Now We're Cooking!
An Optimalist's Cook Kit
By Tamia Nelson
March 11, 2014
Paddlers, like infantry, travel on their stomachs. If our meals are irregular or our food unpalatable, our energy soon flags, and a long‑anticipated holiday becomes a chore, something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Of course, we don't all agree on what makes food "unpalatable." That's one of the challenges facing the cook on any group trip. But for most of us — I've met occasional exceptions — hot meals are a must. This predilection obviously lengthens gear lists and adds weight. Hot food means cooked food, and that means we have to carry one or more pots and a variable selection of culinary tools, in addition to a stove and fuel.
Yes, I know a stove isn't a necessity everywhere. That said, however, even when open fires are allowed, they, too, add to the long‑suffering paddler's burden of impedimenta. A grate and firepan can be as heavy as a one‑burner stove, and they're much more of a nuisance to pack. There's also the problem of fuel. Wood may grow on trees, but it's seldom readily available at established campsites, let alone properly seasoned and cut to lengths suitable for burning. Owners of camping samovars — those ingenious portable boilers that I've written about before — may have the best of both worlds here, at least when and where wood fires are legal. They enjoy the convenience of a stove, coupled with the freedom of an open fire, and without the need to become part‑time lumberjacks.
But choosing a stove is just the start. Assembling a cook kit requires that you balance weight (and cost) against convenience. It's not something you'll want to postpone till the day before you leave on a trip. And paddlers who like to travel light — their numbers include the corporal's guard of no‑octane boaters that I've christened amphibious trekkers — have the most difficult job of all. Since I'm of that ilk, myself, I feel their pain. Still, I also enjoy making a meal out of making a meal, and this means dining on something more than energy bars and protein shakes. In other words, I'm not a true minimalist. More like an "optimalist," I suppose. I need enough pots and tools to cook real meals, without mining the forest floor for anything and everything burnable. Yet my cook kit also has to be both light and compact. Which leaves an important (and as yet unanswered) question hanging in the air:
How Do I Do It?
Well, to begin with, I don't adopt a spartan, no‑extras approach. After all, little luxuries are often what's needed to make a riverbank camp into a home from home. Outside the ranks of the SEALs and the Special Boat Service, smoothing it isn't something to be condemned. It's a virtue. In short, I like to eat, and I like to cook. At least I like to cook for other folks who like to eat. So I need the tools of the trade.
I don't operate on an unlimited budget, however, and since I don't accept freebies from manufacturers or retailers, stocking up on featherlight unobtainium cookware just isn't in the cards. (If you're not a cyclist, you probably haven't heard of "unobtainium." It's shorthand for any ultralightweight, ultraexpensive material. If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.) The upshot? Judicious selection — equipping my cook kit with just the right tools and no more — is the only path open to me.
Fortunately, I've got an embarrassment of choice in the hardware department. Over the years, Farwell and I have accumulated enough camping cookware to open a small shop. To be sure, a lot of it is far from lightweight. Indeed, some of the surplus military mess kits we've acquired could do double duty as lunch hooks for sailing dinghies. But they were cheap, and they served us well when every penny counted.
Anyway, here's what I can choose from when I assemble a cook kit:
And even though I needed an ultra wide‑angle lens to get everything into the shot, this collection is far from complete. But it is representative, and you'll find an annotated key immediately below. (Right‑click to embiggen the image.)
By the way, a number of useful or necessary items are missing from the ranks here. These include our diminutive samovar, which — as I've already hinted — is just about perfect for short treks when (1) the menu is limited to simple, heat‑and‑eat meals and (2) fuel (small dry sticks, cones, and the like) is plentiful. (The alcohol burners that are the heart of the Trangia and Optimus cookers are present, however. They're hidden inside the cookers.) Other stoves — an ancient but still functional Svea 123, a tempermental one‑burner Coleman propane stove, and an "environmental fireplace" (a combination firepan and grill) — are also out of shot. But with the exception of the Svea, these see little use today, and since I've learned to live happily with the limitations of alcohol burners, even the Svea is now in semi‑retirement.
What else is missing? My large cast‑iron skillet, several portable grills, and a reflector oven. But none of these is particularly well suited to go‑light jaunts. Their forté is group trips in big boats, not spur‑of‑the‑moment weekenders close to home.
OK. We've gathered the ensemble cast for this production of Tamia's Test Kitchen Goes Wild. Now we need a script. And that means …
Deciding on Our Priorities
The important questions are easy to ask, even if they're not always so easy to answer. They are:
- What kind of trip are you planning? Will you carry all your food, or can you resupply along the way?
- Is space or weight the limiting constraint? Or are both equally important?
- What's for supper? And lunch. And breakfast. Do you paddle in order to eat, or eat in order to paddle? Will you be satisfied with simple heat‑and‑eat, "man‑cooked" meals, or are you a backcountry Escoffier? Then again, maybe Alexis Soyer is your guiding light. If so, one‑pot meals may strike just the right balance between convenience and reward.
- Other considerations are important, too: Are you a vegetarian? A vegan? Is gluten off the menu? If the answer to any of these is yes, your cook kit will have to reflect this.
- How will you cook? Open fire, samovar, or camp stove (alcohol, naphtha/gasoline/petrol, or butane/propane fuel)? And if you'll be using a stove, will one burner be enough?
- Do you plan to bake, and if so, how? Skillet, stove‑top oven, reflector oven, or Dutch oven?
- How large a pot is large enough? It's not just a matter of numbers. Your menu figures in the equation, too. Pasta and soups will need a bigger pot than meals based around skillet fare.
This list of questions is my starting point, but you may need to add others. The important thing is to have your priorities clearly in mind when you assemble your cook kit. Simply grabbing a ready‑made kit off an outfitter's shelf probably won't do. And speaking of grabbing items off the shelf, here are the broad categories you'll need to consider:
- Something to cook in: One or more billies, skillet(s), lid(s), griddle, oven (reflector, stovetop, or Dutch), toasting iron, popcorn popper
- Your tool kit: A knife (or even several knives), spoon, ladle, strainer, whisk, coffee press, tea ball
- A source of heat: Stove(s), stove fuel, firepan, grill, matches, lighters, fire starters, parang, ax (?), saw (?), skidder (?)
- The essentials of gracious living: Plates, bowls, and cups (or are you a real trencherman?)
- Cutlery: Spoons and forks (or sporks?), knives (?)
- Protection for your liquid assets: A means of disinfecting water (filter, tablets, or SteriPEN), plus bottles, flasks, and bladders
- Washing‑up gear: Detergent (or soap?), dish cloth, towel, pot‑scrubber(s), net bag (used for air‑drying pots)
- A way to keep it all together: Boxes, bags (including trash bags), bear can(s)
So much for generalities. Let's get down to cases. And since I know my own mind best, here are …
My Optimalist Cook Kits
That's kits, plural, since one size definitely doesn't fit all. Moreover, your choices will likely be different. But I have to start somewhere, don't I? And here goes…
My desiderata in a nutshell: Most of our backcountry meals are one‑pot or one‑skillet affairs, but I don't like eating my dinner out of the pot or having my coffee mug do double duty as a bowl. And from time to time, when the trip schedule and weather permit, I like to put together more elaborate meals, often including fresh breadstuffs or pizza, plus a dessert. I like having plenty of hot water for drinks, dishwashing, and the occasional sponge bath, too. The last doesn't fall within the sphere of camp cookery, I know, but fuel is fuel. I also need a couple of cups of real coffee to get my engine turning over in the morning, and we both like a hot cup of tea at day's end.
Now, how do I satisfy these criteria and still keep the load down? Here's how:
- Java press
- Largish (1.5–2‑liter) billy, with lid, mostly used for heating water
- Smaller (1–1.5‑liter) billy with lid
- Light, nonstick skillet and lid
- Small teapot and strainer
- Silicon‑rubber spatula
- Pot gripper
- Alcohol stove (with one or more fuel bottles) or portable samovar
- Fabric windscreen, homemade from coated nylon and bicycle spokes
- Strike‑anywhere matches in a waterproof matchsafe (one of the Ten Essentials), plus a disposable lighter
- A John Wayne, a small "e" essential and a talisman
- River knife (This is always with me. It's included in the list for completeness' sake.)
- Bowls and utensils for two
- Steel cups, ditto
- Gravity‑fed micropore water filter
To which, on all but the shortest trips, I add:
- SteriPEN or water purification tablets
- 5‑liter water bladder (Does double duty as a shower bag.)
- Vacuum flasks, 1‑pint size (One per person; not always taken.)
- Flexible cutting mat
- Swiss Army knife with corkscrew, bottle opener, can opener (actually works better than the John Wayne), awl, etc.
- Collapsible bucket
- Detergent, dish cloth, pot‑scrubber, and net bag
- Bag(s) for trash
- Soft cooler, 12‑pack size (Hot‑weather trips only, and not always taken even then.)
In the past, I've put my cook kit together from bits and pieces, so to speak, but after a couple of trial runs last year, I've decided to make a recently acquired Trangia 25‑8 UL/HA cooker my maid of all work — and the centerpiece of my culinary outfit for most amphibious trips. Take a look:
The cooker incorporates two hard‑anodized pots and an anodized lid that doubles as a skillet, along with a cute (but functional) tea kettle. The pot support also acts as a tolerably effective windscreen. And when not in use, everything goes together like a matryoshka doll.
The Trangia 25‑8 cooker is compact and reasonably light, and it gives me everything I need for most trips. It's overkill for solo getaways, however. On these, I rely largely on heat‑and‑eat meals or the simplest of one‑pot dishes. And when I'm on my own, I don't mind eating right out of the pot. A more spartan cook kit is therefore warranted, and here it is:
- Java press
- Medium‑small billy with lid, the latter a skillet of last resort
- Silicon‑rubber spatula
- Pot gripper
- Alcohol stove with pot support
- Extra fuel
- Matches in matchsafe
- John Wayne
- River knife
- Bowl and utensil set
- Steel cup
And likely a few more things, as well:
- Fabric windscreen
- Micropore filter (Always taken, unless I know I'll have a source of potable water.)
- The 5‑liter water bladder‑cum‑shower bag I mentioned in the earlier list
- Vacuum flask
- Flexible cutting mat
- Detergent, dish cloth, pot‑scrubber, and net bag
- Trash bag(s)
I'm still not sure whether to continue with my old mix‑and‑match ensemble approach or just make the Trangia Mini cooker (see pictures below) the heart of my solo kitchen. The Mini's exiguous weight and size are a plus, but the 0.8‑liter pot is definitely on the small side, even for one, and the rudimentary pot support does next to nothing to shelter the flame in a blow. Still, I'm leaning toward the Mini. And I'm optim[al]istic that I'll reach a decision by summer, one way or the other.
Paddlers have to eat. Food is fuel, after all. But it's a good thing if they also enjoy their meals. And cooking in camp isn't as easy as heating up a frozen entrée in the microwave back home. The hard work begins early on, too, with the selection of a cook kit. It's always a balancing act, in which convenience and cost are traded off against weight and bulk. Will any two paddlers ever see eye to eye on the best approach? Probably not. Still, we should all be able to agree on one thing: It pays to be an optimalist.
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In case you're wondering: In the Same Boat never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. The two exceptions to this rule in the past have been review (i.e., free) copies of books and maps, which we donated to local libraries after our article had gone to press. But having discovered that most of these donated items ended up on the tables at the next library book sale — presumably to make room for a tenth copy of 100,000 Shades of Green (or a 15th copy of Mary Plodder and the Half‑Baked Mince), we stopped soliciting review copies of books, too. Now we limit ourselves to writing about what we purchase through normal retail channels, though on rare occasions we'll write a product analysis of something we don't own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer's claims, published specifications, or the experience of friends. When we do this, we'll tell you.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "The Other Family Jewels — Pots and Pans for Paddlers"
- "Cast‑Iron Joy"
- "Out of the Frying Pan — Is This the End of the Iron Age?"
- "Tempest in a Teapot: The Samovar Goes Native"
- "Keeping it Simple With the Trangia Spirit Burner"
- "Hoarder's Treasure — A Water Bag That Costs You Nothing"
- "The Organization Woman Goes Paddling"
- "Picture This! Organizing Your Getaway"
And some articles from my own website:
- "Mackie Messer Meets His Match: When Go‑Light Is Just Right"
- "A Brief Look at the Trangia Spirit Burner"
- "Good Things Come in Small Packages. But what About Coleman Stove Fuel?"
- "Hanging Around the Backcountry: Or, What Do You Do With a Hungry Bruin?"
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