DIY Cardboard Box Oven

When I was a kid, family vacations were almost always camping. With four kids in a single-income household, we couldn’t really afford flying somewhere for a vacation.

Me, 1988, camping with my family in Oregon

Living in northern California meant we were a decent driving distance to some really wonderful places to camp. I have great memories of waking up early, packing the six of us into my mom’s red station wagon, my dad double checking that the brake lights on the tent trailer were working, and driving to wherever my parents planned for us to camp.

To this day, the smell of hot coffee in a car brings back those memories.

One thing my mom got really good at while camping was cooking. She was already a good cook at home, but she really embraced the whole concept of cooking outdoors.

Aside from the typical hot dogs roasted over the fire and s’mores, we ate really well from the two cast-iron Dutch ovens my mom brought with us… pot roast, chicken stew, peach cobbler, cornbread, chili. When my siblings and I were teenagers, we joked that we ate better while camping than we did at home. My mom used to teach a class on outdoor cooking to Girl Scout leaders every year; she’s just that good.

One of the cooking methods we never skipped when camping was doing some sort of baked yummy in our cardboard box oven.

What’s that you say? An oven? A cardboard box?

Camping over someone’s birthday? We’ll have a cake! Want fresh cornbread with your chili? Cupcakes or brownies to share with your neighboring campers? Pizzas? You can easily prepare a dish at home and keep it refrigerated in a cooler until you’re ready to bake… including enchiladas, lasagna and stuffed pastas. Absolutely anything that you would cook in your regular oven can be cooked in a cardboard box.

You don’t even need to be camping to give this a try. This can be a fun activity to do just in your backyard. Wow your kids and teach them about the reflective abilities of aluminum foil and the conduction of heat in a confined space. It’s food AND science.

Heck, when the zombie apocalypse happens and you don’t have a working oven anymore, you’ll be the awesome family who can still bake cupcakes.

 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • a plain cardboard box (it cannot be coated in plastic or painted. The boxes that hold reams of copy paper or produce are the best for this. Check your local Costco, Sam’s Club or office supply store to see if they’ll just give you one.)
  • heavy duty aluminum foil
  • four empty soda cans
  • metal tongs
  • a metal cooling rack that can fit inside your cardboard box (the rack cannot be Teflon-coated or have any kind of non-stick coating. The non-stick surface will release yucky chemicals into your food.)
  • 15-20 lit charcoal briquettes in an aluminum tray that is a little smaller than your cooling rack
  • your yummy item to be baked

Step 1:

Find a spot that is level where you can place your oven. Make sure it’s a spot where no one will accidentally trip over it (if you’re camping with kids, I know this isn’t easy). Also make sure the area is free of any flammable items such as grass, leaves or pine needles. Do not place your box oven on asphalt or black top. The hot charcoal will cause the tar to release toxic fumes into your food. Yuck!

Step 2:

Cut off any flaps that may be on your cardboard box. Then line the inside of your box with heavy duty aluminum foil. Use the rigidity of the heavy duty foil to hold it in place. Do not use any tape on the inside of the box. If you have to, you can use a little bit of tape on the outside of the box.

Step 3:

Start your charcoal. I am a purist and choose to light charcoal with a chimney starter. It’s an amazing and inexpensive invention that only uses some newspaper and a match to light your charcoal. I highly recommend it for barbecues, too. You’ll never have to taste lighter fluid in your food ever again. And for this application, I’m not sure the chemicals in lighter fluid or the “quick to light” charcoal wouldn’t leave a chemicals in your food. On a grill, they are typically burned off and blown away in the smoke. This is a contained box, so I highly recommend standard charcoal.

To calculate the temperature and baking time, consider that one lit briquette is roughly 20° F. So 17-18 briquettes will be the equivalent of 350° F. If you can get the number of coals right, then your baking times will be close to the recipes.

Step 4:

While your charcoal is getting hot, mix up whatever item you will be baking. Cake, cornbread, pizza, cupcakes, brownies, enchiladas, lasagna… whatever your rumbling tummy desires.

Step 5:

Take your four soda cans and fill them about halfway with dirt, sand or gravel; whatever you have access to. You want the cans to be a little heavy so they can hold the cooling rack and the item you are baking without tipping over.

My son was very happy to complete this task for me.

Don’t use cans that are full of soda and still sealed. If you do, you will learn what happens to carbonated liquid in a sealed container in a very hot environment: It’s not a fun or safe science experiment, trust me.

Step 6:

Position the cooling rack on top of the four soda cans and place an empty aluminum tray underneath. Then remove the cooling rack for a minute. Dump your hot coals into the aluminum tray and spread the coals evenly in the tray. I usually use my metal tongs for this. Carefully replace the cooling rack on top of the soda cans. You may want to use your tongs for that too, or an oven mitt.

Step 7:

Place the item to be baked on top of the cooling rack. Then slowly, place your cardboard box over everything, upside down. Be careful not to tip anything over. Start your timer or watch for however long your item needs to bake.

Step 8:

Place a small stick or a flat rock under one edge of the cardboard box to allow for a little bit of ventilation. If you cut off all of the oxygen in the box, the charcoal will go out too soon. Another science thing you can teach your kids: fire needs oxygen or it will go out.

Step 9:

Park yourself in a chair next to your cardboard box with a good book. Enjoy reading your book while making sure to shoo anyone away from your box oven. No peeking is allowed. Lifting your box will let a ton of hot air out and make your cooking time longer. This is a very important job that should be taken very seriously.

Step 10:

Your item is usually done when you can smell it, regardless of what the clock says. When it gets to that point, it’s worth a peek. When it’s done, carefully remove the box and take in the aroma of your freshly baked yummy and the gasps of astonishment coming from onlookers.

My son was three when I took these photos and he wasn’t all that wowed with this activity, but I think he was a bit too young to really “get” how an item can be baked with such simple items. I’m sure older kids would really get a kick out of baking in a cardboard box. About ten years ago I did this activity with a bunch of teenagers and I managed to render them speechless once they saw the finished brownies.

We keep the foil-lined cardboard box in our garage with all of the items needed for future baking stored inside. That way, when we go camping or want to use this oven, we just have to grab that box and everything we need is already inside.

3 Responses to DIY Cardboard Box Oven

  1. How cool is that??!?!?!

  2. This is so awesome! I can’t wait to try it when we go camping with you guys next year. ;)

    And I love the photo of you.

  3. This is such a good idea, I am a huge baker and we go camping every weekend in the summer so this idea is definitely going to be used.

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