Introduction: Backcountry Baking for Every Budget
Second Prize in the
Outdoor Cooking Contest 2017
It's an observed phenomenon that everything tastes better when you're camping. Hunger makes even the humblest of meals seem heavenly, and nothing builds up a hunger like hiking all day.
A surprising number of people use this fact to justify taking seriously sub-par food on the trail--the faster and easier something is to cook, the better.
I've never understood that. Sure, you can pay $8 a meal for freeze-dried styrafoam, pay $130 for a stove that'll boil water in 12.73 seconds and combine the two for a warm bag of glop, and it'll taste fine. Because everything tastes better when you're camping.
But in this guide, I'll show you how to make delicious baked goods in the backcountry from scratch with affordable equipment. I'll also show you how to make delicious baked goods from prepared packages with expensive equipment, because everybody enjoys the outdoors differently.
While mediocre food is tasty on the trail, good food is mind blowing. Because everything tastes better when you're camping.
Step 1: The Fundamentals of Backcountry Baking
Baking, when it comes down to it, is using hot air to cook. So in order to bake food at home or on the trail, we need a few things:
- A source of heat
- A way to contain that heat around the food
- A way to contain the food within that heat
Reductionist as it sounds, that's just about it. At home, these functions are performed by the burner or element within your oven, the oven itself, and the baking dish, respectively. Of course, no one's going to be carrying an induction range on the trail, but there are tools we can use instead, and they're things many people already carry: A stove, a pot with a lid, and a slightly smaller pot. The large pot functions as our "oven", the small pot functions as the "bake dish" and the stove functions as our heat source.
If you have these three things, you're ready to bake. In the next few steps, we'll talk about what to look for and avoid in each of these components.
Step 2: Choosing an "Oven"
The "oven" pot is the largest, heaviest part of the baking system, and has the most restrictions on its form--but that's not to say there aren't a LOT of options.
The most well-known pot of this type, though most people have never used one in this way, is the dutch oven. While these days they're mostly used as heavyweight stew-pots or for baking cobblers with direct heat, they were originally popularized as actual ovens--chambers in which one would place a smaller pan for baking. If you're interested in the historical usage of Dutch ovens, here's a man in a funny hat who would love to tell you more.
For car campers or the inordinately strong-backed, they still excel at this function. Your grandparents' cast iron dutch oven will do a great job baking on a propane stove or campfire. Of course, their size and weight mean that most of us would rather not carry them further than from the car to the fire ring. Horace Kephart, in his 1906 book Camping and Woodcraft, says, "A Dutch oven of cast-iron is very serviceable on any trip that permits carrying so heavy a utensil. Why are there none made of cast aluminum?"
Well, in the intervening 110 years, one or two companies have taken notice and aluminum dutch ovens are now indeed available at around 1/3 the weight of their cast-iron cousins, and have the added benefit of conducting heat even better than cast iron. Even these, though, are not ideal for backpacking.
For those who carry their kitchens on their backs, a standard thin-walled backpacking pot has the potential to bake almost as well as as a heavy dutch oven with just a few modifications and things to avoid.
Almost any material used for backpacking pots is suitable for an oven pot. One must be careful with aluminum, since without the immediate contact of food or water to pull heat away from the pot, too much heat too fast can cause the aluminum to melt--but at the low stove power required for baking, this can be easily avoided. The best aluminum pots are hard-anodized to appear dark gray in color rather than bright and shiny.
Stainless steel is a very good option. Though a bit on the heavy side, it's durable and won't melt.
Titanium is even more heat-tolerant than steel, and a fair bit lighter.
DO NOT USE A NON-STICK POT FOR YOUR OVEN. The coating, whether it's Teflon or some gimmicky "ceramic" coating, has the strong potential to overheat without the direct contact of food or water to pull heat away. If the coating overheats, it will not only ruin the pan but also release toxic fumes.
Whatever material your pot is, it needs to have a reasonably snug-fitting metal lid. The pot itself and the air inside of it will likely get hot enough to melt a plastic lid, so I try to get lids that don't even have a plastic handles.
Step 3: Choosing a "Bake Pan"
The only hard and fast requirement of a bake pan is that it fit inside your oven pot. They can be of any material--aluminum, titanium, or stainless steel, though aluminum conducts heat the best and will promote even cooking. Non-stick coatings are just fine for this component, and will make it a LOT easier to get your food out once it's done baking.
A bake pan of any shape may also be used; small loaf pans are viable options, and bundt pans make baking faster and more even. However, I like a standard round pot, for its multipurpose nature. Often the food you're baking will require a "mixing bowl" to prepare, and if your bake pan can perform that function on its own then that's one less item to carry and clean.
The downside of round pans is that it takes longer for heat to get from the outside of the pan to the inside of the baked good, so one can more easily end up with a burnt outside or a doughy center. This is more of a problem with larger setups, but can still be mitigated by sticking aluminum nails (thoroughly washed) from the hardware store into the baked good to conduct heat into the center.
Step 4: Choosing a Stove
The pursuit of a "perfect" stove is one that every camp chef goes through whether they're baking or not. The good news is, pretty much any stove that works for normal cooking will work for backcountry baking--though there are some that are better than others.
If you're using a butane stove, try to find one with a fairly broad burner. Those that produce a little pencil jet of flame are great for saving weight and boiling water fast, but are pretty poor at cooking things other than water since they tend to scorch one central spot. My favorite butane stove is this guy, available from a large number of sellers on Amazon for around $10. The broad flame also makes an aluminum oven pot a lot less likely to melt out.
Alcohol and even white gas stoves are quite suitable for baking, but practicing simmer control is important.Too much heat can burn your baked goods.
Cooking on wood is very doable. My general technique is to burn wood down to embers--that is, to a charcoal consistency that is no longer producing visible tongues of flame--before cooking on it. Flames are basically superheated jets of smoke, and if they come in contact with your pot they'll cool and condense into soot. Where I camp, most of the trees are coniferous softwoods, so the soot is particularly tarry and nasty. By waiting until the flames are gone, you'll reduce soot buildup on your pots dramatically.
Incidentally, if you're using embers to cook in this way, you can put some on top of your pot as well as underneath, making for even heat distribution on both sides. Just make sure you're using a lid that's all metal with no nonstick coating or plastic handles, and make sure you can get the lid off later when you're done without tipping ashes into your food.
Step 5: Choosing Trivets
Okay, I lied back in step one. You also technically need something to keep your bake pot from resting directly on the bottom of your oven pot. This is so that the heat isn't too intense, burning the bottom, and so that the heat can rise up and cook the top through convection.
A trivet just has to be something that can hold the bake dish off of the bottom of the oven pot. It has to be reasonably heat resistant and stable, but otherwise there are a lot of options, a sample of which you can see laid out in the image above. For smaller, ultralight setups, I've seen people use a keyring. As long as it allows for convection between the inner and outer pots and won't burn, it'll do the trick.
Of course, there are a few thing to consider; one doesn't want the trivet to conduct heat between the oven pot and the bake pan too effectively. After all, direct conduction is what the trivet's meant to avoid. One doesn't want the trivet to arrest convection, since convection is at the heart of this oven. How high the trivet should hold the bake pan off the bottom is also a question with no right answer, since every millimeter you gain off the bottom to allow for better heat distribution robs a millimeter of headroom from the top to allow convection up there.
Ultimately, I'd say don't overthink it.
Step 6: (Optional) Insulation
Wind can have a detrimental effect on baking time and consistency. Nothing robs heat from your oven like a stray breeze. Even in still air, insulating your oven can make it more efficient and faster.
Of course, given that we're baking on a stove, any flamible insulation is a very bad idea. Therefore, the best option is carbon felt.
Carbon felt is a soft, workable fabric which feels very much like regular felt from a craft store. However, it's astonishingly fireproof. Not only will it not ignite or sustain a flame, but even direct heat from a blowtorch or stove burner barely faze it.
A cozy for your pot can be fashioned from carbon felt simply by measuring the height and circumference of your pot, cutting a rectangle with those dimensions (plus a little extra on the circumference for overlap) and wrapping the felt around your pot. Some slits or notches may have to be cut to accommodate handles.Sewing might work with meta-aramid ("Nomex") thread, but I find it easier to use a stapler to join the ends of the cloth.
Carbon felt, being felt, doesn't spring back when stretched, so it won't grip the pot on its own. Most elastics are too temperature-sensitive to work in this application, but silicone is a very heat-resistant rubber that's ideal for this application. A company called Grifiti makes silicone rubber bands in a number of sizes and colors that work well for this application. You'll still want to place the band only high up on the pot, away from the direct flame, but they're much less likely to snap than regular elastic or shock cord.
I would advise against using carbon felt on a wood flame, especially if it hasn't burned down to embers. The sooty tar that can build up on your pot is hard enough to get off, but it'd be impossible to get out of the felt.
Another thing to consider is a wind screen. These can be made from folding aluminum panels, a thick but malleable aluminum foil, or even a strip of carbon felt. They keep wind from interfering with your stove and robbing heat from the bottom of your oven. They're not great for most butane stoves, though, because you're trapping the heat in with your pressurized fuel tank. A remote feed stove like this one is considerably safer to use in this manner.
Step 7: Lubrication
One last thing of note before we talk about HOW to bake is lubrication. Baked goods tend to stick pretty tenaciously to whatever they're cooked in, so preventing sticking is an important consideration. If your "bake dish" is coated in Teflon or some other non-stick coating, you're more than halfway there, but a bit of secondary lubrication won't hurt.
The three best ways to prevent sticking are oil, corn meal, and parchment paper.
Oil has the benefit of adding copious calories to your food--a major benefit to those walking all day--but can be a bit messy and hard to wash off of fingers or pans. It also has a tendency to leak out of bottles and is horrible if it gets on anything in your backpack. Medicine bottles, often available upon request at pharmacies, seem to be some of the most leak-proof bottles available.
Corn meal will prevent sticking in the same way as dusting your breadboard with flour before kneading dough, but corn meal has a much higher burning point than wheat flour and is therefore preferable for baking. It isn't as messy or leak-prone as oil, but isn't quite as effective, either, especially for liquids like cake or brownie batter. It also has a gritty texture that isn't ideal for these applications.
Parchment paper is a silicone-impregnated paper. It's amazingly non-stick, lightweight, and inexpensive. I cut a circle for the bottom of my bake dish and a long strip to go around the inner wall. There's the possibility of sticking if a liquid batter leaks out between those two pieces, but it's much less of an issue than it otherwise would be.
I recommend oil or parchment for wet batters, corn meal or parchment for drier dough.
Step 8: How to Bake: Wet Vs. Dry Vs. Hybrid
Now that we've covered equipment, let's talk about how to actually bake in a backpacking oven setup.
There are two main techniques:Wet baking and dry baking.
Wet baking is when you put some water in the bottom of your oven pot and bring it to a boil to steam the baked good in the baking dish pot. The benefits of this are that steam carries a lot of energy at a very consistent temperature no matter how hot your stove is burning; as long as there's liquid water in the bottom of the pot, the temperature of the steam will be within a couple degrees of 100°C (212°F), depending on your elevation. To understand the downside, let's talk about crust vs. crumb.
Crust is the crusty, golden-brown outside layer of baked breads. Lesser known is that the soft, white, inner portion is called crumb. The difference between the two is the temperature at which they cook. When starches like flour are cooked, they undergo a complex chemical reaction that "sets" them; you can't turn bread back into dough just by adding water, because bread isn't just dried dough, it's actually chemically quite different. Dough and batter will set up into bread "crumb" below 100°C/212°F, so one can bake bread by steaming it.
The formation of crust happens at a higher temperature--crust is formed when sugars and starches exceed about 170°C/338°F and caramelize. This is why a lot of recipes call for baking just above that--it's the perfect temperature to form crust without being hot enough to burn quickly.
Unfortunately, our wet baking technique will never get that hot, so no crust, golden-brown or otherwise, will ever form.
That's why there's Dry baking. Dry baking doesn't use water, but just heats the dry air in the oven, much like what happens in your oven at home. Without the water to absorb the extra heat, you can get much higher temperatures with dry baking--up to and beyond that magic 170°C/338°F point necessary to form a crust.
Of course, that means you do run the risk of burning your bread. Thermometers are available, like this one from Backpacker's Pantry, but they're not super accurate and only vaguely approximate the temperature inside the pot.
That's why I use a method I call Hybrid baking. I put a bit of water in the bottom of the oven pot and bring it to a boil--wet baking, to start out.
However, when the water's boiled away, I let it keep going, getting hotter and forming some level of crust. However, since I know the baked good's already cooked, I don't have to leave it in long enough to worry about burning.
So, Wet baking uses water to control temperature but can't form a crust; Dry baking can form a crust but can also burn your baked goods; Hybrid baking uses wet baking to set up the baked good, then form a crust afterward.
It's worth noting that even with dry baking, unless you have a heat source from above (i.e., a small twiggy fire or hot coals on your oven pot's lid) you're probably only going to form a respectable crust on the bottom of your baked good. Which is fine; when baking bread, for example, I just turn my loaf over once it's done baking.
Step 9: Recipes: an Overview
I'll provide a few sample recipes, but first let's talk about what makes a recipe good for backpacking and how to adapt a recipe you'd use at home.
The first principle of backpacking food is that you want to carry as many calories as possible with as little weight as possible, while maintaining a pleasant meal and good nutritional balance. You can help this by using high-calorie foods such as oil as much as is practical, but the main thing is to eliminate dead weight--specifically heavy, zero-calorie water.
This is hard with some meals, but making baked goods from scratch uses mostly dry ingredients anyway, with a few exceptions:
Milk is often called for in things like scones or muffins. This can be substituted with powdered milk. For each cup or dL of milk called for, make up the difference in 1/3 as much powdered milk and increase the total water called for in the recipe by the original volume of milk.
The same principle applies for eggs. For each egg called for, add 30mL/2 Tablespoons of egg powder and add 60mL/1/4 cup of water to the total water called for by the recipe.
For oil, you can either carry the oil out and add it in the field or add it to the dry ingredients before packaging them up at home. This forms a "cookie dough" type mix of oil and dry ingredients that's less likely to leak than bottled oil.
Butter contains enough moisture that microbial growth and rancidity can become issues without refrigeration so to substitute use a zero-moisture alternative such as clarified butter, vegetable shortening or lard. You can clarify your own butter much more cheaply than you can buy it in the store.
The goal is to reduce your recipe to a "just add water" one, with all the milk and egg powder and any fats in the mix already.Then, on the trail, you just...add water. Stir it up well, trying to crush any lumps larger than a pea. This might be accomplished more easily by breaking up the "cookie dough" before adding the water, or by stirring with a spork or other camp utensil once in the pot.
And before you object, YES. Powdered eggs and milk are both pretty disgusting on their own, but trust me: mixed into baked goods they do the job they're meant to do and you end up with something just as good as if you'd used fresh.
Step 10: Sample Recipe 1: Orange Cranberry Cake
- 1 cup (2.4dl) all-purpose flour
- 1 Tablespoon (15ml) sugar
- 1/2 Tablespoon (8ml) baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon (a pinch) salt
- 1 Tablespooon (15ml) egg powder
- 1/4 cup (60ml) powdered milk
- 1/4 cup (60ml) shortening
- 1/4 cup (60ml) dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup (1.2dl) orange juice
Combine the dry ingredients (except the cranberries) and whisk or sift together. Melt and incorporate the fat. Place in a zip-top bag.
Put the cranberries and orange juice in a microwave safe measuring cup or small saucepan. Bring to a boil in the microwave or on the stove and let sit until the cranberries are reconstituted, then strain them and place in a zip bag or freeze and vacuum seal.
ON THE TRAIL:
Put the "cookie dough" mixture in a bowl or small pot. Add 1/2 cup of water and mix thoroughly, squishing any lumps that you see against the wall to break them up. Add the cranberries and mix them in. Lubricate the pan you wish to bake in and add the dough. Place in your oven pot with 1/2 cup (120ml) of water and bring to a boil. Steam until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
NOTES: This one has a bit of moisture content in the form of the orange juice. I have yet to find a good water-free replacement for fruit juices in recipes like this. Because of the moisture content, the cranberries will not be shelf-stable and should be used within a day or two. Also, note that we're just wet-baking; no dry-baking is necessary because this is a sweet, cake-like bread that doesn't require a crust.
Step 11: Sample Recipe 2: Artisan Bread
- 180g flour
- 5g salt
- 10g yeast
Put the ingredients in a bag.
Add 100ml/1/3 cup water to the flour, salt and yeast. Mix thoroughly. Place in a warm place until the dough has roughly doubled in size. Punch down and turn out into lubricated bake dish and allow to rise again until roughly doubled in size. Add 1/3 cup/100ml water to oven pot and bring to boil. Wet bake until dry, then dry bake another 10 minutes.
Though the ingredients are simple, this is one of the trickier recipes since it requires multiple rises of the yeast. Quickbreads that use baking powder are much easier and faster on the trail. If you do want to try yeast breads, I recommend rising in a titanium or hard-anodized aluminum pot, since the dark color helps it warm up in the sun.
Step 12: Sample Recipe 3: Bacon Mushroom Breakfast Quiche
- Pie Crust:
- 120g Flour
- 3g Salt
- 55g Vegetable oil
- 4 Tablespoons/60ml Ova Easy egg crystals
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon (1ml) salt
- 1/4 teaspoon (1ml) ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon (1ml) garlic powder
- 2 strips bacon, pre-cooked
- 1/3 cup/1dL dried mushrooms
- Pie crust:
Add oil to flour and salt. Mix thoroughly and ad to a zip-top a bag.
- Filling: Combine egg powder and spices in small bag. Bag mushrooms and bacon separately.
- Pie Crust:
Add 60ml/1/4 cup water to crust mixture. Knead until consistent, then smoosh into the baking dish, forming a cup-shaped crust.
Simmer dried mushrooms in water for ~5 minutes. Drain off water and add mushrooms and bacon to pie crust.
Add 1 cup/240mL water to egg powder and spices. Mix until smooth, then pour over the mushrooms and bacon in the pie crust.
Place bake dish pot in oven pot. Add 1/2 cup/120mL water to the oven pot and bring to a boil. When the water boils off, allow to dry bake on moderate heat another 10 minutes.
Use a knife to probe to the center of the eggs to make sure they're firm. If not, allow to bake longer.
NOTES: This is an incredibly tasty, filling recipe. Because of the pie crust's high oil and low water content, it tends not to stick to the bake pan even without lubrication. The water used to reconstitute the dried mushrooms makes a delicious broth--I recommend mixing in a bit of salt and drinking it along with your quiche.
USE OVA EASY BRAND EGG CRYSTALS. Other, cheaper powdered egg brands are fine when baked into pastries and such, but eggs are a centerpiece in this recipe, and only Ova Easy brand seems to work well enough on its own to make this a good recipe.
Step 13: Sample Recipe 4: Low-effort Muffin Things
At the beginning I promised I'd show how to bake store-bought stuff that's super easy, didn't I? Alright...here you go.
- Some store bought muffin stuff. Make sure it's the just-add-water stuff.
- Milk powder. If you want. Up to you.
- Put the muffin stuff in your bake thingy. You should probably oil it, maybe.
- Put water in there. What does the back of the bag say? Oh yeah, half a cup. In metric that's...uh...0.5 cups.
- Wait, were we using milk? Oh, yeah, put in milk powder. 1/6th of a cup, so...3 tablespoons...ish. In metric I think that's a centi-hectare of powdered milk.
- Put water in your oven pot and steam it til it's muffin-y. Or just mix it up and eat it with a spoon without baking. Mmmm...fake corn syrup "berries".
NOTES: Okay, this stuff does taste pretty good. It's got a fair bit of sugar, though, and I'm not joking about those berries being fake.
Step 14: Closing Thoughts
Backcountry baking is an amazing way to enrich your diet while on the trail or in camp. While it definitely requires a bit more skill than boiling water and dumping it in a bag, I find experimenting with new recipes extremely gratifying and, frankly, fun.
Other recipes I've used successfully include scones, muffins, biscuits, birthday cake, and soda bread.
Test your recipes before you hit the trail. Think about how to substitute odd ingredients; For example, if a muffin recipe calls for fresh blueberries, dried ones will reconstitute when simmered in water.
Finally, while this is my favorite way to eat well out of doors, it's not the only way. While I like the versatility and durability of my setup, you may prefer to use a solar cooker or Outback Oven. Backpacking Chef is also a great resource for well thought-out ways to eat wonderful food on the trail.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to make any suggestions you might have!
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