Have you ever considered how you would cook for you and your family if you had no access to a fuel source other than wood? Being that you’re here on American Partisan I’m guessing that the answer to that question is probably going to be “yes” for the majority of you. Have you actually obtained the tools to make “campfire cooking” easier and more efficient? Have you spent time cooking on said equipment to learn how to use it effectively (Because cooking over coals is NOT the same as cooking over your kitchen stove, a propane burner, or even the same as an old-fashioned wood cookstove. Again, you’re here, so I’m going to assume that you most likely have at least some plans for feeding yourself and those you are responsible for. Hopefully those plans don’t stop at freeze dried foods and MRE’s- yes, those options have a very important place, but nobody wants to eat freeze dried foods or MRE’s long term. Community cooking is where it’s at for feeding a group of people long term. There is a reason that in the past families predominantly ate meals as an entire family unit, or often in a community group, and why they still do in many places (personally I think it is a shame that society has moved away from that practice) It’s more efficient to build a single fire and to cook one large meal all at once to feed a group of people. In addition, if you have a large amount of perishable food, you share it with other people while it is still edible, rather than letting it spoil. Off grid cooking is something that gets some coverage in the preparedness community, and NC Scout has talked about it in Radio Contra before. While it’s not as interesting to most people as guns, ammo, and gear, off grid cooking for groups of people is a vital skill to have, not to mention that enjoying a hot meal around a fire is a great mood booster after a long day. Let’s talk about a few ways to make the task of preparing food easier.
Once you realize that you may need to cook meals over a fire for groups of people, how are you going to do it? A lot of people I have talked to about this seem to think that they’ll take their pots and pans out of the kitchen and sit them directly on the coals, at which point they’ll be well on their way to a delicious meal. Well, not so much- those pots and pans in your kitchen, when put on a good cooking fire, will have holes burnt through the bottoms of them in short order, probably making a spectacular, and possibly dangerous, mess in the process. In addition, that “non-stick” frying pan in your kitchen- have you ever burnt the coating off of one of them on your stove? How long is that going to last on a fire? Not long at all, and I don’t know about yourself, but I don’t care to eat my eggs garnished with Teflon, or whatever they put in that coating. Also- if you do manage to successfully prepare some food on your fire, how are you going to pick that hot pot up and move it off of the fire so you can serve food out of it?
First off, before you can begin cooking, you need to know a little about firewood. Here in North Carolina we have an abundance of trees, specifically pine, oak of several different varieties, maple, poplar, sweetgum, and hickory. Softwoods like pine can make a good source of wood for a campfire, if you don’t mind the smoke, and if you have well-seasoned wood, but you probably don’t want to cook on them. Pine will give your food a distinct flavor, and also does not produce a good coal bed for cooking. Likewise, poplar, sweetgum, and maple do not tend to give that great of a coal bed for cooking, and also tend to burn up fairly quickly, so they make good campfire wood, but aren’t great for cooking. This isn’t to say you can’t cook with these woods, you definitely can, but they aren’t ideal. This leaves us with hickory and oak, which are both excellent choices for cooking fires. I have seen people try to shove a pot of food that they are trying to cook in the middle of a flaming campfire, which is not what you want. You want to get the oak or hickory, or whatever local varieties of hardwood you have, burnt down to where they have a nice even coal bed, much like when you use a charcoal grill. One little side note for those of you in more urban areas- Bradford Pear trees are everywhere as landscaping trees in central NC, and probably in other areas- they don’t produce edible fruit, but they make EXCELLENT coals for cooking. Once you have your coal bed and are ready to begin cooking, those glowing coals need to be scooped up or raked out to the side of the fire and arranged under or around your cookware. One tool that is awesome for this is a plain old square point shovel with 4-8 holes, approximately ¾”-1” in diameter, cut or drilled in the blade. This allows your ashes to fall through, while letting you keep the bigger coals. You can use a round point shovel as well, it just won’t work as well. Flea markets are great places to pick up used shovels for a couple of dollars.
The next question would be, now that you have a pretty little pile of coals sitting beside your fire, what do you do with them? In order to make the most of the coals for general cooking, you need one of two things- a cast iron camp oven such as the ones that Lodge cookware sells in various sizes and depths (I highly recommend them if you want a versatile piece of cookware) or a Dutch oven combined with a trivet. The legs built into the camp oven, or the trivet, serve to get the cookware off of the coals to give the coals some airflow, and also so you don’t burn your food or ruin your cookware. Normally the best way to cook with a camp oven is to place to coals in a ring around the bottom of the pot, NOT directly under it (placing coals directly under the pot will often burn your food, I periodically re-teach myself this lesson) and then cover the lid with coals. A lid lifter is a wonderful thing to have to remove these lids, but if you don’t have one, I have found that a plain old wrecking bar or a claw hammer will work just fine. The camp ovens can also be stacked on top of each other if you like, although I have never had much luck using them this way. If you are using a Dutch oven with a domed lid, you can flip the lid over to create a bowl of sorts, this will just make it harder to lift the lid. You may have to refresh your coals a few times, depending on how long your food has to cook. Also, depending on how much the wind is blowing, you may need to adjust the amount or placement of your coals to control heat- wind will make coals burn hotter, and burn out faster. Note: cast iron heats and cools slowly, so give the cookware time to preheat, and also don’t EVER put cold water on a hot cast iron pan, you will most likely ruin the pan. Also, as previously mentioned, don’t put the iron directly on the coals, that’s a good way to ruin a pan. That cookware can be just as important to your family’s survival as your weapons and comms gear, so you don’t want to risk ruining it.
If you decided to go with a trivet instead of a camp oven, there are several other ways you can utilize it. I don’t know about you, but I dread the thought of a world without coffee, and while instant coffee is better than nothing, it sure isn’t my first choice. A coffee percolator made of enameled steel, or stainless steel, is right at home on a trivet, and will make some awesome coffee. Likewise, if you have a good cast iron skillet handy, they work perfectly on a trivet. Small cast iron “bean pots” will work on a trivet, although they are best hung on a tripod over your fire. Even the lowly USGI canteen cup and/or mess kit can be used on a trivet for cooking in a pinch. I’ll cover how to make a simple, effective trivet, and a simple tripod, in a future post.
A Dutch oven can cook a LOT of food in the larger sizes, but it still won’t always cut it. If you are cooking larger quantities of food than what a Dutch oven will handle, you may find yourself cooking in a large iron pot over your fire. Even just a few years ago, if you went riding around in rural areas in the Southeastern US, you would see large iron pots all over the place, either sitting in someone’s front yard, or turned into a flower pot. Many of them are cracked or have had holes drilled in them, but plenty of them are still serviceable as well. Recently, it seems like many of them have either succumbed to scrap metal buyers, or have made their way into antique shops to be sold at insane prices. I have had some luck picking up decent pots at flea markets and yard sales, but you are taking a risk, as they sometimes have hairline cracks that are hard to see. If you prefer to avoid the risk, or don’t want to spend the time hunting for one, Agri Supply Company, based in Garner, NC, has a selection of decent quality cast iron pots in various sizes. They also have a nice Discada, which I don’t have any personal experience with, but I plan to remedy that soon. Also, they sell a decent tripod, and some pretty good stands for their pots. If you decide to go much bigger than a 2-3 gallon pot my personal recommendation would be to use a stand instead of a tripod. I would also recommend if you want smaller items such as skillets and Dutch ovens, stick to Lodge Cookware which is made in the United States, or with vintage US made items. I have found them to be much more satisfactory, and much higher quality than the Chinese made iron cookware. Those are just my opinions based off of my personal experience, for what they are worth.
Usually flea market and antique store finds have been neglected, and they need to be cleaned up and re seasoned, which is fairly simple to do, but can be time consuming. For cleaning any cast iron cookware that isn’t plated I like electrolytic rust removal, it is simple, effective, and you can easily find instructions on how to do it on the web. Seasoning is as simple as coating the cookware with a light coat of your preferred oil or fat- lard, Crisco, vegetable oil, flaxseed oil, etc., and baking it for a few hours until the oil has polymerized into your new seasoning. I normally do this six times for my cookware, and it continues to get better the more you cook with it. To this note please don’t use soap on cast iron- you will damage the seasoning that you worked so hard to build. Warm water will remove most gunk, as will a dry rag and some salt, sand, or cornmeal, or a copper scouring pad. When you are done, dry and re-oil your iron, and it will be ready for you the next time you need it. Oh, and metal spatulas and utensils are your friend when using cast iron. Skip the plastic stuff. Dexter Russel makes some nice stuff. My wife and I use their pancake turner every single day with our iron skillets.
I’ll be putting up an article soon on how to make some of the simple tools mentioned, such as trivets, tripods, and lid lifters. Sure, you can buy those items, but why spend $35 on a trivet when you can make one for less than $5, and have the satisfaction of using something you made? Use the $30 you have left over and buy some rice and beans, another Baofeng, or some more mags, etc.
There are some really good resources out there for more information and supplies for cooking over a wood fire. A few of the ones I find useful are:
Hopefully you can make use of some of this information!