Every Australian who goes bush ought to have a camp oven as part of their kit. They are simple and to use, and they produce some of the most mouth-watering meals you’ll ever eat, enhanced by the great environment in which you consume the results.
The food cooked in a camp oven tastes better, different, unique. And what can be better when surrounded by the undiluted simplicity of the bush than to sit down to a beautiful baked leg of lamb followed by a fancy dessert, or to snack on a chunk of fresh damper, torn from the still warm, golden product of your camp oven? So what do you cook? What should you cook?
Obviously, that will be determined by your own preferences in food, as well as your confidence and experience, around the kitchen as much as the campfire. For the experienced cook, handling a complex recipe will be no great burden. All good cooks operate with a sense of intuition. They can tell when something is cooked, understand how hot the oven has to be, can tell when there is enough milk or water in a mix.
For many of us who go camping, that background is lacking. We want and enjoy good cooking but we don’t have the experience or the passion to make those gut-instinct decisions that can turn a mediocre meal into something amazing.
Here we have gone for three camp oven recipes that we think you will enjoy and that you ought to find not too difficult to get even the most basic of culinary talent to cope with. There are limited ingredients so nobody should feel as though they can’t tackle one or all of these.
BEER AND MIXED FRUIT DAMPER
1-1/2 cups self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons butter
Dried mixed fruit or sultanas
Add the baking powder to the flour and mix.
Rub the butter into the flour. Add the mixed fruit or sultanas.
Then add about a third of the bottle of beer and mix. Keep adding beer until you get a soft mix.
Place it into a lightly greased tin so it keeps its shape, and then bake it in your camp oven on hot coals for about 40 minutes.
1. You may need slightly more or less beer than the ingredients suggest but the mixture should be able to hold its shape in the dish.
2. Score the dough deeply with a knife to make it easier to break it into segments when cooked.
3. Never try to cook damper over flames, only ever with coals.
4. Damper is great smothered with butter or drizzled with golden syrup, and is always best eaten while hot.
5. If you are a complete beginner, just buy a packet of commercial damper mix from the store, mix it as per the directions, and it will still be delicious.
6. Measure and mix dry damper ingredients before leaving home, store them in an air-tight container or in a plastic bag ready for use. This will take up less room than carrying separate ingredients and saves time in preparation.
One packet of French onion soup mix
3 tablespoons of honey
1/2 cup of water
1kg chicken pieces
Mix the soup mixture, water and honey. Add the chicken pieces to the camp oven and lightly brown them on the coals with some butter. Add the soup/water/honey mix, then cover and cook on a low heat until the chicken is cooked through (about 1.5 hours), stirring occasionally. To avoid overcooking, use a stand or cooking base to lift the camp oven above the coals.
Traditional Camp Oven Roast
2-2.5kg piece of beef or pork
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 sprigs rosemary
Salt and pepper
¼ cup of soy sauce
¾ bottle red wine
Veggies of your choice
Build your fire for a hot camp oven with lots of coals (38 heat beads will suit a large, 16in camp oven, for a temperature of about 220ºC). Let the fire die down and set the coals aside. Oil your oven. We use a thin spun steel type with a lid that quickly heats, but you can preheat yours if you like.
Cut slots into your beef or pork and insert garlic and rosemary sprigs to season, and place in the oven. Both cuts work well together, but keep an eye on the beef as it cooks quicker. You can also rub Moroccan seasoning over the meat if you like, or any other seasoning you prefer.
Add salt and pepper, soy sauce, and pour over the red wine to keep it moist.
Put the lid on and place the oven in the bed of coals. Ensure there aren’t too many under the base and then cover with remaining coals and cook for 10-15 minutes.
Check your meat to see if it’s sealing but not burning. Add your veggies, and cook for another 20-30 minutes, depending on the sound of the sizzle from the oven.
You should hear a good amount of sizzle, otherwise reduce the number of coals around the oven or add more wine. Regular checking is recommended, the total cooking time for the oven roast is 30-40 minutes.
You can slow cook your roast with less heat, and more soil on top for around 1-1.5 hours.
EXTRA TIP: TEMPERATURE CONTROL
Exactly how hot is your camp oven? If you don’t have a thermometer to check it out, try this simple trick:
Take a piece of newspaper or paper towel and drop it in (onto a trivet, so it isn’t sitting on the bottom which is sitting on hot coals) and allow it to cook for five minutes. Its condition after that time will give you a fair idea of temperature:
• If the paper is black and smoking, the oven is too hot.
• If the paper is dark brown, the oven is very hot (230 degrees C).
• If the paper is light brown, the oven is hot (200 degrees C).
• If the paper is yellowish, the oven is moderate (180 degrees C)
A ‘very hot’ oven of about 230 degrees C will char things to an inedible blackened crisp.
For food requiring short cooking times or for browning, such as pizza, biscuits or pies, a hot oven of about 200 degrees C works well, with the majority of coals on top.
The most common temperature required in camp oven cooking is what would be called a moderate oven, with a temperature of about 180 degrees C.
For stews and casseroles, you want a ‘slow’ oven – about 150 degrees C.
The biggest mistake most people make is making their oven too hot, while a common mistake is having too much heat underneath, especially with flat-bottomed ovens.
Place half a shovel of coals on the ground so it’s not on a cold surface and place as many as you need on top. When you check the food inside, be quick as hot air rises. Check damper after, say, 20 minutes and a bake after 30 minutes.
Any time you have to remove the lid, even partially, rotate as you put it back on to make sure it’s seated properly and the heat can’t escape.
Remember, when cooking outside there are many environmental factors which will change the outcomes from day to day. Wind will blow heat away, cooler ambient temperature, humidity variations, and the size of a fire nearby will all have an influence, so check your food and be prepared to vary cooking times to suit.
If the day is windy or cool, you can assist by digging a shallow hole, deep enough for your lower coals to sit in, to shelter them from the air movement when you place your oven on top.