Just a month ago, I wrote about how I learn when I go camping. This past weekend (as I write this), I went camping and I learned one simple thing that is awesome. It will allow me to have one of my favorite meals in less time, with less fuel and I can use what I learned from this method in a couple ways. I can do it in a grid down scenario, where saving fuel is important. I’m pretty excited about this.
What led to this learning experience, was a need to adapt to circumstances I was facing. The camping trip took place at a freedom festival with a conference as part of it–The Midwest Peace and Liberty Fest. I was responsible for scheduling the talks and recording them. I could escape the conference pavilion by asking others to take over for a bit or when there was one of a few breaks but I could not get away for hours at a time. This situation didn’t jive well with one of the foods I brought to prepare–a chuck roast.
As I mentioned a month ago, in “How Camping Helped me Learn to Prep” I have cast iron cookware and specifically, Dutch ovens. A dutch oven can be used a number of ways, including: On the stove, in the oven, suspended over a fire, or resting on a bed of wood or charcoal coals. The Dutch ovens I have are Lodge, concave lid style ovens with legs. The oven is designed to be used in all of the ways I mentioned above with the legs and lid adding an extra feature. The legs allow it to be set in a bed of coals without resting on them. The lid allows coals to be put on top.
Having the coals both under and on top of the cooker helps makes a dutch oven an oven and not just a pot. You can bake bread this way, though with the higher sides in my oven, it is more made for braising. This is because it’s a bit harder to get intense heat, coming from the lid, to reach the top of the bread and brown it so well. Maybe with enough coals on top you could get the the heat down there, or with a large enough loaf, maybe you could get the top of the bread high enough to reach the lid heat.
Back to braising: In case you aren’t familiar with the term, braising is a method of roasting meat. It is done at a low consistent temperature, for an extended period of time. As you have probably seen, when meat is heated, it drips juices. Braising meat is in the bottom of its vessel, whether a roasting pan or a dutch oven, and not on a drip rack. Because of the low temperature, the juices don’t steam off.
This means the meat begins to roast in its own concentrated juices, which become au jus. This tenderized and adds flavor to the meat. Chucks roasts are perfect for braising because they contain lots of fatty juice producing parts and are a bit tough before braising. Sometimes people add liquids and sauces, to contribute to the flavor and moisture of the braising, but not so much as to cover the meat and just boil it.
If using charcoal briquettes, it’s pretty easy to get the temperature just where you want it and keep it there. If using wood, it is a bit of a challenge and it requires more babysitting. If it is too cool, the meat will never cook. If it is too hot, the au jus will turn to steam and you will be left with a piece of dry leather. At the fest, I did not have the ability to use either, because I was too busy working. What I did have, that required much less supervision, was my butane stove.
The problem, or so I thought, is that the butane stove can only heat the Dutch oven from the bottom. To get enough heat into the oven, I may have to overheat the bottom. This would steam off the juice, putting me in danger of the leather meat. One work around to this, and over a fire I’ve had to do this, is to add water. When you add water, you dilute the au jus into broth. Broth can be delicious but I wanted the greater flavor intensity of au jus. Conflicted, I decided not to add water.
The great lesson that I learned is that it is not only possible to braise meat in a Dutch oven, using bottom heat only, it can be awesome. I think the combination of low temperature and great conductivity of cast iron, combined to allow the roast to be enveloped in heat, as if I had heated from all sides. It turned out to be the best chuck meat I have ever braised, stewed, or grilled.
The Recipe / How I Did It
This isn’t going to be quite like a pro recipe because I don’t really measure when I cook but I can guide you through the process, so that you can duplicate it.
Total roast time: 3-4 hours
Total rest time: 20-30 minutes
One chuck roast that filled about 80-90% of the bottom of the Dutch Oven
Lots of carrots
One large onion – coarsely chopped
Step one: I browned and seasoned the meat. I put the dutch oven on the stove on medium high heat. I added a layer of coconut oil to the bottom of the oven, so that it was visibly wet with the oil. See “About Coconut Oil” below. Once the oil just began to show sings that’s its reaching its smoke point, I added the meat. While it was sizzling, I sprinkled it with with the seasonings but no salt. Salt can chemically pull water to it and out of your meat. Egyptians used it to dry mummies. I don’t want to make mummy meat, even just a little. I was careful not to put too much rosemary because it’s powerful. After the meat had some time to brown, I flipped with with tongs and sprinkled the other side with seasonings. It wasn’t as brown as I wanted but unlike a steak, this is okay. When the other side browned, I just flipped it back and browned it some more.
I turned the heat down low, put the lid on, and let it go for an hour. During the hour, peaked in a couple times to see if the heat was right. I wanted to see that juice was starting to pool in the bottom and that it was hot enough to simmer a bit but not hard boil. Actually, if it was hard boiling, it wouldn’t’ be there. I was careful not to check too many times because every time the lid is open, steam escapes faster. I checked it about once every 20 minutes. It’s worth noting that, even with low heat on the bottom of the oven, the lid is too hot to touch. All was good.
After the hour was up, I flipped the roast again and added the coarsely chopped unions. I roasted the meat for another hour. During the hour, I pealed the carrots. The size of carrots greatly affects the speed at which they cook. These were medium thick carrots, 1/2 to 1 1/4 inch in diameter. I just measured some from the same bag. I cut them in segments that were about 2-3 inches long. Some of the fatter parts, I cut about an inch long, so they could heat from the ends, as well as the sides. I did not cut any lengthwise, though that could have been an option for the fat pieces, instead of cutting them shorter. Once the 2nd hour was up, I added the carrots.
Testing for Doneness
I didn’t just add the carrots after two hours. I was looking for a level of doneness that said it was time to add carrots. The way I test braised meat is not with a thermometer. Braised meat is 212 degrees–the boiling point of water. I stick a fork in it and twist and pull. At the two hour mark, what I was looking for is that I’d have to kind of have to wrestle a piece of meat off the roast, with my fork. I would be able to rip off a piece without holding the roast down but it would not come super easy. I was at this point, at the two hour mark, so I added the carrots.
After nearly three hours, it was time to test for final doneness. I stabbed a carrot, with a fork, and it was tenderizing but still a bit solid. I did the fork test on the meat and it was easier to pull away. It required less twisting. I was nearly done. I let it go about another 20 minutes and tested again. This time the carrots were tender and I was able to pull pieces from the roast without twisting the fork. I just stabbed and kind of scooped out hunks. I shut the burner off and let it sit for about half an hour to 40 minutes. This was a bit longer rest than necessary and the temperature was a bit lower than perfect but it was still good and warm.
Perfect Doneness Tips
The stab and scoop done is perfect. It is possible to eat the roast earlier than that and if you let it go too long, it can turn into pulled beef. Either way is okay. I just prefer a very tender roast that still has enough structural integrity to hold itself together. It’s worth pointing out that if you dry the roast out, no amount of added time will make it more tender. Before this happens, you can try adding a splash of water to the oven, when you notice it juice is steaming away. That can help. Maybe a quarter to half a cup of water will do. Then turn down the heat.
Serving and Results
Because I was about 1/4 mile from my tent, where some of my kitchen supplies were, all I had to eat the roast with was a fork. Because it was stab and scoop done and the carrots were finger sized, I was able to just fork off hunks and hand it to people. The pavilion, where the talks were going on, was taken over by dancers, who loved it. It would have been nice to have plates and other side dishes but, it worked out. The roast was devoured in about 10 minutes by as many people. Most got just a snack but I ate a meal out of it. This would be the time to add the salt but it was good without it and nobody wanted it. I solicited comments, while writing this. James confirms “It was good.” John said….
It was good drunk food. Melt in your mouth good.
About Coconut Oil
I like the processed kind of coconut oil, that has no flavor, for most of my cooking. The cold pressed full flavored kind might be a bit healthier and is great for massages because of its aroma, it can overpower some foods. It would probably be fine for this application though. Coconut oil is my favorite oil and is great for cast iron. It has a relatively high smoke point and a long room temperature shelf life. It survives well in open air too. Applying the smallest amount, with a silicon brush, before storing the cookware, prevents rust.
A SHTF Modification
I mentioned, at the top of this post, that this is a fuel saving method of braising meat. This is true whether we look at a grid up situation or grid down. During a grid up, using the gas burner on your stove is going to use a lot less energy than your oven will. During a grid down situation, it becomes more powerful. Without the need to build a bed of coals and put coals on top, then make a side fire to make replacement coals, there is a lot less fuel used here. I used a butane stove. As I mentioned in my earlier article, in order to do this in a grid down scenario, you’d have to store up a lot of butane or do this early in the grid down event.
In the earlier article, I mentioned that a rocket stove is a great fuel saving device that can be used in a grid down scenario. When I said that, I wasn’t envisioning braising meat. I thought more of stewing it for the reasons I mentioned near the top of this post. Now that I know meat can be braised with bottom heat only, I know it could be done over a rocket stove. It will take more work and babysitting to braise over a rocket stove than a butane stove but it will still be faster than braising over and under coals.
A Couple Things to Keep in Mind About Rocket Stove Braising.
It takes 3-4 hours to braise meat. A rocket stove would likely fill with ash, more than once, in that time. It would be nice to have a stove design, that allows for emptying of ash while the stove is cooking. If your stove doesn’t have this, it’s okay. A dutch oven is heavy and it is slow to cool. You can periodically remove it from the rocket stove, dump the ash and start over. At one point, when I was braising at the festival, I ran out of butane. I’m not sure how long it was out but I will guess 10-15 minutes. This didn’t affect the braising much at all. I replaced the bottle, turned the stove on high for about 30 seconds, then back down and walked away.
The other concern is weight. Dutch ovens are very heavy. The 12 inch 8 quart (deep. There is a 6 quart shallow version for baking) Dutch oven, that I used comes in at just under 21 pounds. This means the rocket stove would need to have significant weight to counterbalance this or have a wide stance, so it can handle being top heavy. Some rocket stoves have significant portions of cast iron in them, themselves. This would help to make them heave enough to counterbalance the dutch oven. I will keep these two strategies in mind, and bring them up again, when I begin my shopping for a rocket stove.
Why Being Able to Braise is Important
I spent a lot of time here getting excited about the deliciousness of what I created and how excited I was that it turned out so well. What’s the significance of this? Being able to braise meat can be important for a couple of reasons. Braising allows people to eat meats that would otherwise be too tough to enjoy. In a grid down scenario, premium cuts of young grain fed meats might not be available. You may find yourself eating an older animal or a wild animal. You will also want to use the whole thing.
A lot of tougher cuts of meat get ground into hamburger. This is why you often hear the phrases, ground round or ground chuck. I was just at a restaurant yesterday, that served bison burgers. I remarked that I never see whole cuts of bison, it’s always burgers. Bison are probably tougher than beef. Wild game meats are also often tougher than store bought meats. Braising lets the heat do the work of breaking down trough meat for you.
Braised meats don’t have to be cooked to a specific internal temperature. They are always 212 degrees (if cooked at sea-level). This means you don’t have to have a functional thermometer, to cook them. It also means they are quite forgiving on cook times. Your braised meat can be cooked till done, then you prepare your side dishes, while continuing to braise. Then the whole meal is hot at the same time. You could even keep it hot for a later meal, maybe turn the temperature down more. In the absence of refrigeration, this can keep you safe.
I mentioned that tough meats are often ground for us, at the store. This is something you can do yourself. While writing that above, friend pointed me to this amazon link to the grinder they use to grind food for themselves and their dogs. They say it’s an excellent grinder, with plenty of power (1.5-HP) for large projects, like butchering a cow or a deer. It’s an LEM Products, W782A Meat Grinder.
They use a prep table, something like this one, to keep things clean, curing the process. It’s stainless steal and easy to clean up and keep sanitized.
Some Words About This Post
I wrote this after the festival. With some regret, I took no pictures of the roast at the festival. I duplicated the process the following weekend and took two pictures then. Those are the ones in this post. I almost forgot to do it, a second time. That’s why the roast is cut up in the picture. I did it outside this time and it was difficult to see the flame, in the sun. This meant the stove was hotter and I had to add water a couple times, until I got the flame right. The meat turned out well, but it was not as good as at the fest. It’s a good proof of concept to do it two weeks in a row.