4 tips for cooking for a family. In a van, without an oven.
Here’s the thing, much as I love Mabel (our van) she lacks that little something …she has no oven (or grill). We did contemplate having one fitted but decided that we needed the space for other things since we will be living the #vanlife for at least a year. Also the only available options looked really expensive! So, decision made, no oven, but, we still need to cook family meals and there’s only so much you can do on 3 burners. With that in mind and after lots of research, (including some tinfoil and polystyrene inventions of my own) I’ve come up with some ‘oven alternatives’.
So, here are my top 4 ways to cook family meals without an oven:
#1 The Wonderbag (or thermal cooker)
We really like soups and casseroles …I particularly like soups because it’s one way the kids will eat loads of veg (I blitz it with a hand blender once it’s cooked). The trouble with casseroles and soups though is that they take a lot of time bubbling away in the oven or on the hob, and that uses a lot of energy, (something that we don’t have much of in the van). Also, I wouldn’t feel safe to go out and leave one cooking away. At home I use a slow-cooker /crock-pot but obviously in the van we won’t often have mains electricity so that’s not an option. Then I discovered this – the Wonderbag. We got the large size but it comes in medium and small too.
It’s a really well insulated bag that calls itself a slow-cooker – it uses thermal insulation to retain heat and cook food. You just bring your casserole to the boil, stick on a tight fitting lid, then pop it in the Wonderbag, pull the drawstring tight and leave it to cook. No gas, no electricity, it’s perfectly safe to go out for the day and leave it and then you come back to a delicious (if you got the seasoning right!) casserole, curry, stew or soup. It comes with a recipe book and apparently you can also cook rice and puddings in it but I’ve not tried those yet – I’ll let you know how it goes when I do. (UPDATE – this was sooooo useful, particularly on days where we had a long drive – I’d start the stew/soup/pasta/whatever before we set off and then plonk it in the Wonderbag on the back bed and it would happily bubble and jiggle away while we drove. So when we arrived at our destination, tired and hungry, our tea was perfectly cooked and ready for us).
#2 Get a 3 tier steamer
I realised that loads of the stuff we like can be cooked on the hob – pasta, veggies, bacon and eggs etc. but with only 3 burners and limited space we’re going to have to be clever about it. We also wanted to use less gas, and that’s where the steamer comes in.
With the steamer (like this one) we can cook three things on one ring, potatoes at the bottom and two different types of veg above it, or even steamed fish or chicken…(A bonus is that the steamer can double up as a colander so it saves even more space). Our first trip out in the van was in mid-winter (rain and gales in North Wales. Definitely not ‘outdoor’ weather!) and I managed to make a lovely, warming meal of sausage, mash, carrots, broccoli and gravy all done on two rings.
#3 A double skillet/ pan
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really, want (sorry)…what I really wanted was a double skillet from www.doubleskillet.com but sadly they don’t seem to be trading anymore so I got a frittata pan a bit like this one instead.
I can cook loads of stuff in this (not just frittatas!) and it has the advantage of keeping the cooking smells in, which is really handy in a van! The best thing about a double pan is that I can use it like a mini oven because when both sides are hot it creates ambient heat and so I can bake stuff. I thought I’d try baked potatoes in it and it worked really well! Chris said he couldn’t tell they weren’t cooked in an oven (and he is picky about his baked potatoes, he won’t even touch one done in a microwave). I chose fairly flat ones, oiled and salted them and put them in the pan – cooked them on a low heat for about an hour turning the pan every ten minutes – they turned out really well. I used a heat diffuser to make sure that …er…the heat was diffused (stops things burning on hotspots). (UPDATE: the doubleskillet company seem to be back in business so once my fritatta pan has died I’ll be getting me a double skillet!)
#4 Outdoor cooking/bbq
Much as we love cooking in the van, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in it and also a lot of time in hot places (hopefully). So it makes sense to have some outdoor cooking options. That way we get to enjoy the outdoors and the van doesn’t smell of fish or onions or whatever…
A barbecue with a lid will work nicely as an oven if you get the temperature/flames just right, but as we are travelling long term we’ve decided we don’t want to have to rely on building barbecue fires so we’ve opted for the gas version of the Cobb barbecue
Okay it’s not the cheapest but it’s nice and compact and it does the whole oven thing really, really well – you can even roast a chicken in it. Apparently you can do pizzas too – I’m going to have to try that …so watch this space! UPDATE: We did it! See how it turned out here.
So those are 4 quick tips for cooking family meals without an oven – I’m also going to try cooking with a Dutch oven on the fire so I’ll let you know how that goes too, but in the meantime if anyone has any other ideas or tips for ‘oven’ cooking without an oven I’d love to hear them – so please let me know in the comments below.
UPDATE: I never did try cooking in a dutch oven so I can’t tell you how that went, however I have a confession…we did manage some ‘oven’ cooking by ..er…getting one of these ..I know, I know it’s kinda cheating but we were about 6 months into our trip and found that we actually had electric hookup a lot of the time. It meant we could grill and bake ‘non-fritatta pan’ things so there were loads more foods we could eat. Plus, as if the universe had designed it that way, it fits perfectly in the bottom of the wardrobe when not in use ..so I don’t care, I’m keeping it!