12 Ways to Cook After a Disaster
“After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”— Oscar Wilde.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to cooking after a disaster of any kind. Operational security, available combustible materials, smoke, fire containment, and a host of other considerations all have to be factored into a warm meal’s decision. Then there are the challenges of maintaining a heat source and the foods you are trying to cook.
This blog will explore 12 methods to cook after a disaster and the equipment you will need. We will look at each option from an operational security standpoint, portability, cost, ease of use, efficiency, and fuel sources and requirements. This should allow you to decide which method or combination of methods will work best for you in the range of your most likely disasters. This video is a bit on the longer side because it will probably be one of the most comprehensive analyses you might find on this subject as we tried to provide as much detailed information for each to allow you to make the decision that fits best for you. There is no denying the morale-boosting nature of a warm, nutrient-rich meal after a disaster, so let’s get cooking…
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1: BBQ GRILLS
Eighty million Americans have grilled out in the past year, and 75% of Americans own a grill or smoker. Both are staggering numbers, but when you consider the population of the US as 329.5 million, it means that 50% of those grill-owning Americans didn’t fire them up last year. So, how many after a disaster will find they lack charcoal or accidentally left the gas slightly on the last time they used the grill over a year ago? In a terrible disaster, how many will go outside to their deck or the side of their house and find their propane tank was stolen or the grill is completely gone?
This method of cooking after a disaster is probably the most ubiquitous. With either a gas or charcoal grill, you will want to make sure you have at least a few pieces of cookware that can be used. That may just be a cookie sheet that can be placed over the top of the grill to allow you to cook foods that might otherwise fall through the grill slats. Gas grills are great, assuming you have propane, and I always make sure to have three tanks in rotation on my grill so that we know we will have some when we need it. Charcoal grills, however, are superior because they can use firewood in the form of sticks, logs, splits, and chunks, or charcoal briquettes. You are less confined to a single fuel source, as with gas. While some gas grills may have an optional attachment to allow you to burn charcoal, you can’t do so in your typical gas grill. They aren’t made to move ash through, and the non-focused heat can cause damage to components of your grill. In some cases, the grill may be constructed of metal that assumes the heat will come from the specific burners and focused upwards. Coals that may reach a temperature up to 2,000 degrees could absolutely destroy some light metal gas grills.
We list grilling first because the majority of people will be turning to this method after a disaster. Many will find that they lack the maintained equipment to get things going. Still, If you can grill in relative safety and you live in a neighborhood where others are already grilling, fire it up and grill any meats and foods that may spoil. There will be enough people grilling to conceal your activities probably, and people may not yet be desperate. Use a temperature no lower than 200 degrees Fahrenheit (392 degrees Celsius) to get your meat above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). If you have a charcoal grill, make sure you have a charcoal chimney, as well, since you can’t rely on lighter fluid or easy lighting briquettes. Make sure you have both wood chunk and charcoal options. If you have a gas grill, make sure you are in the habit of always keeping a spare propane tank on hand. With either method, make sure you have cookware on hand that can be used with the high temperatures of the grill. After a week into the aftermath of the disaster, any BBQ may very likely attract unwanted attention and telegraph that you have food, warmth, and a carbon fuel source. Use caution.
2: Fire Pits & Hobo Grills
We recently demonstrated how to build a Dakota Firepit, and after a disaster, an open fire might be an option. Do realize, though, that cooking on a fire pit can be a challenge if you lack a grill for the top of it or don’t know how to create a spit for it. You can use cast iron cookware like a Dutch Oven on a bed of coals to reduce your smoke and fire profile, but open fires present some operational security challenges. In addition to those challenges, open fires require large quantities of combustible resources, even when contained in a Dakota Firepit. Dry wood may be in short supply, and the weather might not permit you to be outside with a fire. An open fire is the least efficient. A hobo grill fashioned from a 55-gallon drum is more efficient, will smoke less, and radiate heat more efficiently. A Dakota Firepit will contain a fire well and focus the heat upwards, but it may be tricky to get started and will burn hotter and use more fuel as a result.
Get them set up and ready to go if you feel that outdoor fires will be a strong option for you after a disaster. Don’t start digging your Dakota Firepit after a disaster if you can build it ahead of time. Fashioning a 55-gallon drum into a bugout barrell can provide you with everything you need, including a cooking and heating mechanism, to make survival portable. It can store all the food and water you need, will be resistant to crushing forces, and can be taken with you to your bugout location. When emptied, you have your heating and cooking container. Still, this might be too heavy an option for many.
While neither a fire pit nor a hobo grill, I have to mention foldable camp grills in this category. If you have a fireplace or a small, contained outdoor fire, you can quickly unfold this over your fire to have a cooking platform. You are somewhat limited by the amount of wood or charcoal you need to keep under it, but it’s a great way to cook when other options aren’t available. If it’s in your fireplace, too, the smells of delicious cooking food are venting up away from your house. That can be an essential OPSEC feature.
3: Solo Stoves & Tripods
These options are portable, self-contained stove systems that can burn biomass. Some provide a cooking surface, and some would benefit from a tripod hanger. Make the supported weight and the cookware you plan to use a deciding factor in purchasing any Solo Stove, Tripod, or self-contained, portable cooking system. With these methods, you gain a lot in portability. This will allow you to maintain a small footprint wherever you are. They will require less biomass to keep the heat you need, and they can easily be repacked and taken with you if you need to move to another location.
These are ultra-efficient wood-burning backpack camp stoves, so they are made to burn hot and to be lightweight. With a bit of ingenuity, you can build something similar. If that’s the route you want to go, you will want to build it and practice it ahead of time. Ensure that any bonfire stove like this has an ample cook area, and ensure that you have the proper cookware and utensils that can handle the high heat.
4: Rocket Stove
This is another contained flame system that can be used after a disaster with multiple varied fuel sources. It can be moved to safer locations and used on a deck or in the wild at a makeshift and temporary campsite, unlike grills and fire pits. You can feed the fire any type of biomass from paper to sticks to pieces of mulch, and you will obtain a fire hot enough to boil water or cook food. Having some kind of cast iron pan or pot will be of great value to you with this method, as much cookware is not made to sustain the high temperatures of an open flame. Because the light and smoke of the fire are better contained than in an open fire, your operational security with something like a Minuteman K Rocket Stove is better. The more efficient fire results in less smoke. In my test of the Minuteman K, we cooked some high-quality steaks and Brussel sprouts because we wanted to really test it out for you. One thing we did like about the Minuteman K Rocket Stove was the large, sturdy cooking area on top. It felt more stable than many of the options we have seen out there and easily supported even my largest cast iron pan.
The cost of any mobile cooking method will be higher, of course, than digging a firepit. It’s an investment in a post-disaster solution, so you should treat it like one. If you go this route, you can’t leave it in the box. Break it out at least a few times per year and cook a meal on it. Take it with you when you go camping. You don’t want to struggle after a disaster to keep the fire lit or maintain a stable temperature. Get used to cooking with it and get used to packing it up and taking it with you. A less expensive option from Minuteman is the ammo can rocket stove. The natural appeal of this smaller version is the lighter weight and portability.
5: Kelly Kettle
When it comes to lightweight, the Kelly Kettle is a leading rocket stove. We have an extensive review of this one because it is so lightweight and versatile that it can solve several post-disaster problems for you. We ride around with mine in the back of my car, just in case, and you might want to consider this as well. It has the dual function of allowing you to process water for drinking by boiling, and it will provide you with a cooking surface with the chimney pot support or the Hobo Stove accessory. With a small, lightweight design, you won’t even notice the scant weight. All you need is a water source and some dehydrated soup mixes, and you could be eating well into a range of different disasters.
The small Hobo Stove turns the fire-base into a stand-alone wood-fueled camp stove for easy cooking. This hobo stove piece is sturdy enough to put a big cast iron pan or dutch oven on, but we wouldn’t try and balance heavy cooking on the chimney pot support attachment. This is meant for lighter-weight, camping, stainless steel cooking sets. The whole Kelly Kettle system is all that most people would need through a prolonged grid-down scenario, so we highly recommend this system.
6: Portable Folding Stoves & Camp Stoves
Portable folding camp stoves and butane camp stoves are effective, assuming you have a supply of fuel sources in your inventory, and you should if this is a route you’re planning on taking. The advantage to these cooking sources is that the fuel source burns clean. Because of this, you can cook in your garage or on your kitchen countertop. You won’t be able to throw just any biomass material in there like you can with the previously mentioned methods, but you’ll have a more contained and controllable fire with this method. Sometimes, you will just want a fuel source you can light even in the worst of conditions–one that you can rely upon to boil water or cook small meals. If that’s the case, these camp stoves are ideal. Be warned that these clean burning fuels often have a flame you cannot see. They are burning hot– really hot– but the denatured fuel sometimes results in the lack of a visual flame.
We think the Sterno can fire is a better option than some of the other solid fuel tablet options out there only because of the design of the can. Chafing fuel will have a shelf life of 2-plus years, and the emptied can be stuffed with paper towels, filled with Isopropyl alcohol or high grain alcohol, and will provide you with another usable fuel source. We know for a fact, though, that if the can is well sealed and not dried out, it will last for many, many years. Though solid fuel tablet options are even more portable and reliable, they are meant to burn fast, hot, and usually quicker. The tablets burn smokeless, have a high energy density, do not liquefy while burning, and leave no ashes. They are typically made of a component called hexamine. They can be used to get fires going in poor conditions, so they have a place in the pantheon of emergency cooking, for sure. Their major drawback is that one tablet will only burn for about 12-15 minutes. For this reason, consider having both chafing fuel cans and solid fuel options in your collapsible cook stove bag if you plan to go this route.
A collapsible folding stove will be better than a camping stove for two main reasons. First, it is more easily portable and has less of a footprint. Second, its fuel source will more reliably ignite and burn than a butane or propane canister. When it comes to butane and propane canisters, they will be more challenged in colder temperatures, and the pressure differences will cause the propane to burn off a little more quickly than with the butane. Canister stoves are typically powered by propane blended with butane or iso-butane to both keep the fuel stable and allow it to continue to burn even when it’s not so hot out. A 7-ounce Sterno can give you two hours of cooking time, and a typical gas canister will provide you with two hours at high heat and four hours at a simmer. Still, a cooking stove that runs off propane can be a many-month solution if you connect it to a large propane tank. This is the long-term home cooking solution for many worldwide when your country doesn’t have a reliable grid system or flow of natural gas. An 11 to 100-pound propane tank connected to a camp stove will allow you to keep your cooking indoors and will provide you with months of cooking time.
Another option here is liquid-fueled stoves. These are powered by white gas to burn clean. Your cooking is limited to the fuel you have on hand. These stoves rely on the priming and vaporization of the liquid fuel before it leaves the nozzle to the flame point. Obviously, one of the drawbacks to liquid fuel beyond the availability is combustibility. If things go wrong near your fuel source, you will have a much more significant problem on hand. The old-school and, in my opinion, safer version of the liquid fuel cooker is a kerosene stove. These are usually built with wind resistance in mind and get hot. Kerosenes is inexpensive and a more shelf-stable alternative to liquid gas or petroleum spirit stoves.
7: Mini Alcohol Stove
Though I have kind of already addressed these with the liquid fuel stoves w ejust mentioned, we have to put something like the Portable Mini Alcohol Stove Single Burner Camping Stove with Aluminium Stand in its own category. It is the other fuel stoves refined and distilled into a lightweight, miniature unit that can burn multiple liquid fuel sources. Just remember that because the fuel source burns so clean and hot, it may be burning though you don’t see it. That can be as dangerous, as it is efficient and better for your OPSEC. Here I have it burning with isopropyl alcohol, but you could easily use any 60 proof or higher alcohol. You could probably use gasoline, though you will end up with a sooty fire residue. It isn’t as chintzy as a homemade alcohol soda can burner, but it is as small. At 2 inches and 5 ounces made of brass and conductive aluminum, it’s sturdy and small. One hundred milliliters or a 1/2 cup of denatured alcohol will provide 50 minutes of cook time. It’s high heat and no smoke, so your OPSEC is maintained. Realize, too, that the cleaner burning fuel may make it difficult for you to see the actual flame. You could, if you have to, burn other combustible liquids in it.
It has its drawbacks and limitations, for sure, but given its price point and small size, it’s a solution for many. At the very least, even if you just heat liquids over it, you will have a high-temperature heat source, well-contained, with a low smokeless signature. That’s why we put it here in a category of its own.
8: Can Cooker
More in the cookware category because it doesn’t come with its own initial heat source is the Can Cooker. There are different types of these, but the Can Cooker is really designed better than most we have seen on the market. The advantage to this cooker is that it only needs a low heat source to cook anything from meat to dry beans effectively. You can get the heat from a camp stove, fuel stove, an arrangement of emergency candles, or a small contained fire as in a hobo stove. You need a high heat initially to bring the contents to a low boil, but then you can have a very low heat source to maintain an internal cooking temperature in the cooking chamber.
Depending upon what you are cooking, the initial boil may be all you need. You could then pack the cooker in an insulated bag or pack and take it on the go with you. That’s not ideal, but the dual clasps on the lid make it an option nonetheless. Even with my limited cooking skills, we made a successful meal in the can cooker. Again, whether your heat source is an arrangement of hurricane candles, tea candles in a coffee can, a chafing fuel can, camp stove, or open fire, you only need a little heat to maintain a stable cooking temperature in the can. We have a full review of this cooker we will link below.
9: Dutch Oven
The Dutch Oven also fits into this cookware category because it doesn’t have its own heat source. Typically made out of cast iron, it will require more initial heat to get going, but it will stay hotter on its own longer than the Can Cooker will. This is one you can put over the fire, in the fire, or simply stack coals on it or around it. You can bake, stew, fry, or roast an entire hunk of meat with potatoes and vegetables. Dutch ovens come in different sizes with various features and have a history dating back to the 17th century.
Some Dutch Ovens have a lid that doubles as a cooking surface. Some have legs that allow you to elevate them slightly above a coal bed. Some have additions to the top to allow for stacking multiple units. Some have flanged lids on top, a feature attributed to the famous blacksmith Paul Revere, designed to hold the coals on top. To cook anything, you can put the contents inside and then stack hot coals on the lid. This will create a steady high temperature to the contents within. You control the internal temperature by the number of coals and their duration on the top.
Cooking with a Dutch Oven is an art form, which is why there are often cooking competitions and lots of recipes online. You will want to practice with a Dutch Oven long before a disaster necessitates its use, but simply using it in your kitchen along with your other cookware will be a fantastic upgrade to your cooking skills. Once you’ve had a pot roast cooked in your oven with a dutch oven, you will never go back to any other method to cook that meal.
Like cast iron, you have to season it and treat it well, but the same dutch oven you invest in today will easily be passed on to your great-great-grandchildren. They’re built to last. If you expect to be cooking outside on fire for a very long time or you expect you will have a permanent campsite for a long time, a dutch oven is the way to go.
10: Thermal Cookers
A thermal cooker works similarly to the Can Cooker we already mentioned. We say “similarly” because they are made not to require continual heat sources to do their job. They work on the principle of not letting the initial cooking heat out. There are two types we have used for this purpose. The first one is the Wonderbag. It is a heavily insulated cloth bag. All you need to do to cook your food is to bring your pot to a boil allowing the food to be heated all the way through. Then, you place a trivet or flat rock in the bag, put your pot on that, cover it with the insulative top cushion, draw the strings of the bag up around it, and then wait. The Wonderbag keeps the heat from escaping and keeps it concentrated in your food. The low, slow heat will keep the foods cooking, whether a stew, roast, hard beans, or pasta.
The same principle of retaining the heat to cook is one of my favorites–the thermal pot. Thermal cooking is an ancient form of cooking, but the thermal pot brings it neatly into the modern age. With this design, the cookpot is heated to around the boiling point- 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), then it is placed in the super-insulated outer pot. It traps the heat, and the external pot doesn’t get hot and can easily be carried, moved, or just set somewhere to complete its cooking process. The heat cooks the food slowly in the same way as a slow cooker would. If you don’t open the insulated outer pot, it can retain a temperature above 160 for almost 9 hours and above 140 degrees for 15 hours. Below 140 degrees and bacteria and mold can begin to grow. Still, if you don’t open it at all, your slow, consistent high temperature above 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees celsius) brings about another magical property of cooking– pasteurization. The application of low temperature for a long duration will effectively render inert any bacteria in your food. It’s not a permanent solution, by any means, and it isn’t as reliable as water-bath pressure canning, but if you keep it sealed, you could confidently eat from it a day or two after you put it in the insulated outer pot–perhaps even longer.
Since pasteurization is a by-product of this cooking style, you could heat water to a mere 150 degrees (65 degrees Celsius) and place it in the insulated outer pot. Even though the water never boils, after 10 minutes at this temperature, it will be pasteurized and safe to drink. Another obvious advantage to a thermal cooker is that it requires just your initial heat source, then you can tuck the cooker away. Your operational security is maintained because your fire is out, and the smell of your cooking isn’t released. Most preppers have hard beans and rice as part of their prepping supplies. This cooking method is ideal over a long, multi-hour slow cooking process over a heat source.
If you haven’t used a thermal bag or pot, you may want to consider it. You may find that a well-made thermal pot can easily replace that crockpot, raising your electricity bill while you are at work all day. Here we put both the pot and the bag to the test. With one cup of dry pinto beans, some spices, a can of tomato sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, and a bouillon cube each, it is similar in ingredients to what we might have after a disaster. These are just foods we might be drawing upon after a disaster– nothing fancy. We bring both pots to a boil, then seal them in their respective containers. 4-hours later, the temperature of the ingredients inside was XX. More importantly, though, the hard beans were cooked thoroughly. Definitely consider one of these if you haven’t already.
11: Electric Cookers
Because gas and solar generators have become an affordable emergency option for many, we have to include hot plates and beverage heaters in a post-disaster emergency cooking scenario. Sometimes all you need to survive is heated water. For that purpose, we have a heater coil. These get super-hot but draw only 12 Volt/10 amps/120 Watts. Because of this, you can run them off your car battery or generator with a minimal draw. You can render water pasteurized and drinkable, and some will get hot enough to boil water. Boiled water opens up a multitude of cooking options for you.
If you use a generator or solar energy system, a slightly larger hot plate will draw more electricity from your power source but provide you with even more options. If you ever lived in a tiny apartment or in a little college dorm room, then chances are you have some experience with these micro cooking units. With these you have to shop around and test them out. The pan we got took awhile to heat up, but the hotplate was hot and stayed hot long after it was turned off. This single plate, flat burner unit will draw more electricity, but it quickly gets things up to a cooking temperature. If we couple this with a thermal cooker, we can avoid running it for too long of a single period. If we couple it with a solar generator, we will still have hours of cooking time from a replenishable energy source.
My advice in this category is to read the reviews and don’t go cheap. Consider it an investment, even if a more low-cost one than some of the other cooking methods mentioned earlier. The reason why is because these are made to slow and increase the resistance to the flow of electricity. That’s why they get hot. That’s also why they can be dangerous if not built well. Make sure the plastics on the product don’t easily melt and favor silicone over plastic. We wish w still had my mom’s old electric griddle from the 1970s. That’s probably still in use somewhere. If you get a good unit, they are built to last and keep you cooking as long as you have access to an electrical source.
12: Solar Cookers
No power, no problem, so long as the sun is shining. Solar cookers are an efficient way to cook after a disaster. If you have ever led a Cub Scout activity building a solar cooker, you will know that you can’t just easily throw one together after a disaster. The parabolic focusing of lightwaves is a science, and cooking with one of these is challenging. If the sun isn’t shining or you can’t remain stationary for an extended period of time, you might not be able to get enough heat for long enough to cook effectively.
Suppose you are in a permanent location with steady direct sunlight, you won’t find a more reliable cooking method, which is why an excellent solar cooker is a high-priority piece of prepping equipment. A well-made unit is expensive because it is so precisely made. Its fuel source is the sun, so there’s no wood or biomass for any fires or electrical requirements. From an OPSEC standpoint, you have a super shiny, mirror-like reflective device sitting out on your lawn or in a clearing in the woods, so that is an obvious drawback. It is the “anywhere the sun is shining” aspect that makes this a viable option.
The problem with these is no sun and no cooking. They require constant direct sun and adjustment. It’s not something you are likely to be successful with on your first try, so try a few meals to get the sense of it. Even after an SHTF situation, a solar cooker can be fashioned out of a small satellite dish and pieces of broken mirror, mylar, or aluminum, so you can build one after a disaster. Whether you buy one made, fashion your own, or try to create one after a disaster, you will want to get familiar with cooking with one. It isn’t something you can quickly get the hang of and pull out anytime to whip up a meal. Commit to cooking one meal on it every month, so you will be ready after a disaster.
What may work for some because of their region and the disaster they will most likely face may not work for others. Many people would struggle to heat up a cup of noodles once the power goes out or the natural gas stops flowing. It’s a misconception that either electricity or gas is a reliable means of post-disaster cooking. Failures across Texas’ natural gas operations and supply chains due to extreme temperatures were the most significant cause of the power crisis that left millions of Texans without heat and electricity. In many cases, gas and municipal electric systems rely upon each other, and you have to depend on the lines remaining unbroken and untampered with to keep a continual flow of either. Even gas pumping stations at the source, running off of natural gas coming right up out of the ground and converting that to electricity to pump gas to your home, are rendered useless if there’s a line break a block or two before your house.
Likewise, you can always rely on the safety of a fire or the biomass or fuel necessary to keep a fire going. Consider the twelve options I have covered here and regularly deploy two or more of them in your prepping life to ensure you have redundancy and multiple options. In this way, after a disaster strikes or SHTF, you will be able to roll over to a different style of cooking seamlessly. Maintaining access to cooked and heated food is not only the only way to prevent food-borne illness; it’s a psychological boost that can keep you going. Just the time preparing food can keep your mind occupied and off the troubles that may be swirling around outside. Consider mobility, ease of use, your OPSEC, cookware, and your heating requirements and fuels when considering any long-term solution.
What do you think? What’s your best solution for cooking after a disaster, or what combination of solutions are you planning on deploying? Is there a method we haven’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments below, and we will consider it for a future blog.
As always, stay safe out there.