Bread While Camping: An Investigation
Partly due to a desire to answer some long-held questions, partly in reponse to a recent topic, I undertook an investigation of breadmaking while camping this weekend past.
The occasion was my son's Scout Troop's annual caving outing, this year a 3-day trip to Meramec State Park in Missouri. My wife leads the caving tours (actually my son handled two of the four tours himself this year which was neat). I have had enough caves to last the rest of my life, so I volunteered to stay behind, mind the camp, and cook for the adults on the trip.
I wanted to investigate several questions. First of all, could I make bread dough under camp conditions? Second, could I bake the dough in a dutch oven over charcoal or fire? Third, could I use a small wood fire instead of charcoal to heat a dutch oven? And finally, just how hot does a dutch oven get in camping conditions?
The answer to the first question is a definite yes. I decided to try a no-knead recipe using one bowl, spoon, and plastic wrap. I had no problem making or fermenting the dough. Temperatures were ideal at about 60 deg.F overnight and 75 deg.F in the shade on Saturday. I used the NYT recipe scaled up 1.3x, with the addition of 50 g rye flour to help with fermentation. One of the camping tables made an excellent turning surface once dusted with flour; I used the same large mixing bowl as the rising container for the shaped loaf. The bread rose nicely even in the solid bowl, and by cutting flour in on the sides I was able to get it out of the bowl with little problem (though see more on this in a bit).
Jumping ahead to questions 3 and 4, about 3 PM I started a small log-cabin style fire with 4 small logs about 4 inches (10 cm) square. By 4 PM it had burned down quite a bit and was nice and hot. I put the dutch oven on the logs and tossed a handful of charcoal into the well formed by the cross-hatch of the logs for good measure.
Around 20 minutes later I tried to measure the temperature of the inside of the dutch oven. How you might ask? With the handy Thermapen in my waist pack, right next to the compass and Swiss Army knife. Doesn't everyone carry one of those on camping trips? I received much ridicule from my wife when she saw it later on.
Unfortunately, I could not hold the Thermapen on the dutch oven long enough to get a reading before my hand started to roast. This should have been a clue, but I was not quick enough to catch it. It was also lucky as later events will show. When I pulled my hand back the highest temperature was about 450 deg.F.
I then tried to transfer the dough into the dutch oven. Extraction from the bowl and flipping went well, but I hadn't tucked the hoop handle down far enough and the dough hit it. The result was a very off-center blob rather than a nice loaf. I was very annoyed but this turned out to be another fortunate accident.
My usual cooking time for NYT in the oven at home is 30 minutes covered, 15 minutes uncovered at 475 deg.F. So I figured I might as well take a peak after 20 minutes in the fire.
Wowsa. The loaf was fully risen and the top was turning from golden brown to black. I pulled the dutch oven off the fire, let it cool for a while, and took out the bread. The bottom of the loaf was not just black but carbonized: it looked like a flake pastry, except the layers were layers of carbon! The solid carbon crust was 4-5 mm thick. Internal temperature was 220 deg.F per the Thermapen.
I had to get back to cooking the rest of dinner (another dutch oven recipe). Once the loaf had cooled my wife sliced off the carbonized bottom and the fully burned areas of the top, then cut the remaining loaf into sections the way you do with a boule. The crumb was very moist, which I attribute to the short total cooking time and the solidified crust preventing moisture escape, but the texture was just on the edible side of gummy and the flavour was excellent. The entire loaf was eaten with several people taking seconds!
I estimate the temperature of the dutch oven had to be around 800 deg.F. If I had been able to hold my Thermapen in it any longer I would have destroyed it, as it is only good to 575 deg.F. Similarly, had I manged to get the dough into the oven in a nice even ball it probably would have carbonized all the way through; since it was a giant lump the shape of a US football the center was still edible bread.
- Can a dutch oven be operated with a wood fire? Of course, since this is how they were used historically, but I found that I can achieve the same results
- How hot does a dutch oven get? Pretty darn hot! - in fact you have to watch that it isn't getting too hot in a hot fire
- Can bread be made on a camping trip? Yes. Contrary to what I initially thought the problem will be regulating the baking temperature at the high end, not the low end.
Unfortunately my son had the digital camera at the cave during this process so I have no pictures ;-(. Three black-and-white film shots were taken of the loaf, and once those are developed if they scan well I will add them to this entry.
 Note: the State of Missouri in the US is rapidly re-foresting as marginal farmland goes back to forest; there is plenty of firewood and no restrictions on campfires as long as there is no forest fire warrning. Burning locally-grown firewood is essentially carbon-net-neutral.