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VanCougs learn how to cook while roughing it

Hiking and camping are common outdoor activities, but can provide challenges for those who want to prepare meals in the outdoors. On Nov. 3, the Recreation Center held a Backpacking Culinary Skills Clinic in which students were taught the basics of planning, cooking and cleaning up meals in the wilderness.

OSI intern Nate Hall led the event, and began by teaching students how to make cornbread using backpacking methods. Hall covered stove basics first. There were several options of camp stove available to choose from.

After selecting our stove, we took it outside so that we did not accidentally burn down the recreation annex. Once outside, we lit the stove to begin cooking. “It sounds like a helicopter and that’s super ideal; that’s what you want,” said Hall. The loud helicopter sound ensures that the system is primed and ready to go. We set a pot of water on the burning stove and left it alone to give it time to reach boiling temperature.

Hall said that knowing how to boil water in the outdoors is an extremely useful skill because even water that looks clean may have contaminants and microscopic bacteria. Other methods of cleaning water include the use of filter pumps, iodine pills or by adding a drop of bleach to every gallon of water.

Heading back inside the annex, we began to prep the cornbread. After preparing the dough, we transferred a few spoonful’s of the cornbread goop into a few small Ziploc bags. Deciding to conduct a scientific inquiry, we sealed three of the bags with air inside, and one of the bags with as little air as possible to see if this would affect the final quality of the bread.

Taking the Ziploc bags outside to the stove, we found that the water had almost reached boiling temperature. Since the temperature of the pot itself may cause the plastic bags to melt when in contact with the metal, we lined the bottom of the pot with sticks.

After the water boiled for a few minutes, it had turned a murky brown because of the sticks at the bottom of the pot. We put the Ziploc bags of cornbread mush into the water. As expected, the three bags that contained air stayed somewhat afloat and the bag without air sank a bit lower.

This method of cooking ensures that the temperature of the hot water heats the contents of each Ziploc bag and allows the cornbread inside to cook. “I will admit, eating food out of boiled plastic definitely kind of weirds me out, but I figured if it’s like four days out of every month, I think I’ll be okay,” said Hall. In addition to cornbread, this technique can be used to cook many other foods such as egg omelets or brownies.

Heading inside once more, we began discussing how to plan wilderness meals. Depending on the season, one will need 1 ¾ lbs to 2 ½ lbs of food per day. In the winter, the body burns more calories to keep its energy up due to the cold so therefore more food is needed.

Hall told us to think of cooking like an assembly line. Starting with your staple, you then pick your add-ins and then select your spices. Staple foods are typically simple carbs like oats, brown rice, pasta or couscous. Add-ins are items like canned chicken, smoked salmon, dehydrated vegetables, dehydrated fruit or nuts. Spices include things like bouillon cubes, hot sauce, garlic powder or powdered milk.

We then we headed outside to check on our cornbread. The water smelled terrible due to the stick infused steam that was rising from the pot. The bags had built up pressure inside due to the change in temperature and the conversion of liquid to a water vapor, causing the bags to pop open. Even the bag with seemingly no air in it had developed air inside due to the pressure change, exciting the molecules and causing the bag to expand, but it did not pop open like the others had. The goop was still pretty goopy, so after sealing the bags again, we regrouped for more instruction.

Hall continued explaining the benefits of packing smaller portions in your own containers versus bringing the bulky box that items like rice come in. “If you’re packing in trash, you’re also gonna need to pack it out… you can’t just throw it in the forest, unless you’re a terrible person,” said Hall.

Hall instructed us to be mindful of how much weight our meals take up. Rationalizing how much food you will eat and taking only that amount is vital for wilderness trips. Packing dry foods that do not have water weight will also reduce the amount of weight.

When cooking, it is inevitable that utensils will become dirty. In the backcountry, the best way to clean off dirty utensils is with dirt. To clean the utensils, campers should first remove all food scraps and place them in a bag or container. “We like to practice leave-no-trace as much as possible and leaving food scraps in the backcountry is not a good leave-no-trace exercise,” said Hall. After the food scraps are removed, an 8-inch deep hole is dug. A handful of dirt can then be used to wipe out the inside of bowls. The dirt does an excellent job of soaking in leftover residues. The contaminated dirt is then poured back into the hole. However, the dishes still need to be sterilized, so it is recommended to boil them in water before using them again.

Excited to see if our cornbread was finally edible, we headed back outside to check once more. Taking each bag out and using a spoon, Hall checked the solidity of the previously goopy cornbread. Finally, all of them were cooked.

Even though I expected the cornbread to be infused with plastic and wooden stick flavors, it surprisingly tasted like regular cornbread. It was a little more moist than usual, but that was because the vapor accumulating in the bag had no way to escape. The moisture did not affect the flavor, but did make the bread easier to eat as it did not have a crumbly dry texture.

To learn more about what activities, the Recreation Center offers, stop by the Recreation Annex to pick up a schedule or find it on CougSync under the events calendar. For questions or inquires contact the Recreation Office at 360-546-9532 or van.osirec@wsu.edu.

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