Whether you are a first time cook or already have some great dishes under your belt, you can always up your culinary game. Cooking delicious food starts with mastering some basic cooking techniques and understanding the role of different types of ingredients in a meal. A great meal must be crafted and built up step by step just like a building from a solid foundation. Getting the basics right is especially important on a campout, where you typically do not have extra ingredients on hand to adjust or even redo portions of your dish. Do not despair - this is not complicated. Quite to the contrary, mastering the basics will allow you to make a wonderful meal with less ingredients and fewer steps (and ideally fewer pots!). In this lesson, we will cover
Learning the basics
Types of cooking
Campout vs. cooking at home
LEARNING THE BASICS
Nobody is born a great cook. Just like any great skill it takes a desire to learn coupled with lots of practice. There is no right way to learn to cook or to improve your technique. Practice alone will just hone the skills you already have. Cooking is not just about making your mac and cheese even better. Its about expanding your skill set, learning how to make different meals with new cooking techniques. There are endless sources of cooking advice and information: cookbooks, internet sites (both personal sites and businesses), cooking blogs, online videos, TV shows. No one source is better and my best advice is to use a variety, and most importantly whatever works best for your learning style. Here are some of my favorites:
Watch cooking shows - a favorite source is the "Food Network", which has so many great shows available live and on demand
Youtube videos - pretty obvious as you can learn to do just about anything on Youtube
Whatever source you use, as you view the content, pay close attention to their cooking techniques - how do they get started on the dish, what ingredients do they use, how do they apply heat, how does each step build up the flavors.
The next step in learning is of course to try out new cooking techniques yourself. You can certainly try to replicate a recipe you read or watched. But, an easier approach is to just start trying out the specific techniques as you cook. This might be simple things like learning how to dice an onion, how best to marinate chicken, or how to saute vegetables. Of course, some of these techniques will have to be adapted for campout cooking. The basics apply no matter where you cook. But, of course cooking at a campout means you generally will not have access to a four burner stove. So, once you have covered the basics, you will need to start learning about the different types of cooking possible at a campout.
TYPES OF COOKING
Just like cooking at home, you have many different choices as to how you will apply heat to your food. There are some basic classifications of heat application:
Speed: Fast/High heat (stir fry/sear/boil) vs. Slow/Low heat (bake/braise/simmer)
Location: Bottom heat (saute/grill) vs. Top heat (broil) vs. All over (bake)
Media: Water (braise) vs. Fat (fry) vs. Oil (saute)
As you can see, the different combinations of speed, location, and cooking media determine the type of cooking. One dish can be the result of a single combination (e.g. grilling a steak) but often meals are prepared with multiple combinations (e.g. stew prepared by sauteing meat and vegetables in oil over medium heat, followed by a braise in broth over low heat). At home, you have access to an oven for baking or broiling, a stovetop for sauteing and frying, and even a grill. At a campout, you still have access to various means to apply different combinations of speed, location, and media:
Propane camp stoves: bottom heat, fast or slow, any media
Dutch ovens: bottom, top, or all over heat, typically slow heat (but fast is possible), various media
Camp fire: typically for high heat, but if you have an adjustable grate or tripod, you can adjust to a slow heat by raising food off the fire
Backpacking stoves: bottom heat and typically fast, primarily for boiling water
Propane stoves will be the easiest technique to master first, but the controls do not typically lend the fine control you have on your cooktop at home. So, if you having trouble adjusting the flame, simply go with a slightly higher heat and pull the pot or pan off the heat intermittently to control the temperature.
Dutch ovens take practice to master. Before you get started, you need to understand where you want to apply the heat based on the desired cooking technique. Often, dutch ovens (hence the name) are used to bake and simulate an oven, meaning hot coals are placed above and below the dutch oven. However, there are cases where the coals should be only below or above. The next factor is the cooking temperature, which is controlled by the number of coals you use. As the chart below shows, the number of coals is dependent on both the desired temperature and size of the oven. Last, it is very important to understand how long your dish needs to cook. If the cooking time is more than 20-25 minutes, then you will likely need to add a second batch of coals. MOST IMPORTANT, keep in mind that dutch oven cooking is NOT an exact science. Be prepared to adjust your technique (e.g. I typically use more coals and add more often) and don't get frustrated. You don't want to burn your food (hence why put more coals on top than bottom), but you also do not want to open the lid and check so often that oven loses heat inside. My best advice is to start any dutch oven well in advance of when you plan to eat. This gives you the option to extend the cooking time with additional batches of coals. Lastly, use dutch oven liners to minimize the mess. You can even easily create your own liners. https://backyardlifeblog.com/2012/08/make-parchment-dutch-oven-liner/
Cooking over a camp fire can be tricky for sure. You have no easy control of heat. If you have a large cooking grate, then you can move the food around so it is closer or further from the flames. If cooking with a dutch oven, you can use a tripod and adjust the height above the flame. Foil packs are a common technique for camp fire cooking. Going back to our cooking safety lesson, however, it is highly recommended to pre-cook any meat you will use for foil packs. This prevents any dangers from undercooking. No matter your approach, the most important thing to remember when cooking over a campfire is to play CLOSE attention to your food. Things can get crispy fast!
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CAMPOUT COOKING AND COOKING AT HOME
Besides the application of heat, there are several other differences you will need to manage to cook well on a campout:
Consider clean up
Careful selection and use use of ingredients
The biggest difference in meal prep for campout cooking is that many of the steps will take place before you leave home. Ideally, you want to prep as much as possible at home, and leave just cooking to the campsite. At a campout, you have limited time to cook. So, all of your ingredients should be prepped and ready to go. This means washing and cutting up vegetables and meat at home. But, it can also mean pre-cooking selected ingredients to cut down on overall cooking time at the site. For example, if making hash browns for breakfast or roasted potatoes for dinner, you can cut up and parboil the potatoes at home. Besides saving time, maximizing prep at home will also greatly reduce your clean up at the site.
Speaking of clean up, select your meals and cooking techniques to yield the fewest dirty utensils, pots, and pans. One pot/pan meals are ideal for campouts. Meals such as stews, stir frys, and saute dishes typically combine all meal elements into one dish. Also consider meals that don't leave a difficult to clean residue.
We will cover meal prep and planning in another lesson. But, worth noting some quick tips here about ingredients. When planning your meal, select ingredients that can be used across multiple meals (e.g. bread for french toast breakfast and also for lunch sandwiches). Ingredients should be easy to store and get to the site (e.g. pre-cracking all of your eggs for scrambled eggs and storing in tupperware). Lastly, only bring the quantity of food you need and don't overcook - there is no frig for leftovers.
Learning to cook can be frustrating at times, but mostly you will find it to be a very rewarding experience. When you get it right, your patrol is quiet as they devour your food. Keep in mind that most times, it will take a few iterations to get that meal right. So, my parting advice for this lesson is to NEVER COOK A MEAL FOR THE FIRST TIME AT A CAMPOUT. Try it our at home first - your family will appreciate you cooking for them!
We are almost there. Now that you get the basics down, we can start planning for a great campout meal. In the next lesson, we will get into meal planning and prep in greater detail, and talk a bit more about the role of different ingredients. In the meantime, go watch some cooking shows!
Yours in Scouting,
Grubmaster and ASM Alan Blatter