Baking on an Ultralight Esbit Stove
Trail baking or eating freshly baked breads and pies cooked while on the trail has long been a dream of mine, one that has been out of reach via my UL alcohol/Esbit stove cooking kit, or so I thought.
Some months ago I switched to the Flat Cat Gear Snow Leopard (FCGSL) cooking system because of the flexibility of the fuel options and reliability of the cooking/boiling results - you can read my detailed review here. As is true of many alcohol stove users, I mostly boil water to rehydrate trail meals or have a hot drink. I'm doing very little in the way of “real” cooking mostly due to the limitations of the stove. That's been perfectly okay with me and I've been extremely happy using my FCGSL.
Yet I've always wanted to find a way to use my existing cooking system to see if I could really cook or bake while out on the trail. Sometimes you just crave one of those comfort foods - like freshly baked biscuits! Well, thanks to the relentless experimentation of Jon Fong, the founder of Flat Cat Gear, it is now not only possible but also pretty easy to do with an ultralight cooking system while other back country!
Baking Bisquick Cheesy Biscuits
The secret to being able to truly bake using an UL system is twofold: 1) You'll need a fuel source that can be burned slowly for 30-40 minutes. Most alcohol stoves can run for up to 20 minutes before needing to be refueled which is doable, but a single Esbit fuel tab can burn reliably for 40 minutes in the right stove; 2) you will need to create a double walled cooking environment to help dissipate the heat evenly and avoid burning the food from the bottom. Most UL pots/cups have extremely thin walls on purpose. The easiest way to achieve this is by placing a second smaller pot inside of your main cooking vessel.
With those two points in mind I went about setting up my stove to do some test bakes. For simplicity I chose to use store bought Cheesy Biscuit mix, just add water and you're good to go. I mixed it right in the pot I was going to bake it in, until it reached a dough consistency. Then I removed it, cleaned out the pot and used a little wax paper to line the bottom and sides of the inner pot. Note: I don't know if this was a necessary step, but I thought it would help avoid the biscuits sticking to the pot and make clean up a lot easier - oh the shame of the extra weight from the paper!
So, pot lined and ready I dropped the biscuit dough inside and placed that into the Evernew TI pot I was using. I have not been able to find a pot/cup that will fit inside the standard SP600 cup I use with the FCGSL, so I will be using the bigger brother of that setup called the Bobcat System. Essentially the same thing but made for larger pots.
For the stove I used a prototype Esbit burning stove that Jon had designed called the Epicurean Stove. It has two rings that can be used to help regulate the burn of the Esbit fuel tab and in prior tests I had achieved single fuel tab simmering times of 40 minutes plus, which is quite amazing.
Esbit stove lit and ready, I placed the Evernew pot on the stove by slotting it into the windscreen holder. I placed the lid on top of the pot and added a lid coosie made of carbon felt to help keep some of the heat from escaping through the lid. At least that was my thought process. I set my stopwatch for 15 minutes and went to grab a ice cold beer.
After the 15 minutes were up I checked on the biscuits and found that they had barely begun to bake. They were gooey and had not risen at all. The Esbit fuel tab was still going strong and I couldn't see any signs of burning on the bottom of the biscuits, at least for m a quick visual inspection, so I covered the pot and set my watch for another 15 minutes. The extra time was a complete guesstimate by me based on how little the mixture had cooked thus far. I thought about checking on it every five minutes but that was too much like hard work, the beer had started to kick in and I was only doing a test, so I left it at 15 minutes.
After the time was up I checked on the biscuits again to discover that there had been a lot of progress. The mix had risen significantly, it was set firm, and the smell of freshly baked cheesy biscuits was to die for, but they were not quite finished. My best guess was another 5-10 minutes. I decided to err on the side of less and set my watch for 5 mins. As it turned out it took another 8-10 minutes to be about perfect. The total cooking time for this mix was approximately 40 minutes.
I removed the pot from the stove and saw that the Esbit fuel tab was on it's last legs with about 2-3 minutes of life left. No too shabby though for one fuel tab, the Epicurean stove had done its job of making it burn steadily and slowly. After letting the inner pot cool down for a minute or two, I turned it over to tip out the biscuit and to my surprise and delight it slipped right out, no doubt the result of the waxed paper I had used to line the inner pot.
The smell of the cheesy biscuit was fantastic! The base had not burned despite being on the heat for 40 minutes and the texture looked perfect. I felt a little like Martha Stewart, it’s “perfect!” you can see in the photo (above below) that the biscuit mix had baked through evenly and was firm but still moist and fluffy. Even though I've been on a Paleo diet for several months now, I couldn't resist taking a bite to try it - needless to say it was delicious. My kids took great pleasure in finishing off the rest of the giant biscuit with huge grins on their faces. Imagine how cool it will be to make these on our next backpacking trip together :)
So how was it possible to successfully slow bake on an ultralight alcohol/Esbit stove? Here are the all of the factors that helped to achieve this:
- Using a slow burning fuel/stove like an Esbit tab
- Regulating the burn/flame of the fuel
- Using a double walled pot to avoid direct heat
- Covering the pot with a lid and insulating pad
- Cooking slow and long, much longer than the directions (you're not going to have the same high temperatures in this setup that you would at home in a conventional stove)
- Patience and trial and error
I won't always have 40 minutes spare to bake yummy biscuits or cookies while I'm on the trail, but when I do I'm going to plan to do a little baking instead of just boiling water and rehydrating - especially when I'm out with Jack and Maggie. I'm incredibly excited by the possibilities this stove setup offers, now the only limitation I can think of is coming up with new recipes to try baking on the trail. I'll be doing a lot more testing in the coming weeks and attempting to substitute the Bisquick pre-mix with a more healthy version of my own - I have a very good friend and fellow GRT #192 teammate that is an incredible chef and whom has offered to help me with that :)
What do you think of baking on the trail? It's technically possible, but does that make it something you would consider doing? I'd love to hear your thoughts and if you have any similar stories or recipe ideas feel free to share them via the comments below.