Cooking in Camp

Cooking Over A Wood Fire

It takes a good while for a fire to get hot enough to cook over. Strange as that may sound, it is absolutely true.

Under ideal circumstances, youíll cook over a fire in which nothing but well dried hardwood is being burned. It will be a fire that, when you cook breakfast, some early riser has been so thoughtful as to fuel well with good, dry hardwood early in the morning before you even thought of stirring from your bed; and for dinner and supper, the fire will have been well maintained by every camp member who walked past it during the day. When you come to cook over that hardwood fire, the wood will mainly have burned down to an evenly distributed bed of hot, glowing coals from which there are only small licks of blue flame that flare up here and there fairly regularly, undisturbed by a breeze. In that situation, youíll be cooking over a fire that has a concentrated, consistent heat that is just right for cooking.

In all likelihood, though, youíll most often be cooking over green (or relatively green) soft wood such as pine. Pine by itself will never give you the desired nice, even bed of coals so important to consistency in your cooking. Pine will tend to smoke much more than hardwoods, and will smoke all the more when itís somewhat green. The more green the wood, the harder it is to keep it burning consistently and well, and the harder it will be to cook over. A pine wood fire will coat your pots and pans with a fairly heavy layer of soot. But the fact is, that's exactly the sort of fire youíre more apt to have to cook over than the ideal. That being said, you need to know how to put it to work.

Site conditions and events rules will tend to dictate the way in which your fire is built. Some events cannot or will not permit you to dig a fire pit over which you would place your grill. A fire pit is the preferred method of cooking over a wood fire since it will be less affected by breezes than the a fire that is built on the ground with the grill high above it. A breeze tends to drive away a significant amount of the heat generated by the fire. Thatís why there are three reasons to remove the dirt for a fire pit and heap it around the fire pit itself:

  1. It tends to help contain the fire and prevent it from spreading;
  2. It allows you, at eventís end, to refill the fire pit and leave your camp site essentially as it was; and
  3. To help shield the fire from breezes and winds so that you can have the benefit of as much of the heat from the fire as you will need to cook over it.

In the case of green wood, piling wood all around it, primarily at the upwind side, will help keep the heat where it needs to be. Itís also a good way to help expedite drying out the wood, even though the net result may be negligible. Still, hope springs eternal.

As is true with cooking on an electric or gas range, if you are cooking for a large number of people at one time, you might do well to use a multiple number of skillets or pots rather than using one large skillet or pot. Some things cook far better in smaller containers or in smaller quantities than do others.

An important matter to remember is that you wonít have immediate access to a dishwasher of the mechanical kind until you get home. Itís always prudent to put a kettle or pan or coffee pot of wash water on the fire to heat up as soon as you have taken the food off the grill. That way, the water can be heating while you eat. It makes it far easier to wash the plates and utensils.

In fact, itís a good idea to have hot water available all the time. Hot water comes in handy for washing dishes, washing your glasses (eyeglasses, that is), coffee, tea, grits, oatmeal, cream of wheat, and even for getting a running start in making a soup or stew.

Cooking with Cast Iron

New cast iron cookware has a gray metallic color. In order to prepare it for cooking, and to attain the black, relatively non-stick surface that is cast iron's hallmark, it must first be seasoned. When you season cast iron, the process results in imbedding grease into the pores of the cast iron cookware. Cast iron requires seasoning because it is its nature to rust when it comes into contact with water. Most cast iron cookware manufacturers recommend a solid vegetable shortening like Crisco instead of the lard that your grandmother once used. Unless you intend to use the cast iron cookery daily, lard is not advised. The seasoning process will take a while, so you will be well advised to begin the process in the evening.

Before applying the solid vegetable shortening, warm up the cast-iron pot or skillet and then rub a thin layer of Crisco all over it, both inside and out. Lay the pot, pan, or skillet upside down in an oven that has been preheated to between 300į and 350į. By heating, the pores of the cast iron will open up, enabling it to absorb the grease (shortening). Itís not advisable to use a large amount of shortening, however, since the cast iron can only absorb so much. The more you exceed its limit, the more youíll have to clean up from the bottom of your oven. Let the empty skillet, pot, or pan cook for an hour in the oven before turning the heat off. Leave it in the oven until the cookware is cool to the touch.† Because cast iron retains heat so very well, you will find it to your advantage to let the cookware cool overnight.

This should not be regarded as a one-time proposition, however. It will be necessary to season the cookware regularly. Cast iron will rust if you donít season it after each use. More than that, cooking acidic foods (especially tomato sauces) will eat away at a cast-iron pot's seasoned finish.

When you clean your cast iron cookware, never use soap. Instead, use boiling water and a high quality scrub brush to clean it. Those who are unfamiliar with cast iron may question the sanitary aspects of seasoning, but the combination of boiling water and a scrub brush will rid and sanitize the cookware, and the seasoning process will kill whatever crawls into it afterwards.

Some cast iron loyalists have offered the argument that using cast iron cookware is an important source of added dietary iron in many folksí diets, the heated cast iron somehow transferring minute amounts of iron to the food cooked in it. To many others, thatís been regarded either as a matter of opinion, or viewed as highly unlikely that any level of iron could be added to food through the cookware. It wasnít until the first months of 1998 that the contention that cast iron cooking added iron to the diet was demonstrated to be true. Is it a significant amount?

A nationally recognized testing laboratory demonstrated that cooking in cast iron can easily double the iron content of food. In some cases, the iron level can be multiplied up to 25 times if the food is highly acidic, such as applesauce. While our ancestors may have suffered iron deficiencies that were supplemented by cooking with cast iron, few people today need that extra iron. In fact, those with a genetic condition called hemochromatosis (folks who tend to accumulate too much iron) could be harmed. For those reasons, most of us may do well to save our cast iron cookware for the occasional, event-related cooking of non-acidic foods.

Cooking with cast iron is far more difficult than it might appear, particularly when the cooking is done over an open fire. Cast iron retains heat well, and for protracted periods of time. The entire skillet or pot gets very, very hot, and it retains heat in a way that aluminum or stainless steel or other types of cookware cannot. With no means to regulate the heat level as we have on modern ranges, other means must be used, including marking the amount of time the cast iron cookware has been over or on the open flame.

Along with the innate rugged durability and toughness of cast iron, though, it has another characteristic that should be noted.

Pouring a measurable quantity of something cold into a cast iron piece when the cast iron is very hot can cause the cast iron to break, particularly if there is a seam in the cookware.

Always preheat the cast iron cookware before you put food into it. As you preheat it and prepare to cook over a wood fire, youíll find it wise and prudent to check the relative temperature of the cookware before you fling food into it.

Cast iron cookware can be routinely tested with drops of water to see if it is too hot, not hot enough, or just right for cooking. If you sprinkle a few drops of water into the cast iron cookware and the water evaporates upon contact, you should know that the cast iron is so hot that it will almost surely burn virtually anything that is placed in it at that time. If the water drops land in the cookware and do nothing, the cast iron is not yet hot enough to cook food with. When the water sizzles, each drop takes on a ball-like shape and rolls around the cookware almost as if it has a life of its own but the water "balls" do not immediately disappear, it is then hot enough to cook with.

Cooking With A Dutch Oven

Before you start cooking with a Dutch oven, familiarize yourself with cooking with cast iron, and cooking over a wood fire.

One of the most useful cooking utensils was the Dutch oven, a thick, heavy, round, cast iron pot with a flat bottom handle, three legs, and a cast iron lid that has a half-inch lip all the way around the edge and a handle in the center. Sizes range from 8" to 24" in diameter, and 4" to 6" deep - a heavy but durable piece of cooking gear.

Dutch oven cooking has survived from the days of the open hearth, and continues to flourish. When Lewis and Clark made their trek to the Northwest in 1805, they listed the Dutch oven as one of their most valued pieces of equipment. Legend even has it, albeit mistakenly, that the Dutch oven was invented before the Revolutionary War by Paul Revere.

In colonial times, the Dutch oven was widely manufactured in the New England States. It got its name - the Dutch oven - after traders from Holland bought large numbers for barter with the Indians and frontier settlers. Following its widespread use in the colonies, the Dutch oven was recognized as an indispensable utensil in the familyís belongings and went west to Kentucky and the Territories in wagons and packs and minerís mule packs.

Dutch ovens were most commonly used to bake bread or biscuits, but they also found great utility in baking cakes, potatoes, roasting meat, and making stews or soups. One variation of the Dutch oven looks much like a large frying pan with four small legs.

The Dutch oven would be placed on hot coals that had been raked directly onto the hearth. The lid and oven were preheated, the oven preheated on the coals themselves while the lid would be preheated directly on the fire. When the oven and lid were sufficiently hot, whatever was going to be baked - bread or whatever was being prepared - would be poured into the oven. Then the lid would be set on top of the Dutch oven with a pair of tongs or a hook. Coals would then be piled on top of the lid to add heat and to keep the heat even; thus the appellation "oven" was appropriate. The lip around the edge of the Dutch oven would prevent the coals from rolling off.

Guesstimating the temperature of the coals of a fire is quite a feat. If you were using charcoal briquettes to make your Dutch oven bake like the oven most of us are more familiar with, most manufacturers agree that a temperature of 350į is reached with 6 to 8 evenly distributed charcoal briquettes placed under the Dutch oven, and another 14 to 16 evenly placed briquettes are placed on the lid. As pat as this may seem, the fact is that few of us will be using charcoal briquettes. however, knowing the number of briquettes used to attain that approximate temperature should be of some small help in assessing how close youíll get with the coals from a wood fire.

Just as with any form of cooking over an open fire, and most especially with cast iron, you must exercise great care that the coals under the oven are not too hot, or the food will burn; and the food can burn quite quickly. The lid, when heaped with coals, will tend to be far hotter than the bottom because the heat in the lid is not transferred or dissipated through direct contact with the food. The exception to that would be when youíre cooking bread and the bread is able to rise so high that it touches the lid; in which case the top of the bread is apt to burn quickly, too.

Experience will be the best guide in deciding when a Dutch oven meal is ready. Keep one eye on your fire or coals, and the other eye on your watch. As the saying goes, "If you snooze, you lose". Avoid lifting the lid of the Dutch oven to look at the food. As youíve probably learned if you have kids who feel free to check on an anxiously awaited meal, opening any oven - including a Dutch oven - causes the oven to lose precious heat. Every peek into the oven can cost you between 5 to 10 minutes of cooking time.

Cooking With Tin

Since tin is relatively thin, cooking with tin seems like a great idea for those who are in a rush. Heat transference is very quick with tin, and putting a tin coffee pot or tin cup on the fire for some coffee (instant or otherwise) seems like a good idea. While it certainly can be done, there are several cautions that need to be observed.

Donít lose sight of the fact that tin cups and pots are soldered. Solder has a relatively low melting point, soldering guns generating about the same amount of heat as a wood-burning tool. If the solder that holds the handle on the cup or pot melted at a low heat when it was constructed - and it did - then it will certainly melt on as roaring fire, or even over a nice bed of hot coals unless you observe prudent practices.

If the fireís flames are high, donít put the cup or pot on the fire. Flames that can reach the handle(s) or spout will most likely melt the solder and destroy your tinware.

Always make sure that the liquid in the tinware reaches a level at least as high as the cup or potís handle, or spout. So long as there is plenty of fluid in the container, it will keep the temperature of the container at the same level as that attained by the liquid as it heats. Since water boils at 212į Fahrenheit and solder melts at a slightly higher temperature, so long as the liquid is below or at boiling point, the tinware will be safe.

You may recall the old Boy Scout and Girl Scout trick of making a paper cup of heavy, plain kraft paper and then filling it with water. You then would set it on the grill over the fire. As you watched in amazement, the paper would burn up above the water line, but would remain unharmed where the water was. The water was absorbing the majority of the heat - the paper cup simply transferred the heat fairly evenly. Soon, the water would boil, but the paper cup remained intact. Why? Water boils at 212į Fahrenheit, while paper begins to burn at 451į Fahrenheit. As long as the water remained at less than 451į, the cup would be just fine - wherever there was water. The same principle applies to tinware and its soldered joints.

Most folks recommend against cleaning the exterior surfaces of tinware beyond wiping off the soot generated by a wood fire. Tinware used over a wood fire will develop a blackened finish that, with time and exposure to more and more wood fires, will take on the appearance of a black japanned finish all over the tinware piece. By not scrubbing the exterior surfaces shiny clean again, it not only develops the patina of use and age that hide the stains endemic to tinware actually used for cooking, but it will slow the rate at which you will wear through the tinning, a thinning of the coating that results in the rusting of the tinware.