Tuesday, September 30, 2014

INFORMATIVE: Cooking Off-Grid

So I've been getting quite heavily into off-grid cooking lately, purchasing some quality cast-iron equipment and learning to correctly use a wood-fire stove.

The difference in quality and flavour is so incredible that we've decided to make it a weekly event now and have an "off-grid cooking night" each weekend to try new things. Oftentimes we'll get meat from the local stores to cook up but much of the time we like to prepare meals using only our own preserved or long-shelf-life ingredients.

After our experiences with this, I thought I'd give my own quick guide to starting your own off-grid cooking experience based on my own experience! At the end I'll include some handy links for your own off-grid food preserving/preparation/recipes for your own enjoyment if you end up taking this route.

The Equipment

For starters, you'll need to invest good money in some high quality cast iron cookware. Don't go cheap on this as a well made bit of cast iron cookware - looked after properly - will last for generations and provide you with some seriously delicious food. It's at the point now where food cooked on regular cookware just doesn't taste as good to us anymore.

A good place to start is to pick up an appropriate sized pot for your group size, a frying pan and a dutch oven.

Later on you can invest in a couple of different sized pots and pans, and also a grilling pan, which makes cooking meat much easier and tastier.

Burned hands is something you'll likely run into cooking on a wood stove or campfire and there are many remedies for that, from oven mitts to old rags, etc, but I've actually gotten used to using the Ove Glove. Think of it as a 5-fingered oven mitt rated up to about 200 degrees. Pretty handy and you still have full dexterity, even if you do look like a dork while using it.

As for my cooker I have invested in something that's a little hard to find. It was designed to be distributed amongst lower socioeconomic regions of South America, but is an excellent cooker if you can get a hold of one. It's called the Ecozoom Plancha. It has two separately controllable wood fire rocket stoves mounted under a large, cast-iron hotplate and an adjustable smoke exhaust chimney to keep the smoke out of your face and house. The best part about it is that since it is a rocket stove complete with furnace-grade ceramics on the inside, it uses VERY little fuel to keep going and is fairly easy to maintain the temperature of with a little practice, even though it does mean a bit more constant attention than a traditional stove.

Cleaning cast iron cookware can be a bit tricky and you'll get a lot of mixed messages reading about it, but after a couple of months of using it, I can say the most important thing to invest in is a good scrubbing brush. Not too scratchy, not too soft. A good trick for picking one is that if you scrub your palm with it and it's painful, then it's too hard. If it's not at all uncomfortable, then it's too soft.

Try an avoid using harsh chemical cleaning agents in the water. Simply get a big tub of water and a bar of soap, get the water nice and soapy then scrub away, drying your cast iron immediately after you're done washing and then allowing to air dry afterwards.

Don't forget that from time to time you'll need to re-seal the surfaces of it, too, to make it last a long time. The easiest way to do this is to heat it up on the stove, drop in some shortening and rub it evenly on all of the surfaces. Once it's done, let it cool down, give it a scrubbing and you're done.

The Food

As I said earlier in the article, we'll often go to the store and get meats for our off-grid cooking night, but you can just as easily fry up some fresh game or - like we do - long term shelf-life foods like the following:

Canned foods - If you're into canning, you'll know all about this, if not, check out our article on food preservation where we talk about it. If you don't currently can or know how to can, it's well worth looking into. Not too pricey to get started and it can save you a LOT of money when it comes to storing food long-term. You can access a VERY large repository of canned food recipes online, particularly here.

Dry pack foods - Generally in the vein of "just add water!" although occasionally calling for other ingredients, keeping a bunch of mylar bags with dry pack foods is a fantastic idea. Even if you just start out with bags of rice, that's a damn good start and it goes a long way. However, be sure to read around, because you can make all kinds of dry mixes yourself in bulk for SUPER cheap, such as pancakes, muffins, cereals with milk, milkshakes, dips, breads, soups and more. For a comprehensive list of what you can whip up, have a read of this awesome article.

Pro Tips

And now for some last minute pro-tips that will save you a good bit of hassle when cooking off-grid style, particularly with a wood fire stove. These are things I've learned through experience and may or may not be the best way to do things, so take them with a grain of salt.

  • Always keep a good-sized rag hanging out of your pocket while you cook. Needing to wipe your hands down, grab a hot surface, clean up a spill, etc, is made a lot easier when it's right there on-hand.
  • Keep a metal bucket filled with sand next to your wood fire stove. If a fire breaks out, pouring water on the stove will very likely crack your cast iron leaving you with a hefty replacement bill.
  • A bucket of sand is also an excellent method of temperature control. Once you've gotten some kindling charred it will VERY easily and quickly re-light. If you pull a stick out of the fire and extinguish it using sand it will be ready to use again immediately, whenever you need it, as opposed to extinguishing it with water where it is now useless.
  • Watch for meat sticking to cast iron. Cast iron gets SUPER hot and stays that way for a long time, so meat tends to stick to it if left without being moved for too long.
  • If you're using metal cutlery, try and minimize the amount that the cutlery scrapes the surfaces of your cookware. Metal on metal will deteriorate your cast iron and leave small chips where rust can build, so be careful!
  • Let your cast iron dry out SUPER thoroughly once you're done washing it. Don't let any moisture remain whatsoever.
  • Remember that cast iron surfaces have pores - like human skin - which open under heat and absorb what's in contact with it. Keep that in mind while cooking. Cast iron loves nothing more than fats and oils to keep it healthy.

So enjoy your off-grid cooking experience and let us know how you go!

- CumQuaT

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