A Cook’s Survival Guide to Galley Cooking

After six glorious years as a full time boat dweller, I’ve learned a thing or two about cooking on a boat. I’ve made my share of mistakes, and learned what works. In a few short months a new graduating class of cruisers will launch into full time boat life and start making their way down the coast. New cruisers, this is for you. I look forward to meeting you and touring your happy galley space!

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Keeping the crew happily fed on a cruising sailboat can be a daunting task for the cook.  No matter how well equipped your galley may be, it’s just different than cooking in a dirt-bound kitchen.  Like most things cruising, it’s totally doable, and completely enjoyable with a little know-how and advance planning.  The galley of Half Moon regularly produces quality week night meals for two, a daily hot breakfast, and occasional feasts for ten.  If this reluctant cook can do it, anyone can.

There are three major differences.  Availability of ingredients, resource management, and movement in the galley.  Once you get a handle on these important differences whipping up a world class meal is cake.  

Ingredients & Planning.

On land, planning out meals in advance is more of a convenience than a necessity.  At the end of the day it’s nice to have ingredients on hand to whip up dinner.  On a cruising boat, it’s a requirement.  There is no grocery store around the corner when you’re at anchor.  Best case, getting to the nearest store will require dropping the dinghy, motoring across the bay, braving a shore break, walking into town, hailing a taxi, shopping, and repeat in reverse.  Not so practical when your tomato sauce is busy burning on the stovetop.

Fortunately, many have come before and learned how to simplify the eating process.  The most important fundamental difference between cooking on a boat and cooking in a house is planning. 

This took me an unfortunate amount of time to internalize.  Back in our dirt bound days, I would go to the store with a vague idea of dinner and pick up whatever looked good.  I would then get home and realize I had a lot of ingredients but few complete meals.  This approach is perfectly fine on land when you can make a quick run for missing items, or pick up the phone and order a pizza.  At anchor, this shopping method makes for some very disappointing dinners.

The solution?  Instead of shopping for ingredients, shop for meals.  Take a few minutes to sit down and plan the meals you’d like between shopping trips.  Make a list from the menu, and set out with cooler bag in hand.  If you’re anchored in a populated area with easy access to food this menu could be for just a couple of days and easy peasy lemon squeezy.  It gets trickier and takes more brain power (though still not much) when you’re heading out to a less populated area or preparing for a major passage. 

A typical week in the life.

While menu planning, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Produce, cheeses and meats have a shelf life.  An arugula and strawberry salad four weeks into a passage looks great on paper, but in reality will be a wilted moldy mess.  A veggie lasagna from the freezer will be much more practical towards the end of a long passage.

Even a large refrigerator and freezer has a maximum capacity.  A cooler with ice can supplement for a day, but avoid buying more cold items than you have space for.  (Yes, this is obvious, but we’ve all overbought and cried.)

Aim for meals with overlapping ingredients.  An autumn kale salad with honeycrisp apple, fennel, crumbled goat cheese, chopped pecans, and lemon zest will be lovely, but unless you are able to purchase just the right amounts of each ingredient for this salad (not likely), you’ll have a mess of orphan ingredients sitting around going to waste.

Dried spices are your best friend.  Baggies and cans of spices take up minimal space, last for months, and can make an otherwise boring meal from a can delicious.  Same goes for flavored oils, vinegars, shelf stable sauces (especially asian ones), jarred curries, bouillon, jarred pesto, and hot sauces.

Resource Management.  Equipment, Water, Storage, & Trash.

In addition to planning your menu in advance, galley cooking requires some advance thought on supplies, equipment, and resource management.  

Propane: Most galley stoves and grills run off propane tanks.  These durable aluminum or fiberglass tanks are easy to get filled in most any large port, but not always the smaller ones.  Half Moon has two tanks.  One is always use and the other kept full in a well vented locker.  When the in-use tank runs out, we swap them out, and then go get the backup filled.  For our current cruising grounds this is plenty, but we will be adding another tank or two when we leave for more distant shores.

Water:  Some boats use saltwater to wash dishes, others stick with all fresh.  It’s a very personal choice and depends on your water storage and production abilities.  On Half Moon we have the luxury of a large (220 gallon) water tank, and a seven gallon per hour watermaker.  This production and storage combo means we have enough to cook and wash dishes with all freshwater.  Your results may vary.  Either way, unless you sail on a mega yacht, water will be limited.  You get used to it very quickly, but be aware that leaving the faucet running while washing dishes will quickly drain even a large water tank.  Shut it off!!!

Pantry Storage:  For a weekend cruise, the original packaging your food came in is fine.  For extended cruising, your pantry needs some additional prep.  Cardboard, especially cardboard coming from open air stores is a breeding ground for roaches.  Also, item’s get tossed around and chafe while underway, and a small leak can cause a huge ugly mess if the fruit flies find it before you.  It takes some time, but is well worth ditching most original packaging at the dock and transferring dry goods to tightly sealed plastic bins.

After trying most brands of plastic storage bins on the market, I am a cult follower of plastic Snapware containers. They just work.  Ziplock bags have broken my heart too many times, and every other brand of plastic container failed within a year.  The Snapware brand cost more upfront, but make a perfect seal that withstands the hard life in a boat pantry, fridge, or freezer.

Trash:  Did you know that in a house you can put your trash on the curb and someone will steal it twice a week?  Crazy, right?  On a boat you don’t have to rely on those thieves.  With a little planning trash management is a breeze.  

When we first started cruising I short sidedly took trash for granted and tossed everything in one lined bin.  With the volume of organics and (beer/wine) bottles we wen’t through it was quickly overflowing.  Since we were a few weeks from a disposal spot I tied up the bags as they filled and put them in the dinghy.  Wow, was that ever a bad idea.  It’s been years and the memory is still fresh.  Picture mixed trash with food scraps in the hot sun for a week or two.  Just don’t do it.

At anchor or underway (except in the US because they’re crazy about the three mile line rule, nobody in Mexico cares) anything organic can go overboard as you cook.  If the anchorage is crowded, collect your organic scraps in a sealed container during the day and pop ‘em overboard at night or on passage.  The ocean will quickly compost anything you can eat.  

Recyclable items like cans and bottles are best thoroughly rinsed in sea or fresh water and stored in a lined sealed bin until you can get to town.  If the bin fills, the contents are clean and can be stored in the dinghy or cockpit.  Boats are allowed to dump glass and metal (though never plastic) more than twelve miles from land but we don’t.  Unlike food scraps glass and metal takes centuries to decompose.  It’s easy enough to hold onto clean cans and bottles until reaching  port.

The rest (and there won’t be much left because you transferred most food items to reusable bins already) is normal trash that should be stored in a bin with a solid lid to keep the bugs out and smell in.  Dispose whenever possible.

Cookware:  Any quality set of pots and pans will do.  The amount of cookware, tools, and appliances you carry will depend on your storage.  If taken care of, quality kitchen tools will last just as long in a galley as a house kitchen.  Stow your cookware securely so nothing bounces around in a locker, and put everything away dry to prevent rust.  If your storage is limited (and it will be), be selective on what tools you bring aboard.  You may be surprised at how many fabulous meals you can produce with just a chefs knife and a wooden spoon!

Towels:  Thick terry cloth towels make excellent trivets, and are handy for a big mess, but don’t dry quickly enough in a humid galley to be useful.  These diaper towelsare absorbent, dry quickly, and can be bleached when they get dirty.

Movement.  Get in and get OUT.

The biggest difference between cooking on land and water is movement.  At anchor you’ll be still enough that galley cooking is a snap.  However, when the weather gets rough, a rolling galley isn’t a pleasant place to hang out.  On passage, pre-made meals in the fridge and quick to make foods are the way to go.  Cooking on a catamaran is far easier than a mono, but there will be days you will want to stay out of the galley no matter how big or stable your boat is.  

If you haven’t yet experienced cooking in a rough sea, I offer a mental exercise.  Go into your kitchen.  Get some boiling water going on the stove, lay out knives and cutting boards on the counter, and pull a few delicate items from the fridge.  Now visualize the room and it’s contents on a old wooden roller coaster.  And, cook!

Fortunately, conditions are usually not so extreme.  On most days cooking underway is fine.  A few precautions and you’re good to go.  Take a care to keep knives in the sink, in a drawer, or on a strong magnetic rack when they’re not in your hand.  Use strong pot locks to hold hot items on the stove, and if you have one, release the gimbal pin to let your stove swing with the waves.  Do any pouring of hot liquids over the sink rather than over the counter.  Pull out ingredients as you need them, and immediately put them away when you’re done, especially heavy items like cans and flour containers that could fall on your foot.  Be aware of your hand position and balance around hot pots.  There are hand holds and railings in a galley for good reason, use them.

For the true roller coaster days, any sane person will spend as little time in the galley as possible. The effort you put in before departure prepping quick meals and pre-made meals will pay off when the waves get rambunctious.  For breakfast, a quick yogurt with crunchy granola and a banana satisfies.  Pre-made zucchini bread is also excellent.  Peanut butter and jelly for lunch gets you in and out of the galley in five minutes.  For dinner, pre-made chicken with rice and gravy, miso soup, pre-made lasagna, or chicken salad are all excellent options.

The Takeaway

Well, there won’t be any takeaway because you’re at sea.  But that’s OK!  You are in possession of pretty much all the knowledge you need to successfully feed yourself and your crew on board.  It may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but after a short period of time you’ll get to know your galley and it will seem like an old friend. Happy cooking.

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