Travel & Feasting Blog

Camp oven cooking the Compass & Ladle way

Cast iron cookware, some of our favourite camp kitchen essentials: camp oven cooking

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.

This pork pot roast went down an absolute treating while we were camping in Zimbabwe : camp oven cooking

This pork pot roast went down an absolute treating while we were camping in Zimbabwe

 

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.

The full array of our camp kitchen cooking essentials. Might be slightly excessive but we love it! camp oven cooking

The full array of our camp kitchen cooking essentials. Might be slightly excessive but we love it!

 

  1. 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.
    1. 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
    2. 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.
    3. 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!
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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)
  5. 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 tools: our big pot and lid, frying pan and bread tin (all cast iron), tripod and the best of all...welding gloves

Camp oven cooking tools: our big pot and lid, frying pan and bread tin (all cast iron), tripod and the best of all…welding gloves

 

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.

Keeping your fire burning to one side of your camp oven is key to ensuring you have coals ready to go if you need them: camp oven cooking

Keeping your fire burning to one side of your camp oven is key to ensuring you have coals ready to go if you need them

 

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!

While we didn't get our first attempt at making yoghurt quite right, the result made awesome cheese which then turned into even better spinach and cheese cannelloni: camp oven cooking

While we didn’t get our first attempt at making yoghurt quite right, the result made awesome cheese which then turned into even better spinach and cheese cannelloni

 

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Natasha Haley
    September 16, 2017 at 6:32 am

    The meals you cook at your campfire are impressive than in some actual homes. Well done for making a delicious and filling pork meal with just a camp fire. Slow cooked food is usually best anyway

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 16, 2017 at 7:11 am

      Slow cooked food is the bomb hey?!! It’s especially satisfying over the camp fire watching an African sunset. Love it. Thanks for reading.

  • Reply
    Christina
    September 16, 2017 at 10:08 am

    The meals look delicious. Great photography! Makes me want to go out and buy one even though I’m not a regular camping fan.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:33 am

      You should totally do more camping. Before this trip we hadn’t really done that much but we absolutely love it.

  • Reply
    Anne Slater-Brooks
    September 16, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    The food looks delicious although frankly I do not have the patience to wait so long for my food. Maybe I could just tag along with you guys. I am fascinated by the sleeping arrangements though. How does that tent thing work?

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:30 am

      Oh but there are so many amazing, quick things you can make. I completely understand though, I think my wife and I are a little crazy sometimes with the amount of time we spend talking about, shopping for, preparing and cooking food. Still, we love it. And, when you’re camping there really isn’t all that much else to do. Our roof top tent rocks! Basically, we can keep a sheet, doona (duvet) and two pillows in there at all times and when we have to move on, just fold the tent in half. It’s designed so that it can be packed away with pretty much all poles still inside. Great invention really. We can set it up in about 3 mins and take it down in 5-7.

  • Reply
    Muryan
    September 17, 2017 at 6:41 am

    Your camp food is much better than my homecooked meal. Lol. Thanks for the tips, will keep these in mind the next time we go camping!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:22 am

      Ha ha, thanks so much. Let us know how you go on your next camping trip.

  • Reply
    Sreekar
    September 17, 2017 at 9:36 am

    A perfect tool for camping I guess. Weirdly enough a similar vessel was used for making Kebabs in the Wadi RUm desert in Jordan! Tasted great too!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:20 am

      hmmmm, kebabs in the Jordanian desert, do tell!! Sounds awesome

  • Reply
    J Harvey
    September 18, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    I’m actually bookmarking this because the info you provide for camp cooking is great! My husband and I are considering a long camping trek and I think this would be great to remember. I absolutely love the cast iron too!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:19 am

      Yeah man, pack up that van with a bit of choice cast iron cook ware and you’ll be laughing. So good to be able to cook things other than just a BBQ or tuna pasta (even though both are amazing) when you’re camping.

  • Reply
    Tami
    September 18, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    We have also done dutch oven cooking on our famly camping trips. Everything always tastes good in a dutch oven! (at least that’s what I think!) But we haven’t perfected baking bread in one, yet. Still working on that. Are you going to be sharing any favorite dutch oven recipes with us?

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:18 am

      Hey Tami, I know right, we seriously love our dutch oven. Yep, for sure, we have a couple of recipes ready to go which we’ll be posting in the next day or so with more to come after that. Stoked you enjoy them.

  • Reply
    Megan Jerrard
    September 19, 2017 at 2:56 am

    I’m impressed at your skill; banana bread, slow braising a local lamb shoulder or nailing a chicken pot roast, and all on a camp oven – mad kudos! Definitely agree that a camp kitchen should be given some thought if you’re spending a long trip through the wilderness. Thanks for the insight into your kit. You’re definitely right that you need different fires for different feats – you have such a handle on camp cooking!! (pun intended!!)

    Let me know how you go when you experiment with your mums suggestion of digging a hole in the ground,and covering everything with dirt – I’ve heard of that before and have been interested but not yet given it a go myself.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 19, 2017 at 4:16 am

      hey Meg, when we were in the Corn Islands last year we did try digging a fire pit in the sand to make some fish in banana leaves. First time failed as there wasn’t enough heat in the pit, second time failed as we didn’t have enough banana leaves (even though wrapping the fish in alfoil worked a treat) so we’re keen to try that again as well. Check out our cooking corn islands blog http://compassandladle.com/travel-and-feast/central-north-america/nicaragua/cooking-the-corn-islands/. Regardless we’ll definitely give you a shout when we try the fire pit with the camp oven method.

  • Reply
    Suruchi
    September 19, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    I am impressed. The food you have cooked looks not only palatable but quite tempting too. I must say it seems better than some of the meals cooked at the home. This is a very well written detailed post on camp oven cooking and super helpful for those looking to try this while camping.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      September 20, 2017 at 4:16 am

      Thanks Suruchi. We hope that you might be able to put some of our advice to good use on your own camping trip one day!

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