The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Primitive Cooking Techniques & Discussions

dlstanf2's picture

Primitive Cooking Techniques & Discussions

I've been trying to work with volumes instead of weights while developing my baking skills. Most responses to my questions have been, get a set of scales, use percentages and weigh your ingredients. My reason for using volume measurements instead of weights is that bread was made for centuries this way and baking bread survived. Weighing the ingredients does make bread making easier and I'm sure scales came into use after their invention, but

What if?

1) There's a sudden contrastrophy and you are left without modern conveniences, i.e. electricity, running water, your batteries for your weigh scales deplete; suddenly you are thrown back into time while waiting for services to be restored and it might take years.

2) You've baked bread for years and have mastered the craft, but all your recipes are based on percentages and weight, what do you do? How are you going to bake bread? Surviving will be paramount and eating is a must for living. How will you convert your recipes for baking to help support your family and those trying to rebuild?

What do you do? You've built your fire pit and managed to make a temporary oven. And you've managed to collect some supplies like flour, water, and maybe some cooking oil.

1) Let's have some ideas. I'm not a survivalist but I do live in a hurricane prone area and have been with electrical power for up to 2 weeks. I did have a gas grill, but even then that source gets depleted. A major earthquake, or even a terrorists attack can cause unseen things to occur. And, even without anything happening let's explore how to cook in a primitive environment.

Maybe I pose this idea as I was a member of a Colonial Society group that used primitive practices to re-create living conditions during the period of time between the French Indian War & the Civil War - 1740 to 1840.

1) I learned how to make coals for using a cast iron pot and various methods for cooking over a camp fire.

2) Everything from roasts to cakes can be made in a cast iron 3-legged pot Cutting wood to proper dimensions is important for this process

3) I learned how to roast chicken or other poultry in a primitive oven, a small rock wall enclosure with 3 sides and a coal fire to heat the rocks and uses reflective heat to cook the poultry while it is suspended above, vertical and rotates back and forth, like a swing twisted around it's chain.

4) Now I want to learn basic bread baking skills without resorting to modern conveniences. I know there are those using wood fired ovens and cast iron pots for their bread baking, but what about methods and recipes for this type baking?

AnnaInMD's picture

store bought, or you have made your own starter with basic flour and water, the how-to s are in another section of this website.

My basic bread recipe for the cast iron is 1 part starter 2 parts water 3 parts flour and salt to taste, normally 2 teaspoons (depends on how much flour I use).

Mix, let rest 30 minutes, knead for 10 minutes, let rest 20 minutes, knead again for 10 minutes, let rest 20 minutes, fold 3 to 4 times, let rest 50 minutes, fold again.

Put into cast iron pot, cover, proof for at least 2 hours, in normal temps. If your cave is cool, proof overnight. Slash the top, then bake for 40 min to 1 hour depending again on the size of the bread.

Crushed caraway, fennel, coriander or sesame seeds are a wonderful addition, both inside the dough or on top, glued to the bread with an eggwhite wash or just some cornstarch and water or a touch of bacon grease.

Sounds like fun !


wassisname's picture

If things ever get really primitive, there's always flatbread.  Doesn't need an oven, or even yeast, necessarily.  But, with a sourdough starter and even the most basic ingedients I think I could eyeball some pretty tasty stuff. 

And I agree with jtdavies on the purpose of weight measures.  Not strictly necessary but they make it a whole lot easier and more consistent.  In a pinch, I bet most practiced bakers know at least one loaf well enough to pull off without a scale.

jpchisari's picture

A pretty bleak vision. While I guess it is possible for us to be left without any modern conveniences, I'm not exactly preparing for it.

As far as weight  vs  volume, this discussion comes up quite frequently. I am an advocate of always weighing whenever possible, however a basic knowledge of weights vs volumes is also somthing that is very useful. Taking the time to observe ingredients and keeping a conversion table are two ways I have been able to sometimes say, throw a batch of pancake batter together without bringing out the scale. A master of the craft of baking could easily make small batches of dough without the use of a scale! My father was a Master Baker all of his life, yet the times he made any kind of dough product at home, he never used a scale.

When it comes to lack power to cook with, fire has been with us forever. I don't think it would take long, given the ingenuity of humans, to devise ways to cook their food.

Bread might be the least of our worries if it comes to that!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

pour your measured ingredients (one at a time) into your hand, a coffee cup, a bowl, a plate, a drink glass, a variety of ladels and spoons and eye-ball it awhile.  Do that for all your ingredients.  Take the time to get familiar with them and do this with different recipes.  

Try guessing amounts before you weigh them and try to guess close.  As you get better so will your guessing skills.  Then if you ever need them, they are there. 

Keep up your skills guessing amounts of various ingredients and weighing to check.

I think most of us could "wing it" to get by a few days or weeks to keep from starving.  Breads and ovens start to look more like luxury goods.  There is a lot of info under Camping ovens, Earth oven, and let's not forget the open pit, covered pit, campfires and pan breads. 

The hardest thing to quess is the amount of salt so you just have to taste the dough for that one.


Nickisafoodie's picture

Getting a feel for the dough is critical.  Once you master this you may not need a scale as you will be so accustomed to how a recipe should develop that if you had to give up the scale, you could likely get good results just like grandma who cooks by feel rather than recipe- after years of routine that allowed her to develop that intuition and skill. Two points:

1) There are tremendous variations in flour weight so see below.  So while you may not need a scale, you will have better and more predictable results by using one as seen below.  My scale is still running on the original batteries after 5 years of regular use, perhaps a couple of extra batteries in reserve will solve it when the meltdown comes? 

See the following:  where the following is found:

"I strongly prefer measuring by weight because it is more consistent than measuring by volume. When we run tests in baking classes, the variation from cup to cup is quite high. In one newsgroup many people weighed a cup of all-purpose flour and reported on the weight. I was shocked to find a cup ranged from less than 100 to more than 200 grams. I was further shocked that some people had as much as a 25% cup to cup variation. But more to the point, the hardest thing to convey in print or on a web site is how dough should feel, and it is the most important thing an inexperienced baker needs to learn. While an experienced baker can make good bread with cups, or without measuring at all for that matter, it is easier to get beginning bakers closer to the correct dough texture more quickly if they weigh ingredients."

2) re baking outside and a lifetime of camping -  I have used a large 14" diameter cast iron dutch oven since my youth in Boy Scouts.  It has 3 legs and the top has a rim on it and is designed for outdoor use.  Place the Dutch Oven a bed of hot coals (not in the fire, but two shovels of coals after the fire burns down).  You only need about an inch of coals on the ground and the equivalent of 9 charcoal briguettes on top and you will have a perfect 375 degree oven.  Ideally the bread is in a pan rather than directly in the oven or you may burn the outside of what you are baking.  Place three small round stoned in the bottom of the oven, then place pan on stones.  The stones effectively raise the pan about 1/2 inch to allow air to circulate all around for even baking.  If you put more coals on top or bottom, you will burn what is inside.  Thus you need less coals than you think.   If in doubt, put an oven themomenter inside while you are preheating.  Pies, cobblers and bread are easily made this way.

So in summary, at the end of the day, you have to be comfortable with the tradeoffs of what is now vs what may be...  Good luck in your endeavors!

wassisname's picture

Now I have this image in my head of a typical Hollywood post-apocalyptic landscape, but instead of Mad Max or The Postman there is a group of TFL members huddled around a fire trying to bake the perfect baguette on a hot rock. =) 

davidg618's picture

in this silliness. ;-) Well done!

David G.

GloriouslyHomemade's picture

What everyone else here said PLUS:

* I have an uncle who was a master baker and owned his own bakery till the day he died.  I loved playing in his office as a child! One of the things he had in there were scale calibrating weights. You know, little pieces of metal, each with the piece's weight inscribed on it. He had a small scale, similar to this one.  Along with the other methods described here, why not add a antique-like scale to your arsenal?

I've been thinking of buying the calibrating weights so that I can ensure my old digital scale is accurate...this is a good reminder to get on that task sooner rather than later. :-)

PaddyL's picture

There's all sorts of information in Irish cookbooks about baking bread and other things in a pot in the fire.  They put a lid on the bastible and heaped coals on it, and made darned good bread that way.  I could get out my Darina Allen Ballymaloe books and give you some of the information, if you'd like.  When we were forced to live in our living room during the ice storm of 1998, all we had for cooking, and heat, was our fireplace, and I remember making bannock on the fire.

dlstanf2's picture

Thanks everyone. I agree with those about how dough should feel.

Many recipes based on volumes have been converted to weights. Volume measurements can differ greatly, both in time and location. And it is true that many items were weighed, i.e. Pound Cake - pound of butter, pound of sugar, pound of eggs, and a pound of flour. The system of weights has been around a long time.

I guess my love of Colonial recipes puts me to thinking about what ifs and that the old ways still need to be remember. Now that Jack Bauer is no longer on watch, anything can happen.

One of the most important things a Colonial era woman took with her when she married an left home was a copy of her mother's recipes. Are your recipes kept well and would you think to grab them during an emergency?

EvaB's picture

Nope my recipes are not where I could grab them, I'd need a fork lift as I collect!

However, as to the cooking without modern conviences, my family has never lost that, we did a lot of camping, day tripping etc, that required food cooked over a fire in some form or other.

And while thinking about not having a scale, the suggestion of the scale with weights is a good one, but also using an old baby scale, and so forth, while you might not get the exactness of the digital for small amounts, it will work for larger ones, and if not exactly on for weight, the proportions will be close enough to wing it.

I once worked in a butcher shop, and we did custom work for hunting season, we had a customer who wanted a huge moose cut and wrapped, in steaks and hamberger, I wrapped well over 100 pounds of hamberger in one pound packages, which I started out weighing the meat to get the right amount, by the time I had done about 20 pounds I could chunk off the right amount, and stick it on the scale, by the time I had done the first 30 pounds I was no longer using the scale for each package, just for every 10th one to make sure I was getting the right size. The owner was impressed as he said it took a lot of people a long time to be able to just do it by weight in hand.

So the idea of using differnt sizes of things to measure the weights with, and to use the hands to figure is a good one. And its not a bad idea to figure out some way to cook other than relying on good old electricity or the gas company, we have a gas fired grill, and I want to make a wood fired oven (I live in the country) and I tend to stock up on goods in the fall, because its not always easy to get into town as we have bad weather. Even last weekend we had a huge snowstorm, and the drive had close to 15 inches of snow and of course the power was out for 32 hours. We survived, but most of the neighbours ran into town (which they were lucky had power) to eat, and rent rooms etc.

To paraphrase a club slogan Once a homesteader always a homesteader. its in the genetics.

ehanner's picture

The Egyptians are credited for first producing bread some 6000 years ago. Given what we know about their grasp of science and getting things done, I don't see any need to imagine they would ignore using the tools they had at hand.

If survival baking is the goal, how about trying it blindfolded. After a big flash, many could be blind. Just a thought.


MsL's picture

Until I started baking bread about six months ago, I shied away from baking because I had heard it is more of an exact science than cooking is and I hate to follow directions.  It didn't take me long to get the hang of it and start baking by eyeballing the ingredients, w/o any measurements at all.  I feed my starter using a measuring cup but make the dough totally by feel.  It works every time.

There are directions on the web for making solar ovens to bake in, out of aluminum foil and cardboard.  Give that a try.  (Also invest in a water filter if you really want to be prepared for the worst.)

liseling's picture

I think maybe the reason why people suggest that you weigh ingredients is that, regardless of small uncontrollable fluctuations such as altitude, the moisture content of your flour, etc, weighing is the most accurate way of reproducing the same results as the author of the recipe intended. We've all heard the anecdote about how x different  attempts at measuring out a cup of flour will result in x different actual amounts of flour. 

If you put too much of one ingredient or another will your bread still be edible? Most likely yes (unless you somehow mistake salt for flour etc). Bread has survived for centuries because whether it was tasty or not, bread was worth making because of it's value as a food substance. In the Neolithic people would grind grain between two rotating circular stones that would leave stone dust and chips in the flour that would subsequently contribute to the wear and early decay of people's teeth. If you look at the teeth of people before the advent of agriculture (and bread) and after, you will see a marked difference. If bread was still treated as a staple food after that, I dont think adding too much of one ingredient or another would have deterred the ancients whatsoever from eating bread. Bread has survived because it  is sustaining - not because the bread was especially tasty or toothsome.

I think most people's priority in coming to this site (at least mine was) is to find out ways of making bread taste better or have a better texture or in some way IMPROVE their bread making skills. What you're talking about is how to produce an edible food that you could survive by eating. If that is your main objective measuring by volume will work just fine, although as someone said above, maybe you should forgo the use of measuring cups/spoons and use your hands to measure. That would give you a much better feel for what volume is needed of each ingredient.

This may be a little off-topic, but I find it very interesting that oftentimes in our culture, for some specific activities such as making bread, there seems to be an implicit underlying idea that 'the old ways are best'. Yes, people have been making bread for centuries, millenia, even. Does that mean that bread a few centuries ago was better than it is today? I'm not so sure of that. Maybe it was better FOR YOU than the chemical-laden stuff from the grocery store, even if it did grind your teeth down (and dental health has a lot more to do with general health than most people think), but was 'good' bread better then than 'good' bread is today? I dont know, but I doubt that there is some kind of lost holy grail of bread that we lack today that they had back then - in fact, we know more about chemistry and physics and that, I think, would give us MORE insight into making good bread, if anything.

So I guess if I lived in your area or was very interested in survival cooking (which I do find a bit interesting to tell you the truth) I would still use scales because I want to take advantage of all the methods of making my bread the best it can be that have developed over the centuries and culminated in today's techniques, but I would make an effort to get as much of a feel as possible for how much of each ingredient I was using - whether that involved translating the weighed amount to 'handfuls', or just eyeballing it would depend on how much time I had I suppose. Then you could practice a loaf or two with only the memorized recipe and your new units of measurement. You could even write a cookbook with both weights and 'handfuls'!

audra36274's picture

   If you are pondering the gas bottle running out, and the batteries dying, where is the flour going to come from? You have a hand mill you say Ok, plant wheat, wait on it to grow, hope it is a good crop, harvest, store it in the freez...nope. Hope the bugs don't get it before next fall when you can harvest another crop. Live in the city? Dang. Better get a BIG roof top garden going and hope no one else needs to use it.  Hmmm.  Food for thought.

dlstanf2's picture

Since we've headed down a road of what if's, I seem to remember the Amish living off the grid and manage quite nicely. I've found a link to everything from stoves, ovens, mixers, etc. that requires no electricity. The link is below.

I'm not talking apocalypse, just asking how prepared we are for some disturbances to our set daily lives. A "What would you do if" kind of scenario.

Urchina's picture

People do this all over the world every day. They're called tortillas. 


Urchina's picture

So, to move beyond tortillas: Yesterday I made Soda Bread from a recipe in Bernard Clayton's The Bread Book (one of my favorite baking books) and in the back he has plans for a home-built wood-fired clay or stone oven. I've seen similar plans using dry-stacked firebrick and slate or steel plates to allow the oven to be moved when needed. I would think that this, while less portable than the dutch oven method, would give you an opportunity to bake raised breads that are hearth-style, and would also be terriffic for something like tandoori (and would also allow you to bake larger game and fish as well). 

And Solar ovens are simple, quiet, cheap, and effective for at least some of the year most places on earth.