TURNING UP THE HEAT
“Gas or electric?” If only the choice was as simple for cooking outdoors as it is in the kitchen. Even with the option of a wood fired range in your house; there are still far more options for the outdoors person and each gives some unique pros and cons.
The main options for cooking outside are: -
- Open Fires
- Solid Fuel Burners and other non-pressurised Liquid Burners.
- Gas, Petrol, and other pressurised fuel Burners.
There are many reasons to choose one particular heat source or another. Local availability of fuel, size and weight stove/fuel etc, weather and sometimes even altitude can all be factors in choosing how we cook our food.
If we look at the pros and cons of each heat source we can start to see which would be most suited to your particular trail.
Barbeques come in two main forms either reusable or disposable, with the latter becoming increasingly popular due to their ease of use. A lot of modern disposable charcoal barbeques come already impregnated with lighter fluid and a built in grill surface. This means it is simply a case of taking the barbeque out of its wrapper or box and putting a match to it; within minutes it’s ready to cook. Some even come with simple stands.
Disposable barbeques are only single use which does mean they would have limited use on a longer trip or expedition and if travelling off the beaten track; the foil container of the barbeque would need to be carried until it can be suitably disposed of.
Reusable barbeques, either gas or charcoal, are not normally that easy to transport in a rucksack or bag and are really only suitable for the back garden, a driving or caravanning trip or other situations where space and weight is not an issue. They can be reused as long as there is a supply of gas or charcoal.
Open fires are dependant on the local environment and the availability of wood of other suitable fuel. It is also important to point out that there are some places where open fires are not allowed; always check that you are legally allowed to light fires, ensure you keep to the Country Code and ensure you, your property and the surroundings are safe from the dangers of fire.
A well-known way of cooking on an open fire is to build up the fire and then let it ‘burn down’ to embers. These will be hotter, less smoky and easier to manage than a flaming fire. A cooking pot can be placed directly onto the embers, or can be suspended above using a tripod frame or grill.
It can be notoriously difficult to estimate cooking times when cooking on an open fire; it is just not possible to know the temperature of the fire. Occasionally food may be incinerated beyond recognition or take several hours to come to the boil. Experience is the key here and careful adjustments of the amount of embers below the fire can, to some extent, perfect the cooking process.
Cooking on open fires can seriously blacken the bottom of pans, although applying a layer of washing up liquid to the outside of the pan before use is rumoured to help with cleaning up afterwards.
Solid Fuel Burners and other non pressurised liquid burners can be light, easy to transport and reliable in a variety of conditions. Normally some sort of metal frame, case or pot, will contain the fuel; most likely to be mentholated spirits or paraffin cubes, and cooking pots can be placed on top.
Solid fuel can take a little while to ignite and start burning hot enough to cook on but are usually reliable and it does not matter if they get wet before use. Liquid fuel will ignite easily but the flames are not always very visible so use with caution.
Care should always be taken when handling liquid fuels as they can easily ignite. Ensure they are carried in appropriate containers and only fill the stove or burner when it is cold and not lit.
A very basic but effective solid fuel burner is a gel tin. Simply a tin can prefilled with flammable gel. These can be part used, extinguished and used again until the fuel is exhausted although they cannot normally be refuelled.
Gas, Petrol and other pressurised fuel burners usually involve a metal tank to contain the fuel with the burner, similar to a gas ring at home, either on top or to the side connected by a pipe.
Gas tanks will come prefilled in various shapes and sizes. They are easily available although there are some different connections so check the manufacturer’s instructions for your stove before you go shopping. Gas stoves work similar to your gas stove at home with a knob to turn on and adjust the flame. Take care when using gas burners in windy or wet conditions as they can be blown out, although burners that are more wind resistant are available.
At higher altitudes, gas stoves perform less well than stoves that use pressurised liquid fuel.
Petrol or other pressurised liquid fuel burners are similar to the gas stoves but usually need to be manually pressurised before use using a handle or pump. Multi-fuel stoves are available that will happily run on petrol, diesel, white gas or most other liquid fuels but check the manufactures instructions before filling.
As these types of liquid fuel stoves are pressurised manually they are good for use at high altitudes, but be aware some require pre-warming before use by applying and igniting a combustible gel or similar.
Some of these stoves, both gas and liquid fuels, have the fuel tank beneath the burning ring, others have separate tanks with a hose connecting it to the ring.
Water boils at 100°C (212°F)! This is a fact that just about everyone knows, even young children just starting science lessons at school know this fact. The problem is, this fact isn’t actually true, or to be more precise; isn’t true most of the time. Water does boil at 100°C when the air pressure is exactly one Atmosphere. But even at sea-level, where air pressure is generally regarded as being one Atmosphere, it can be slightly higher or lower depending on the weather.
At higher altitudes water will boil at increasingly lower temperatures, at 17,000ft, for example, it will boil at around 72°C, which causes great difficulty when trying to make a decent cup of tea.
To be scientific about it; it isn’t really the altitude that effects the boiling point of water, it is barometric pressure but as air pressure decreases with altitude the simple fact is; the higher you are, the lower the boiling point.
Most solid or non-pressurised fuel stoves are unable to cope with the lower pressure of high altitude, and the requirement to cook food for longer (as the cooking temperature is lower) can be too much for the majority of stoves of this type. Pressurised liquid fuel or multi-fuel stoves are much better suited to this environment and (depending on type) can burn a range of fuels such as petrol, diesel or white gas. You should check the recommendations of your stove before taking it to high altitude to check it can cope with the lower pressure
If you are cooking food that needs to be boiled to make it safe, or purifying water; using boiling, care should be taken as, although the water seems steamy and bubbly, it may not be at the 100°C boiling point you expect.
Weather can cause some difficulties when preparing food. Rain can extinguish stoves, extreme cold can freeze food moments after it has been cooked, or make it take longer to heat up, and dried and powdered ingredients will be at the mercy of strong winds. It is advisable to check what the local weather conditions are likely to be before you plan your meals and cooking methods.
You should always read the instructions of your stove and familiarise yourself with how it works BEFORE you depart on your trip. Make sure you have any associated safety equipment needed too, such as heat proof mats or wind shields.
- Stoves can take a long time to cool down, ensure it is cold before handling or packing away
- Keep stores of fuel away from heat sources
- Only use fuel and fuel containers recommended by the stove manufacturer
- Never attempt to modify or adapt a stove; it could cause dangerous malfunctions
- Any type of stove can produce carbon-monoxide which can be harmful- always use stoves in well ventilated places
- Never leave a lit stove or fire unattended
- Do not allow young children to use or play with stoves, older children should be supervised at all times if using a stove
- Do not light fires or stoves under low hanging trees or branches and keep flammable items well clear of the flames
- Have water easily accessible and close by in case a fire gets out of control
- Build fires as small as possible to reduce the chances of it getting out of control