by Kevin Estela June 02, 2016
Imagine this scenario. You’ve just paddled your canoe into the backcountry. The air is sweltering and the water is just warm enough for a refreshing dip. You swim until your fingers and toes prune and as you tiptoe over the rocks at the shore avoiding exposed roots and scramble to the fire others in your party have been tending to during your aquatic antics. Awaiting you, space to sit on a log, an oversized towel to drape over your back and shoulders and fresh bread just as the sun is setting. Wait, what?! How can this be? Bread in the backcountry? Not just any bread either; warm bread that hits the spot after a cooling swim.
There is something about cooking fresh bread in the backcountry. Some campers believe it to be impossible, maybe even magical, having never been exposed to bannock. To them, their idea of bread is what is found in leaky sandwich bags or what can be crushed and or hard as a rock when retrieved from deep inside a stuffed pack. Bannock isn’t a secret and everyone has a recipe. The most simplistic (composed of only 4 ingredients, flour, baking powder, salt and water) can be modified with additives to improve consistency, color and taste. Bannock was carried by traders all throughout the United States and it was a popular staple food when carrying pre-made foods was too heavy or impractical. It is said bread should not be cut but broken so put away those Fiddlebacks as some bannock basics are presented in this month’s backcountry bread blog.
Bannock is easily prepared at home in large quantities and portioned out for individual or group-sized servings. Using a sifter, mix the premeasured flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Use Zip-Lock bags to keep the weight down in your pack and reduce the amount of cleanup if the water is mixed in directly in the bag. If a more substantial container is needed, bannock mix can be carried in an old coffee can with a plastic lid or a spare Nalgene bottle. Whatever packaging you decide to use, make sure you keep your ingredients dry to avoid ruining your provisions. If you don’t care to mix any individual ingredients, all you have to do is carry Bisquick mix. Problem solved. Students always ask, how much water should I use? The answer is, “yes”. Bannock is not necessarily an exact science. Enough water is used for a given amount of bannock until the mixture has the consistency of toothpaste. In other words, it shouldn’t be runny and it shouldn’t be clumpy.
One of the reasons for bannock’s popularity is the multitude of ways it can be prepared. The most common way of cooking bannock is frying it. Sometimes called “drop bread” or “fry bread”, oil is brought to temperature in a cast-iron pan. Bannock mix is carefully dropped, more aptly stated “poured”, into the oil and fried until the bread mix is sturdy enough to flip without collapsing or falling apart. It is removed once the bread is firm to the swift touch. Another method is to wrap a thicker-mixed variety of bannock dough around a green stick that the bark has been removed from. This wrapped stick is placed over the fire and roasted until the dough cooks through. Twist bread is therefore inherently lighter (not coated in oil) and has a different consistency. Yet another way to cook bannock is to steam it. The inside pan of the popular Zebra billy pots can hold bannock mix that will cook when the water boils and creates steam.
Bannock is the type of camp bread that works anytime of day. For breakfast, there is nothing quite like cooking your bacon in a pan, setting it aside, frying your bannock mix in the bacon fat and then cooking your eggs in the pan while your bannock sits to the side split open melting the cheese for the perfect bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. For lunch or dinner, try out a peanut butter, jelly and bannock sandwich. Perhaps one of the most popular bannock mixes I introduce my students to on courses is rum raisin bannock. A blatant rip-off from the Ray Mears bannock featured on his show, this bannock is a crowd pleaser. Cinnamon, sugar, evaporated milk (if available) and of course, rum, makes this bannock the perfect after dinner dessert. Other variations like pepperoni and mozzarella, lemon blueberry and sun-dried tomato and basil. Recently, on a Budget Bushcraft course I taught in Western, NY, a student attempted to make bannock with gluten-free flour. It failed miserably (Sorry Scott!!!) but the experience was worth it with many students building camaraderie and rapport with banter and comic relief.
You don’t have to be a Christian to understand the importance of breaking bread. Of course it has its spiritual connotations but interpersonally, it is a relationship builder, it strengthens bonds and makes the experiences of the outdoors much more valuable for believers and non-believers alike. They say bread and water are the basics necessities but there is nothing basic about bannock. Sure, it starts off as humble ingredients but what it is capable of is apparent around any campfire where it is served. Considering how easily it is made and the possibilities it possesses, bannock should be a staple recipe for any camping trip. You may not remember all the details of what you say around the campfire but you never forget about the food you consume. Make your trips more memorable with a good bannock.
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