Whether you’re road-tripping with the kids, your friends, or just your dog, you’re bound to get a hankering for a snack somewhere along the open highway. Enter a not so elegant, but satisfyingly practical type of cookery—car engine cooking.
The invention of this method has been attributed to clever truckers who wanted a quick meal at their next destination. A simple can of soup punctured at the top to vent steam, placed in a secure spot in the truck’s engine, and voilà! A quick meal on the go.
If you’re a road tripper who likes to get there quickly, this method is for you. If you’re curious and want to try this new-to-you style of cooking, go for it. If you like the idea of stopping at a rest area, secretly laughing as people stare while you casually remove foil packets filled with food from under the hood of your car, congratulations! You’re in the right place.
Before we get to the five quick and easy snacks, let's nail down the basics. A little prep work goes a long way—no one wants to deal with an exploded can of soup in the engine.
Usually the exhaust manifold is where engine cooking happens, but the exact spot is going to depend on your type of car, and what kind of access you have to that area. Your foil-wrapped food should be in contact with metal—plastic won’t get hot enough.
To figure out the best spot, take the car for a spin around the block. When you get home, pop the hood, and with the engine off, do a quick touch test. To investigate after a longer drive, sprinkle a few drops of water in various spots. If it jumps around and sizzles, that spot is hot enough to cook on.
With the car's kitchen location narrowed down, test to make sure it’s snug enough to hold your food. Make a cone or ball of foil about eight inches long and place it in the spot you’re considering. Shut the hood, then lift it. Check how your cone or ball fared. If it was crushed, find another spot.
You’re looking for a place where the packets can sit without moving around, so they don't get lodged in the engine or fall onto the road. The thickness of the ball or cone after shutting the hood is the same thickness your packet of food should be. Another option is to secure your food using lightweight wire—just don’t attach it to any moving parts or it could potentially cause damage.
Get the Gunk Out
So you’ve found your cooking surface. Unless you’re the proud owner of a show car with a pristine engine, you’re going to have some grime and buildup under your car’s hood. A quick wipe down to remove some of the excess gunk should be sufficient, just be sure you don’t place your food near anything leaking. And if you have a problem with engine fumes that could contaminate your food, you should take care of that issue before embarking on this new cooking journey.
Top Five Snacks for Engine Cooking
Recipes for cooking raw meats on your engine can be a delicious part of the adventure, but it’s important to cook them long enough and at a high enough heat to ensure safe eating. For shorter trips, you can try cooking fish or shrimp, but if you end up stuck in traffic and on the road longer than you anticipated, you could overcook your meal, and that would be a waste and a downer after a long journey. Experimentation is par for the course when it comes to engine cookery, so keep your expectations flexible and plan your travel accordingly.
Whatever food you choose, it’s important that minimal liquid is involved. You don’t want to deal with the mess or hazard at your next rest stop. Wrap your item in layers of foil to conduct the heat, protect your precious cargo from engine dirt, and keep food from escaping. Two tightly wrapped layers is good—three or more is better.
1. Baked Potatoes - Wash potatoes and pierce them all over with a knife or fork to help them cook thoroughly. If you like to eat the skin, lightly coat it with vegetable oil, and season to your liking. If you prefer to eat only the fluffy insides, you can cut the potato in half and season the cut sides. Put them back together and wrap them securely. Potatoes can take a long time to cook, so save this for one of your bigger trips or commutes, or try microwaving them so they're mostly cooked before you put them in the foil.
2. Burritos - A flour tortilla filled with refried beans, shredded cheese (and sliced olives if you’re so inclined) is a quick, tasty meal that requires little effort. If you decide to add meat, cooked leftovers like steak or chicken breast are safe and tasty potentials. This is a great way to reduce waste and keep from coming home to a moldy mess in the fridge.
3. Sliders - Cook the filling of your choice wrapped in foil, then make hot sandwiches at your next rest stop. Pulled pork, burger patties, spam, or marinated tofu all make yummy options. If you cook the filling ahead of time, you can warm up the assembled sandwiches side by side in the foil. Bagels make excellent sandwich bread, and they're easy to munch on the go.
4. Meat of the Tube Variety - This can include hot dogs or hot links, polish sausages or brats. The type you choose will determine how long you should drive. Fully cooked meats only need to be reheated, and might be ready by the time you reach your first rest-stop. Raw items require longer cooking time—more appropriate for a longer haul. Try slicing polish sausage and combining it with chunks of green or red peppers and sliced onions. Or simply wrap a row of hot dogs with some diced onions. Perfect for the buns that are warm and soft from sitting on your dashboard.
5. S’mores - This classic treat should not be relegated only to camping and outdoor bonfires. The heat of the car’s engine is perfect for creating a sweet, melty, chocolatey delight for your next road trip. You can go with the traditional graham cracker, marshmallow, and chocolate combination, but why not be wild and wacky? Instead of plain chocolate, try using a peanut butter cups. Or how about a chocolate chip cookie instead of graham crackers? Experimenting with flavors is half the fun of a culinary adventure.