Aug, 2017: Throughout our overlanding adventure, if we’re camping for the night, without doubt the evening’s main event will be cooking dinner. Nearly every night we probably spend 2-3 hours cooking something up and while some may think we’re a little nutty, we love it. While our two burner gas cooker and grill plate definitely get a work out, camp oven cooking is something that has especially tickled us. Baking some banana bread, slow braising a local lamb shoulder or nailing a chicken pot roast; all are things we are working on perfecting in our camp oven. While any muppet can have a decent crack at a barbecue, we thought we would share a few things we have picked up about camp oven cooking.
Before we get started, exactly what is this camp oven cooking all about? Well, it’s about using a cast iron receptacle which has a cast iron lid to roast, bake or braise in a camp fire. Hot coals are piled underneath and on top of said receptacle and the thick, 4-5mm cast iron acts as a relatively even conductor of the heat. While we’ll get into more detail in the following paragraphs that’s really about it!
Camp oven cooking: tools of the trade
Before you charge out into the wilderness here a few bits you’re going to need in your camp kitchen if you want to engage in a spot of camp oven cooking. There are also a few other bits which just make life easier.
- A camp oven: Obvious, I know but without it you’re going to have a fair amount of difficulty achieving a roast chicken in the fire. Otherwise known as a dutch oven, these cast iron beasts come in a few different forms of which we have three.
- Large ~5L cast iron pot with lid: great for pot roasts, braising large chunks of meat or pretty much anything else where a large pot is required
- Cast iron bread tin: great for, well, baking bread in all it’s glorious forms. This is more Fi’s domain and from it she has nailed a solid white loaf, some awesome banana bread and an outstanding bread and butter pudding! I also think it would be great for a potato dauphinoise.
- Cast iron frying pan: Conveniently the lid from the big pot fits on our frying pan making it perfect for things like cannelloni, shepherds pie or even baking little bread rolls. Even when not galavanting around Africa we use one of these at home. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the same one mum was using back in the late seventies. They’re that good!
- Welding gloves and a shovel: You could use a rag or a sturdy stick to move hot stuff around the fire but trust us when we say that welding gloves will change your life! A shovel may sound strange but how else are you going to move those red hot coals around?
- Grill tripod: When not supporting our grill, we use this little beauty to raise our camp oven above the coals (more on this later). Of course you can use rocks instead but we use ours all the time and love it.
- Barbecue tools and cooking cutlery: All the usual suspects here (e.g. tongs, egg flip etc) with the addition of a wooden spoon and rolling pin (for flat breads and pizza)
- Other stuff we use all the time: Two burner gas cooker and 5kg gas bottle (obviously doesn’t go on the fire but certainly helps for some green vege on the side or some gravy for your roast); two pots and a colander; two chopping boards (so we can both prep); and finally a sieve for getting the bread flour just right and some aluminium foil for roasting potatoes in the coals.
Camp oven cooking: different fires for different feasts
Now you have all the right kit, the next thing to know is what is the best fire for your feast. A blazing fire looks great and keeps the tootsies toastie but isn’t great for baking bread. Conversely a prime t-bone or fillet of tuna would be wasted on low burning coals. Red hot heat is what you need for those. To get the perfect fire for your feast the two key questions to keep in mind are how much heat do you need and how long do you need it for. Once you’ve figured those questions out, fuel will be next on your list. Hard wood is great for a long burn but not ideal if you want to do something quick. Charcoal and briquettes can work for pretty much anything but aren’t always available.
One final thing about your fire is that if you’re doing some slow cooking, you may need coals for several hours. If so, you need to ensure you have enough wood to keep your fire burning while you harvest coals for your oven.
So exactly how is it done?
Camp oven cooking: method and timing
First off you need a long burning fire built from decent wood or briquettes to ensure a solid bed of coals. As above you need to ensure that you have enough fuel to maintain your fire in the event that you need to refresh your coals. A little to one side of your main camp fire, you need to ensure your camp oven is raised about 10cm above the ground so the bottom of whatever you’re cooking doesn’t burn. This is where the tripod, rocks or bricks come in. From here it’s all about coal placement. You need to move about a shovel’s worth of coals from your main fire underneath your camp oven and another two to three shovels on top of the lid. If this completely depletes your coal stocks from the fire, get some more wood on there so you’re ready for a refresh if you need it.
In terms of timing, you can pretty much use normal oven cooking times as a good guide. Obviously it will depend on what you’re cooking and the heat of your coals. We pot roasted a 2kg medium rare lamb leg in about 45 minutes and then slow braised a lamb shoulder in 3 hours. A loaf of banana bread took just under an hour while some bread rolls took less than 30 minutes. As you’re getting your head around camp oven cooking you may want to lean on the side of caution and check things a little earlier. This is where our welding gloves are gold as we can carefully just lift the lid without bothering to dust off the coals from the top.
Camp oven cooking: final thoughts
While this is how we have been experimenting with camp oven cooking it’s definitely not the be all and end all. Speaking to my mum, when we used to go camping in outback Australia she used to dig a hole in the ground, put coals in the bottom, then the camp oven, coals on top and then cover the lot with dirt. We haven’t tried this method yet but are keen to give it a crack. Alternatively, you can go completely ‘au natural’, build a fire pit in the ground replete with hot rocks and use things like banana leaves to wrap fish or meat. Check out our Corn Island cooking adventures from the Caribbean when we gave this a go last year. Either way, conquering camp oven cooking will open up a whole lot more camp fire cooking options and if you’re anything like us, this can only be a damn good thing!