Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Reflector Oven Baking

Some years ago, we read about a trail baking technique called reflector oven baking. It’s a centuries old technology that works by concentrating the heat from a fire in a small metal (in modern times, aluminum) box. Build a fire at one edge of your fire ring and place the oven next to the fire; not on top of the fire or you’ll risk melting the aluminum oven itself. The fire doesn’t need to be very large, the flames need only be as high as the oven is tall. The small wire rack bisecting the oven is a shelf onto which you can place a baking tray.

Intrigued, we bought one made by SF Canoe out of Sweden, and gave it a try on a car camping trip. It was remarkably successful.

It struck us odd that reflector oven baking wasn’t something we’d learned about in Scouting in the 1980s. Dutch ovens were popular at the time, but reflector oven baking was conspicuous by its absence. As near as we can tell, reflector oven baking was fairly common in Scouting at least through the 1950s, and renowned chef James Beard co-authored a book on outdoor cookery in 1955 that features recipes for it. While perhaps commonplace at one time, it just seems to have waned in popularity among the backcountry set.

We think that’s a terrible loss to the backcountry kitchen. You can bake some remarkable goods on the trail, from breads and biscuits to brownies and cookies (in fact, we once baked a lasagna in this thing). There’s nothing like getting fresh baked goods on a backcountry trip, especially if you’re suffering through prepackaged trail meals.

The freshness, flavor intensity and texture of a hot-out-of-the-oven baked good on the trail can make purchased trail meals less bad, and they can supplement meals you source for yourself in some remarkable ways. In our experience, most outfitter and trail food manufacturer soups are bland. They’re not so bad with a fresh biscuit, and you can give that biscuit all kinds of flavor with seasoning (dried soup powders are excellent for this) that makes everybody forget about the soup entirely.

A good home-made dehydrated chili can be very good, especially if you remember to mix bread crumbs into the ground beef before you cook and dehydrate it (the bread crumbs will absorb moisture when rehydrated, giving the ground beef the texture of ground beef rather than gravel). That same home-made trail chili with a side of freshly baked cornbread is even better; that cornbread with a thin sliver of aged cheddar melted into it while it’s baking is a backcountry culinary experience.

Reflector oven baking isn’t that invasive to travel or to mealtime. The oven itself collapses down and is both thin and light; we tuck it into our CCS food pack. For baking trays, we use the skillet with our GSR Bugaboo cookset for cookies and biscuits, and individual baking trays we found on Amazon for things like brownies and cornbread. Baking mixes will add a bit of weight and bulk to your food pack, but not a lot. And if you inadvertently bake too many brownies or cookies, store them in a spare ziplock and put them in your lunch pack for the following day.

If you maintain a consistent fire, baking time is in 20 to 30 minute range. The oven is wider at the opening than the back, so temperatures will run hotter in the back of the oven than the front, so you may have to rotate whatever it is that you’re baking about halfway through the baking process, Having a mini potholder in your backcountry kitchen utensil set (you can make one out of duck cloth) is helpful for handling hot baking trays.

We find freshly baked goods are a reward on the trip. We get much better desserts than the puddings and rehydrated apple crisps and the like common to trail meals. And freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are not just a treat, but a bonding moment for a group sharing the beauty of the outdoors under a perfectly clear nighttime sky or while admiring a distant thunderstorm roll across the horizon.

Just remember a few things about trail baking. While it’s possible to bake with the reflector oven in front of a camp stove, burning a stove nonstop for 20+ minutes is very energy intensive; you’re most likely to bake in front of a fire. If you’ve just landed in a campsite after a hard day’s paddle and portage and all everybody wants to do is eat and call it a night; if you have to hunt for firewood because the campsite is simply depleted; and on top of all that if it’s raining and windy, fiddling with a fire to bake something isn’t a reward, it’s separating people from what they want to do: climb into their tents and pass out. Better to pack out a baking mix you meticulously prepared and miss out on the culinary delight than frustrating your tripmates.

Reflector ovens seem to have increased in popularity and are available at a number of places, including Rutabaga and Ben’s Backwoods. Whether you’re on your own food plan or an outfitter supplied or packaged trail food plan, try adding baking to your meal plan.