Rob Kesselring will tell you that there is only one meal that a camper, hiker, canoeist or other outdoor enthusiast can eat on the trail, day after day, and never become tired of it.
You will not tire of bannock, Kesselring says. No matter how exotic or flavorful your freeze-dried meals claim to be, you will tire of them after three to four days, he explains. Bannock is the one food that will remain delicious and nourishing for the duration of a trip.
Bannock is a quick bread, which means it uses baking powder, rather than yeast, for leavening. The basis of bannock is simple: flour, salt, baking powder and lard are its only ingredients.
Kesselring wrote about bannock in his book, “River Song,” as well as in an article that appeared a decade ago in the “Boundary Waters Journal.”
That’s how Earl Swenson, someone who might be called a bannock enthusiast, learned about it. As someone who loves to camp year-round and frequents the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Swenson makes bannock frequently, both at home and on the trail. He taught a seminar solely on bannock-making at the 2014 Winter Camping Symposium, a gathering of winter camping enthusiasts who share their expertise on subjects related to being outdoors in the winter.
If Swenson is a bannock enthusiast, Kesselring could be called a bannock purist.
Kesselring and Swenson each have separate philosophies on bannock. While Kesselring limits his bannock to its four ingredients, and makes only occasional, special exceptions for add-ins, Swenson has gotten creative with the quick bread, developing numerous variations.
Kesselring spent nine months living with the Dene, indigenous people in the Canadian subarctic. They carried only the fixings for bannock and some dried meat with them on the trail, and for every meal ate bannock and whatever they caught along the way. He observed them making bannock every day, and he carries their techniques with him when he’s out on the trail, be it a canoe trip or other wilderness adventure.
“I make the best bannock,” Kesselring said in a phone interview. “I want to be humble here, but I do make the world’s best bannock.”
And while Kesselring’s basic bannock sounds like the daydream of a canoeist on his 15th day in the wilderness, Swenson’s variations on the bread are equally mouthwatering.
What makes bannock particularly handy while camping is that, although it’s a bread, it’s easily made without an oven. However, it’s important to use a thick pan, which evenly distributes the heat, whether it’s aluminum or cast iron. The ingredients for bannock are easy to pack along (in fact, campers are likely to have them along anyway), and because the bread isn’t pre-cooked, you won’t risk crushing it in your pack.
Kesselring insists that measuring tools are not needed when making bannock. His method?
First, build a large, hanging fire, one that’s probably bigger than what you would normally use for campfire cooking. Combine about the same amount of flour as a big man’s fist, with about as much baking powder as it takes to cover the center of the palm of your hand. Add a pinch of salt and mix thoroughly.
Next, heat “three times as much lard as you think you need” in a heavy skillet. In his writing regarding bannock, Kesselring says that the lard should look like “an iceberg on an inky sea.”
When the lard is melted, pour nearly all of it into the flour mixture, along with a splash of water and mix. Return the skillet to the fire. If the dough is sticky, add more flour so it becomes elastic. Once the skillet is smoking hot, pull it from the fire and spread the dough into the skillet with your fist, being careful not to burn your knuckles on the bottom. Then, prop up the frying pan toward the fire so it is as close to vertical as you can get it. When it’s golden brown, flip it and cook for a few more minutes.
Swenson’s recipe is very similar, but perhaps more welcome to those who prefer a concise recipe (though he, too, only reluctantly offers round measurements).
1 c. white flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp lard
½ cup water
Swenson also will make bannock in a skillet over the fire (or on his stove at home), cooking it slowly, flipping once, and continuing cooking until the bannock is cooked through.
Cooking bannock is tricky because it’s thick. The bannock should be cooked with low to medium heat, and with a hanging fire, so that by the time the bottom is crispy and the bread is ready for a flip, the inside is beginning to be cooked. This way, the bannock won’t be crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside. Kesselring advises against doubling a bannock recipe because it will be more difficult to cook evenly and the middle could come out doughy.
In the absence of a thick skillet, Kesselring also will make bannock in the “fry bread” method. He melts lard in the pan so it’s about 3/8-of-an-inch deep, then makes his dough with the same measurements, but with just water, rather than water and lard. He rolls the dough into ping-pong size balls, flattens the balls and drops them into the lard to fry. (Kesselring notes to beware of catching the lard on fire.) Some call these little balls of dough “dodgers.”
Swenson and Kesselring agree that lard is the best fat to use in the recipe; Kesselring says it is the only fat to use for it.
“If you use oil, it’s terrible. It comes out like a pancake. Butter, terrible. Shortening …” he groaned. “You have to use lard.”
Swenson said he has had acceptable results with butter or vegetable shortening, but finds that the lard adds good flavor and provides for a crispier, flakier crust. Swenson also said that the animal fats are more satisfying and have more staying power on an active day.
Similar to his stance on lard, Kesselring also is obstinate in his assertions of what type of flour should be used. Whole wheat flour is not an option, Kesselring says, because the results simply are not the same; all-purpose white flour is the only way to go. He warns not to mix the baking powder and flour ahead of time, as the baking powder will gather moisture from the flour and lose its “zip.”
The final error that people make? Adding sugar. Kesselring says that sugar should not be ad
ded. “The last thing you need is more sugar,” he said.
Swenson would disagree. He says that while the basic recipe is good, it’s easy to make it better, and there are countless ways to do so.
“I wanted to do more with it, so I started putting all kinds of things in my bannock,” Swenson said. Since then, he’s come up with numerous recipes for the bread, both sweet and savory.
He’s made so much bannock, in fact, it seems that the details of the process have faded into the background as second nature. Most of his recipes are approximations, but in a way, that only adds to the flexibility of bannock.
Swenson turns the bannock into a complete meal by adding pre-cooked meat, like sausage crumbles or chopped summer sausage, and a few tablespoons of cheese. He makes an italian bannock by adding basil, oregano, garlic and parmesan, including some parmesan on the top after flipping, where it melts nicely onto the crispy crust of the bread. He’s also used bannock as pizza crust, or to make cinnamon rolls.
To Kesselring and Swenson, bannock remains a staple of their trips into the wilderness — whatever their difference in bannock philosophy may be.
“It’s comfort food,” Swenson said. “It’s warm, relaxing, fulfilling comfort food.”
Kesselring seconded that sentiment.
“I prefer it to bread,” he said. “You can go all day on it; I would take bannock over anything in the bakery.”