What is Survivalist Cooking?
Survival or survivalist cooking is cooking that is done largely without modern conveniences. At its most primitive, survival cooking means cooking with fire and nothing but the ingredients and tools that are provided by nature itself. Think a freshly trapped rabbit, skinned, skewered onto a wooden stick and roasted over a fire. Sometimes this type of cooking is also called bushcraft cooking, or primitive cooking.
The exact definition of what counts as survival cookery (and what doesn’t) is a blurry one, but as a general rule of thumb, if you’re cooking without electricity or natural gas, and without pre-purchased charcoal, chances are you’re doing some form of survivalist cooking.
Obviously, the idea of primitive survivalist cooking is rooted in survival. The idea is that if push comes to shove, all of the survivalist cooking skills and techniques that you’ve picked up can be put to effective use in a wilderness survival situation.
If you’re not used to cooking without a stove, refrigeration, and a fully stocked pantry with herbs and spices available, you’re like 99% of people. If you’re a prepper or survivalist and you want to be properly prepared for any eventuality, it’s probably worth learning and practicing survivalist cooking so you’ll have some idea of how to prepare food safely (and still make it tasty) if SHTF (which means sh*t hits the fan) or if you ever end up in a wilderness survival situation.
The truth is, while survivalist cooking isn’t fancy, it can still be pretty darn delicious. Food cooked over a simple fire is something that almost everybody can enjoy – it’s why grilling is such a popular activity, not just across America but across the world.
There’s something primal and natural about cooking simple ingredients with a self-made fire – it speaks to us on a deep level in a way that cooking over an electric stove doesn’t. If you know what you’re doing and have a little bit of patience, survivalist cooking can be just as nutritious and delicious as any modern meal that you’ll come across.
The Basics of Survival Cooking: Primitive Cooking with the Help of Fire
If you want to start survival cooking, you have to start with the basics. And the basic idea of cooking is the application of heat. Therefore, you need a heat source.
If you need heat, you start with fire.
That’s right. As is the case with a lot of ideas in survivalism, it all starts with knowing how to make a fire.
Luckily, we have a number of articles that can teach you how to make a fire if you don’t already know how.
If you don’t have the ability to start a fire completely from scratch (using “foraged” flint or the bow drill method for example), don’t worry. It’s perfectly acceptable to use matches, a ferro rod, or even a lighter. In a real survival situation, you use whatever resources you have on hand. If you have tools, use them.
Every true prepper or survivalist should have some kind of tool for firestarting stored away safely in an emergency go bag of some sort, regardless of whether it’s a get home bag, bug out bag, or a INCH bag.
If you’re confident that you can start a fire for survival, then the next step is finding food. Hunting, trapping, or fishing are your best bets for sources of protein. You’ll want to supplement this with some foraging of wild edible plants to achieve a reasonably balanced, healthy diet that will give you enough energy to survive the challenges and dangers of the wilderness.
You can learn everything you need to know by checking out section on survival food.
Once you’ve got your heat source and your ingredients sorted, that’s when you can get started on the actual survival cooking…
Top Ten Primitive Survivalist Cooking Methods
The first thing we’ll say is that none of this is rocket science. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Survival cooking was something that humans did thousands of years ago – humans that we would consider extremely primitive and “backwards” by today’s standards were able to cook their food and survive (for the most part).
So don’t worry, none of this will be too complicated for you. Survival cooking can take a significant amount of time and effort, but ultimately it’s goals are pretty simple – you’re trying to apply heat to various kinds of food, so that the food is both safe to eat and not burnt to a crisp. If it’s delicious, that’s just the icing on top.
1. Cooking on a Spit
When you imagine survivalist cooking, this is probably the first image that comes to mind. It’s pretty simple – skewer a whole animal on a stick, build a frame of some kind that supports the stick, and rotate the spit once in a while for more even cooking.
This truly “old school” method has a longer history than the written word and dates back to more than 8000 years ago. Typically, you’d imagine cooking a whole pig this way, but really, this method should work well for any whole animal that you can skin and clean adequately.
It’s very simple to do – put a sturdy stick through an animal (normally from the butt, through to the head). If you’re using a wood stick, make sure you wet the wood first so it doesn’t burn and drop the whole animal into the fire.
Find two sturdy pieces of wood, that are long enough and can support the weight of the animal. Stick them into the ground on either side of the fire. Ideally, these pieces of wood are forked, or alternatively you can carve a notch in them so your spit can rest pretty securely.
Rest your spit on the supports and rotate constantly if you want perfectly even cooking, or once in a while if you just want a hot meal. Depending on the size of the animal, this can take up to 6 or 7 hours for everything to be fully cooked. Depending on the heat of the fire, you could also do it “shawarma” style and just carve pieces of meat off the outer edges after an hour or less.
Smaller animals will obviously take less time to cook.
The downside of spit cooking is that it’s more appropriate for a larger group of people, and depending on the kind of animal you’re cooking, it can take a long time.
It’s most frequently used for larger animals like pigs and lambs, which means a lot of meat, which means ideally you’re feeding a large group of people.
You could of course adapt this method to situations where you’re not cooking a whole animal. In a survival situation, you could absolutely use a spit to skewer chunks of meat, or even to cook certain kinds of vegetables.
2. Earth Ovens
Dig a hole in the ground. Start a fire in it. Let the fire burn down into coals. Put some stones on the coals. Wrap your food up in protective material – leaves or grass if you want to be fully primitive, aluminum foil works too. Put it in the coals, cover the whole thing up with dirt.
Congratulations! You’ve just built yourself an oven.
OK – it’s not all that simple. Earth ovens may be primitive and easy to understand, but they take a lot of time. The trick is that you need to start your fire early – ideally around 2 hours before you actually want to start cooking. You want the fire to burn up, and get to the stage where all that’s left are the hot coals and embers. This is what’s going to give your earth oven a nice, even heat.
Even ovens dug out of the earth need to be “pre-heated”.
Once the fire has burned down and you’re left with a bed of coals, put some stones on top. Then cover those stones with some grass or leaves, or alternatively, wrap your food up in leaves and place them on the stones. (be careful, the stones will be hot). Then more grass/leaves, then cover it up with dirt.
Depending on what you’re cooking, it can take an hour or two, all the way up to a day. For reference, a whole pig takes 8 hours or more using this method. Something like a good sized whole fish would take about 90 minutes to two hours. In the best cases, an earth oven is going to take at least half a day when you combine prep, waiting for the fire to burn, and cooking time.
Once your meal is ready, dig it up, pull it out carefully (be as cautious as you would be pulling something out of a modern oven) and dig in.
Obviously it goes without saying that if whatever your cooking is big, dig a big hole and build a large fire, and if it’s small, then you can get away with a smaller hole.
There is evidence of earth ovens that dates back to 19,000 years ago, so this primitive survival cooking technique is truly ancient. Earth ovens are still used today in many cultures, particularly during celebrations and feasts. Traditionally, the New England Clambake, the Hawaiian practice of Kalua, and Mexican Barbacoa are all done using earth ovens.
3. Improvised Griddle / Hot Stone Cooking
This one is easy.
Find a large, reasonably flat stone or rock. Or if you’re in a more urban environment, most types of metal sheet or ceramic tile will work here as well. Rinse off the stone/rock, then let it dry a bit in the sun or near the fire you’re about to build.
Start a fire. Let the fire burn down a bit so that you’re mostly left with glowing hot coals (coals provide more even heat that is easier to control).
Put your flat stone/rock into the coals. Let it heat up a little. That’s it. You effectively have a griddle that you can cook on. This will work with meat or vegetables – cooking on it functionally isn’t all that different from cooking on a big pan. Just be careful that your food doesn’t full off the flat surface and into the fire.
Another key here is to keep your fire hot enough. You’ll need to adjust your coals (and if you’re cooking over a longer period of time, you might even need to keep some wood in the fire so that you have a fresh source of hot coals when needed).
4. Ash Cooking (Cooking Directly in Ash/Coals)
Another really simple cooking method that’s quite similar to the earth oven but more direct in its approach.
First, start a fire (notice there’s a pattern here – if you want to develop your survivalist cooking skills, you must know how to start a fire… because that’s how you cook without modern conveniences).
Let the fire burn down into coals. Take your food, wrap it in a non-poisonous leaf (even better if the leaf itself is edible). Put it carefully into the coals. Once your food is on the coals, cover it over with ashes and coals so that it is fully surrounded on all sides by coals and ash.
Here are some edible leaves that work best with this method.
- Grape leaves
- Dandelion leaves
- Plantain leaves
- Corn husks
- Young burdock leaves
- Cattail fronds
In truth, you can use any kind of leaf you want provided that it isn’t poisonous. Using edible leaves means you can also eat the leaves if they aren’t too ashy, plus they can impart flavor to whatever you’re cooking – but using edible leaves with this method isn’t mandatory.
Essentially, this method replaces aluminum foil or tinfoil with leaves. Keep in mind that since you’re putting the food directly into the heat source, this survival cooking method will take significantly less time than the earth oven method even though they might seem similar at first glance.
5. Stone Oven
This one takes a good bit of work, but it’s conceptually pretty easy to understand. Imagine a woodfire, brick oven pizza place. Essentially what you want to do here is you want to build a smaller version of that brick oven.
Make sure you do not use any wet rocks for this – wet rocks can explode when heated, which would both wreck your oven and be extremely dangerous to anyone nearby.
Find some stones and rocks of varying sizes. Construct a box out of those stones, big enough to hold whatever you’re cooking, plus a fire (usually in the back). You’re looking for flat stones that can be layered on top of each other, almost like tiles or bricks. You want to minimize the number and the size of gaps between your stones. You’ll need one big flat rock to use as the “ceiling” of your oven box.
Build up your oven so that it has three walls and a ceiling. If possible, in the back part of the ceiling, leave a small opening so the oven can “vent” smoke – like an improvised chimney. Otherwise your oven is going to be very smoky.
This is optional, but you can also choose to find a large, flat rock that will cover up most of the “front” of your oven if you want it to stay even hotter inside.
Start a fire in the back of the oven. Put your food in the front of the oven.
We’ll be honest, this isn’t the most practical survival cooking method unless you’ve set up a semi-permanent camp somewhere. It takes a lot of time to set up, so it’s not worth it unless you’re going to use the oven over and over again.
On the other hand, if survival is not really a concern, building a stone oven can be a fun thing to do on a weekend trip in the wilderness. It’s also good practice that involves a number of survival skills – finding and locating useful tools around you (the stones), learning how to stack rocks and stones to build structures that are stable and steady. Starting a fire is obviously an essential survival skill as well.
Much like a wood burning pizza oven, you can increase or decrease the heat in the oven by adding or removing wood/logs from the fire.
6. Improvised Grill
When you think of outdoors cooking, the first thing that comes to mind (at least if you’re American) is probably grilling. Grilling is the quintessential style of open fire cooking, so you might be surprised to see it so far down this list.
The reason why grilling isn’t the first technique mentioned in this list of survivalist cooking techniques is because you’re not always going to have a grill grate with you. In your backyard it’s easy to get the grill going for burgers and hotdogs, but in the wild, without a metal grill grate, grilling actually becomes a much more difficult task… Because you actually hve to construct the grate yourself out of the materials around you.
If you’re in an urban survival scenario and you have access to a grill grate, that’s great! Just start a fire, set up some kind of structure that you can place your grate on, and you’re good to go.
But if you’re in the wilderness and you want to improvise a grate, that’s going to be a little more complicated.
Don’t worry though – it’s definitely doable. The most common method for building an improvised grate/rack to suspend food on is the “tennis racket” method. You’ll need some branches that are flexible enough to shape into an oval, and then additionally you’ll need smaller branches or vines to use as improvised cordage.
Make an oval out of your flexible branches, then use your cordage to tie the oval off. Then you’ll want at least one vertical branch and several horizontal branches that will make up the “grates”” of your “tennis racket”. Just imagine a tennis racket, but with fewer strings. That’s what you’re trying to make. Your grate needs to have enough branches crisscrossing to prevent your food from falling through the holes.
Willow saplings (young trees) in particular have branches that are perfect for these “tennis rackets”. Birch saplings might also work for this purpose.
Obviously, you’ll need to start a fire, and find a way to prop your new “grill” above the fire so things don’t just burn to a crisp. If needed, you can wet your “tennis racket” grill before placing it over the fire to ensure it doesn’t burn up in the flames.
Sometimes this method is also called “broiling” – technically, broiling is cooking food with direct heat (as opposed to indirect heat). In the US, this tends to mean the “broil” setting on your oven that heats food top down. Since the fire is underneath the improvised grate in this case, we’re calling it a grill, but others might know this “tennis racket” as an improvised “broiling rack”.
7. Rock Boiling
This is a great method if you’re trying to heat some water, or you’re trying to reheat or make some kind of soup or camp stew. Basically, the rock boiling technique works if you’re trying to heat liquids, whether that’s just water or some kind of liquid food.
Same warning as above. No wet rocks. Putting wet rocks directly into a fire can cause them to explode, which is dangerous for everyone.
Start a fire. Find a bunch of rocks or stones that will fit comfortably into whatever vessel you’re using to hold the liquid. Wipe the stones down so they’re clean and free of dirt and debris. Stack them in the fire, trying to position as many of them as possible in a way where ash won’t get on them. Once the rocks are emanating heat, place one into the liquid you want to heat up or cook. That will heat up your liquid, potentially to a boil. Once that starts to fizzle out, remove that rock and put in a new rock to keep the boil going.
This can be a little arduous, but it’s a great way to re-heat leftover liquid foods like stews or soups, and it’s also a way to cook the liquid if something is stopping you from putting it directly on the fire.
This is also a great way to heat up water as a way of making it safer to drink, particularly if you don’t have a vessel that can be placed directly on the fire.
8. Plank Cooking
Plank cooking is simple. Find a decently sized log and split it so that you have a plank of wood. From the remainder of the log, you can split and cut it further until you essentially have a few “stakes”. Essentially what you’re going to do here is use the stakes to nail down a piece of meat or fish onto the plank so that it is secure and won’t move around.
Obviously you want to find wood that is not poisonous. Most wood that you would use for a campfire will work fine here. Speaking of a fire, you’ll want to start one.
Once your fire is going, all you’re going to do is prop up your plank at an angle, so that it is on the side of the fire, partially exposed to the flames so that the food is facing them, but not directly in them so your food won’t get burnt.
9. Coffee/Tin Can Cooking “Hobo” or “Rocket” Stove
This is cheating a bit, which is why it’s so far down this list. But chances are, even in a dire survival situation, if you’re any kind of prepper or survivalist you’ll have some access to tinned goods. Once those tin cans or soda cans are used up and you’ve gathered a few of them, you can build a makeshift “rocket stove” or “hobo stove”
This is a good one in urban environments as well as the wilderness – particularly because tin cans would be readily available in any urban post-disaster environment (more on urban survival skills here).
This is the old scout coffee can stove if you were a scout as a youngster. The good thing about this technique is you can scale it to almost any size of tin can that you can find. Obviously, a bigger stove will allow you to cook more food faster, but even a soup can be used to boil water or cook food for a single person.
First, remove all the plastic, paper, and whatever else is attached to the can, and remove the top lid completely with a knife or multi tool. You want to be left with just a metal can with an open top. Then, you’ll need to cut a “door” into the tin can. This is where you’ll be placing the twigs and sticks that will act as the fuel for your stove. The door should be cut at the bottom of the can, but without cutting out any of the metal bottom. Don’t cut the whole panel out – remember, it’s a door. You need to be able to close it. Instead, make it a “flap”, cutting along three sides of the “square” door (vertically on either side and along the bottom, leaving the top so you get a flap).
Once the door has been properly cut, you’ll also want to puncture some air vents into your improvised stove. Puncture a few decently sized holes along the rest of the bottom of the can, as well ass all around the top of the can. You want your fire to be able to breathe and get plenty of oxygen. You’ll use the door “flap” to control the strength of the flame (carefully, it’ll get hot) and the open top part of the can will be covered by whatever you’re cooking, so these air vents will sometimes be the only source of oxygen for your stove.
That’s it. You’re done. Gather some small twigs and branches, put them in the door of the stove, light them up, and you’ll get a nice, powerful flame going reminiscent of the flames that come out of rockets. Hence the name rocket stove.
There are a few ways to improve on this design, which we might cover in a later article, but this basic stove setup takes relatively small amounts of fuel to produce powerful flames. You can place a flat rock or a pan on top of the stove and use it to cook smaller pieces of meat, eggs, or to boil water, soups, and stews.
There’s a reason they teach it in the scouts – it’s easy to do and very versatile.
10. Preservation of Food by Fermenting, Smoking, and Drying
This isn’t exactly a method of “cooking”, and we’re going to dive deeper into food preservation in multiple other articles because it’s a huge (and extremely important) subject for any survivalist.
But in short, there are a variety of old school ways that humans have preserved foods for centuries that are safe and allow you to keep meats and produce edible for much longer than they would naturally (for example, see our articles about how to make hardtack and how to make pemmican)
For example, with some salt and some sunlight, you can turn a freshly caught fish into a protein source for multiple days or weeks. The fish will lose moisture due to the salt, and the sun will make the excess liquid coming out of the fish to evaporate, leaving it dry and preserving it for use later on. You can also use this method to make jerky out of meat, although you’ll want to focus on red meat for this obviously (no poultry).
You can sun dry many different types of vegetables as well – in some cases, salt isn’t even necessary. Think sun dried tomatoes – they may be a “delicacy” that’s only available at fancy grocery stores these days, but sun dried tomatoes were originally sun dried as a way to preserve the tomatoes. You can dry mushrooms, carrots – virtually any vegetable will work here. The key is to slice them thin so they dry quickly, and ensure they’re getting good air circulation – ideally by placing them on racks. If you don’t have metal racks available, you can fashion wooden racks by hand.
You can also ferment vegetables very easily – as a general rule, you can cover vegetables with water, weigh them, then weigh the combined water and vegetables. Then mix 2% of that weight in salt. This will allow you to preserve all kinds of fruits and vegetables for much longer than their natural edible life, though they will be salty and also get sour over time. This is a basic version of the process that is used to make some well known fermented products like kimchi and sauerkraut. These preserved foods were all originally developed with preservation as the main goal, not necessarily with flavor in mind.
The same thing with smoking as a method of preservation (more often applied to meat and fish). Most smoking methods were simply a way of “quick-drying” foods – by suspending foods near a fire, but not directly over it, you’re drying them out without burning them. One rule of thumb for preserving foods is the less moisture in a food, the longer it will stay edible.
We have a few articles about food preservation techniques, and it’s an area that we intend to explore more as many food preservation techniques are very simple and straightforward, but many of these traditional preservation methods have been forgotten. There’s no reason why more people shouldn’t know the basics of food preservation that our ancestors knew. Humans lived for thousands of years without any forms of refrigeration. The ability to preserve food and extend their edible lifespans played a very large role in the ability for the human race to survive.
See more articles about food preservation below:
Survivalist Cooking: Our Final Thoughts
On top of learning and practicing all of the methods listed above for survivalist cooking, the key idea here is that survival cooking is at its core about problem solving. How can you manipulate the food that you have with minimal tools and equipment to produce a decent result that isn’t under-cooked or burnt to a crisp? That’s all survival cooking is about.
In the pursuit of not burning and not under-cooking, you might learn to apply heat and fire in a thousand different ways – and that’s the point. If you know how to start a fire, you’ve gotten the most difficult part down. While we’ve laid out some ideas and techniques for you to try, ultimately survival cooking is about improvisation. By applying heat to food in different ways, you might come up with entirely new survivalist cooking methods.
You can think of survival cooking a bit like one of those reality cooking shows you see on the TV, except that instead of mystery ingredients, you have “mystery tools” – you don’t know what kind of tools and resources the wilderness will provide you, so you adapt and build a plan to cook your food based on what kind of rocks and stones, trees and branches, vines and leaves that you have in your surroundings.
Hopefully you feel like you’ve learnt a few things about how you can approach survivalist cooking, and you have a little more confidence in your ability to work with food even in a survival situation where modern appliances and tools aren’t available to you. Now that you’re armed with the knowledge, there’s nothing to do but go out there and try all these things out.