The reflector oven is a wonderful gizmo for camp cookery. It’s simple to use, relatively inexpensive (usually about $90 or less) and does a professional job of baking biscuits, pies, cakes, cookies, pizza, casseroles, fish, meats and other delicious foods. Imagine the lip-smacking aroma of apple pie baking on a wilderness backpacking trip, or the incomparable flavor of just-caught, butter-broiled trout savored on the bank of your favorite fishing stream. With a reflector oven, imagination can become reality.
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Reflector ovens were being used at least as far back as the late 1600s. Prior to the 20th century, they often were called tin kitchens, tin bakers or hasteners and used for cooking on the home hearth. Sizes and designs were myriad. Most were roughly triangular, with a wide opening at the front (the side closest to the fire) and with the sides, top and bottom sloping toward the back. Others had a rounded front, with a large door through which the food could be put inside and a straight back so the cooker would sit flush against one wall of the fireplace. A tray or grill in the middle held the food, which was cooked using heat reflected from the fire. Many tin kitchens also were equipped with a spit for roasting meat.
Modern reflector ovens closely resemble these early cooking appliances. With a roaring fire, reflective oven walls and a shelf for food to be baked on, they provide an excellent means for preparing fresh-baked goods outdoors.
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The Fast Feast
The Dutch oven, another 18th-century cooking vessel often used for baking, has experienced a resurgence in recent years. But reflector ovens have seen no such renaissance; few of today’s outdoorsmen use them. That’s surprising since modern reflector ovens offer several advantages over heavy, cast-iron Dutch ovens.
For one thing, the sheet-metal (usually aluminum) reflector oven is lightweight and collapsible. The one I use, a lightweight aluminum model made by a company called Reflecto, is a compact 11 by 8 by 0.5 inches when folded, and it weighs a mere 1.5 pounds. It easily fits in a backpack or under a truck seat and requires less than a minute to assemble or disassemble. Its services compensate for its relatively slight additional weight, and almost anything I prepare in a Dutch oven can be ready quicker using the reflector.
Dutch ovens, you see, require a bed of hot coals for proper cooking. Reflector ovens, on the other hand, work best with a high, flaming fire. No need to wait for the fire to burn down to coals. No need to trample the forest looking for hardwood fuel. A pile of conifer branches feeds the fire quite nicely, and in minutes you’re preparing a baked feast your friends and family are sure to love.
The principle by which reflector ovens work is simple: Heat from the open fire is reflected onto the food from the shiny interior of the oven. The slanting top and bottom of the baker direct the heat toward the top and bottom of the pan of food being baked, allowing it to brown evenly on upper and lower surfaces. If the cooking temperature seems too hot or too cold, you can move the oven backward or forward to adjust it. If the food cooks unevenly on the sides, you just rotate the pan.
The best fire for the reflector is a teepee fire built to the height of the oven’s cooking shelf. If two reflector ovens are available, you can place them across the fire from each other so the ovens are facing. This provides maximum reflection of heat.
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When cooking with a reflector oven, a certain instinct must replace the clearly defined formulas of conventional baking. Variables like air temperature, wind velocity and fire design can make things difficult for the inexperienced camp cook. But by following a few simple tips, much of the frustration of reflector oven baking can be eliminated.
Begin by selecting a flat surface on which to place the reflector oven and build the fire. If necessary, make minor adjustments to compensate for ground that slopes or is bumpy. Next, gather an ample supply of small wood for the fire. Sticks 1 to 2 inches in diameter are best. Larger wood should be split. Softwoods like pine burn hot and fast, which is ideal for reflector oven cooking.
Collapsible designs make some reflector ovens flimsy and prone to overturning. Nothing’s worse than seeing a baking pie accidentally dumped in the ashes when an oven collapses. Be sure the oven is stable when you set it up, and avoid bumping it while cooking. Place food on a piece of foil or in a pan that fits the shelf of the reflector oven. I like to use small, inexpensive aluminum pie pans or casserole pans that can be purchased at many discount stores.
When you’re ready to cook, position the oven near the fire. Knowing just where to place the oven so it heats to the right temperature is the key to good cooking. The best way to determine the cooking temperature is to place an oven thermometer on the food shelf. But you also can guess the temperature with reasonable accuracy by holding your hand just in front of the oven. If you can hold it there for seven to 10 seconds, the temperature is near 200 degrees Fahrenheit; six seconds is near 300 degrees; three to four seconds is around 400 degrees; and one to two seconds is about 500 degrees. You should, of course, do this with great care to avoid burning yourself.
Carry two thick potholders or heavy gloves for moving the oven and handling the food. Most reflector ovens also have a hinged top or back that can be opened now and then to check the food.
After your gourmet camp dish has been cooking for about five minutes, check the food to be sure it’s cooking properly. If the top is browning faster than the bottom, the fire is too large. If foods are browner on bottom than on top, the fire is too small. Make adjustments as necessary.
Build It Or Buy It?
If you’re real industrious, you might want to consider constructing your own reflector oven at home. It’s not really as hard as it might seem. The folks at kayak2go.com provide simple plans on their website. A person with moderate metal-working skills should be able to follow their instructions to create an oven safely and efficiently. You’ll find the plans and instructions by logging on to kayak2go.com/reflectoroven.PDF.
Of course, reflector ovens can also be purchased preassembled and ready for your next camp bake-off. I’ve owned several that I purchased from various companies and especially like the lightweight reflector oven by Reflecto. It’s available for purchase ($89.99) at amazon.com. Other websites where you’ll find reflector ovens for sale include campfirecookware.com and oldscoutoutdoorproducts.com.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.