8 Alternative Ways to Cook Outside


Here in Los Angeles, I have not stopped sweating in 250 days. My house lacks air conditioning, and every day spent in Los Angeles heat feels one step closer to the apocalypse. Unfortunately, I am a semi-professional cook, who makes a semi-living slaving over a fully hot stove… a hot stove that turns my already sauna-like home into a science experiment.

Well, you know what they say: If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. So as a personal experiment, I have been road-testing alternative cooking methods all summer. Here are my eight favorite hacks for cooking hot food without heating up the house.

1. Grill Baby, Grill

Great news for the Patio Daddy-o in your life: the easiest way to keep the house cool in the heat is to cook outdoors. Although I live in a climate where Christmas backyard BBQs are common, I personally think that storing and maintaining a grill is kind of a pain in the butt. I don't have the space or the energy. Which is why I sold our very nice gas grill to my neighbor Patria. Not shockingly, I enjoy our former grill way more often, now that it's in Patria's backyard rather than my own. Since she cooks outside every other day, she has no problem lending me her already hot coals on weekends, as long as I bring snacks to share.

Are you that vegetarian who loves the camaraderie of a backyard BBQ but doesn't want to share the same grill with carnivores? Whip out your purse-sized drink can BBQ and start grilling that veggie dog! The meat eaters will be so impressed by your ingenuity they might forget to make the required, "Meat is murder — yummy, yummy murder," joke that stopped being funny the first 437 times you heard it.

2. Slow-Cooking

Although most people associate slow cookers with winter comfort food, my Crock-Pot is a summertime kitchen workhorse. In the past two weeks I have made over 300 jars of jam and pickles in preparation for my local elementary school fundraiser. This has involved standing over a pot of boiling water for 40 hours. This has made me slightly crazy. Luckily, I have my Crock-Pot to save my sanity. Slow cooker jam recipes make preserving my summer harvest much less sweaty, especially since I moved my Crock-Pot outside to the patio.

3. Veranda Toaster Oven

My mother, who comes from a large family of trailer park denizens, avoids heating up the house in the summertime by cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a toaster oven conveniently located on the veranda. Yeah. I know. Openly cooking on a dedicated porch appliance is ratchet, and signals to your neighbors at RV Village that the gas company has cut you off. However, it's also a genius kitchen hack. Why heat up the house if you don't have to?

4. Super Dog/Cat Stove

My husband is gleeful that he just saved $40 on a store bought camp stove by making his own ultra lightweight, alcohol cooker, using just a small metal can and a hole punch. My husband, an unapologetic cat gentleman, insists on referring to his homemade camp stove as The Super Cat, even though he used a dog food can… something I think is totally bogus. He argues that he can still call it The Super Cat since our cats helped him make the stove by eating the dog food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Whatever.

Regardless of what kind of food tin you use for this project (and who eats the food), homemade alcohol stoves are a speedy and cheap way to heat water outside. For backpackers, they provide an extremely efficient and light-weight stove option, as the can weighs under a quarter of an ounce, and requires only two tablespoons of alcohol for fuel. Here's a how-to video of the standard Super Cat.

After testing out his Super DOG Stove in Yosemite, my husband has decided to upgrade to the Super Duper Dog Stove — which can be used in sub-zero weather — made out of a pet food can, a tomato paste can, and some carbon felt.

5. Car-B-Que

One of the main reasons why I resist selling my 1991 Volvo 240 is that it cooks like a champ. I have logged over 350,000 miles and countless meals on its engine. Cooking on your car's engine can be as easy as cramming a can of chili next to your turbo chargers (use a church key to create steam vents before cooking) or lashing a foil wrapped Langer's pastrami sandwich to the exhaust manifold with a coat hanger for a hot midnight snack… or you can be me and work up an elaborate lobster dinner from scratch. When it comes to car cooking, the world is your oyster, and you can cook that oyster right on your engine too. It's heartening to know that I am not the only Wise Bread writer who subscribes to this delicious, alternative version of road food.

Speaking of car cooking, the hot car interior works brilliantly as a solar powered food dehydrator.

6. Solar Oven

Solar cooking is increasingly popular in the developing world as is allows people to safely cook food and pasteurize water with sunlight instead of more expensive fuels. Although it's still somewhat of a novelty in the United States, solar cooking is a great way to cut utility costs and reduce pollution.

The great thing about solar cookers is that they can be made from materials already found in most people's homes (or that can be salvaged for next to nothing). In addition to being cheap to use and cheap to make, they are also relatively safe for use by children, which is why the pizza box cookie oven is a classic Girl Scout contraption.

The three most common types of solar cookers are box cookers, parabolic cookers, or combination or panel cookers. There are literally hundreds of free designs for solar ovens available on the Internet, so do a little research to find the best model for your home. Note that the most expensive part in many DIY solar ovens is not actually the oven, but the covered pan, so keep your eyes peeled for inexpensive black casserole pans at the thrift store.

7. Wood Fired Cob Oven

Here is Los Angeles, owning a backyard pizza oven is a culinary status symbol. Luckily, you don't need Jamie Oliver's budget to own a wood fired oven. A traditional cob oven can be built for less than $200. In addition to pizza, a cob oven is great for cooking anything you'd put in your regular electric or gas oven. Since wood fired stoves can reach temperatures of 800 degrees, food does cook much faster.

The leading expert on building backyard cob ovens is Kiko Denzer, who has written an entire book on the subject (Build Your Own Earth Oven). It's a comprehensive overview of cob oven construction. I recommend checking this book out from your library before literally digging into this project.

Trash picked pallets are a great source of free wood fuel. However, be aware that scrap lumber can contain poisons such as arsenic. Pallets in the United States are marked with IPPC stamps, so it's easy to see which pallets are heat treated (and are safe to burn), and which pallets contain methyl bromide, a broad spectrum pesticide. Check before you burn.

8. Microwave

Full disclosure: I don't own a microwave. But for the 90% of Americans who own a microwave, summer is the time to defrost and eat everything that's been hiding in the back of your freezer.

Do you cook in hot weather? What's your favorite way to avoid kitchen heat?

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