use as kindling, you should learn how to identify poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. The smoke produced by these woods can cause severe respiratory and skin problems.
You also want to be able to identify oleander. Oleander is a flowering shrub that is commonly planted alongside roads and in parks. Oleander has a toxic sap that can poison someone who uses it as a stick to roast hot dogs or marshmallows.
Soft woods such as pine and spruce have a high resin content that produces a thick black smoke. The smoke imparts food with an overwhelmingly strong tar like taste. Stay away from these woods if you are cooking on a grill or open container over a camp fire. Hardwoods burn hotter and cleaner with less soot than softwoods. If you have a choice of hardwoods you can get your best results by matching the wood type to the kind of meat you are cooking.
Oak burns hot and produces a mild smoke flavor with no aftertaste. It is your best all around cooking wood.
Mesquite burns hot and produces a distinctive spicy smoke flavoring that can easily overwhelm delicate flavored meats such as fish or poultry. Mesquite does stand up well to beef, game, and most stronger flavored game birds.
Hickory smoke adds a strong bacon like flavor that works well with beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and game.
Alder produces low heat and a smoke with a sweet delicate flavor that works very well with fish and poultry. This is an excellent choice for fresh salmon or trout. Alder is often the wood of choice for use when smoking fish.
Maple is a smoky wood that produces a mild slightly sweet flavor that works well with pork and poultry.
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