Long before people were using natural gas and electricity, civilization in colonial America knew that cooking over direct fire had its setbacks. Burning critical food supplies meant hungry bellies. Stews were popular because the cast iron pots could be raised or lowered over their hearths or campfires to moderate the amount of heat their dinner required. To bake, copper and tin reflector ovens were popularly used. Settlers began taking the compact items with them on the trail and even the 'mountainmen' were known to use them in their bivouacs. Hikers, campers and outdoorsmen today have found that the lessons learned from earlier days have given them a reliable way to heat and cook food with the power of the sun or just a hearty campfire.
The principles of how reflector ovens work is the key to being able to use one. Typically reflector ovens were made of polished copper or tin. Today, there are many options to choose from in a reflector oven; from size, to materials, to portability. The most important element in a reflector oven is that it reflects. Harnessing heat makes the oven work. That means that a dull surface material, or one that has been covered in soot or blackened will not be effective. Shiny surfaces are the key. If you can make a fire, you can cook in a reflector oven. Even the power of the sun can create enough heat to cook items, although it can take longer to completely heat the food source you desire.
Anything you can cook or bake in your modern appliances, you can do in a reflector oven. Practice makes perfect, so try simple recipes first and then move your way up. It is important to note that using non-stick pans or cooking pots or pans that are blackened or a dark color will not work effectively, if at all, in a reflector oven.
Make Your Own
There are many reflector ovens that are sold through camping supply stores and online shops. They range in dimensions, size requirements, materials and compact versus non-compact versions. If you're on a tight budget, you can select a relatively cheap model or simply make one yourself.
Possibly the simplest reflector oven that anyone can make is created from a roll of aluminum foil. The heavier the foil, the better. It requires only the ability to fold and be creative. Tear off a good sized sheet of the foil and fold it in half, so that the shiny sides face each other. It should create a 45-degree angle for optimal construction. To maintain the angle, anything from a short rod of non-toxic metal, like a skewer, to a green stick (so it doesn't burn) will work if you place it at the fold. This also helps weigh down the oven should the wind pick up. Use two sheets of smaller aluminum foil to close the ends of the 'V' (see photo slide show to see demonstration). After building a good fire, place the foil oven near it, but remember – not too close and not too far. You want the heat to reflect off of the foil to cook your food. Use a shiny pan or even your camp cook set to place the food or water on the bottom of the 'V' and then wait until you've cooked your food well (especially meats or breads) or boiled yourself clean drinking water. Water boiled in a reflector oven is especially nice to mix with instant oatmeal packets or even MREs.
Purchasing One Instead
Perhaps you're not sure about your folding or crafting skills and just want to buy a reflector oven. One tried-and-true model is often called a 'scout oven' (see photo in slide show). Constructed of aluminum, the oven is lightweight (less that 35 ounces). That means you can slide it in your backpack when you go hunting or fishing, or even take it with you on a day trip into the countryside.
Old Scout Outdoor Products is one company that sells this type of oven, amongst others. Their retail price for the 'old scout reflector oven' is $65 (plus shipping and handling) and comes with a canvas carrying bag. Their model is roomy enough to use a standard 8” pie and/or cake pan.
There are a lot of places to find pre-made reflector ovens, so shop around to find one in your price range and happy cooking.
We all know that a lot of local, state and national parks have rules about open fires. Before you take your reflector oven out for a test run, make sure that you are adhering to the policies or you may receive a terrible surprise; a huge fine.
Basic fire safety comes into play here as well. If you are outdoors, build a good fire ring out of stone in an area clear of kindling or brush that could easily create a fire that gets out of control in a hurry. You can also use a metal ring that many parks place specifically for open fires. If you're using your own home fireplace, use the same safety rules you apply when you are just enjoying a quiet night gazing into the flames or heating your dwelling. Rule of thumb with fire: know how to start it, but more importantly know how to put it out.
The Most Effective Fire
Hot flames are the keys to cooking with a reflector oven, not hot coals. Save the hot coals for your dutch oven cooking. To get the best results from your reflector oven, make sure that your fire either has a high backlog or is backed by aluminum foil or another shiny, non-flammable material (see demonstration diagram in slide show). This forces the heat that escapes out of the back of your fire to be redirected right into your reflector oven. Make sure you keep a ready supply of dry wood when using your oven because high, steady flames create the appropriate heating level to cook your food thoroughly and evenly. Think convection oven. You don't want part of your food raw and the rest burnt to a crisp.
Never allow the flames to get beneath the oven. You are sure to get scorched or burned food in that event. Keep the oven as close to the fire as possible, but gauge the distance and move it if necessary. You should keep an oven mitt or something durable and flame retardant to handle the oven because it will be hot. Never walk away with food in your oven. Turn your food if you see one side is cooking faster. And, make sure everyone with you knows where your oven is and not to touch it. Bad burns can turn a fun camping experience into a nightmare.
The internet is a vast expanse of knowledge about recipes, even for reflector ovens. Remember, you can cook anything you do at home in your oven. Here is an easy recipe to get you started:
Baking Powder Biscuits
- 2 cups of flour
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 2/3 to 3/4 cup of milk (reconstituted powdered milk works as well)
- 3 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
In a bowl, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder together. Then add the milk and vegetable oil into the mixture. Stir together well. Place the mixture into the bottom of a well-oiled pan (remember, no non-stick pans or dark-colored/blackened cookware). Bake until light brown on top. Approximate time: 12-15 minutes. Adjust your oven as needed to prevent over- or under-cooking.
Note: The author does not endorse any company or specific product(s) mentioned in her articles.
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