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Let’s see a show of hands. After a long, hard day, who doesn’t like a hot meal? Yep, that’s what we thought. Make no mistake, the aftermath of a crisis or disaster will require large investments of sweat equity in order to put things right again. From cleaning up storm debris to helping neighbors track down lost pets, you’ll be burning quite a few calories. A protein bar and sack of trail mix won’t cut it, not after the first day or so. You and your family will want to be able to prepare at least some semblance of a real meal.
On top of being able to cook actual food, having a heating source means you can boil water for disinfection. Run the water through a coffee filter to remove sediment and dead bugs, then boil it to kill off all the nasty stuff you can’t see that could surely make your day a whole lot worse.
When your oven, stove top, and microwave aren’t viable options due to interruptions in utility services, you’ll need one or more backup methods for food preparation. Even those who have stockpiled loads of dehydrated and freeze-dried meals will need boiling water to reconstitute them before eating.
Fortunately, there are several options available for off-grid cooking. Follow along, and we’ll show you how to become a grid-down Gordon Ramsey.
You do realize you can cook far more than just steak and ribs on a patio grill, right? Yes, that ubiquitous piece of equipment taking up space on decks and in backyards from coast to coast can do more than just turn chicken breasts into chicken briquettes. Whether yours is propane or charcoal, make sure you always have plenty of fuel on hand. For our gas grill, we like to have at least one, but preferably two full tanks sitting in the garage in addition to the one hooked up to the grill.
Watch for sales on charcoal, typically just before Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. It’s a good idea to keep a minimum of four full bags on hand at all times. Charcoal is nice to have as a backup, even if you don’t have a charcoal grill. The next time you’re at the dollar store, pick up a few of the disposable aluminum baking pans, the ones that are a few inches deep like you’d use to bake a chicken. Fill the bottom of one with charcoal, toss on some lighter fluid, and let her rip. Voilà — instant grill. Do this outside, of course. Trying this inside, say on your stovetop, will invite very bad things into your life. You can buy folding grill grates that work great to put over this type of makeshift grill.
Another helpful tip: Charcoal isn’t the only fuel you can use in a charcoal grill. If you lack briquettes, bust up some dry branches and make a campfire inside the grill. Sometimes you need to think outside the box, right?
Patio grills are admittedly not the most efficient tools for boiling water or cooking pasta, but most of us already have them on hand so there’s little to no extra investment involved.
What we might consider traditional camp stoves usually come in a couple different styles. The first is a single burner that rests on top of the fuel bottle. These are very popular with hikers and backpackers as they’re small, light, and easy to pack. The other style is larger, roughly akin to a small briefcase. These will have two burners, which obviously allow you to use more than one pot or pan at a time.
As you shop around, pay attention to the fuel needed for each stove. Some use propane, others use butane, or perhaps unleaded gasoline. There are dual-fuel stoves, too. For our money, if we were buying a camp stove to use as a backup cooking method at home, we’d go with a two-burner propane-fueled model.
Why? Well, a simple 5-foot adapter hose allows you to connect the 20-pound propane tank from your grill straight to the stove. That way, you don’t have to mess with the smaller tanks that are made specifically for these stoves. Cooking on these stoves requires no investment in special camp cookware, either. If you can use it on a gas stove in the house, you can use it on one of these camp stoves. The heat is easy to regulate, too, so you’re less apt to burn your meal.
If you have a spot in the backyard for it, a campfire can provide nice ambience as well as the ability to cook a meal. If your backyard is more of postage stamp rather than a pasture, perhaps you have one of those patio fire pits that can stand in for the role of the campfire. Either way, you’ll need plenty of fuel on hand, so don’t toss every leaf, twig, or downed branch into your yard waste recycling bin.
Fair warning, though. If the extent of your campfire cooking ends at s’mores, get some practice before you truly need to cook a meal over an open flame. There’s just as much art as there is skill with campfire cooking. Cook over the glowing coals, not over the actual flames. The heat will be higher, but far more stable.
Biofuel means sticks, twigs, branches, pinecones, that sort of stuff. Think of a biofuel stove as a contained and controlled campfire. These stoves tend to be rather small, so your fuel won’t be much larger than what you’d use for kindling in a normal campfire or fireplace.
The advantage these stoves have is their compact size. Stocking up on fuel means gathering up branches the storm brought down in your backyard. The stoves are easy to store until needed. The Vargo Hexagon Wood Stove, for example, folds up flat when not in use and will fit just about anywhere.
The downside, though, is that these stoves are pretty much one-pan-at-a-time deals. You won’t be cooking any elaborate meals with these little stoves. But, let’s face it, our need for calories in the wake of a disaster will far outweigh the disappointment of not seeing seven separate courses being served at the dinner table. One-pot meals will be the recipes of choice.
The BioLite Stove has been on the market for a couple of years now and is a remarkable piece of kit. In essence, it allows you to charge your cell phone or other device while cooking your dinner at the same time. The BioLite converts heat energy to electricity. This power is first used to run a small fan in the base of the stove, which greatly increases the efficiency of the BioLite, turning it into a small rocket stove.
Excess electricity can then be siphoned off and into your device by means of a USB port on the side of the stove. While you won’t be powering your refrigerator with the stove, it’ll let you keep tabs on news or weather reports via your smartphone.
These are very similar to biofuel stoves in size. Instead of twigs and pinecones, though, these stoves use small hexamine tablets for fuel. These tablets burn hot, are smokeless, and store almost indefinitely under the right conditions. Despite the small size, one tablet will burn at least 10 full minutes and will bring 16 ounces of water to a boil in less than that.
One of the most common configurations of this type of stove is a folding model that, when closed, isn’t much bigger than a deck of cards. As a bonus, extra fuel tabs will fit inside the stove for transport.
If you’re lacking the stove, you can improvise by placing the fuel tab on an overturned tuna can or other surface. Place a couple of rocks or bricks on either side so you have something to keep your pan above the flame and you’re good to go.
In my experience, you need a flame, such as a match or butane lighter, to get the fuel tab burning. A ferro rod won’t light a fuel tab by itself. However, if that’s all you have, take a small piece of tinder, such as a cotton ball, and place it on the stove. Place your fuel tab leaning on the tinder, then light the tinder with the ferro rod. A couple of boxes of these hexamine cubes aren’t too costly, and if you keep them cool and dry, they’ll last for years.
Alcohol stoves provide a steady flame, which can be an important consideration for those who aren’t used to cooking over campfires and the like. However, these stoves can be a little more temperamental than some of the others we’ve discussed. Cold conditions in particular can prove to be vexing. Priming the stove, which involves warming the fuel prior to lighting, helps, but in some situations it becomes a case of lighting a small fire to warm your fuel to light your stove.
While the rubbing alcohol in your first-aid kit will burn, it isn’t the best fuel for an alcohol stove. Far better is a bottle of HEET from the automotive department at your local discount retailer. Just make sure you get the yellow bottle, which is methanol. It will light faster and burn hotter and cleaner than rubbing alcohol.
You can find all sorts of videos online showing how to make an alcohol stove out of a soda or beer can. When done right, they do work fairly well. Both Vargo and Esbit make very nice alcohol stoves that aren’t very expensive and are made to last. Another option is to take one of the ever-popular Altoids tins, fill it with perlite or vermiculite, then pour in a few tablespoons of alcohol. Light the vapors and you’ll bring water to a boil shortly.
There’s little in life that preppers and survivalists love more than the word “free.” Solar ovens allow you to cook your food using a free fuel: sunshine. These hot boxes are great at slow cooking your lunch or dinner. Provided, of course, it isn’t the middle of the night.
There are numerous plans online detailing how to build a solar oven out of a cardboard box and some aluminum foil. It’s important to pay attention to the placement of the oven to ensure you’re gathering the most solar energy as possible. Rotate the oven periodically as the sun moves across the sky.
The drawback with solar ovens is that they aren’t suited for any sort of quick meal. They’re also very dependent upon the amount of sun peeking through the clouds. Because of these factors, your best option is to plan ahead and set it up right away in the morning so your food will be ready come lunchtime.
One of the easiest meals to prepare over a fire uses nothing more than aluminum foil. Tear off a sheet about a foot long and coat the inside with nonstick spray or bit of cooking oil. Grab a bowl and crumble in a half pound of raw hamburger, a diced potato, a chopped carrot, and half a can of cream of mushroom soup. Mix it all together, then pour it onto the center of the foil. Sprinkle with garlic powder, salt, and pepper to taste.
Bring the long sides of the foil up, fold them together, and roll it down to the food. Then, roll up the short sides, making a nice compact package. Toss it right onto the coals of your fire for about 25 minutes or so.
Play around with different food combinations. The recipe above incorporates common ingredients, but there are many others utilizing various types of proteins and vegetables.
In addition to the cooking solutions of your choice, you might consider investing in some cookware specifically for emergencies. Most of the pots and pans in the average household will not stand up to the higher heat generated by many of the stoves we’ve discussed, much less an open campfire or a charcoal grill. Plastic handles will melt and your pans could actually warp.
Any of the methods mentioned that involve a flame or coals may also leave a black residue on the bottom of your pots and pans. There’s really no way around this happening but if you rub the bottom of the pan with a bar of soap prior to putting it on the fire, the soot will wash off easily.
Cast-iron cookware is the best way to go, if you can afford it and you don’t plan on lugging it around anywhere. It’s very heavy, of course, so it isn’t really suited for the bug-out bag. On the upside, if you maintain it properly, a good set of cast-iron cookware can be passed down for generations. Bacon, cooked in a cast iron skillet over a campfire, is so good even the vegans in your group may break down and say, “OK, gimme a piece.”
For those looking for something a little lighter, GSI Outdoors offers a great nesting set in the Pinnacle Base Camper Large, which includes two different pots, including lids, for boiling water or making soup, a good-sized frying pan, and a cutting board. As mentioned, everything nests together and fits into a nice carrying bag. There’s even room to add in a couple of small utensils.
If you’ll be cooking over a campfire at home, a tripod grill is a great investment. They allow you to place a few different pots and pans over the fire at the same time. You can also adjust the height of the grill to heat things up or cool them down a bit.
Keeping in mind that the most common cooking you’ll likely be doing when on the road will be heating water — for disinfection or for adding to a dehydrated meal — a bush pot alone might suffice for the get-home bag. I like to have a stainless steel water bottle too, as that allows me to boil water while also heating up a can of stew or soup at the same time.
Off-grid cooking is not something you’re likely to be entirely successful with the first time out. You’re going to burn a meal or two in the beginning. You’ll also run into problems keeping the fire going steadily, not cooking food long enough, or even dropping food right into the ashes. We all make mistakes; that’s part of what makes us human. However, do yourself and your family a favor and practice using these stoves and other cooking solutions now, while you still have the option of having a pizza delivered if things don’t go your way.