Cowboy Outdoor Cooking: History, Equipment and the Basics

cowboy cooking on a campfire

If you want to try a new style of cooking in the great outdoors, why not try your hand at cowboy outdoor cooking? Cooking the cowboy way is a reflection of the culture, traditions, and flavors of the historic old west.

What Is Cowboy Outdoor Cooking?

The only way to understand the cooking techniques and the flavors of the food that cowboys ate on the open range is to first understand exactly what a cowboy was during the middle of the eighteenth century.

The Civil War and Demand for Cattle

The Civil War of 1861 created a unique economic condition in the United States. It depleted both cattle in the Eastern states, and the supply of young cowboys in the West. The shortage of cattle in the East and an oversupply of untended cattle in the West led to entrepreneurs throughout the west rounding up the cattle and driving them north to the "cattle towns" of Kansas for transfer to points east by train.

The booming cattle business transformed how cowboys cooked and ate on the trail. Simple campfire cooking was transformed by the invention of the mobile outdoor kitchen wagon by Colonel Charles Goodnight, termed the "Chuck Wagon" after the inventor.

Since then, the term "Chuck Wagon cooking" has been used by many to describe the techniques and the unique flavors of food on the trail during these long and grueling cattle drives. These conditions lasted throughout the next few decades, until railroads finally made it to the Southwestern states. However, the tradition lives on today in the form of cowboy outdoor cooking.

Cooking on the Trail

Campers can learn a trick or two from the simple techniques cowboys would use to cook over an open campfire while on the trail. Cowboy campfire cooking requires few tools, but produces flavorful and filling meals while in the wilderness. Because cattle were such an integral part of the southwestern diet, you'll find that many of the traditional recipes involve braised meats and meals centered on beef. However, you'll discover that cowboys also had a taste for canned vegetables and sauces as well as other foods you would not expect - like jalapenos biscuits or double-crusted fruit pies for a little extra flavor. The basic tools of cowboy cooking included the following.

  • Dutch oven cookware
  • A camping setup made of cast iron to hang the dutch oven pots over the fire
  • A grill for cooking directly over the fire or coals
  • Accessories and utensils such as long-handled forks
  • Long pot-holders

Cooking on the Chuck Wagon

Originally, cowboys had to bring along their food and cooking supplies attached to the saddle. Of course, this made things harder for both the horse and the cowboy. However, once the post Civil-War long-distance cattle drives started, trail bosses were desperate for another solution. This demand led to businessman Charles Goodnight inventing a better way to haul food and cook meals for cowboys during a cattle drive. He bought and rebuilt a sturdy government wagon and fitted it with boxes, shelves and compartments for food and fire supplies. Cowboys on the trail called the wagon the "Chuck" wagon, after the inventor.Cattle drive operators hired a cook to run the chuck wagon on the trail. This new style of trail cooking led to a tradition of food preparation that continues on even today. Chuck wagon cooking involved the following food preparation techniques.

  • Meats were transported in brine-filled barrels for preservation.
  • Preparing beef in a wide variety of ways was an absolute necessary skill.
  • Dutch ovens were used to cook pot roasts, pies, biscuits and a wide assortment of other meals.
  • While nutrition was far more important than flavor, chuck wagon cooks used canned fruits, beans or dried spices to add some zest to each meal.
  • Meals are always cooked over an open wood fire using heavy cast iron tools

Flavors on the Trail

Cowboy outdoor cooking includes a wide variety of foods; however, there were many specific meals that became the mainstay of trail cooking. Those included the following.

  • Chicken fried steak
  • Beef pot roast
  • Beef stew
  • Pinto beans
  • Potatoes in various forms
  • Fruit pie or cobbler
  • Cornbread
  • Biscuits or rolls

The Dutch Oven

The best way to learn how to cook over a campfire like the cowboys did is to purchase a set of Dutch oven cookware, find recipes and just start practicing. There are techniques to frying, baking and roasting with the Dutch oven. Trail cooks could accomplish anything from apple cobbler to warm and toasty biscuits using a Dutch oven over an open wood fire. If you can accomplish such a task - you'll be a hit at any campsite. The following are some great resources to learn how to cook using the chuck wagon technique.

  • Byrons Dutch Oven Recipes is a large collection of recipes, from "Old Home Apple Pie" to "Sourdough Banana Bread."
  • Scout-O-Rama is a very large collection of Dutch oven recipes for scouts, since Scouts base their campfire cooking around using the Dutch oven. Recipes are sorted by meal type - breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  • Mark's Black Pot is a great blog by a Dutch oven enthusiast who posts constant recipe updates to his blog devoted to Dutch oven cooking.
  • Just Dutch Oven Recipes lists a wide range of great Dutch oven recipes organized by main ingredient, such as beef, chicken, or even seafood.

Learning how to cook over an open fire with a Dutch oven isn't just a method to create great meals at the campsite, it's also a way to celebrate the wonderful tradition and history of the southwest. It's a way to sample the flavors, the atmosphere and the experience of those long-ago cattle drives.

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Cowboy Outdoor Cooking: History, Equipment and the Basics