Cooking Off the Grid (Outdoor Edition)
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
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I once lived in a home where the only cooking options were a small, electric, single-burner element in the kitchen and a barbeque grill outside. During the year that I lived there, I learned two things about cooking.
1. I missed modern conveniences—especially a large oven.
2. You can cook just about anything with the tools I had at hand: a single burner and a barbecue grill with a closing lid.
If you spend any time off grid, you know cooking is both a convenience and a necessity (and one of the essential off grid skills). Tasks we take for granted—like boiling water to make a cup of coffee—quickly become noticeably more challenging if you aren’t prepared with an alternative.
You can only eat just so many sandwiches and raw veggies before you start wishing you could have a hot meal. Or biscuits. Or a baked dessert.
Whether your off-grid experience is limited to camping trips and weekend cabin getaways, or you are setting up your off-grid home, the following suggestions will give you a starting point for whipping up your favorite gourmet meal.
I’m not including a discussion of tea light stoves or other emergency, small-scale cooking methods in this article (like a rocket stove or backpack camp stove). Instead, let’s focus on long-term cooking equipment that you can use on a daily basis in your outdoor kitchen.
How do you bake in a grill or over a fire pit? That’s exactly what I had to discover for myself back in the days before everyone had the internet in their homes. I certainly didn’t have any books that explained how to do it, and since Google wasn’t a thing yet, I couldn’t just hop online and search for outdoor off grid cooking methods.
As it turns out, baking outdoors isn’t that difficult. It does, however, require patience and attentiveness. Until you master the art of baking outdoors, you can’t just set a timer and expect your baked goods to come out the way you want them to.
To bake outdoors, you’ll need to trap the heat and try to keep it low and even around your baked goods. Some outdoor cooking methods are easier to do this with than others.
Grill: Does your grill have a temperature gauge or temperature control? If so, this will make your life a little easier because you won’t have to open the grill every time you want to check the heat. Bake with the lid closed using a low flame on a gas grill or glowing coals (but no flame!) on a charcoal grill.
Smoker: Use light wood or fruitwood, so your baked goods don’t take on a heavy, smokey flavor. Since you’ll be baking at a lower temperature, your food will take longer to bake than it would in a conventional oven.
Fire pit: You’ve probably heard of Dutch oven cooking. A wood fire pit is a perfect way to put that method into action. You’ll need to let your wood burn down to coals, put your prepared ingredients into a cast iron Dutch oven, and then pile the coals around and on top of the Dutch oven lid.
Some pros recommend heating the Dutch oven lid separately (put it on a grate and pile coals on top of it) while you are still putting the ingredients in the pot. Then use ashes with very few coals underneath the Dutch oven, and pile glowing coals around the sides and on top once you lower it into the fire pit.
Solar oven: You can bake in a solar oven with little to no risk of burning your baked goods. Just be prepared to combine your ingredients in the morning and let your recipe bake most of the day in the sun. Tip: smaller baked goods will bake faster and more evenly than larger baked goods. Think cupcakes vs. sheet cake or mini loaves vs. a standard-size loaf of bread.
Outdoor cooking methods
Arguably the most environmentally friendly source of heat is the sun. Solar ovens and solar cookers leverage this free resource to cook food and boil water.
Solar ovens can be as simple as a DIY project you make at home or as elaborate as the GoSun Fusion hybrid model that uses both the sun and electricity to generate enough heat to cook a meal for four people.
The pros to using solar power are that the energy is free and eco-friendly, you won’t burn your food, and no electricity or gas is required (unless you are using a hybrid model). Since the source of heat is the sun, no toxic waste is generated.
Solar ovens are also portable—a feature that allows you to take them with you to show off your off-grid cooking expertise at outdoor picnics and potlucks.
The cons to using a solar cooker are that, well … you need sunlight. This means cooking at night and on cloudy days requires an alternate source of heat.
Few solar ovens can gather enough sunlight to warm up to the necessary temperature for preparing meats or boiling water when clouds hide the sun. And unless you have a hybrid model with a power source at night, you are limited to cooking only during daylight hours.
Solar dehydrators also use the sun, but instead of generating high enough heat to cook food items, they use slow, gentle heat to dry out foods and preserve them. This is an amazing way to make your summer harvest last into winter or preserve meat by turning it into tasty strips of jerky.
Since the dehydration process takes hours, using a solar dehydrator outside not only reduces power consumption—it doesn’t heat up your kitchen from blowing hot air around all day.
If you’re a raw food fan, you may be familiar with dehydrated raw crackers and bread. A solar dehydrator will allow you to make these foods without adding to your utility bill.
The main con to using a solar dehydrator is the requirement for sunlight. The extended drying time requirement can make a solar dehydrator impractical during the winter and in far northern states.
Barbeque grills and smokers
Charcoal and propane grills, wood pellet grills, and smokers are reliable heat sources for cooking food as long as you have fuel available. They can be used whether or not the sun is shining.
Fuel costs—and the space you need to store it—should be considered before choosing which type of barbeque or smoker you’d like to purchase.
Although charcoal barbeque grills are less expensive to purchase up front than gas grills or wood pellet grills, the cost of purchasing charcoal for fuel can outweigh the initial savings over time.
Charcoal takes longer to heat up than gas, which is instantly hot depending on how high you adjust the flame. You will also have more cleanup with a charcoal grill than with gas because charcoal will leave ash for you to dispose of.
A gas grill cannot match the rich, smoky flavor that charcoal imparts to food unless you add wood chips specifically designed for this purpose. If you cook a lot of vegetables or foods that you don’t want to taste smoky, a gas grill will give you a smokeless option.
Wood pellet grills let you get that smoky flavor with a nice, even heat and without the excess smoke created by charcoal. The type of wood pellet you use (mesquite, hickory, cherry) will influence the flavor the smoke imparts.
Pellet grills have a more precise temperature control than charcoal or gas, too.
But what if you plan to use your grill the way I used mine back in the day—for baking? In this case, a gas grill may be your top choice. With few exceptions, you won’t want your baked goods tasting like smoke, and a gas grill will give you the ability to gently bake food over a low flame without the smoky aftertaste.
Smokers slowly cook meat, poultry, and fish with indirect heat from the smoke instead of direct heat like you’d get from a grill. If you use a light wood (like apple), you can bake in a pellet smoker or wood chip smoker, too.
Electric smokers might give you more options for baking, but you’ll have to decide if you want to use your stored solar power to heat a smoker for a pumpkin pie.
Fire pits can be as simple as a hole dug into the ground and properly stacked with wood for fuel or as elaborate as a steel, smokeless fire pit.
Anything that can be cooked over a grill can be cooked over a fire pit. And if you have a lid for your fire pit, you can slow-cook meat overnight or bake simple recipes over low heat.
A small propane stove is highly portable and cooks with a visible flame. If your propane grill doesn’t have a side burner, I recommend getting a single- or double-burner propane stove to use outside so you can boil water and make stews and soups.
Some propane camp stoves, such as the Camp Chef, have accessories that expand their use for all of your cooking purposes. We have a two-burner Camp Chef stove that we use for everything from canning with my All American pressure canner to baking with our Coleman Camp Oven.
The things you can cook without being connected to the electric grid are endless. As long as you have some type of fuel source—fire, the sun, wood pellets, or charcoal—and a vessel to cook in, you can make delicious meals, baked goods, desserts, and even your morning cup of coffee or tea.
If you would like to explore indoor off grid cooking methods (like vintage cast iron stoves and wood stoves), check out the post I wrote just for you!