6 ways that cooking on a boat is different than cooking ashore, and effective ways to meet the challenges

Boat Cooking Is Different

If you’re new to cooking on a boat — whether it’s on a friend’s boat, or you’re looking to buy a boat, or are thinking of chartering one — you might be a little overwhelmed at the thought of turning out great meals aboard.  A look at the 6 biggest differences from cooking ashore and ways to cope with those challenges will make the transition a little easier.

What’s on Board is What You’ve Got

Once you leave the dock, you’re generally not going to be able to run to the store if you suddenly realize you’re missing something — or to the internet if you need to find out something.  Whether it’s provisions, pans, tools or recipes, you have to make do with what you have until the next time you are at a store.

To some, this is scary:  what if I forgot something?  I prefer to see it as a chance for innovation:  what can I do with what I have?  I’ve developed some of my best “recipes” simply because I was making do.  Now they’ve become family favorites!

I have three basic coping strategies for dealing with the challenge of being away from stores:

  • Innovation and creativity — substitutions don’t have to perfectly re-create the original recipe, they just have to produce a good meal.  A few good cookbooks and a stock of basic ingredients mean that I have lots of choices.
  • Prioritizing — would we rather spend more time in a great anchorage, or go reprovision?  Usually we opt for more time in the anchorage, but at some point — usually when the beer supply is getting low — the balance tips in favor of reprovisioning.

Limited Space

It’s not just limited space for stowing provisions, there’s also limited space for food prep, for pans and utensils, fewer burners on the stove or maybe even no oven, less space in the oven and a smaller sink. Things can end up in inconvenient places.

My ways to cope:

  • Have multi-function things.  This is obvious with things like a can opener that also has a bottle opener on it, but how about using a wine bottle as a rolling pin?  And buying basic ingredients that can be used in lots of different recipes, instead of single-purpose prepared foods?
  • Don’t give space to things you don’t need.  For example, throw away the cereal box on the dock — it takes up more space than the bag inside.  Buy boneless meat or bone it before freezing it.  One caveat, though:  sometimes those things that seem to be just “taking up space” are actually protecting something from breakage, so don’t discard things without thinking about their purpose.
  • Plan ahead for space limitations — if you only have two burners on the stove, don’t plan a menu that requires three.  Don’t buy a turkey that’s bigger than the oven — or cut it into pieces so it will fit.  If you don’t have an oven, look at getting a “stove top oven” — a small special pan that will let you bake on a burner.
  • If the location or size of something is a problem, change it.  Sometimes reorganizing is easy; sometimes it takes more work.  After 4  months aboard, I knew that the tiny double sink aboard Que Tal wasn’t working — I couldn’t even fit a plate in it on edge diagonally.  We tore it out and had a single-bowl sink made to fit in the same opening.  A day’s work and $100 made a HUGE difference in how I felt about working in the galley.

Cooking From Scratch

If you usually use prepared food and package mixes, the idea of cooking from scratch can be intimidating.  A cookbook or two that gives detailed directions for everyday dishes made from scratch can give you a lot of confidence.  Start with simple things like chili and spaghetti sauce.  With some basic ingredients aboard, you can make anything you want.

No Electrical Appliances

Many cooks find the idea of no (or few) electrical appliances to be even more intimidating than the idea of cooking from scratch (and many find the combination overwhelming).  But virtually anything that you can do with an electrical appliance, you can do by hand.

There are two critical keys to success:

  • Recipes designed to be made by hand — while you can mix almost anything by hand, it’ll be a lot easier if you use recipes made for hand mixing.  This is a big focus of the cookbook that Jan and I are writing — read more about this cookbook for cruisers and when it will be available.

The Motion of the Boat

Everything you do is affected by the motion of the boat — some days more than others!

Things like standing (or needing a hand to hold on with), pots sliding on the stove, bowls and cutting boards sliding on the counter, bottles tipping over and holding a knife are all affected by the motion of the boat.  Then there are the stowage issues:  produce bruising, pans and plates clanking in lockers, items breaking or becoming missiles.  It’s all a challenge!

The first week is a huge learning curve, as is the first bit of rough weather.  But it’s really not that bad once you get the hang of a few coping techniques:

  • You have to always remember that the boat is going to move and think about the consequences for anything you do.  With time, this comes naturally.
  • Always assume the boat is going to move erratically and use stove gimbals, pot restraints and the like no matter what the conditions are.  Even in a calm anchorage, a fishing boat can come flying by and put up a big wake.
  • Never set anything down where it’s not restrained, particularly things that could cause injury if they fell (knives, boiling water) or could break (anything in glass).
  • Try to sit down to work when you can.  And when you can’t, find ways to brace yourself so that if the boat rolls, you won’t lose your footing.  This is particularly important when doing something that could result in an injury, such as using a knife or pouring boiling water.

Limited Water

Even if you have a watermaker, chances are that you don’t have as much water as you’d really like (that watermaker takes power to operate).  That limited water supply has to be used for drinking and cooking, as well as washing produce, hands and dishes — not to mention showers!

I’ve written articles about conserving water, but the two biggest things you can do are:

  • Don’t waste water — don’t run the faucet longer than it needs to, don’t cook food in more water than it needs, and don’t make more coffee or other drinks than people will drink.
  • Re-use water when you can.  Use the pasta water to rinse dishes or make bread.  Ditto for the leftover coffee.  Use the liquid drained from the can of mushrooms in the spaghetti sauce (it’ll add flavor, too).

Heat in the Boat

The biggest source of heat in the boat is the galley.  On a hot day, you’re trying to keep as much of that heat out of the boat, and on a chilly day, you’re trying to keep it in. Without air conditioning or an auxiliary heater, the cooking heat takes on a bigger role in staying comfortable.

On hot days, try to use the stove or oven as little as possible:  eat cold foods, cook on the grill and if you do use the stove, pick foods that cook fast (for example, choose pasta over slow-cooking brown rice).  A couple of good 12-volt fans and a wind scoop will help, too.  (Read more about ventilation and baking in hot weather.)

Cold days are the time to indulge your cooking desires:  make soups and stews that need to cook for a long time, and bake bread and cookies.   You can eat well while staying warm!

Many of the articles on The Boat Galley deal with various aspects of these 6 differences between cooking on a boat and cooking ashore.  To be sure, there are challenges — but without challenges there are no accomplishments.  I find that the very conditions that make cooking aboard more challenging also lead to us eating better, with less junk food and more “real food.”

6 ways that cooking on a boat is different than cooking ashore, and effective ways to meet the challenges.

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  • Fay Lawton
    Posted at 10 May 2012 Reply

    This galley picture is just like our Bavaria which we cook in constantly. We had lobster for christmas dinner,

  • heather
    Posted at 18 August 2012 Reply

    I was wondering about that sink renovation — we desperately need to replace ours and would love to hear how you had one made for $100!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 18 August 2012 Reply

      Hi Heather!

      We were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and simply went to a local machine shop that specialized in stainless-steel sheet fabrication. We gave them the measurements of what we wanted and it took about a week. I had gone all over town looking for a ready-made sink and there just wasn’t anything even close. Then some other cruisers recommended this place and we were surprised that they could do it and the price — the final quality was quite good, but admittedly not as good as a ready-made one as there were weld lines in the corners (they ground them and polished them so they weren’t very noticable, but the were there).

      The real fun was removing the old sink — they’d put it in with 5200!

      Good luck with your project!

  • Laura Zechin on Facebook
    Posted at 03 September 2012 Reply

    Excellent. Excellent. Excellent!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 03 September 2012 Reply


  • Chef Eduardo
    Posted at 15 September 2012 Reply

    It is nice when you find people that writes on the internet constructives things like this little articule you wrote. Is very helpful and very true!! somo people may think that cooking in a boat is “a walk in the park” but is not !!! it is very nice of you to share your tips!!! Regards.

    • bob henry
      Posted at 09 November 2012 Reply

      Carolyn, Thanks for this insight! While I an not a nautical type I have been building and downsizing into a “Tiny House on wheels” many of the topics in planning and using the galley are directly connected to tiny house life and I thank you for your efforts.

  • Nicola
    Posted at 25 April 2013 Reply

    I think that this would be a great topic for a boat show seminar. You speak with such authority and are so encouraging.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 25 April 2013 Reply

      Thanks Nicola! You might be right . . . it could lead to a lot of questions in the Q&A period.

  • Alissa
    Posted at 29 July 2013 Reply

    Hi Carolyn,
    I agree with Nicola. It it always great to pick some ones brain! I am very new to the boat world and learned very quickly the reality of all these differences that you listed! You do a great job!

  • Sue Norris
    Posted at 19 November 2013 Reply

    Our very elderly rigger and friend told us”everything that goes on the boat should have at least 2 uses” we have largely adhered to this and found that it has served us well.

  • LaMarr Harding
    Posted at 30 November 2013 Reply

    As a truck driver for decades, and a Van Dweller since retirement, I have enjoyed this site.

    I had a centerboard sail boat with a small cabin 40 years ago. You just can’t imagine the admiration I have for you. I got so claustrophobic in my boat after a day. It wasn’t the movement that bothered me, it was the confinement. Funny thing even on a cruise ship after a few days I feel trapped with thousands of people that I don’t know.

  • Julianne
    Posted at 21 April 2014 Reply

    We have a Tappan convection microwave on our Silverton, can you recommend any receipes, articles, books etc. Thanks.

  • Cengiz
    Posted at 15 January 2015 Reply

    I am planing to catch fish and cook it in the boat. do you think the smell of the fish after cooking would be a problem?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 16 January 2015 Reply

      As long as you have good ventilation, you’ll be fine. Lots of people coak fish on the boat, and if the smell bothers you you can grill it.

  • Susan Lowe
    Posted at 22 June 2015 Reply

    Great tips..thank you. Our 33 Hunter is arriving early next week and this is the first time I will be cooking on a boat. Although an experienced cook and I have churned out meals for over 20 people..I am a bit daunted at the prospect of cooking in a limited space and with no oven. I will be ordering the Omnia oven you have mentioned until we can get an oven installed in the future. I am looking at it as a challenge and one to conquer..here’s to good food, family and fun on board 🙂

  • Susan Lynn
    Posted at 22 June 2015 Reply

    Thank You, Carolyn. It is kind of scary to think about cooking on a boat, especially for those of us who don’t really do much cooking on land. The boating world needs more of those boats that come to Your boat with fully prepared meals.

  • Donna Blagg
    Posted at 11 October 2016 Reply

    I have really appreciated your povisioning spread sheet. We recently began cruising again after initially being out for a 5 year stint, but that was many years ago. I had a hand-written provisioning list at that time. When we got back to extended cruising earlier this year, I could not locate my old list. But I found your spreadsheet, and it has been invaluable for the list of categories and then the items under each catergory. Much better than my old “list.” Folks that don’t want to deal with a spreadsheet can simply print it out as an initial shopping list, crossing off and adding specific items under each category by hand. I have not found a category that did not apply to me. Maintaining an on-going shopping list is easy once the initial provisioning has has been done, at least for me.
    Thank you so much for this, as well as all of your other helpful suggestions.

  • Debbie Bowen Crawford
    Posted at 11 December 2016 Reply

    16 inch oven requires tetris skills to cook 2 or more things. Lol but it is wonderful to cook breakfast while cruising in.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 11 December 2016 Reply

      Yours might be even smaller than mine. Outside dimension of mine is 18″ — it does make it interesting!

  • Jacques Farand
    Posted at 11 December 2016 Reply

    Ju Ju Gendron

  • Joshua Hockman
    Posted at 11 December 2016 Reply

    Allison Whiteford Hockman

  • Lupari Sue
    Posted at 30 April 2017 Reply

    Good advice Caroline.

  • Tina Benagh
    Posted at 03 July 2017 Reply

    Gooood article! A hint for rice. Use basmati rice. Add salt. Cover with water plus between a 1/4 and 1/2 inch (depends on pan diameter). Bring to boil. Boil for two minutes. Cover. Turn off heat. Done in 10 minutes. Zip it up with lemon pepper.

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