The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Campfire Baking

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G-man's picture
G-man

Campfire Baking

Recently my wife and I started camping. Neither of us had been camping since we were kids, and we were both a little iffy on the idea, but we got dragged into it by some friends so we decided we'd jump right in. Turns out it was a great idea, we had a ton of fun and met a lot of new people who are growing to become friends. We've been camping again since then. We just got back from a trip, actually. One thing I like doing for new friends is to bake them bread. This presented a problem with camping because I was without my oven. Still, I soldiered on. I bought a cast iron dutch oven, the special kind with the lip on the upper lid and with legs so it could go over a fire and have coals placed on top. I was determined to bake bread.

The first time we went up, my phone died on the ride up and stayed dead the whole trip. This second time, however, we went to a different campsite that happened to have a generator, so I have pictures. This means I can share.

 

On the second day I decided to bake. It wasn't anything very complicated, a basic 65% hydration white bread. Since this has only been a new thing and I'm still learning how to do it, I've had to move back to the basics.

I put the dutch oven about a foot from the firepit when I started working on the bread. After kneading I turned the oven (which was now warm on the side facing the fire) 180 degrees and put the loaf in to rise. I had to keep turning the dutch oven to keep the metal nice and warm all around.

After the dough was risen, I found a long, thick piece of wood that let two of us lift the oven (making a mental list of things to bring next time) and we set it on the very inner edge of the pit.  After about five minutes we turned the oven 180 degrees to cook the bread evenly. Another five minutes later and we pulled the dutch oven out of the fire, set it on the stones surrounding the fire pit, and I used a collapsible trenching shovel to pile embers from the center of the fire on top. It was so hot that I singed the hair off my arm and I was sweating, though I was only near the fire for a few seconds.

I kept turning the dutch oven to keep the heat fairly even. I lifted the lid just a bit to check inside, and after much longer than I expected I turned out a beautiful loaf of bread.

I'm very pleased with how beautiful this loaf turned out. I sliced into it and handed my wife and one of her friends a slice. I walked to our tent for something, and about five minutes later this is what was left of my loaf:

 Apparently my friends were much less impressed with how beautiful it looked than they were with how it tasted.

Anyway, there was a bit of a clamor for more so I set to work on another loaf. This one wound up going in a few hours later since it was fairly cool out. Over that period of time the fire was built up a lot and then died down to coals. I had kept one spot clear for my dutch oven, I put the loaf in, let it rise like before and it rose beautifully. Then I dropped it in the fire, rotated, etc.

When I pulled the dutch oven out I was concerned because there was smoke/steam pouring out of the lid. I knew I had burned it, even though it had been in there for half the time. Nonetheless, it had only been cooking for 10 minutes, it was nowhere near done whether or not it was burned on the outside. So I let it cook in its own heat.

When I turned it out, this is what I found:

As you can see, it's a little ... crispy.

The outside, however, was the only part that burned. I found it to be more than edible, in any event, it was like eating toast without having to go through the whole toasting process. The crumb was tender and moist and this loaf lasted only marginally longer than the other.

I'm thinking this is going to be a thing from now on, on camping trips.

I'm not sure why there are big gaps after the second and third images. They don't look that way in my editor or in the upload screen. If anyone has tips for helping me fix it, let me know please.

Comments

Nickisafoodie's picture
Nickisafoodie

Hi GMan, in my boy scout days we used 12 quart cast iron dutch ovens all of the time to bake coblers, pies and more.  Ours had 3 legs on the bottom and our lids had a lip around the edge to hold the coals.  We found that the best way to cook in a dutch oven was to take coals out of the nearby campfire with a small shovel and place a 2" thick layer them on the ground (assuming you are safe re wind and ambers blowing).  We would then place the dutch oven on the coals and the legs of the oven would just about touch the ground.  We then put the equivalent of 12 charcoal briguettes on the lid, any more and the top would burn.  The rim on the lid kept them in place.   The bottom had not much more.  We found that less coals worked better than more to prevent burning.  Try placing an oven themometer in and heat for 15 minutes, then you can better gauge.  If baking for 30+ minutes for a large loaf, you may have to put a few more coals on after awhile, easily taken from the camp fire.

If you veer from bread and bake something like a pies or cake in a pan, we would put three pebbles about the size of a marbel equally spaced like the points of a triangle. The pie or cake pan would go on these and the small air gap underneath worked will to circulate air -  works good for pizza and nachos too if using a baking pan.  The lid turned upside down make a great pan for pancakes, the slight curvature did not matter.

40 years later, I still have my oven and it get use still (mainly jambalya on my stove top!).  Very fond memories of that oven and the good things that came out of it.  Out boy scout troop had about a dozen ovens and they all got used heavily on our campouts, pies and cobblers mainly - although we use canned fruit pie filling.  If I knew then what I knew now re bread...

Happy camping...

bnom's picture
bnom

I have a great Griswold Dutch Oven but it doesn't have the little feet and it has a domed lid. Can I still use that for campfire cooking (for bread) - maybe upending the lid so it holds the charcoal and setting the bottom on rocks? 

We camp a lot but I've never tried making bread before  (english muffins would be a snap). Thanks for posting your experience G-man.

 

G-man's picture
G-man

I'm gonna agree with Nick here that you really should keep the lid sealed and you will need a ring of some kind to keep the coals on top. The coals create even heat distribution, so without them the top of the oven will be cold compared to the bottom. The bottom of the loaf will be burned while the top is still baking. This was a problem I encountered with the first loaf I baked.

The feet are nice because they let you rest it above the coals as Nick suggested, otherwise the metal is going to get super hot. It occurs to me that what Nick suggested works well for pies might work well in this regard to keep the bread from coming into direct contact with the metal, in order to keep it from getting too hot. Putting a wire grate of some kind in the bottom might give you enough airflow in there to keep the air directly surrounding the loaf reasonably cool. If that doesn't work I would try alternating brief periods on the coals with longer periods off them.

Good luck. It really is fun and adds a whole new level of challenge.

Nickisafoodie's picture
Nickisafoodie

perhaps: a dutch oven is heavy; the coals will burn down and the oven may shift, thus the feet.  if you had the bricks laid out, say 4 or five in a pentagon and the oven overlapped an inch, that would likely work.  you must have coals on the lid. 

Re the top, perhaps a metal ring of sorts (cheesecake pan without the bottom) that could cover most of the top, that would be enough.  My 12 briguettes stated above on my lid is on a 12 qt oven with a lid having a 12" diameter - so you would want to use proportionately less, perhaps 8 or so briguettes  on top - you will see the top of the cover thru the coals rather than having so many that the lid is fully covered.  And re bottom,  not much more. 

I don't think flipping the lid will work as you need a good seal to make it work - and once you place the lid on, give it a half turn to make sure there is a good seal.  So the cheesecake rim or something such may be an easy work around 

You need heat on top and bottom.    an oven themometer inside will help you decide how to regulate.  350 for a pie vs say 425 for an artisan loaf...

There are books on dutch oven cooking, would think the library may have - or online articles perhaps (I haven't looked, but surely its there somewhere).  good luck!!

bnom's picture
bnom

Thanks for helping me think through this.  I found on Ebay that I can buy a lodge dutch oven lid in the size I'd need for pretty cheap, so I might try that. That leaves the problem of the feet . .. I can't really see hauling bricks with me when I'm camping (a dutch oven on the other hand . . .).  but the concept is a good one, I'll just have to look for flat rocks. 

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

bread making roots.  Since America was so big and sparcely settled, breadmaking was centered in the home rather than at the village baker, as in Europe.

The 3 main choices for baking the sourdough bread (no commercial yeast or baking powder then ) of the time in America were; in a DO hanging in the hearth,  DO buried in the coals or a small home size brick or adobe oven taken from the Pueblo Indians.  It wasn't until 1820 or so that wood burning Franklin stoves and ovens. that also heated the home efficiently,  became readily available and replaced these 3 methods.

Your quest takes you to our bread making roots. 

Bake On!

G-man's picture
G-man

You say buried in the coals. I wonder...

Many methods of slow roasting involve burying things in a pit with coals. In my experience, as seen in the blog post, setting a DO slightly near very hot coals can lead swiftly to disaster. I'd like to avoid that in the future, but it would be nice to have something loosely resembling an oven, in function if not in form.

The fire pit we use at our site might be able to be dug out a little bit further, to get a hole aside from the rest of the fire. Would that maybe be a nice way of providing some insulation from the worst of the heat while maintaining a steady temperature?

 

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

about this some and have a couple of ideas.  One is to put some large rocks in the fire pit bottom and around the sides and a nice big flat rock for the top that you put on after the DO goes in .  You want to leave some holes in the sides at the bottom. to allow the air to be drawn into the fire at the bottom  Build the fire  and get the rocks hot.  When the temperature of the coals is just right scoop up some of them for the top of the DO and put the DO in the rock pit.  Put some coals on top of the DO and then put the flat rock   on top making a nice oven.  Or my favorite.......

Build you fire to get some nice coals .  Get a large covered aluminum stock pot or tamale pot that your DO will fit inside. Put the DO inside the larger pot.  Put some coals on the top of the DO.  Put the lid on the large pot and put the whole shebang in the fire.  You can put some balls of aluminum foil in the bottom of the large pot to regulate the heat on the bottom of the DO if you don't have legs on it.

 

G-man's picture
G-man

Our fire pit was, somewhat unfortunately when dinner comes around, designed to house a bonfire rather than a cooking fire. We generally have it hot enough to melt aluminum before lunch.

I'm thinking I may go with a brick-lined pit. It's simply a matter of getting the stone out there right now. The campsite is on a sandy island, see, and any construction materials other than wood need to be shipped in. Wood isn't an ideal material for a semi-permanent oven.

Aussie Pete's picture
Aussie Pete

Hi G Man from Australia,

Your Dutch Oven  down under in Australia is known as a camp oven.

Before the night has set in we have a good old fashion campfire up and going to keep people warm in the evening's cool. Holes are dug a couple of meteres away from the fire. The holes are just big enough to fit the camp oven into. Hot ash and embers are placed in the bottom of the hole, the camp oven on top of that and more ash and embers placed on the lid. Often there will be a couple of camp ovens on the go at the same time. The last camp oven dinner we had 3 ovens working for us. One had a cut of pork leg, the second a leg of lamb and the last had baked vegetables. When the meal is served we all sat around the fire on our camp chairs with the dinner on our laps and red wine is shared among us to enjoy the meal.

I would love to share a unleavened bread recipe with you for your Dutch/camp oven. It is what we call a Damper.

500 grms of self raising flour or alternatively  500grms of bakers flour plus 20grms of baking powder                                        10 grms of milk powder                                                                                                                                                                                                   5 grms of salt                                                                                                                                                                                                                       15 grms of vegetable oil or 2 teaspoons of butter                                                                                                                                                   310grms of water.

Mix and sift all the dry ingredients together then add the water with oil/butter. Knead this together till smooth and flatten out to approximate shape and size of your camp oven. Make sure your oven is greased well before placing the dough in it. Then cook the damper for about 20 minutes using either your method as described or using what I descibed depending your situation.

Do not make the oven real hot for this recipe as it can burn easily. I would use more hot ash than ambers. This is why it known as a damper here. Traditionally it is cooked in the heat of dampening(cooling) ambers. Thus the name Damper. I would love for you to try this recipe next time you go camping.

You can find other camp oven recipes besides bread by googling "camp oven recipes". 

Cheers for now................Pete

 

 

G-man's picture
G-man

I'd heard of Damper before, actually, when I was doing some initial research for this project before our first camping trip. It looked ... interesting. I'm a big fan of trying new things and I'll take this recipe with me next time we head out to the countryside.

A leg of lamb in a dutch oven? That sounds absurdly appealing right now. I wish lamb wasn't so expensive here. It's also fairly difficult to find fresh and local, generally we get it from NZ or Iceland.

Most of my new friends seem content to go out into the wilderness with propane stove and pans or a set of skewers and a pack of hot dogs. Thank you very, very much for these ideas, I'm looking forward to presenting the group with more options.

bnom's picture
bnom

I'm remembering the rack of lamb that I cooked over the stoves last summer.  Caveman cooking at its finest . . .

G-man's picture
G-man

Before, I was excited to go camping again. Now I can hardly wait. I think I see lamb in my near future.

Aussie Pete's picture
Aussie Pete

Hi Again G Man,

Yep..........Can I come too???

I know what you are saying about the price of lamb. It is so price heavy here as well. As a child lamb was considered an every day stable food. Chicken and pork was the luxury meat. These days it is the complete reverse. Legs of lamb here sell for about $Aus30.00 plus per kilo. A rack of lamb cutlets is close to $Aus40.00 per kilo. As the Australian dollar is pretty close to in value to your American Dollar you can see we have the same dilemma of expense. Yet we are a world leader in lamb production. 

Whereas a whole large chicken about 2 kilos in weight can be bought for around $8.00 a kilo and pork about $10 to $15 per kilo depending upon the cut of meat. Even a piece of rump beef is about $20.00 a kilo. This is good for the camp oven as well.

The cheapest way to buy a lamb here is a whole carcass. We sometimes have gone halves with a friend in buying a whole lamb, the butcher cuts it up and we divide it between us and freeze it. Buying a whole lamb certainly brings the price down big time. I'm nor sure how your butchers work it over there but butchers drop their price when a whole carcass is being cut for one purchase.

One kilo of weight is approximately 2 pounds imperial weight. Like I said lamb is a luxury item here as well. You have my empathy..................By the way.....sometimes I cheat and cook my damper in the house oven just for something different when not camping..............Cheers..........Pete.

bnom's picture
bnom

A rack of lamb at Costco (which is where I generally buy meat) is $13.89 per pound (USD). Boneless leg of lamb is just over $6.00.  I'm pretty sure it's NZ lamb.  I wonder why it's so darn expensive in Australia?

G-man's picture
G-man

Those prices you've listed are on the high end here, what I might expect to pay for organic. Regular whole chicken is $1.69 a pound at the moment, while cage-free organic is about $4.00 a pound. Organic pork is about the same as yours as well. For beef I've paid $20/lb for pastured ribeye steaks, but if someone asked me pay that much for a round roast (our version of rump), even if it was fresh off the cow, I'd be offended. For every sort of meat, buying regular is 1/2 to 1/3 the price of organic, and pastured tends to be a premium on top of that. Beef seems to be the only one that's notably cheaper than yours for the organic sort.

Regular meat can get even cheaper too. We occasionally find ground pork for $1 a pound, ground beef in tubes for about the same.

Gives a bit of perspective, for sure.