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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Survival Cooking

I recently heard of an interesting Boy Scout method for cooking meals during campouts. It seems like a great alternative to building a roaring campfire. What with so many forests fires burning out of control in the news these days, you can see the benefits this type of cooking can have. I have also tested this method thoroughly, so can conclusively confirm that it works. It works well! I cooked bacon and eggs and they were quite comparable to anything you'd get cooked on a campfire or in a good restaurant. Here are the step-by-step instructions so that you can try it at home and be just as amazed as I was at this ingenious method for cooking.

It starts with those things that fall in your lawn from Gumball trees and clog up your lawn mower every year. You can see one pictured above, what is commonly known as a gumball. That will be your heat source. It is also advised that you allow them to dry for awhile before you use them - they don't work when they're green. Your oven, or stove top, if you prefer, is shown below:

I used those large cans that vegetables come in, or peaches, just anything - it doesn't matter what was in the can to begin with. You remove the label and wash them up and with one end already removed, you don't need to do anything else to it. It's ready to be employed as your stove. I got mine from a local restaurant, who were more than happy to have me haul away some of their trash!
The secret to getting the gumballs to burn better and longer is you use cooking wax. Melt up some of it on your stove at home and dip the gumballs in it. I used a regular-sized can so I wouldn't have to ruin one of my good pans. Make sure you remove the paper label and wash it thoroughly before placing it on the stove. (Or your gumballs might smell like whatever was in the can once you light them!) Once dipped and allowed to cool on wax paper, they are then ready to be used as your fuel source for the Gumball Cooker, as I like to call it. I used metal salad tongs to dip the gumballs in the hot wax and then set them to dry. You have to be careful not to burn yourself, so I'll point out which steps in this whole process where it's likely and you can be prepared with gloves, pot holders or whatever you need to protect yourself with. If a method of cooking can't be safe while you're using it, it's not a very good method, if you ask me. I did up about a dozen gumballs, figuring it would be enough for my test. Now that I know it works, I'll be doing up a bunch more. You never know when your stove might stop working and you need a ready source of fuel for cooking your food. If a natural disaster should happen, or any kind of widespread catastrophe, you'll already be prepared with a good method available to you and your family.
With my gumballs all waxed up and my cans ready to go, it was now time to put my test into action. I selected a nice level place in my backyard where there wasn't any grass to catch on fire and took all my gumball cooker parts with me. A few more parts were improvised when I was on the spot and actually trying to cook, so I'll detail those for you. Another thing I had premade was a little dish made out of tinfoil. I doubled it over twice and crimped up the edges to make a border around it. It turned out that the shape I used was a good thing, as it was not round but long. This allowed two gumballs to fit in it nicely, which turned out to be the optimum amount to use for cooking. They put off just the right amount of heat to cook with, where I think 1 gumball would have taken longer and any more than 2 would have caused the fire to be too hot and burn whatever you're cooking. But, 2 worked out nicely and I placed them in my tinfoil trough, like you see pictured below:

You can see the first one in my tinfoil trough and the wax that pooled up below it when it was drying on the wax paper. It is okay to leave this wax attached to the gumballs as it doesn't affect it in any way and it saves time. Just make sure to use 2 gumballs for your heat source.

At the left edge of the picture, you can see a hole in my can. I knew the fire had to be able to "breathe," so I made four holes along the bottom edge of the can. But, once I had started cooking with this setup, I found it needed more air than these four holes would allow. I ended up making a little stand of twigs to rest the can upon, so as to get it up off the ground just slightly, and this worked great. So, the holes I made in the can weren't needed at all. You can save yourself this extra step for you won't have to do this to your cans. Another thing I found out is that if the wind is blowing, try to block it off with a log or something so it doesn't blow some of your precious heat out from underneath the open edges.

I did come up with an idea about continuous heat and it involves making a hole in your can, but I haven't tried it out yet, so it's up to you if you want to go ahead and do it yourself. But, I reasoned that if I had one hole near the bottom, (opened end) of my can that was big enough for some barbecue tongs to put a gumball through, I could always keep two gumballs burning and when one starts dying down, replace it with a fresh gumball. In this way, I figure I can keep constant heat going upward and this would allow me to cook something like stew or boil water for noodles - any number of things that have to cook longer than 10 minutes, which is all the time it took me to prepare my bacon and egg. Below you can see how I propped up my can so that the fire could get the proper air it needed: (You can also see the bacon as it starts to sizzle!)

By propping it up this way and having a lip around the tinfoil trough, (which allowed the heat to be funneled upwards towards the cooking surface), it also had the advantage of masking the fact that you're using fire to cook with. I imagine it would be next to impossible to see any light escaping from this cooker at night. This added benefit is probably a very attractive feature to some of you out there.

Above, you can see that the bacon is cooking quite nicely. After about five minutes, it ended up cooking about halfway done with the first 2 gumballs I had lit underneath it. When they began to die out, I turned the bacon over and put 2 fresh gumballs underneath and finished cooking. The bacon did tend to stick a little bit, so I had to be careful that I didn't burn myself as I was holding the can steady while turning the slices over. Good gloves or oven mitts are always welcome! Next time I'm going to try using some Pam or other cooking spray to keep my food from sticking. Be sure to use that when you do it, too, and that will make it even easier. The bacon had also begun to shrink by now, so there was room to put my egg on with it. This turned out to be just the right moment to do so, for the egg and the bacon finished cooking at the same time. Now, here's where I would have needed some gloves again, or some protection from the hot can. This method of cooking gets extremely hot, so be careful you don't burn yourself as you're taking your finished food off the cooking surface to your plate or lifting the can off to put new fuel in the tinfoil trough. That's why I think a good hole at the bottom would work well - that way you wouldn't have to keep taking the can off to put on new gumballs and losing some of the heat that you had built up for cooking. So, be sure and try putting a hole in your can for this reason.

Now, as you can see, the egg is about finished cooking, as is the bacon. The egg has those nice, crispy edges - which I like - and the bacon is getting crunchy. Of course, if you prefer it a different way, feel free to experiment and try anything you like! That's the joy of this post. Since it works, and these pictures prove that, you don't have to worry about that aspect, just go to cooking something and having a great time with it. I plan to try barbecueing some Spam and then boiling water for a rice dish I want to try on my next campout. Because, I know I can cook food on a campfire and using Sterno or canned heat - those methods are sure things. But to have an alternate method like this that's so simple and easy, it's just great knowing it's there for you. And, as they say, the proof's in the pudding. Below you can see just what my breakfast looked like once it was finished and removed from the Gumball Cooker:

Doesn't that just look tasty!? I can confirm that it was every bit as good as it looks! Taste-ee! By all means, do try this at home and feel free to post a comment with your results. Let everybody see how easy it can be done.

Keep in mind that I didn't buy any part of this great experiment at Wal-Mart. You, too can shop and get everything you need without going to Wal-Mart.