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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Couscous With Blueberries and Pecans

Record-high gasoline prices may prompt people to cancel that drive to Disneyland and vacation in the nearby hills instead.

But camping offers a different challenge: What to eat in the wild, where there are no drive-through windows or microwave ovens.

Often outdoor cooking involves toting heavy stuff, such as Dutch ovens, canned food and coolers, not to mention a lot of prep and cooking time.

Cleanup can be a hassle without a sink or running water.

But there's an easy option that's also inexpensive, called "freezer-bag cooking," according to Sara Oldroyd of Salt Lake County's Utah State University Extension.

At home, combine dry ingredients in a plastic zip-top freezer bag. At your destination, you only have to pour some hot water in the bag and let it sit awhile to "cook."

Reopen the bag and you've got a meal, such as Fruit & Nut Couscous, Bacon & Potato Chowder or Ramen Pad Thai. Dinner is served right out of the bag, so there are no pots, pans or mixing bowls to clean.

If you're hiking, freezer-bag meals are easier to transport than cans of chili or stew, and they are usually cheaper than the special backpacking food products. They also are handy to store in 72-hour emergency kits, Oldroyd said.

She got the idea from a Weber County 4-H group and has since done classes on freezer-bag cooking for 4-H camps and emergency preparedness groups. There's also a Web site, www.freezer bagcooking.com, with recipes and tips.

"You're really just using basic ingredients, so people can just use up the dried goods that they have at home," Oldroyd said. "People can make their individual meal bag and customize it with things they like. If you don't like almonds, you can add dried fruit or something else to your own bag."

If the recipe calls for a protein, such as chicken or tuna, you can bring the type that's packaged in a shelf-stable foil pouch, and add it at cooking time.

Oldroyd said she's found it easy to get kids involved in the freezer-bag cooking process. "Dutch ovens aren't really kid-friendly, they're so heavy," she said. "These are easy for kids to do. And it's fast, so when they're hungry, it will be ready 15 minutes later."

Some people have questions about chemicals in the plastic bags that might leach into the food. Oldroyd said she checked the Ziploc Web site, which states that the brand's freezer bags don't contain BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical that may be linked to growth of a certain category of prostate cancer cells. The Glad Web site also has a similar statement.

The key is to make sure you use a bag specified for freezer use. "Regular sandwich bags can't withstand higher and lower temperatures," Oldroyd said.

You'll need hot water, although it doesn't have to be boiling. If you're just going on a day hike, you can bring a thermos of boiling water from home, Oldroyd said. If you're camping, you can heat a pan of water over a camp stove or barbecue grill. Most campsites have a water spigot, but you can also bring along water purifier equipment if you're drawing water from a lake or stream, she said.

At home, you mix the dry ingredients together and write with a marker on the zip-top bag the item and how much water is needed for the meal to hydrate. Once you get to camp, boil the water. Set the opened bag on the ground or table. Pour the water in carefully to avoid burns.

"Zip the bag up again and get rid of as much air as you can from it," Oldroyd said. "Shake it and make sure everything gets touched with the water."

Then you place the bag in a "cozy," to hold in the heat. This can be an insulated lunch bag, two hot pads sewn together, a towel or sweatshirt," Oldroyd said. "A beanie is a good size, and you probably already have one with you."

One caution, said Oldroyd: If you're using clothing, such as a beanie for your cozy, it will pick up the aromas of the cooked food. So don't wear it at night, because the food aroma could could attract bears.

Then you wait, usually five to 10 minutes, while the food cooks. "The recipes that serve one or two people will rehydrate quickly," she said.

You can eat the food right out of the bag, or pour it into individual dishes.

She said couscous and oatmeal are two starches that cook well in freezer bags. You can use brown rice if you want to increase your fiber content, but it doesn't rehydrate as well.

Some recipes don't require any hot water or cooking. For a quick dessert, combine instant pudding mix and dry milk powder in the freezer bag, and then stir in cold water when you're at the camp site. You can seal the bag and keep it cold by putting it in a cold running stream, Oldroyd said.

COUSCOUS WITH BLUEBERRIES & PECANS

1/2 cup couscous

1/2 cup instant milk

1/4 cup dried blueberries

1/4 cup finely chopped pecans

5 tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

At home: Place items in a quart-size, zip-top freezer bag and seal.

In camp: Add 1 1/4 cups boiling water, stir well and put in cozy for 10 minutes. Serves 2. — Sara Oldroyd, USU Extension

SPINACH COUSCOUS

2 quart-size freezer bags

1 cup couscous

1 package Knorr Cream of Spinach Soup (found in the soup aisle)

3 tablespoons dry milk or soy milk powder

2 3-ounce pouches tuna

At home: Mix couscous, soup, milk and milk powder. Divide the mixture evenly into the two freezer bags and pack the tuna pouches separately.

In camp: Add about 1 cup water, and stir well. Let sit in a "cozy" for about 30 minutes. Add tuna to each pouch and eat. Serves 2. — Freezerbagcooking.com

BACON & POTATO CHOWDER

1 quart-size freezer bag

1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

1 tablespoon dried carrots

1/2 cup instant dried hash browns

1 envelope Lipton Creamy Chicken Soup Mix

1/3 cup instant milk powder

1 small pouch of shelf-stable bacon bits

At home: Mix all the items besides the bacon in the quart-size freezer bag. Pack the bacon pouch separately.

In camp: Add 2 cups of boiling water, stir well. Toss in 3 tablespoons of the bacon bits (or more to taste). Seal the top. Put in a "cozy" for 10 minutes. Mix well before serving. Serves 1-2.

Cook's Note: If the hash browns or Creamy Chicken Soup Mix aren't available at your grocery store, substitute about 3/4 cup of a creamy potato soup mix, such as Bear Creek Soup brand, and omit the onion flakes. — Freezerbagcooking.com

RAMEN PAD THAI

1 quart-size freezer bag

1 package spicy chicken ramen

1 3-ounce pouch chicken breast

1 heaping tablespoon of peanut butter (individual packets work well)

At home: Place ramen and seasoning packet ( 1/4 to all of the packet, to individual taste) in freezer bag. Pack chicken breast and peanut butter separately.

In camp: Boil 1 1/2 cups of water. Add to bag containing ramen. Seal the top. Let sit in the "cozy" for about 10 minutes.

Drain off some of the liquid. Stir in chicken and peanut butter.

Cook's note: If using canned chicken, drain the liquid from the can before adding to the bag. — Freezerbagcooking.com

RICE PUDDING

1 quart-size freezer bag

2/3 cup instant rice

1/3 cup raisins

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons instant dry milk

1/3 cup brown sugar

At home: Mix all ingredients in the quart-size freezer bag.

In camp: Add 1 cup boiling water. Stir well, and seal the top. Let sit in the "cozy" for 10-15 minutes. Serves 1 as a breakfast, 2 as a dessert. — Freezerbagcooking.com

LOADED MASHED POTATOES

1 gallon-size freezer bag

1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

1 4-ounce package (about 1 cup) mashed potato flakes, preferably sour cream- or cheese-flavored

1/4 cup instant dry milk

1 2.5-ounce package shelf-stable bacon pieces

At home: Mix onion flakes, potato flakes and dry milk in the freezer bag. Pack pouch of bacon.

In camp: Add 2 cups boiling water and bacon pieces. Stir to combine and seal the top. Let sit in the "cozy" for about 5 minutes. Makes 2 1-cup servings. — Valerie Phillips


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com