Anyone who has spent weeks grilling food over a campfire will fully understand the above lines, even though Cowper wasn’t referring only to food.
After a few straight days of grilled food, you’ll find yourself wanting something a bit different from the usual alternative of soup or stew – delicious as they may be. How about trying steamed food?
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Benefits of Steaming Food on a Campfire
There are a number of advantages, not the least of which is the fact that, unlike with boiled food, the nutrients aren’t thrown away with the water.
Steaming retains the majority of the vitamins and minerals as it is a gentle heat that doesn’t go above the boiling point of the water.
The steam can seem hotter though, due to the latent heat released when the water changes to steam. Steamed food is considered to be more flavorful, have a better texture, and retain more color than with boiling.
Steaming is also a relatively quick cooking method – taking around 5 to 10 minutes depending on what you are steaming. This estimate doesn’t include the time the water in the pot takes to reach boiling point.
Delicate flesh like fish, clams, lobsters, crabs, mussels, and certain vegetables, retain their succulence when steamed.
With steaming the food isn’t in direct contact with the source of the heat, so actually burning the food is impossible.
If the water runs dry then you’ll burn the bottom of the pot and unfortunately the food may also absorb some of the burnt smell, but it won’t actually be burnt.
Fried food, especially starchy fried food like potatoes, is associated with increased risk of several nasty conditions. Starchy food releases acrylamide during the frying process, known to increase cancer risk in rodents.
Food saving method of cooking
In survival situations the little food you can carry, or collect, is precious. You can’t afford some of the food getting stuck on a pan when fried over the campfire, or rolling off the grid when barbecuing.
Have you ever dropped a piece of meat as you were turning it on the grid and had it land up in the fire or in the sand? It’s such a waste.
Now, if you’re thinking steaming is a new-age cooking method, it actually isn’t. Evidence has been found in Southern France that around 34,000 years ago the Aurignacian people of the Palaeolithic era wrapped their food in wet leaves and steamed it over the embers of the fire.
Many people around the world still use this method of cooking across Asia and in north Africa. In Latin America, tamales are wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed.
Basic Camping Utensils to Steam Food
First off, the pot you use on the fire, whether it is cast-iron, stainless steel or aluminium, should have a well-fitting lid to make the whole process more efficient.
While you can steam in a Dutch oven it is also good to steam in a wok – the best cast iron woks for camping are pre-seasoned and come with a lid.
Secondly, you’ll need a steamer basket that will hold the food and allow the steam through. In Asia bamboo steaming baskets are used, which are available online and in various stores around the world.
The advantage is that are super lightweight, and the weave doesn’t allow food to fall through.
The conventional stainless-steel steamer has an inner and an outer pot that fit together. There are also other alternatives, like the folding steamer rack in either 8- inch or 10-inch sizes, which will fit comfortably in a suitably sized Dutch oven or pot.
If you happen to have a large metal strainer you can place it across your pot. Put in the vegetables or fish, place the lid on as best you can, because the handle of the strainer will prevent it from forming a seal, and proceed to steam your food. You can use a small round grid to fit into your pot, or a heatproof plate
One of the easiest DIY steamer racks requires a disposable aluminum pie plate. Turn it upside down, and poke some holes in the bottom with something sharp – a small screwdriver, or the point of a small knife will do.
Place some water in your pot, set the upside-down pie plate on the base – it should be about an inch smaller in diameter than the pot base so the steam can cook the food.
When the water boils use tongs (you don’t want to scald your fingers), to place the items you want to steam on the pie plate.
If you don’t have a steamer basket that comes with its own stand, or a two-part steamer pot then grab some aluminum foil, tear off three equal sized sheets and make three balls by scrunching up the foil.
Place them equidistantly in the pot then balance a small rack or heatproof plate over the improvised stand. You can also improvise with three suitable flattish river pebbles.
Make sure improvised stands are well balanced before putting in the water or putting the pot over the fire.
Be careful about improvising with certain metals as stands for steaming. For example, soda cans have a spray-on lining to prevent the aluminum and contents reacting. The heated coating will release fumes which can lead to contamination of the steamed food.
Galvanized containers, such as buckets, produce toxic fumes when the galvanised metal is heated, releasing zinc which is bad for you to breathe in and very bad to have in your meal. So, rather stick to stainless steel, aluminum or natural pebbles as stands.
Improvised Steaming Methods That Don’t Need a Basket or a Stand
The steaming method employed by many island cultures in tropical areas is to wrap the food in wet leaves and make up little parcels that are cooked directly in the embers, or on a grid above the embers.
The Mexicans used corn husks to wrap their food for steaming, people in tropical and sub-tropical areas use plantain or banana leaves. Lotus leaves can be used, and the Greeks wrap their famous dolmades in fresh grape leaves.
No stand, no basket, no problem. As long as you can find some non-poisonous twigs to make skewers then you can make them longer than the diameter of the pot, thread on the food you want to steam, and then place them side by side above the boiling water.
If it is possible, you can loosely place the lid over the skewers, or simply leave the lid off.
Set Everything Up
1. Settle a stand, or use three flat rocks on which you plan to balance your pot, on level ground. Do this before you start the fire.
2. Check the pot balances well, as you don’t want to risk anyone getting scalded from the hot water should it fall.
3. Build your campfire near where you plan on steaming the food. Make sure that it is burning well and you have sufficient coals, then move some to the side where you plan on balancing your pot.
Keep the rest of the campfire going to supply you with extra coals should you need them for cooking.
4. Put around two inches of water into the pot, and place it over the coals, then add your aluminum balls, pebbles, or whatever stand you plan on using for the steamer basket to sit on.
5. While the water comes to the boil, arrange your vegetables in the steamer basket, then put it into the pot and put the lid on. This step will vary depending on the type of items you are using as you steamer stand or basket.
6. Enjoy a beverage while you wait for the food to cook.
7. After around 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the type of vegetables being steamed, test whether food is done with a fork, before removing the pot from the fire.
8. Remove the steamer basket and make sure to discard the water safely so no one gets scalded by accidentally knocking over the pot.
9. Plate your food, add some seasonings and enjoy as you take in the sights and sounds of nature.
Precautions When Steaming
Although the temperature is lower than when grilling or frying food, steam can still be dangerous, so take care when you remove the lid from the steamer. It is painfully unnecessary to accidentally scald yourself when camping out.
When setting up a steamer over a campfire, warn children to keep well away in case the stand should be bumped and dislodge the pot with its boiling water.
What to Steam…
The following items are good to steam as they retain their color and shape:
|Broccoli||Beetroot in slices|
|Peas||Small potatoes or potatoes cut in slices|
|Chicken – wrap in parchment paper with all the seasonings||Asparagus|
|Fish||Small chunk of butternut or pumpkin|
|Spinach and other foraged leafy greens||Carrots|
|Clams||Eggs – steam in the shell|
…And What to Avoid
Probably avoid these:
- Large whole potatoes – they will take a long time
- Tomatoes –they get mushy and disintegrate unless steamed with the skin on
- Celeriac – it’s very hard and will take a long time
- Soft squash – can disintegrate if it’s a watery type of squash
- Beef – tastes better grilled or stewed – can be tough
- Lamb – better grilled or stewed – can be tough.
- Pork –Asians do steam this meat but it’s probably tastier grilled or fried
Steaming Tips and Tricks
- If you use a steamer basket to steam beef, lamb or pork, you will end up with a colorless looking piece of meat that is tough and rubbery. Rather steam by wrapping in foil with the herbs and spices your require then steam it inside its little packet. Go natural and use banana leaves if they are available, or even corn husks.
- When steaming fish cut lemons in thin slices and place them in the base of the steamer basket before putting in your fish and its seasonings.
- If you are at the coast put some seaweed in the base of the basket before adding your shellfish and fish.
Steaming Desserts Tips
During camping trips it doesn’t take long for children, and some adults, to start craving a sweet treat. While cakes and desserts can be steamed, don’t be tempted to improvise with a recipe meant for oven baking.
When steaming the temperature will be around 212 degrees F (100 Celsius), which is considerably less than an oven temperatures of 350 degrees F.
Since baking is rather precise, use the correct recipe calculated for the moist heat. Many Asian cakes are steamed so you would do well to use one of those recipes. A steamed cake will retain its moisture, making it soft and tasty.
When steaming cakes you do need to check if is properly cooked through before serving. Bring the water to the boil in the steamer before placing your cake tins with the batter in them on the stand or grid.
To save cooking time when camping, a clever trick is to divide cake batter into reusable silicone cupcake holders, then stand them on a grid over the boiling water. They will be cooked through very quickly and you won’t need much water for steaming either.
If you plan on cooking a large cake, you’ll have to add quite a bit of water and will need to have some extra water in a pot, boiling alongside on the fire, just in case you need to top up.
The idea is to get the cake almost done before you need to open the lid to add water otherwise the cake batter may not rise properly. As steam condenses off the lid you’ll also need to cover the cake pan with aluminum foil and tie with string to stop water getting in.
A bamboo steamer is easier to use as you simply line it with parchment paper and put the lid on, before setting it on the grid over boiling water.
Delicious Steamed Food Recipes
Next time you are bugging out or camping, try adding some steamed items to the menu. Vegetables can be steamed while meat is grilled, or freshly caught fish can be steamed and served with grilled corn on the cob.
Simply because you don’t have the usual appliances doesn’t mean good contrasts of flavors and textures need to be forfeited.
You can prepare really delicious meals with a minimum of ingredients. We have included a list of steamed recipes you may want to try next times you are outdoors.
This post gives you all the tips to prepare bright green steamed broccoli that is tender rather than the limp grey-green boiled stuff many of us tend to associate with broccoli. Get the recipe here.
Edamame beans have a lot going for them and are a tasty snack that can be eaten straight from the pod after steaming with some seasoning. Get the recipe here.
Do not eat edamame raw – like many beans they can pose digestive problems if not cooked! The post shows four ways to cook them but you’ll just need the method for steaming. Get the recipe here.
Steamed sweet potatoes
There is such variety of ideas for sweet and savory toppings supplied with this recipe that the sweet potatoes could be served for breakfast dish, a main meal, a side dish or a dessert. All you have to do is change the toppings. Think warm honey and toasted pecans, bacon and maple syrup, chile and butter, or salsa and a sharp cheddar. Yum. Get the recipe here.
Steamed green beans
Salt, pepper, butter and fresh steamed green beans. So simple yet sooo good. Get the recipe here.
Baby potatoes, olive oil and thyme
What could be easier and yummier than steamed potatoes with fresh thyme and a drizzle of olive oil? Get the recipe here.
Steamed asparagus with potato and leek sauce
There are a few ingredients to this dish but if you have a survival garden you’ll likely have most of them, like potatoes, asparagus, leeks, green beans, zucchini and thyme. Get the recipe here.
The eggplant is steamed then drizzled with a warm dressing composed of Asian ingredients like soy sauce and rice wine, but if you prefer use a sauce of your own choice.
This is so much healthier than frying eggplant, as it seems to just soak up oil like a sponge when you fry it. Get the recipe here.
You don’t even need a steamer rack for this lobster recipe! It’s so easy, but there is one magic yet simple ingredient you need to add to get the best tasting lobster. Get the recipe here.
This is another recipe where you don’t need the steamer basket. Butter garlic and green onion are sautéed in the pot, the clams added and steamed in their own juices, then a little more love goes into the broth and you’ll all set to enjoy the rewards after a day of digging clams. Get the recipe here.
Steamed mussels with garlic and parsley
The fresh mussels with the garlic and parsley are going to go down well enough, but the wine adds the magic to the dish. You’ll need some crusty homemade sourdough bread to mop up the delicious broth. Get the recipe here.
Steamed tomatoes stuffed with couscous, pine nuts, raisins and basil
This is a great all-in-one accompaniment to barbecued meat or steamed fish, or even to serve as a main vegetarian meal. The tomatoes are stuffed with couscous – a really quick instant mix that is livened up with raisins, spices, honey and pine nuts.
You can substitute with other nuts, but one item you shouldn’t substitute is the basil because it works perfectly as a flavor complement to the tomatoes. Get the recipe here.
Steamed vegetables with chile lime butter
The chile lime butter makes this mix of steamed vegetables super delicious. If children or adults don’t want the chile then substitute with garlic and thyme and everyone should enjoy their buttery veges. Get the recipe here.
Manapua – Hawaiian steamed buns
These steamed buns often have a meaty filling that can range from teriyaki chicken to pork hash, or chicken and mushroom. On the vegetarian side roasted red pepper, caramelised onions, yams, and cheese are all possible fillings.
Be creative and use what you have available from foraging and hunting trips. Get the recipe here.
These tamales have three options: a salsa verde and chicken filing, refried beans and mozzarella, or red chilli pork filling. You can experiment with your own garden supplies and type of meat you have available – wild duck or ground venison are possibilities. Get the recipe here.
Read this post to find out the difference – and there is a big one – between Mexican and Cuban tamales. You’ll want to try these ones! Get the recipe here.
There is quite a bit of work that goes into making the stew for the tamales, the dough, and then the steaming. If you have the time they are worth the effort once you have practiced a bit with steaming meals. Get the recipe here.
Dolmades, also known as Dolmas, are a Middle Eastern delicacy. Fresh grape leaves are wrapped around a filling of lamb and bulgur wheat, or rice with seasonings.
Your fillings can be varied to suit what you have at hand, let’s say squirrel and corn? This recipe shows how dolmades are made and steamed. Get the recipe here.
Steamed eggs with milk
Who would have thought three ingredients could make such a sweet comfort food? Toddlers and kids will love this. Best of all it takes around 17 minutes all in. Get the recipe here.
Steamed chocolate cake
There comes a time when you need to bake a celebratory cake and this chocolate cake is moist and tasty. It is whisked by hand, so you won’t be needing a mixer.
Ice the cake with a chocolate ganache, as explained in the recipe, or simply sprinkle on a little powdered icing sugar and decorate with fresh berries – raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, youngberries or mulberries – whatever is seasonal. Get the recipe here.
Give Steaming a Try!
Try some steamed recipes on your next camping trip, or the next time you bug out. It’s a quick and simple way to cook and will open up a whole new realm of recipes to enjoy.
The best part is you can experiment with foraged items and create new flavor combinations
If there are any unusual vegetables or types of meat that you have tried steaming, then do let us know how they turned out by adding a comment below.
Traveler, photographer, writer. I’m eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices.
At the age of 12, I found a newspaper advertisement for a 155-acre farm at a really good price and showed my parents one Sunday morning. They bought it and I happily started planting vegetables, peanuts, maize and keeping bees with the help of the local labor.
Once I married wherever we moved it was all about planting food, keeping chickens and ducks, permaculture and creating micro-climates. I learned how to build wooden cabins and outdoor furniture from pallets, and baked and cooked home-grown produce, developing recipes as I went along.