I’m a big fan of meals prepared over an open fire. The smell of food sizzling over scorching wood is more than enough to get my mouth watering. The actual taste of the food brings a certain feeling of nostalgia that is difficult to place. After all, the campfire was our ancestors first kitchen; Which may have something to do with it. In addition to that nostalgia, comes a smokey taste and texture that is difficult to replicate, anywhere, but in the field as a campfire chef.
I have had some of the tastiest meals in my life while in a camping environment. On the flip-side… I have also had some of the most foul tasting food while enjoying the outdoors. The ironic part is that the main ingredients are usually similar in both experiences. One thing that my time in scouting and in the United States Marine Corps has taught me is that, It’s never the food, And… Always the cook!
When I take my boy scout troop on an outing, the individual patrols and their leaders, are responsible for their food preparation. A couple of times per year I meet with the patrol leaders and host a competition. Each patrol will buy the same ingredients and cook the same meals. It may be for just 1 meal or for the duration of the outing. Once the meals are prepared, me and the other adult leaders become the judges. Even though these scouts were using exact same ingredients, the taste and texture of the food varied greatly. Once again:
It’s Never The Food, It’s Always The Cook!
These scout competitions were always at base camp where they literally had access to the kitchen sink. But when we are on the move, our options for making a tasty meal greatly diminish. During an emergency scenario, we will most likely be on the move. As you are well aware of, food is imperative for our survival. Not only must it be nutritious, but it also needs to be tasty so that it can help to build and maintain morale.
I have been leading treks and camping trips for most of my life. My teachers showed me that by using a few subtle techniques and ingredients, a meal can easily go from just food, to a feast! You need to keep in mind that since you will be moving out on foot, weight, spoilage and food preparation areas are all major concerns. Over the years, I have picked up a few key points that enable me to make great tasting and nutritious meals while I’m on the trail.
I would like to share a few of my ideas with you in hopes that you will turn up your cooking game while you are in the field. Not only will you be eating better but your friends will be impressed with the ease and effectiveness in which you deploy your culinary skills.
Let’s Get Right Into It!
Carry A Biofuel Stove:
There have been a few biofuel burning stoves introduced into the market over the last few years that I feel are quality stoves. Not only are they light and made from stainless steel, but they can basically burn anything that you find on the ground as fuel. When it comes to cooking on the move, one of these little stoves is ideal for a few key reasons. Those reasons are:
- A Safe, Self Contained Open Fire
- Easy To Light & Get To Cooking Temperatures Fast
- Easier To Maintain Cooking Temperatures
- Easy To Feed Fuel Into
- Designed To Have Cooking Pots & Pans Placed Over Them
- Abide by the Leave No Trace policy
I also use my biofuel burning stove in conjunction with an open campfire pit when I have multiple NTC Members with me. I can prepare the majority of the meal in the open campfire while simultaneously using the biofuel stove for side dishes. There is no need to have your meal get cold while waiting for your other dishes to take their turn on the campfire.
Being able to have a grill with you, while out on the trail, will give your greater versatility in your food preparation. Even when we are on the move, we may hunker down in a location that we deem safe. For those longer stays, a grill over the open campfire is a great option. You can maximize your cooking surface area with a grill as well as exposing your food to the open flame. An open flame, on both meats and veggies, is what contributes to that sought after taste. Just be sure not to burn your meals.
Stainless Steel Mess Gear:
I prefer to cook outdoors using my dutch oven and other cast iron mess gear. But when I am on the move, every ounce of weight makes a difference. Obviously carrying around the extra weight in my go bag is just not an option. Luckily, there are a good amount of choices when it comes to mess gear that is catered to backpackers. They are convenient and light which makes them attractive to those of us that enjoy spending time on the trail.
Another good reason to utilize stainless steel, as opposed to other material, is that it is a healthier option than other choices such as Aluminum. Stainless steel does not leave an aftertaste which also contributes to the flavor of your meal. It will be difficult to make a desirable meal, efficiently, without the proper tools.
When I first entered the boy scouts as a young child, I was given a Swiss Army knife by my father. It had all sorts of gadgets including a spoon and fork. The tool addressed the need for the utensils in the field, but they weren’t very practical. The spoon and fork head were tiny and there wasn’t much of a lever offered by the handle.
One of the tools that is always in my backpack is a spork. It is made of titanium and full size. One end has a fork on it while the other end features a spoon. Not only does a spork make a meal more comfortable to consume but it also makes a great tool for preparing food. Having a spork on hand alleviates the need for extra cooking utensils. This addresses weight concerns as well devoting less time to clean up.
Adding various herbs and seasoning to on the go food is something that vastly increases the tastiness of your meal. Things such as salt, pepper, oregano and even hot sauce can turn a bland meal into a gourmet one. The great thing about dry seasonings is that they can last indefinitely in your pack. As long as they are dry and packed well, you can always have access to these meal changing additions. The fact that these ingredients are so light, makes them a no-brainer to always have in your go bag.
Lemon or Lime:
Lemons or limes are not something that I store in my pack. Obviously, they will rot and rot rather quickly. However, when I head out on the trail, I usually throw a lemon or 2 on my pack. The lemon adds an unmatched taste to any meal; especially fish. If I do not use my lemon for my meal, I tend to squeeze it into my tea, during breaks, along the way.
Not only does the lemon add incredible flavor but also gives me a healthy boost of vitamin c when I need it the most. When I couple the lemon with tea, my inflammation is kept in check as I consume a tasty and nutritious drink.
Soap For Coating Mess Gear:
I picked this little trick up years ago. Basically, I take a small drop of dish detergent and lightly coat the exterior of my stainless steel pots and pans. As the carbon settles on the outside of the pots, turning them black, the soap can then be scrubbed off leaving the mess gear looking brand new. This keeps your gear shiny and serviceable, but more importantly, I won’t get the contents of your backpack dirty and smelling like a month old campfire.
Knowing that you can just scrub off the excess carbon, in a timely fashion, helps to keep you on the move rather than wasting time with side projects. For me, this enables me to devote more of my time to the meal prep rather than clean up. The greater the time that I can devote to the meal, the more that it will be enjoyed by all involved.
Bags For Mess Gear:
Along the same lines as coating your mess gear with soap, placing your cooking gear in individual bags will go a long way in keeping the contents of your pack clean. In a recreational scenario, you may not have time to properly address your cleanup needs. The darkness may have settled in before you finished cleaning. There is also weather to contend with or just another mission that you need to get to in order to meet up with the rest of your group.
Being able to stuff your mess gear into bags or sacks, until you can clean everything properly, is a necessity. Keep in mind that I was referencing a recreational activity. If this were to be an actual emergency… This little tip will become much more valuable.
Onion And Garlic:
Being of Portuguese descent, I tend to put onions and garlic in almost every meal. I also drink a ton of red wine but we’ll save that for a future article. Onions and garlic do not only add an abundance of taste to your meal but they also have medicinal healing properties. Carrying an onion and a few garlic cloves is not much of an issue when it comes to weight. They also store quite well for a few days, even in a musty pack.
If you want to bring your cuisine to another level, try adding some sauteed garlic and onions to your campfire meal… Worse case, if a bear were to visit your campsite, just breathe on him. I’m sure that he won’t return for days.
If All Else Fails, Make Great Coffee:
OK, you can also substitute tea if coffee’s not your thing.
I say this point jokingly but there is some validity to it. There were many times in the Marines where the only meal that I truly looked forward to was my morning coffee. Lack of sleep, tired beyond belief and stress will take a toll on anyone. When you add in a few weeks of living off of the dreadful tasting MRE’s, (meals ready to eat) you can see why I took my coffee so seriously.
Not only will coffee give you a boost when many other things won’t, but It is also a great anti-inflammatory option. If you have trouble using the latrine, a strong cup of campfire coffee usually does the trick. Coffee is easy to carry, stores very well and doesn’t require additional equipment to prepare. Sure… You can bring a percolator with you. But if weight and space is a concern, you really do not need it. Just use your pot or pan to boil water, strain the coffee into your cup with a paper filter or shemagh, and you are good to go!
Just like any other skill set, cooking requires a bit of time and dedication to become proficient in. I am hoping that you use one or a few of my tips to make the process more fruitful.
If I were to leave you with one phrase that always rings true in the field, when it comes to cooking:
It Is Never The Food… And ALWAYS The Cook!