How to Cook on a Sailboat

How to Cook on a Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Elizabeth O'Malley

June 15, 2022

Think that it's hard to learn how to cook on a boat? Think again! Learning the ins and outs of cooking on a boat is easy. The hard part? Actually doing it!

In this article, we’re going to share a boatload of things to keep in mind if you want  to know how to cook on a boat. Planning and provisioning!  Storing and set-up! We’ve got it covered. After that, it’ll be up to you to put this knowledge into play while underway!

We will begin by providing an overview of what items and arrangements make a galley as food-friendly as possible. You’ll learn a variety of things about the variety of provisions you’ll want to consider stocking – and then, because of highly limited galley space, we’ll cover where you’ll be stowing what you’re stocking.

Finally, because clearly a good menu is the end goal, we’ll share some tidbits for great meals, appetizers, and beverages that we’ve been known to whip up while aboard our boat or when cruising with friends.


Table of contents

Organizing the Galley

Setting up your cooking space is a balance between highly logical, organized thinking and outside-the-box creativity. If you’re a person who likes putting puzzles together, then getting your galley in order may be something you really enjoy. If you’re a bit of an organizational control-freak, you may need to take a deep breath to realize that, on a boat, sometimes the best place to put the sweet potatoes is in a bin right next to the bin of navigation charts. You’ll do best if you can just go with the flow when it comes time to set up your galley.

Stove and Oven Considerations on a Boat

The heating and cooking appliances that you’ll be using on a boat will include a stove top, usually with several burners, and possibly an oven. These are typically propane-fueled but butane and electric are available too. The sophistication and complexity of your heating/warming set up is going to vary based on two primary considerations – where you plan on going in your boat and how many people you’ll be feeding on a regular basis. Smaller boats unsurprisingly have spartan galleys, but these cozier setups can suffice for the inventive day sailor or weekend cruiser. Bigger boats naturally will boast more robust burner and stove options.

Your stove will be gimbaled – meaning that the stove is able to remain independent from the movements of the vessel. This means that the surface remains (mostly) level, so the likelihood of spills and crashed pots and pans is greatly reduced (reduced, clearly not eliminated). Certainly the stove top should have a safety rail that can catch slip-sliding pots and pans (pot clamps are also available for this purpose.)  To catch slip-sliding chefs, a lot of boaters will implement the use of a galley strap.

Galley straps definitely receive mixed reviews. There are a lot of opinions about the type and application of a galley strap. We are definitely pro-galley straps. Probably the most important consideration of a galley strap is how the strap is configured within the galley – and, as galleys can vary in shapes and sizes, there are myriad ways to construct your galley strap arrangement. The key is to keep the chef balanced and steady on a rocking boat while preparing meals and also give the chef mobility to dodge hot food that is at some point going to take a tumble. It’s not a matter of if there will be a cooking incident/accident on a boat, only a matter of when. Clearly we want to mitigate the risk and potential for damage and injury.

Marine Sinks, Faucets, and Pedal Pumps

Marine sinks come in a variety of styles and sizes – and, of course, price points. When feasible, we recommend using a double-sink and having two faucets. Very quickly on board, you’ll come to assign water a category – it’s going to be fresh water or sea water, potable or non-potable. And your galley setup is going to make use of different water sources in different ways. You’ll likely become fairly conditioned to cooking with fresh water and “cleaning” with non-potable water.

A great option on some boats, but something that does seem to surprise some folks, is the use of pressure cold and hot-water pumps and also foot pumps. These are featured in both heads and galley. Foot pumps enable hands-free preparation so you can control tightly limited or totally gushing waterflow merely by the flexing of your foot. The harder you pump, therfo more vigorously the water flows, and a gentle tap of the foot results in a dribble of water, maybe to rinse some dirt off of freshly foraged herbs.

The sea water faucet and foot pump combo is what we use for handwashing and dish cleaning. We thoroughly wash with sea water and then, at the very end, give our hands or dishes a quik blast of a freshwater rinse. This is a terrifically good way to maintain our freshwater supply. Depending on the water quality of where you happen to be, you can also use sea water for cooking. On board, we do a pretty consistent rotation of serving boiled, poached, and steamed entrees, and in their preparation we almost always use sea water. (Cooking with sea water is great considering that it comes with its own salt. Please pass the pepper! Hold the salt!)

Refrigeration Considerations on a Boat

Possibly one of the biggest adaptations people make when learning about and implementing cooking on a boat is how to approach refrigeration. Refrigerators of any size require quite a bit of energy to keep them at a cool temperature – and, just as with our water supply, energy sources and funds are a constant consideration underway. The hotter it is outside and inside the boat, the harder it is for a refrigerator to work to stay cool. Before burning through all your power, we suggest rethinking your cold-loving priorities.

When it comes time for provisioning, making food selections based on refrigeration requirements forcefully enters into the decision-making process. “How often will I use this?  How much space will this take up in our mini-frig?  What am I going to have to sacrifice if I get this?  Something else has to go, but what?”  Yes, chilling on a boat requires an almost endless stream of choices: Do you want cold cuts or cold beer? Do we eat last night’s fish dinner leftovers for breakfast --  in order to free up refrigerator space for the clams that we’re going to harvest before lunch?

Having adequate refrigeration on a boat certainly makes it possible to have a more enhanced boating experience – who doesn’t like fresh food and cold drinks? With the variety of boat refrigerator options and features – a portable vs built-in refrigerator, compatibility with power source, a door opening or a drawer opening, freezer or no freezer – you’ll need to consider both the physical design/configuration of your boat and your personal food/beverage choices. What’s more important to you – ice cubes or ice cream?  Fresh milk or fresh lettuce?  Overall capacity and the separate distribution of square footage for refrigeration needs vs freezer needs will play into your decision about chilling on your boat.

Stocking the Boat – Pantry Provisions

Before you head off to the grocery store and then back to the boat, we recommend some very careful, strategic menu planning be undertaken. Make a list of your favorite food items and gather up those recipes -- with particular attention paid to ingredients. Look for a pattern of consistent ingredients showing up in multiple recipes. We do a lot of Thai food cooking – and so, no surprise, our pantry usually has four to six cans of coconut milk in it at all times. Having ingredients that can do double duty makes for a savvy galley chef. A splash of leftover coconut milk in coffee?  Yep, it has become a family favorite!

With your list of all ingredients itemized, you’ll want to categorize them into long shelf-life pantry staples versus short shelf-life fresh foods. Our consumption of pasta, rice, beans, quinoa, and couscous skyrockets when we are on board. These are hardy, dried  goods that travel well, especially when kept in sealed containers that keep the bugs out. (Same goes for flour, sugar, cornmeal – gotta keep out those pesky mealworms!)  Other items that will last a while (and conveniently enough are also good energy-boosting pick-me-up snacks) include: granola, nuts of all varieties, and dried fruit. Potato chips and pretzels take up a lot of space, so as much as we enjoy them, it’s rare that you’ll find them on board with us.

Other long shelf-life provisions that we maintain include canned chicken (not tuna so much as it’s hard to eat canned tuna when you so often have access to really fresh fish), soup – and there are so many good canned soup options nowadays, and out-of-the-ordinary canned vegetables like beets!  One of our favorite “salads” on board requires only five simple space-friendly, long-life ingredients:  chopped or sliced beets (in a jar or can), crumbled goat cheese, chopped pistachios, and honey for drizzling on the top. It’s delicious – super easy to stow and prepare – and colorfully livens up the plate!

Fresh Meat Considerations on Board Your Boat

The real challenge of boat life provisioning, at least in our minds, is how to manage fresh meat and fresh produce. Candidly, it’s almost an oxymoron to say “fresh meat” on a boat. There are just so many considerations when it comes to ensuring that meat doesn't get bad – whether it’s transporting it from a market to the boat or keeping it cold once it is on board. Do not underestimate the hassle of transporting meat if you’re cruising in very warm climates. Getting to and from a market truly can take hours depending on where you are anchored and docked relative to the market’s location, and keeping meat cold in transit is pretty important (unless food poisoning is on your cruising bucket list).

Over the years, our handling of meat on board has resulted in some handling habits that range from removing fresh meat from all of its bulky packaging in order to save on refrigerator capacity to selecting vacuum-packed meats, from deboning meats (especially chicken breasts) prior to storing to using reduced quantities of meat in recipes. Our family-heirloom “spaghetti with meat sauce” recipe seems to have evolved to “spaghetti with red sauce garnished with meat crumbles” over the years. We’ve added more spices to liven up the sauce to offset the lack of meaty flavor lost from reducing the actual amount of meat in the recipe.

When I initially started cruising and was learning the best ways to cook on a boat, the thought of canned meat just did not do it for me. I kept thinking about a comedian I’d heard years ago, doing a routine about Spam. He went on and on about this wildly elusive animal that roamed through the forests and was hunted only on full-moon nights, the meat from this animal was painstakingly cured and then luxuriously packaged and presented in a silver-box. Spam!  Ugh!  Nowadays, my cooking repertoire has expanded to include canned meats of all varieties – shrimp, oysters, chicken, ham, corned beef, and beef hash. (Alas, I still just cannot do Spam!)  Canned meats stack and store nicely, and now you can often find varieties of meat available in pouches that are also space and stow-friendly.

Fresh Produce Considerations on Board Your Boat

Fresh produce, like fresh meat, has a whole slew of considerations and dos and don'ts. I’m hoping to save you some disappointment by providing a few suggestions as there is nothing like looking forward to a nice spinach salad with dinner only to find the spinach wet and slimy because it has been stored improperly. When provisioning fresh produce on a boat, several things to keep in mind:

  • At the market, opt for hardy produce – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots. Do not buy anything that looks remotely bruised (bruising -- and then rot -- will occur exponentially faster on board a boat). Steer yourself away from delicate produce when possible.
  • Buy under ripe produce -- bananas, pears, peaches, kiwis, tomatoes and avocados can be purchased in an unripe state and with different manners of handling can have a longer shelf-life to a ripened status.
  • Get rid of any plastic bags containing the produce – yes, even if purchased in plastic netting or the perforated plastic bags, you don’t want to keep the produce in it back on the boat
  • Wash your produce before stowing it – with a 3:1 ratio of water to vinegar. Also be sure to thoroughly dry the produce before stowing. We have recently acquired several differently-sized mesh bags that we use to dry our produce in after washing it. The bags can be hung around the cabin until the produce is thoroughly dry. (Hang the bags freely in spots where they won’t swing and bump into anything because bumping equals bruising and bruising equals spoiling and spoiling is no bueno).
  • Fresh produce typically does best in dry, dark, cool spots (assuming you don’t use up precious refrigerated space to store it). The driest, darkest, coolest spot just might not be in the near vicinity of the galley. An occasionally overlooked location for storage is the bilge – as long as it is dry!  The bilge is also a great place to store wine if the bottles are wrapped with newspaper or cloth to keep them from banging around into each other.

With some planning and regular attention, you should be able to have a good supply of fresh fruits and veggies for a week (or two…) at a time. With a lot of planning and extreme attention, you can definitely achieve fresh produce for up to a month.

Whether you’re going to be taking your daysailer out for an overnighter or you are getting ready to do a major cruise, the more thought and planning you put into your galley situation the better. Boat life is a good life and having good food and beverages on board can certainly take your good boat life up a notch or two to a great or excellent boating experience.

How to Cook on a Sailboat
Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth has sailed Sunfish, Catalinas, Knarrs, and countless other boats. Forty years later, she finds herself back on the waters of Bogue Sound, where she lives and sails with her daughter, Morgan, and chocolate lab, Choco.

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