The Disaster Field Bakery, by JIR

I can’t agree with you more on the subject of charity. Watching people starve is not in the cards for me if I can help it. In a TEOTWAWKI situation, you won’t be able to help very much, but for a lesser catastrophe, most of your readers could really help a lot of people by working with local authorities or church groups to feed people until help can arrive. Water is an even more urgent need, but I would like to describe my own preparations for setting up a field bakery and soup kitchen. Maybe I can help inspire others to do the same.

Unfortunately, most modern Americans don’t have the slightest clue what to do with a bucket of wheat. They don’t have the tools, skills or other ingredients to make it into anything but boiled wheat berries. Even that might be beyond a group of refugees on foot. Handing them unprocessed foods like grain and beans is not going to be much good.

Instead, you can set up a bakery and soup kitchen. Of course, you will need help. A local church can supply manpower and probably manage most of the grunt-work once you get them organized. You will probably need to supply all the equipment except for tables and chairs. You will also need to supply the recipe and know-how and possibly some of the basic ingredients. Wheat, yeast, milk powder, oil, and salt. Also, don’t forget the wood for fuel.

Here is a very interesting link that describes a WWI army field bakery.

That is sort of what I am talking about. Using the listed equipment, a six man section could supposedly produce 2,250 pounds of bread per day. The recipes they use are not that great, but you get the idea. Each run takes about 2 hours to bake (and you have two more runs rising at the same time). You don’t have to get this ambitious. You can scale this down to whatever level you are able to handle. Even if you can only bake a couple of dozen loaves a day, you could really help a lot of people waiting for FEMA to show up and save them.

An outdoor wood-fired oven with enough capacity to feed a lot of people is a good thing to own. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything for sale commercially that fit the bill. Using the old army model as a rough pattern, I designed and built my own.

My Bread Oven

First, I really need to admit that my oven is hideously ugly. The level of workmanship that went into it was terrible. Most of your readers can probably do better. For tools I used a hand drill, pop riveter, pliers, tin snips and a jigsaw with metal cutting blades.

My complete oven stands close to 6 feet tall counting the legs and maybe 2 feet wide and thick. It’s a large rectangle with two oven doors on opposite sides and it stands about 16 inches above the ground on metal tubing legs. It’s heated using a large hobo-stove (made from a gas cylinder) that sits underneath it. It can bake six large loaves of delicious bread at a time, and the hobo-stove uses about 10 pounds of hard wood per hour at baking temperatures.

The whole oven weighs about 80 pounds and can by carried by one man. A lot of the weight comes from the layer of tile I use to distribute heat (see below) and can be removed for transport. If you remove the legs as well, you can fit this oven into the back seat of a large sedan.

My design is really simple. It’s basically two sheet metal boxes attached inside a larger sheet metal box. The inner boxes form the bread ovens (two of them). They both have doors cut through the outer box to the outside and hinged doors, also made of sheet metal. The bottom is open and a separate brazier or hobo stove is burned underneath. The hot air and smoke rises up through the open bottom, circulates around both inner boxes and exits through a hole at the top. Simple. If you make it tight enough, the smoke never touches the bread, so you can burn almost anything for fuel. (Mine leaks a tiny bit of smoke, so I have to stick with burning hard wood or untreated lumber).

I have a wire shelf just below the bottom oven that I cover with 4 inches of ceramic tiles to hold heat and insulate the bottom oven. This makes the oven easier to use and keeps the temperature in both ovens closer to the same. It works without the tiles, but it’s harder to regulate the heat from the hobo stove. The object is to put some mass between the fire and the bottom oven. I use tile because I have it, but a pan of sand would work too.

The whole thing is assembled using pop-rivets. I used two largish rectangular trash bins for the outer oven casing. This can be almost any fireproof container as long as it is open at the bottom, large enough to contain the oven boxes with about 2-4 inches air space on 3 sides. A single metal box would have been better, but I found two stainless steel trash bins and simply riveted them together.

I made the bread ovens (the inner boxes) out of about 14 large cookie sheets. (Any sheet metal will do the trick. The heavier the better.) If I were doing it over, I would use pre-made boxes of some kind for the inner ovens. Building sheet metal boxes is harder than I thought it would be. If you can spot-weld, this chore is easier, but I had to use rivets, so my boxes leak a little smoke.

The inner boxes are riveted to the outer box, 4 inches above the bottom ceramic shelf, the top one about 6 inches above the bottom one. They are staggered so that the heat has to flow over both of them. The doors are on opposite sides of the oven to help with heat distribution. This gives you two smaller ovens, the top one about 50 degrees cooler than the bottom one. This works fine and gives you a lot of versatility, but it was a lot of trouble to make. If I were doing it over, I might make one large oven box. Try not to let your bread pans sit directly on the bottom, or your bread will burn. I used some little metal wire racks to keep mine about an inch above the bottom of the oven.

My oven legs are metal tubing scavenged from thrown away furniture, but I could have more easily used angle iron. They should be sturdy and hold the oven just above the hobo stove. This lets you tend the fire easily or remove it entirely. The stronger your shell and legs are, the better. More weight will help even out the heat, so heavier is better. Also, if your stove and legs are sturdy enough, you can set pots on top of the stove to heat water.

If your outer shell is large enough, you might consider building the fire-box into the oven body, like a real stove. I chose the separate hobo-stove for versatility, ease of cleanup and transportability. I made my hobo stove out of a disposable helium cylinder from a party balloon kit. Any metal cylinder with an open top will work fine. A bucket would probably work just as well. Cut one side of the container so you can add fuel from the side and several large air holes. Insulate the bottom with gravel or sand and you are finished. (A wire handle and a grate on top of the stove are nice touches, but not needed for this project.) Hobo stoves burn wood very efficiently because they form a strong draft from the bottom, so a long tube is more efficient than a short one and you need plenty of air holes. Regulate temperature by adding fuel, not by cutting off air flow. These stoves work best running hot and fast, so it’s better to burn smaller amounts
of fuel fast and add more as needed. If you are doing it right, you will have very little smoke.

For fuel, I burn seasoned scrub oak sawed into 6 inch lengths and split about an inch or two wide. I have also used chopped up pine lumber and brush and dead limbs out of my yard. All of them seem to work about the same. To use this oven, simply light the hobo stove and let the oven heat up (about 10 minutes). Pop your loaves in the ovens and keep the fire burning at low to medium. (My hobo-stove is maybe 10 inches wide and can put out a lot of heat. It will overheat this oven if I get too happy throwing on wood. I think I could have gotten by using a coffee can for a hobo stove and making the stove legs shorter.)

Old School Field Baking

I am not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by explaining how to bake bread, but I have some tips for doing it outdoors on a larger scale, that might be useful.

Be organized so you can quickly pass off the simple chore of baking to others. Once you get things running, there is no need for a highly-skilled survivor-type to stand there and baby-sit it. You are more valuable than that. Keep everything simple. When you set up your bakery operation, write your recipe and instructions in magic marker on whatever table you are using. That way anyone can take over and keep the bread coming while you do other useful work.

You need a good water supply. If you are carrying water from far away, you are wrong. It’s much easier to carry finished bread than water. You will need lots of clean water to mix in the dough, but even more water for washing pans and bowls and utensils. You need several big water containers and a larger container for washing. (Army immersion heaters would probably work really well for washing up, but I don’t have one, so I cheat and wash up inside at my kitchen sink right now. I have a large bushel size wash tub, but I have never used it for this.) Set up your washing station nearby so you can use it between batches. Bring lots of latex gloves [and non-latex for those that are allergic] and make all your helpers use them. Nuff said.

You will also need a hand-washing station wherever you are planning to feed people. Don’t forget soap and paper towels. Food borne illness is a big killer after a disaster. You may save more lives with your washing point than with your bread. I recommend having disposable cups for soup and no other implements. Make them drink the soup. Washing up bowls and spoons is very labor intensive and not as sanitary as plastic cups. (You will need several hundred a day plus about 4 rolls of paper towels. Liquid soap is better than bar soap for hand washing.

You need some working space. Set up at least one large picnic table for counter space. Two is better. That will allow you to use one for cleanup and the other for dough prep. Spread a table-cloth or sheet of plastic. Keep a small pail of soapy water and a sponge nearby to wipe up flour and your area will stay clean. Lay out a cookie sheet on the table to lay utensils on so they never touch anything dirty. The ingredients should never touch anything except the utensils, mixing bowls and the bread pans. (After the bread comes out, you will need something to wrap it with after it cools a little, but odds are, the bread won’t last very long!) The utensils should always sit on the cookie sheet and should be thoroughly washed between batches. Keeping everything clean outdoors is hard, but organization can really help. So can paper towels if you have them.

Mix your dough in a large metal container and don’t try to knead it by the loaf. (I make six loaves at a time, which is still small enough to stir by hand). Don’t knead the dough with your hands. Stir it instead with a sturdy spoon or spatula. A 16 inch length of 1×2 pine board works really well for this. Just keep it clean. For containers, stock pots work great. (You will need about six of them. It’s hard to have too many.) Mix all your ingredients, stir it for about 5-10 minutes, put a lid on the pot and put it someplace warm for about an hour. (The top of your stove will be WAY too hot, but you can probably put it near the fire at the base. Another warm place is inside a car sitting in the sun). At the end on an hour, mix up another batch, punch down the first batch and transfer it into baking pans and lay these in a clean, warm place to rise again. (Clean as you go.)

Rising dough needs a clean warm place. Clean, warm place? That’s the biggest problem you may face. If it’s cold out, you can’t use a car for a solar oven to warm your dough. Another good solution is to use a cooler. If you line the bottom with ceramic tile or gravel, you can heat up a rock or piece of metal and lay it inside the cooler to heat the air inside. I use 3 chunks of rebar and rotate them in the fire to keep the whole cooler between 80 and 100 degrees. If it’s too cold for any of these methods, you are probably better off using baking soda instead of yeast for leavening. It’s almost as good when you are hungry, and much easier to deal with in cold weather.

At the end of the second hour, pop your pans in the hot ovens, make another batch and fill some more pans. After this point, you will be producing one batch of bread every hour or so. My oven bakes bread in 45 minutes using my pans. Yours will be different, so you have to experiment. Remember, if you use my stove design, the top stove is cooler than the bottom stove. Let it cook a few minutes longer.

My stove body is very sturdy and the top has a single 6 inch hole for a vent. The whole top gets hot (probably 350 to 400 degrees at least. This allows me to put a stock pot and a couple of smaller pots directly on top of the stove to heat water. It will even boil small pots of water if you put them over the vent (You have to make sure you don’t block the air flow). A big stock pot gets hot enough for soup. If you put a big pot of water up top, it will heat up to about 150 degrees in an hour. That allows you to add instant soup mix and serve soup with your bread for very little additional trouble and no extra fuel.

Normal bread pans can be used if you build your oven to the right dimensions. I was stupid and didn’t do that, so I had to make my own pans to efficiently use the oven space available.

Every run of my oven requires about 15 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of dry milk, 4 cups of sugar, 8 cups of oil and a generous handful of salt. Figure 10 runs a day minimum at 150 pounds of flour. (60 big loaves a day is a lot of food). You will have to try your own system out once or twice using your pans and recipes to see how much it’s going to cost you in supplies.

Your group can probably get flour or grain (popcorn, rice, wheat, barley or even millet) from somewhere locally to help you out. Even birdseed with un-hulled sunflower and rape seeds is usable if you grind it very coarsely at first and use a colander to get rid of the big hulls. (You can also float them away). Mix and match different flours in an emergency. You are not cooking for a 5 star restaurant and “It’s all good.” (Birdseed mix is not very good for bread, so mix it with wheat flour and cut down the oil you add by half.) Your life will be better if you have a flour sifter. A sifter or a course colander can also get rid of trash from dirty feed wheat. Otherwise, your finished flour will have hulls and such in it.

Flour is much easier to work with than buckets of wheat! You will need some way to grind it. I strongly recommend getting a good grain mill like the Country Living Mill and motorizing it. Even a car inverter (a big one) can run an electric grain mill. You are going to have to provide over 15 pounds of flour every hour! That’s a lot different from grinding 2 cups of flour for some muffins. Grinding wheat by hand is soul-destroying work, so do anything you can to avoid having to do it the hard way!

If you are facing serious hunger and you need to add more solid food to your kitchen, rice is the natural choice. It cooks fast, stores well and is pretty filling. Simple white rice is very boring and may not be eaten by some Americans, even in a crisis. Even adding a few beans can make it more palatable. Rice and beans are probably acceptable to most Americans, but beware, beans take a long time to cook and lots of fuel. You won’t be able to use a insulated cooker unless you have a lot of pots and patience. Waiting for the beans to come off might cause a riot.

Remember, any solid foods you serve are going to require clean utensils and containers.

If you store white flour, odds are, you will need to rotate a lot of it when a disaster strikes. Use it first. The extra nutrition provided by whole wheat is not that important for a healthy population. If they were well fed yesterday, they are in no danger of getting rickets or pellagra. They just need calories. You might even be able to claim it on your income taxes.