One thing I really wanted to do on the big trip my family took this summer was do as much cooking over a fire as possible, both because it’s something I genuinely enjoy and also as a bit of hands on research for my books. So often, I have characters cooking out in the open, making do with what they’ve gathered or hunted or caught from the water. I’ve often seen people debate over just how difficult this might be and how many hours of preparation would be involved. Is it unrealistic in a book for Ol’ Cookie to whip up some beans for the cowboys on the trail in a relatively short amount of time? What about bread? Is even something as basic as a stew going to be difficult?
Well, it’s not as easy as popping something in the microwave, but since I do a lot of cooking from scratch anyway and I have the benefit of modern ice chests to keep my ingredients fresh, it didn’t strike me as all that difficult. I used a cast-iron dutch oven, made for camping with a flat bottom and legs that hold it above the coals.
During our trip I cooked four big dinners in it and two loaves of bread, while breakfast and lunch were leftovers or small things that didn’t require much preparation. This made things much easier than trying to make three full meals every day and also closely mimicked the some of the eating schedules used by our ancestors. Depending on circumstances, the main meal of the day might be mid-day or evening, but the idea of eating one very large meal has been around for a long time. It’s especially beneficial while traveling.
My first dinner was a sausage and peppers recipe very similar to meals I’ve cooked before at home, so I felt like it would be a pretty safe start. The recipe I used from What’s Cooking America was not one for over a campfire, but it worked well even so.
When I needed to adjust the temperature, I simply controlled how much contact there was between the oven and the coals. If I needed more heat, the lid went on and coals were piled up around it. If I needed less heat, I scraped the coals back away from the oven. Certainly, I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you weren’t already a pretty comfortable chef, but I didn’t find this one hard at all.
Also, for those concerned about alcohol content: By the time it’s done cooking, the beer has cooked away enough that all it really does is add some flavor. It turned out quite tasty and my kids loved “helping” with the cooking.
Next was a chili and cornbread combo inspired by this recipe over at Honestly Yum. I made quite a few alterations of my own, because I wanted to see how easily I could make it from scratch, so the beans were cooked instead of from a can (they took about two and a half hours from start to finish! not nearly as long as I expected) and the cornbread was made without a mix.
This one was an adventure for me, because I felt amazingly accomplished at the end of it. Here I’d taken some dry beans and cornmeal and I managed to bring it all together into a genuine meal over a fire. It was probably too much work for what I got in the end, considering that I could have just used a cornbread mix and canned beans, but sometimes a little extra work is worth it just to discover new confidence and skills. Now that I know just how easy it was, I feel a lot more comfortable with writing more complex meals for my characters when they’re out on the prairie!
Our third camp dinner was a red beans and rice recipe from Eighty Twenty. Once again, I made things harder on myself than necessary by cooking the beans from scratch, BUT I also tried a little trick that turned out working quite well: I cooked the beans slowly overnight. I made sure there was plenty of water inside the oven so it wouldn’t dry out, then buried it in the hot coals. In the morning the beans weren’t quite as tender as I liked them, but close. I poured off some of the extra water and dusted off the oven, then we kept the beans in the cooler while we went on our trip for the day until it was time to cook dinner. This method, I suspect, is one of the ways that a meal relying on beans could be whipped up nearly instantly on the trail back in history. Of course, back then people weren’t using a modern ice cooler to preserve their food between meals and food poisoning was a constant threat, so there’s a lot to be said for modern technology even when roughing it.
And my final camp dinner was a hearty stew, just like we’ve all read descriptions of a thousand times before. By this point, I was feeling pretty confident with myself and eschewed the recipes I’d saved on my phone to try it entirely from my own knowledge of cooking and history. Rather than olive oil like a rational 21st century person, I browned my meat and cooked my onions in lard, before throwing in my root vegetables and letting it simmer away in the fire.
I was so pleased to discover that it did in fact taste just as delicious as it always sounded when I read (or wrote!) about it. The dutch oven works very well for retaining heat and it is the perfect choice for meals like this. The slow cookers we use today for convenience require less effort, but they are simply based on earlier principles.
If you want to know more about how to cook over a fire with a dutch oven, head over to What’s Cooking America. They have a fantastic primer with everything you need to know, from how to choose the right oven to the differences in cooking with charcoal versus wood. It’s a fantastic resource.
One of these days I’ll write up my recipe for my camp stew to share it with you, along with how I baked bread in my dutch oven. But for now, I’m going to get some well-earned sleep!