Cooking over coals

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook


Nail our three easy campsite treats with these proven camp oven culinary tricks.

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Camp ovens are part of the universal kit of every Australian who goes bush – or ought to be. They are simple to use, fun to cook with and able to produce some of the most mouth-watering meals you’ll ever eat, enhanced by the great environment in which you consume the results.

The food cooked in a camp oven tastes better, different, unique. And what can be better when surrounded by the undiluted simplicity of the bush, than to sit down to a beautiful baked leg of lamb followed by a fancy dessert, or to snack on a chunk of fresh damper, torn from the still warm, golden product of your camp oven?

Suddenly your whole attitude about life at the more basic level of camping can change.

So the question is: what do you cook? What should you cook?

Your personal preferences and experience around the kitchen and campfire will dictate where you start. Handling a complex recipe is within the scope of a confident cook familiar with campfire coals, but for those of us whose experience is lacking, choosing recipes with fewer ingredients is a good start, especially when bench space, pantry space and resources and location limit your options.

We have gone for three recipes that we think you will enjoy – we know we did – to help sharpen the culinary campsite skills of any keen would-be campfire chef.

TEMPERATURE CONTROL

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Exactly how hot is your camp oven? If you don’t have a thermometer, try this simple technique.

Take a piece of newspaper or paper towel and drop it in onto a trivet, (so it isn’t sitting on the bottom, which is sitting on hot coals).

Allow it to cook for five minutes. Its condition after that time will give you a fair idea of temperature:

• If the paper is black and smoking – the oven is way too hot

• If the paper is dark brown – the oven is very hot (230°C)

• If the paper is light brown – the oven is hot (200°C)

• If the paper is yellowish– the oven is moderate (180°C)

A ‘very hot’ oven – around 230°C will char things to an inedible blackened crisp.

For food requiring short cooking times or for browning, such as pizza, biscuits or pies, a hot oven of around 200°C works well, with the majority of coals on top.

The most common temperature required in camp oven cooking is what would be called a moderate oven with a temperature of around 180°C.

For stews and casseroles you want a ‘slow’ oven, around 150°C.

A big mistake many people make is making their oven too hot, often due to having too much heat underneath, especially with flat-bottomed ovens. If you’re using log-fire coals, place half a shovel on the ground so it’s not on a cold surface and place as many as you need on top. When you check the food inside be quick; remember hot air rises. Check damper after, say, 20 minutes and a bake after 30 minutes.

And any time you have to remove the lid, even partially, rotate as you put it back on to make sure it’s seated properly and the heat can’t escape.

When cooking outside there are many environmental factors which will change the outcomes from day to day. Wind, cooler ambient temperatures, humidity variations, the size of the fire nearby will all have an influence, so check your food and be prepared to vary cooking times to suit.

If the day is windy or cool you can assist by digging a shallow hole, deep enough for your lower coals to sit in, to shelter them from the air movement when you place your oven on top.

HEAT BEAD-GENERATED FIRE

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If there is a lack of a fire or good hot coals, you can just as easily use heat beads. Many people steer clear of these because they find it difficult to get them alight, but that’s because heat beads take a bit of time start ‘burning’ properly. Heat beads are easy to use for temperature control; they should last as long as you need for cooking, and are easily handled with a pair of tongs.

You can buy commercially-made ‘chimneys’ for starting heat beads, or you can make them fairly easily from readily available materials. Sit the chimney over three fire starters on a suitable surface and within 40-60 minutes your heat beads will all be nice and white. That’s when they’re ready to use. The quality heat beads vary, and the cheap ones lose their heat fairly quickly, but the better known Australian-made brands will continue to produce substantial heat for several hours.

How many should you use? There is a handy free app for smart phones called the Dutch Oven Coal Calculator, which will give you the number required (Americans call camp ovens Dutch ovens, which we can assure you has no correlation with the Australian definition). Just input the diameter size of your oven in inches, the cooking style and the desired temperature in °F, and it will give you the number of ‘coals’, or heat beads, for top and bottom to achieve the result. You’ll may also need to download a unit converter to convert from °F to °C.

There is also a handy rule of thumb, which suggests to use twice the number of heat beads as the diameter of the oven. For a 12in oven, use 24 heat beads. Depending on the type of cooking you are doing, you need to make the heat come more from the top or bottom of the oven. For example, too much heat on the bottom will burn bread. To do this, you place more or less of the heat beads on the lid.

Here is a simple chart, which applies equally to log-fire coals.

Baking: place more heat from the top so the bottom doesn’t burn. Place ¾ of the heat beads on top and ¼ underneath.

Roasting: heat equally from the top and bottom, so half the beads on top and half below.

Stewing and simmering: ensure most of the heat comes from below, so ¼ of beads on top and ¾ below.

Frying and boiling: all the heat must from below, so place all the beads underneath.

Each heat bead you add will increase the temperature by about 20°C. Avoid bunching the beads to prevent hot spots, place your beads underneath in a circular pattern at least a centimetre in from the oven edge and those on top in a checkerboard pattern.

Rotate the oven 90° every 15 minutes to avoid uneven cooking and rotate the lid 90° in the opposite direction. All the above is on the basis of the oven being out in the open. If it’s sheltered behind a wind guard or in an oven reduce the number of coals underneath.

CLEANING YOUR OVEN

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A well-seasoned oven is vital to successful camp cooking, but it’s just as important to clean it properly afterwards so it’s ready for next time. Be disciplined about it; you can wait till the next morning, but don’t leave it longer than that.

For a start, you can make a big difference to the effort of cleaning if you’ve been able to use a round or oven bag baking tray which ought to catch most of the fat and mess. You can use sheet but it tends to stick to the oven walls and base and usually tears when you’re getting it out, which only releases the remnants back into the oven.

As soon as you’ve removed the food it’s understandable that you won’t want to do anything but sit down and enjoy it. After eating, if resources permit, remove and dispose of the foil baking tray if used then add some water to the oven and bring it briefly to the boil, then put aside for later cleaning. But remember, don’t put cold water into a hot cast iron oven or you can crack it.

When cool enough to handle or on the next morning, tip out the water and any fats or other remnants of food, and clean out any bits stuck to the wall. Don’t forget to clean the lid. Use a paper towel to wipe the walls clean, removing all signs of food. Don’t use soap through any of these stages as the taste will taint your future cooking. Don’t use a wire brush unless you are intending to reseason your oven.

When you’re satisfied it’s clean, allow it to dry, warm slightly then wipe it over with an edible oil (preferably something like olive oil or peanut oil); it should soon become as good as a non-stick pan.

BEER AND MIXED FRUIT DAMPER

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Ingredients

• 1-1½ cups self-raising flour

• ½ teaspoon baking powder

• 2 tbsp butter

• Dried mixed fruit or sultanas

• 350-360ml beer

Method

Add baking powder to flour and mix. Rub butter into flour. Add mixed fruit or sultanas. Add about 1/3 bottle of beer and mix. Keep adding beer till you get a soft mix. Place mix into a lightly greased tin so it keeps its shape. Bake in your oven for about 40 minutes at about 180°C.

Damper tips

1. You may need slightly more or less water (or beer) than the ingredients suggest. The mixture should be able to hold its shape in the dish.

2. Score the dough deeply with a knife to make it easier to break into segments when cooked.

3. Never try to cook damper over flames, only ever with coals.

4. Damper is great smothered with butter or drizzled with golden syrup, and is always best eaten while hot.

5. If you are a complete beginner just buy a packet of commercial damper mix from the store, mix it as per the directions, and it will still be delicious.

6. Measure and mix dry damper ingredients before leaving home, and store them in an air-tight container or in a plastic bag ready for use. This will take up less room than carrying separate ingredients and saves time in preparation.

HONEY CHICKEN

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Ingredients

• Packet of French onion soup mix

• 3 tbsp of honey

• ½ cup of water

• 1kg chicken pieces

Method

Mix soup mix, water and honey. Add the chicken pieces to the camp oven and lightly brown with some butter. Add the soup/water/honey mix. Cover and cook on a low heat until the chicken is cooked through (about 1.5 hours), stirring occasionally. To avoid overcooking, use a stand or cooking base to lift the camp oven above the coals.

GOLDEN SYRUP STEAMED PUDDING

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Ingredients

• Vanilla or butter cake packet cake mix

• Golden syrup

Method

Make the cake mix as directed on the packet, then add a tablespoon of golden syrup. Grease a pudding bowl and pour in a generous amount of golden syrup. Gently pour in the cake mix and seal the top of the basin with greased foil and lock the lid on. Add water to your oven and bring to the boil (do not add cold water to a hot cast iron oven as it can crack). Place the basin carefully onto a trivet in your oven. Boil for about 45 minutes. Serve with custard or cream.

The full feature appeared in Camper Trailer Australia #107 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!