Outdoor Cooking [and why it always tastes better] Part 1.
Even a cup of tea tastes better when brewed outside, why is that? We are coming into summer and warmer weather and so many people will be cooking on barbecues in their back gardens despite having perfectly serviceable kit in their houses just steps away, what is that about?
We love cooking outdoors. However we chose to cook, be it in the wild, foraged, gathered, hunted, trapped or cooked in our gardens and ending up in a bap, we love it. It is a particularly strong connection to an ancient past. When humans consistently began eating food that was cooked over controlled flames is a hotly contested question. What is definite however is that cooking our food opened up the variety of what could be eaten. The cooking process changes the physical and chemical structure in food, making it more digestible and killing off dangerous bacteria.
[Here's a cool link if you are interested in the specifics of this stuff]
When we eat outside as a family, at school or in any of our outdoor groups, it certainly makes it feel like more of an event. It is more communal and elevates the importance and pleasures of sharing food. Certainly in some settings for some kids and young people it forms an important part of their learning about food preparation, working together and then sharing food communally. Culturally we have changed a lot over recent decades. A family meal at the table is not always the norm. Busy families have busy lives. It is less likely that there is a parent/adult at home who is largely focused on the nourishment of the family, it is more likely today that the adults are more focused outside of the home for most of their week. Of course, as a result, food has developed to need less preparation for those busy families with busy lives.
Cooking outside is a slower process, it is slow food. Maybe that's part of why we like it so much and why it tastes better? Maybe nowadays, cooking outside often accompanies, special days, feasts, celebrations and days off.
There have been numerous occasions that I could easily list, when a kid thinks they don't like a certain food or would never eat it at home and then after building the fire to cook on, preparing the ingredients and then waiting for it to cook find themselves trying and then loving the most basic of dishes.
Maybe it's the teacher in me but cooking outside is always an opportunity for learning. It's science, creativity, team building, and a whole tonne of life skills and nourishing experiences.
After a recent Wild Camp the group were asked to feedback the bits that they most enjoyed, by far the most popular favourite things were the foraging and the never ending camp fire that we had. One group member said his favourite thing overall had been getting up in the morning to a fire already lit to make breakfast on. I love that. What a simple, simple pleasure.
So, convinced of the goodness to be gleaned from cooking outdoors where do you start? A good question. There are so many different ways to cook outdoors, from a tin can stove to a full blown community bread oven. The oven pictured here is the work of Tino and Catherine. It has seen many a pizza party and even a Christmas and Easter Turkey. We are testing how it works as a proper community oven and having cooking days where we all bring food to cook as the oven goes through different phases of heat and cooking potential. It's not like work at all, we all pitch in and play in between, it's actually much fun!
I personally like to have options so I have different bits of kit for different circumstances.
For example an open fire or even a Kelly Kettle is obviously not the right choice for dry environments like Summer moorland or Pine wood.
A Trangia is not great for boiling water in a hurry for your noodles [it is possible but takes ages-we did a time test once, the Kelly Kettle defo boils water quicker than a Trangia!] but will calmly cook you a nice bit of bacon and eggs in the morning.
There are more adventurous ways of cooking wild, in a pit, with hot rocks, wrapped in leaves or on a home made spit over the fire and just on a stick. Various pans and equipment will widen your options too.
A Dutch Oven can bake bread and a cake just like an oven as you can cover it in hot coals/charcoal for all round heat. The lid can be used like a skillet and it's hard to beat for soups and stews. However it is cast iron so not one for backpacking or long walks. On those occasions a jet boil is my kit of choice, light and compact. That does pretty much leave you with just-add-water style meals but you can be creative with that too.
My favourite add water meal is cous cous pre-prepared in a ziplock bag or tub with herbs, spices, seasoning and oil/butter added. All you do is just pour the cous cous into a mug cover the cous cous mix with boiling water, cover with a lid or a bit of foil and wait for the water to be absorbed,quick and tasty with no msg, palm oil or preservatives in sight-genius!
If you are looking for more step by step guidance and recipes that suit different styles of outdoor cooking, these books are a great place to start.......
If you feel safer in the garden with your barbecue, go for it! But, check out D.J. BBQ first. He is the king of the BBQ, no doubt!
You will notice he is at the BBQ in winter. Outdoor cooking is an all year round activity-no really, it's awesome in winter, maybe even better. Warm food when you are chilly is amazing. Just think of Pea and Ham soup on Bonfire night or hot chestnuts and mulled wine at Christmas....mmmmmmmm.........
If you are really interested in the development and history of eating, cooking and feasting I really recommend the book, 'Feast-Why Humans Share Food' by Martin Jones. It is more science based and anthropological and well worth a read.
This is such a massive subject that I will need to attack it in several bites or several sittings! So for now I will hand the question over to you......."Why does food always taste better when it's cooked outside?"
Let me know what you think and I will add it to the next Outdoor Cooking Post.