Exploring the backcountry is a great way to rest and recharge from a busy city life and staying overnight means the need for a great meal. Trying to pack as little as possible is great to save energy by not lugging heavy gear with you. The best place to lighten your pack is by leaving the cooking equipment behind. In this new installment of the ongoing series looking at different backcountry cooking methods, I will show you how you can use clay cooking method in order to produce a great tasting meal. It requires very little to be packed in with you and if you don’t mind a bit of foraging and fishing then the ingredients can be left at home as well!
History of use
Cooking fish and vegetables in wrappings of leaves and clay dates back thousands of years. Wrapping meat in leaves and placing it directly on hot coals to cook is a simple setup and requires less effort than building any special contraption to house the food. A similar setup is seen with kleftiko in Greek cuisine. Clay cooking method comes from the name of the kletes guerilla fighters who fought against the Ottomans. Not wanting their location to be discovered they would cook their food like this in order to limit the amount of smoke being visible.
Many different cultures, from North America to Asia, have employed this method during their history and whether it’s a banana leaf or a sycamore the outcome remains the same; delicious, juicy and flavourful food.
How to set it up
The preparation for clay wrapped cooking is quite straightforward. You need a fire, some clay, and large leaves to wrap your culinary creation. The clay is meant to seal in the juices of the ingredients and help protect the food from the direct impact of the heat. Follow these steps to set it up and get cooking for yourself.
Prepare your fire and allow it to burn down to the coals.
Leaving the coals for a moment, take your fish or veggies and wrap them in large leaves along with all the seasonings. Tie the bundle together to keep it from falling apart.
Whether you’ve opted to purchase your clay or gathered it yourself take it and wrap the entire bundle with the flattened clay, making sure to smudge over any crack to ensure a complete seal.
Place the clay bundle directly over the coals and cook evenly on both sides. Depending on the thickness of the clay and the ingredients inside this timing could range from 10 minutes or more.
*An alternative is to place the coals in a shallow pit and bury them along with the clay wrap to cook
After cooking is complete remove the clay from the coals and crack it open.
Take all bits of clay away before opening the leaves so that no pieces of clay get into the food and enjoy!
Safety and Considerations
This method of cooking is one of the safer options for the outdoors. Fire safety is key and the site selected should be clear of any brush or other dry leaf litter. Preferably build your fire on exposed rock with no overhanging branches. Escaping embers and radiant heat are very dangerous and can quickly cause a fire to get out of control. Choosing a sheltered spot protected from the wind will also keep the fire under control.
If you decide to cook meat make sure you are leaving enough time for the food to fully cook. Salmonella is a risk from undercooked fish and poultry and by fully cooking these items you remove that risk. In the case of fish, there is also the added risk of parasites that live within the flesh. Cooking at a high temperature will kill off any parasites and keep you happy and healthy to enjoy more backcountry meals.
Types of meals that do best with this method
The best type of recipe for this style of cooking is one involving baked meats. Most of the time you will see fish being cooked in clay. Wrapping the fish or other meat in leaves and seasonings keeps it from direct contact with the clay and the complete seal keeps every ounce of juices and flavour preserved within the food. You could substitute vegetarian ingredients for the meats if you wish, but root vegetables would work best in this case.
Mistakes to be made
Being quite straightforward you shouldn’t run into many problems when attempting this for the first time. Given that, I have put together a small sample of what you might consider just in case.
If you are harvesting your own clay pay close attention to your surroundings. Is there any visible pollution in the area? Was the site used by industry in the past? This will ensure you aren’t unintentionally harming yourself when enjoying your meal.
Not providing a complete seal over your entire bundle will lead to valuable juices leaking out and might dry out your food.
When removing the dried clay after cooking it’s best to ensure all bits are cleaned away before the leaf bundle is unwrapped. Dried clay is gritty and won’t be pleasant on your teeth if you are expecting to eat a moist piece of fish.
With clean and moist clay, the freshest herbs and spices, and nice root vegetables or your choice of meat, there is a beautiful meal waiting for your backcountry culinary skills. Traveling light and enjoying your time in the backcountry can be easily achieved with some ingenuity and preplanning. Cooking outdoors is a good way to take advantage of the resources you find along the trail as well as a great way to bond with your fellow hikers. Wrapping up a nice piece of seasoned fish in an airtight parcel of clay will recharge your energy levels for another day of hiking and also let you tap into an ancient part of our shared history. Hopefully, clay wrap cooking will inspire you to try a new method the next time you are out enjoying a bit of nature near you.