Getting fresh baked biscuits in the backcountry

Newly minted graduate Julie Painter

Julie Painter prepares to back biscuits during a desert camping trip. (Jerry Painter photo)

My wife graduated on Friday from Brigham Young University-Idaho.

She did things backward. A couple of weeks before, she retired from her job in the accounting department at East Idaho Credit Union. She’d worked there for 18 years.

Being a smarty pants is just one of her many talents. She also makes a great outdoor companion.

She had always wanted to get her bachelor’s degree — getting married years ago derailed her schooling. I met her as a college sophomore.

In between, there were babies and part-time jobs and perfecting her baking recipes. Her quest for learning never faded.

I became especially fond of her baked goods, particularly her biscuits. When we first got married I told her that it was a Painter tradition to bake excellent biscuits. She took it as a challenge. And nailed it. I remember her baking biscuits in my parent’s kitchen one morning and my Dad — the grand poobah of Painter biscuit baking — peeked over her shoulder. He watched her every move like a rattlesnake tracking a mouse.

“Plain yogurt?” My Dad exclaimed as she mixed the batter together. “Now I know your secret.”

When the fluffy biscuits were taken from the oven, he told her “good job — delicious.” She had been officially accepted into the high muckety-mucks of Painter family biscuit making.

So a few years ago, Julie and I were on a quest to make great biscuits while camping, including on backpacking trips. We didn’t want to use a cast iron Dutch oven. We wanted a set up that could be used for simple, fast and lightweight situations.

We bought a device called the “BakePacker.” It lifts a pan off the pack stove’s burner and has a surrounding curtain to circulate the heat around the pan. The setup worked wonderfully, but is still only best suited for larger backpacking groups because of its weight.

The other issue that adds weight to producing biscuits in the outback is the ingredients. After some experimenting, we mixed flour, baking powder, powdered milk and a bit of shortening in the right proportions so that all it needed was water to make the dough. We mixed it up in a plastic zipper bag.

We’ve also found “just add water” biscuit mixes in the grocery store that also work well. Some corn bread and cake mixes can be amazing in the backcountry after a long day of trudging up mountain trails.

But be warned: All of this food luxury comes at a weight cost. This is not ultra-light backpacking.

My youngest son, who is at that stage in life where his muscles allow for extra luxuries on the trail, hauls a ton of glorious meals. I, on the other hand, grunt along with freeze-dried meals that are kinder to an old man’s back.

If you don’t want to purchase a BakePacker system, I’ve also had success with breads and biscuits with a simpler setup (although more finessing). It can be done with campfire coals and an all-metal pot with an all-metal lid. Burn a campfire down to coals and rise the pot off the coals with rocks. To get heat on top, dump coals on top of the lid. I found that I would have to check on my bread regularly to prevent burnt or scorched bread, but the results were usually tasty.

Of course, fresh baked bread or biscuits may not be worth the extra weight or hassle. You can always just bake the items at home and bring them along.

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The Tour of Marsh Valley on May 26 will offer road bikers a 26-, 60- and 100-mile loop from Pocatello south to the foot of Malad Pass over back roads. This $40 ride is supported with feed stations and a lunch at the end. There is generally a big crowd from Idaho Falls who join in the fun. For more information, go to www.bikereg.com/38379.

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The road from West Yellowstone into Yellowstone National Park opens to cars on Friday. The road is still an OK option for cyclists because the traffic shouldn’t be too busy, especially in the morning. The Teton Park Road from the Taggart and Bradley Trailhead to Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park is closed to cars through the end of the month. National parks offer free entrance Saturday.

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