Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Road Trip: The Charcoal Chimney

Question:  How does a total tightwad prepare hot food when camping?
Answer:  The charcoal chimney.

Think about it.  Gas stoves have to be purchased (nuh-uh) or borrowed just to have available.  I don't know how much a canister of stove gas costs, but I assume it's more than a couple of dollars.

Gas, however clean burning, efficient, and enviro-friendly, is out.  How about cooking over the campfire?  Isn't that the traditional classic?  Build a big, roaring fire (with about $10 worth of firewood) let it burn down to a nice bed of coals, and cook whatever you'd like.  Most campsites have fire pits with grill grates, after all.  The cost of wood and time makes this a total non-starter.

Enter the charcoal chimney starter.

Water boils in a tea kettle over the charcoal chimney at Florence Keller County Park, California

Seen here in action.  The lower compartment (with the flames) holds balled-up newspaper.  Inside, one makes a small pile of charcoal briquettes on a perforated platform.  The idea of this invention is to get charcoal ready for cooking without lighter fluid.  When used correctly (HA!) one lights the paper, the paper lights the lowest level of coals, the lowest level of coals lights those above, etc.  In about 10 minutes, the whole chimney is full of white coals ready to be dumped out on the grill and is ready to cook.

Follow the jump to read about how I use it to save time and money in getting hot camp food.

In the photo below, we are making oatmeal.  I have a small grill grate with a slide-out handle scavenged from another portable grill set on top of the chimney.  This gives me a nice flat surface upon which to put our cooking pot.
Cooking oatmeal over the charcoal chimney at Glacier National Park, Montana

When making something that requires boiling water (pasta, rice, oatmeal, etc.) I save time and charcoal by boiling the water in our old kettle.  See the topmost photo for why.  Notice that the kettle site down in the chimney, right on the burning coals.  This gets the whole kettle of water boiling in a few minutes.  Once boiling, I place the grill grate on top, pour the boiling water over the carbohydrate in question, and cook it more slowly on top of the chimney.

Cory cooks spaghetti in the black pot over the charcoal chimney in the rain at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Boiling spaghetti noodles

When cooking something that only needs to be heated up (canned beans, etc.) we can cook it right on top without preheating, with only 7-8 charcoal briquettes.

Cooking beans in the black pot over the charcoal chimney at Glacier National Park, Montana
Cooking beans

The chimney also gets a great brown with direct cooking.  I've used it to save charcoal cooking other meat, but on this trip we made some SPAM.  The drawback here is the lack of large cooking space.  One can of SPAM is too much for the heating area, so it has to be cooked 2-3 pieces at a time.  Same story for making toast, one side of one slice at a time.
Spam cooks over the charcoal chimney at Casswell State Park, California

One of our absolute must-haves is coffee in the morning.  At the campsite this isn't always easy.  We have prepared coffee two ways, depending on our other breakfast plans.  The easiest way to make coffee (sorry, fancy coffee fans!) is to fill the kettle with water, toss in a two-serving grounds packet snatched from a hotel room, and boil it without mercy.  This makes a black, caffeinated, hot, slightly bitter liquid.  That's the definition of coffee, right?

The other way requires a little more time and effort, but we got a tip and have the equipment, so we do it when we need to.  If we need hot water for something else for breakfast, we can't make the whole pot into coffee.  We boil the water, put some loose grounds in a real coffee filter, and do the pour-a-little-wait-a-little method.  Just like the French do, right?

Coffee brews through funnel filters.
Looks like a mess, but it tastes a little better than the other way. 
In review, the charcoal chimney has been our best tool for cooking on this trip.  Our black camping pot (from Goodwill) with the glass lid that doesn't quite fit (also Goodwill) is good, as is our old kettle, but both would be powerless without a reliable and cheap heat source.  We can boil a whole kettle of water, which is enough for two hot drinks, cooking liquid for grains, and a little bit of hot water left over for dishes- all with 7-8 charcoal briquettes.  One bag of charcoal has been more than enough to cook almost all of our camping meals.  Highly recommended to anyone interested in charcoal grilling or economical camp cooking.

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