Many cruising boats, especially smaller ones, don’t have a conventional oven. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have all the baked foods you want, from bread to brownies to breakfast rolls to casseroles and even a roast chicken. All it takes is the right bit of gear and a willingness to experiment a little.
One of my favorite cooking tools is the Omnia Stove Top Baking Oven ($79, amazon.com), which is based on a centuries-old Middle Eastern invention. A circular aluminum pan with a hole in the middle sits on a steel base and is covered by a lid. Food is placed in the pan, its bottom is heated by hot air between the steel plate, and the pan, while more hot air goes up the inner hole and is directed over the top when it hits the lid. Steam vents in the lid ensure the top doesn’t get soggy.
You can use the Omnia with almost any type of stove burner except an induction burner. I’ve used it successfully with both gas and electric stoves as well as numerous types of camp stoves.
You can bake almost anything in an Omnia that you would in a conventional oven: the one constraint is the pan size. No, you can’t roast a whole turkey, but you can bake chicken pieces. Your loaf of bread, pie, cake or brownies will be in a ring shape, but they’ll all taste delicious, with the same texture that you’re used to. It’s easier to bake bar cookies than individual ones, and you’ll find it’s far faster to bake a single cake than bake cupcakes a few at a time. Recipes sized for 8in-by-8in pans are perfect.
To use the Omnia, you place the steel base on the burner and let it heat for about three minutes on high. Put your food into the baking pan and put the lid on it, then set it onto the base. The instructions say to turn the burner down to medium or lower after that, but I’ve had better results leaving it on high for about a minute (to heat the air on top of the food) and then turning it down to slightly higher than medium. Cooking time is then about the same as with a conventional oven, but don’t take the lid off too often to check, as you let out the hot air from the top each time.
Cooking without a thermostat is strange at first, and most people’s first instinct is to turn the burner down too low so that the food won’t burn. However, this can lead to food taking longer to cook and drying out. Most recipes do better with a little more heat.
Four optional extras will make baking and cleanup even better:
• An oven rack, great for baked potatoes, brown and serve rolls and roasted chicken pieces.
• Parchment rings keep food from sticking, but the newer silicone liner works even better.
• A silicone liner not only makes cleanup easy—even for casseroles—but also helps keep the bottom of sugary foods such as cakes from burning.
• A thermostat can be used to tell the temperature of the air just under the lid. If you’re nervous about baking just by feel, this will lessen the uncertainty and tell you when you need to turn the burner up or down.
I had always thought solar ovens were best for things that took long, slow cooking, such as casseroles and meats. Imagine my surprise when I saw friends baking bread and cakes in theirs as well!
Solar ovens are popular not only with cruisers lacking a conventional oven, but also with those who want to conserve stove fuel. Even if your stove has an oven, for example, you may want a solar oven if you are heading to remote locations where it can be tough to refill propane tanks or buy other fuel.
In general, solar ovens are not affected by wind (unless you’re using large, wind-catching reflectors) or outside temperature. As long as you can see your shadow, the oven will cook, although the brighter the sunshine, the higher the temperatures. Each type of oven is different; consult the owner’s manual for specific directions.
Large, boxy solar ovens such as the Solavore ($199 and up) let you bake virtually anything—we once enjoyed a whole roasted 5lb chicken plus carrots and potatoes aboard a friend’s boat, baked in a solar oven. This style of oven usually cooks at temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees F, so they’re perfect for slow-cooker recipes. Put food in the oven in the morning, and it’ll be done in time for dinner. Cakes and breads can be baked at that temperature but may be drier than in a conventional oven, and their tops may not brown.
These might be called family-sized units. You can even get a couple of pans in one! And while not cheap, they are less expensive than the smaller GoSun.
The downside of these large solar ovens is the storage space they require: most cannot be disassembled or folded flat.
The GoSun (gosun.com, starting at $139; up to $349 for a Sport Marine with rail mount) has less cooking space, using a vacuum-insulated tube surrounded by parabolic reflectors. Baking time is similar to that of a conventional oven; sunny days can produce temperatures up to 550 degrees F, although typical baking temps are 250 to 450 degrees F. These are great for baking bread, roasting vegetables and quickly cooking meals. Baked goods will definitely brown!
The GoSun folds down to a tube about 24in long by 5in in diameter for storage. That is small enough to make it easy to store on most boats. Food goes in its cooking tray (not a separate pan), which is 24in long by 2.1in in diameter for the Sport model, which does limit the choices for recipes. It will hold 40 fluid ounces or about 3 pounds of meat. It works best to make a single dish for two to four people, whereas the Solavore can bake an entire meal.
Baking on the Grill
This takes a bit more experimentation than the Omnia or a solar oven, but if you already have a grill—particularly if it’s set up for indirect grilling—you’ve got the equipment needed. To bake, your grill must have a lid. A thermometer that can be attached to the lid (or that’s built into the grill, as many now are) will also help considerably.
Every grill is different, but basically, you don’t want to put your pan of food right over the fire. By far the biggest problem in baking on the grill is burning the bottom of the food, so the first consideration is how to avoid this. Indirect grilling is the best option, where coals are moved out from under the pan (for charcoal grills) or the pan is placed over an unlit burner (for gas grills with two or more burners).
Of course, most boat grills only have one burner, so it can take a little creativity to keep the bottom of your bread, cake or rolls from burning. One option is to place another pan upside down on the grate, and then put the baking pan on top of that. Placing a baking stone on the grate also works, again with the baking pan on top of that. Crumpling up aluminum foil under a pan is another alternative. Whatever you do, be sure the lid will still close with some airspace over the top of the pan.
For most gas grills, the grill will need to be on its lowest setting. (This is where a thermometer will help.) It is also generally best not to try to bake a large or thick pan of dough if the grill isn’t really set up for indirect heat. to Smaller or thinner pans ensure that everything is fully cooked before the bottom burns. Think baking “personal” loaves of bread or rolls instead of a large loaf; fill brownie pans no more than 1in deep.
Light the fire (if using charcoal, let it burn down appropriately) and put your food and “bottom insulation” (if needed) on the grill and quickly put the lid on so that the hot air will totally surround the pan and thus bake the top as well as the bottom and sides. Resist the temptation to check for doneness too often—every time you open the lid, you let that heat out. Your nose is one of the best guides to doneness—when you start to smell the food, test it for doneness. Obviously, if anything smells like it’s burning, check immediately!
With a bit of practice, using the grill for baked appetizers can be a lot of fun when you have a group of people over. One of my favorites is to make several small pans of artichoke dip. It looks impressive to take the dishes off the grill and throw on the main course. It also keeps heat out of the boat and, well, the party is always in the cockpit. I like being part of it and not running to the galley to check on food!
Carolyn Shearlock is the author of The Boat Galley Cookbook and The Boat Galley Guide to Storing Food without Refrigeration. Hear more from her in “The Boat Galley Podcast” and on her website, theboatgalley.com