The electrical grid is commonly understood to be the most fragile part of our infrastructure. In pretty much any disaster situation, you can count on the grid going down and our electrical power being out. When that happens there are many things we’ll have to do without, including our normal means of cooking. Even people who cook on gas stoves are likely to be without the ability to cook, although gas should still be flowing through the pipes for a few days.
Without the use of our modern kitchen range, let alone the microwave oven, we’ll all need to find alternative means of cooking our food. Fortunately, they aren’t all that hard to come up with.
The First Option for Most Families
It seems that just about everyone owns a barbecue grille nowadays. That’s fortunate, because that grille provides a great place to cook, when the grid is down. It doesn’t matter if you have a charcoal or gas grille, you at least have a place to cook.
The one problem with a grille is that your supply of fuel is limited. It wouldn’t hurt to stockpile a little extra, just to make sure that you can keep on cooking for a while. But even then, you’re going to end up running out of fuel; it’s just going to take a little longer.
You can also burn wood in any charcoal grille. The only risk is that you might damage the gas element for your gas grille (assuming you have a gas grille) and need to replace it after the crisis is over. Compared to not being able to eat, that’s a small price to pay.
You aren’t limited to cooking meat on a grille. Pots and pans can be placed on them as well, allowing you to cook pretty much anything. It will probably be a bit hard on any enameled coating on your cookware, but if you have simple metal cookware, such as cast iron, it won’t hurt it at all.
Making your own charcoal
Making your own charcoal is easy and will provide you with a better fire for cooking on than using wood. All you need is a sealed metal container, such as the ones that people buy flavored popcorn in at Christmastime.
Punch or drill a small hole in the lid of the container to allow gases to escape. A 1/16″ hole should be sufficient. Fill the container loosely with chunks of wood (hardwood works best) and put the lid on the container. Set it in a fire and leave it there for a while. The hydrocarbons from the wood will outgas through the hole, probably catching fire. When they stop outgasing, the charcoal is ready for use.
Cooking Over Wood
Throughout history, the most common fuel for cooking has been wood. In the case of a crisis, many people will return to this old standby, mostly because of its availability. If you are heating your home with wood in a survival situation, it only makes sense to cook over it as well.
The fireplace is the most obvious place to cook over wood, but not the most efficient. You’ll either need to put meat on a spit or suspend a pot over the fire to cook. This makes it hard to do. In olden times, people would have the blacksmith make a pot hanging hook, called a fireplace crane, which would attach to the side of the fireplace and swing out when needed. These are still available if you look around.
Wood-burning stoves are a natural for cooking, with some actually having cooktops built into them. The older ones are better for this than the newer ones, as many of the new ones are insulated so well that the tops don’t get hot enough for cooking on. However, if you buy a wood burning cook stove, it will provide heat and a way of cooking. While rare and rather expensive, these are still available.
The fire pit is an ancient open fireplace, without a chimney. They used to place these in the center of a room, with a simple smoke hole above them. Today, the fire pit has regained popularity, but as an outdoor fireplace, for use on a patio or deck. You can buy metal fire pits or make your own out of landscaping stones.
A homemade fire pit is rather simple, consisting of nothing more than a circle of landscaping stones, with a cement or gravel bottom. Basically, it’s like the urban version of building a fire pit out of stone in the woods. You can buy grille tops that can be placed over the fire pit, allowing it to be used for cooking.
Another option that is easily adapted to a survival situation is a camping stove. There are a number of these available on the market, in a variety of sizes and styles. The biggest problem is that most of them are designed for use with small propane bottles, smaller than the ones used for gas grilles. Unless you have a lot of these bottles stockpiled, you’re only going to be able to use that gas camping grille for so long.
There is one other camping stove option. Coleman still makes their “dual fuel” camping stove. This is the same stove model that I remember camping with as a kid, more than 40 years ago. The name refers to the fact that it can be used with either Coleman fuel or unleaded gasoline.
The advantage of this stove is that while gasoline will become rare, it will probably not be anywhere near as rare as propane. So, as long as you can find abandoned cars to siphon a couple of gallons out of, you’ll still be able to use the stove.
Baking is the biggest problem in a survival situation. The major difference between baking and any other cooking is that in baking, the heat surrounds whatever you are cooking, rather than only being below it. You need the capability to bake so that you can make bread, even if you aren’t going to bake cakes and pies.
Probably the best solution for baking is to build a clay oven. These are the earliest type of ovens made and are still in use in some places. I remember visiting Taos Pueblo as a child and seeing the Taos Indians using clay ovens to bake their bread.
A clay oven is a mound of clay, with two compartments in it, divided by a shelf. The bottom compartment is the firebox and the top compartment is the oven itself. It is important that the shelf is fairly thin, so that heat from the firebox can pass through it to warm the oven. While the oven itself is made of clay, a door of wood is usually used to help hold the heat inside the oven.
To use a clay oven, fires are prepared in both the oven and the firebox. Once the fire in the oven has warmed the oven, it is removed and moved down to the firebox. It is important that this is not done too quickly, as the entire thickness of the shelf needs to be heated, or the oven’s temperature will drop once the fire is moved.
The Dutch Oven is the simplest means of baking with a wood fire. This is how bread, pies and cakes were baked in homes during the early part of our country’s history, leaving clay ovens for commercial bakeries.
I need to clarify something here; most of what are sold under the name “Dutch oven” aren’t really Dutch ovens, but rather large saucepans or pots without a handle. If you tried to use them as an oven, they wouldn’t work and would probably end up ruined. A true Dutch oven is usually cast iron, the lid is concave so that coals can be placed on it, and it has cast in place feet, so that it can be placed on the coals in the fireplace.
To use the Dutch oven, the dough is placed inside it and the lid placed on. The oven is then placed in the coals, taking care to make it level. More coals are then placed on top of the lid, which has a lip to keep them from falling off. In this way, the dough inside is being heated from all directions.