A shorter version of this post was originally published on Leatherman’s blog.
I’ll never forget the time my girlfriend, Zara, and I set out on our very first camping adventure together. It was early in our relationship and what made this trip so memorable for me was enjoying the tranquility of the outdoors while sharing a campfire-meal with the woman I would marry a few years later.
Few things bring people closer together than breaking bread around the table, but there’s something magical about the warmth of a campfire under a canopy of stars that forms bonds not easily broken. I believe that there is a campfire chef in all of us. All it requires is the desire to make a great meal and some preparation prior to venturing into the wild. With that in mind, I’ve outlined a few principles to help bring your campfire cooking skills to the next level.
Preparing ahead means more time to kick back
Prior to your trip, I recommend planning out each daily meal at a high-level. Once that’s done, determine what ingredients you’ll need to prep beforehand. If a recipe calls for chopped veggies, try chopping them up to size ahead of time, and while you’re at it, double or triple the amount if you think you’ll use the same ingredient for multiple meals. Toss each ingredient into a Ziplock bag or a sealable plastic container and you are ready to go.
I prefer to make my own marinades and sauces. They can infuse so much flavor and added complexity to meats and veggies, and given their versatility they can be used for multiple meals. Think along the lines of a special BBQ sauce and other condiments, or a chimichurri. Mix the sauce ingredients at home ahead of time and place them in a Ziploc bag or in a tightly closed container. In the cooler, store these separately from the proteins and if you’re marinating at camp, combine the meats with the marinade before they are ready to go onto the fire.
If you want to try something bold, pastry and pizza dough keep well when stored properly. One of my favorite crowd pleasers is a campfire-style pizza. Make your favorite dough at home then wrap it in saran wrap before storing it in a sealed container to prevent any moisture from seeping in. Place it in the cooler until is ready to be used. If you really want to save time and don’t mind using processed foods, it is ok to buy a pre-made dough from a local grocer to bring along with you.
Trail meals or backpacking food require a bit more organization and preparation. Unlike car camping, when hitting the trail for multiple days at a time, we strive to maximize our gear, streamline our food supplies, and reduce the amount of weight we carry on the journey. This is where dehydrating food comes really handy. If this is the type of adventurer you are, you’ll want to cook the meals at home, dehydrate them, and pack them properly before heading out to the trail.
Keeping perishable items
We all know that some food can stay fresh longer, so in addition to having a great cooler, choose your proteins wisely. For example, if I decide to prepare a fish or seafood at camp, I’m going to want to cook it on the first night. That way it doesn’t sit in my cooler for too long and risk the health and safety of those who will eat it. Lastly, if you are going to drive for a few hours and worry about the ice situation, dry ice is worth using for this.
Preserved foods are your friends
I love making salumi at home and often bring some along with me in the outdoors since it is already preserved. Salumi, or charcuterie, does not require cold storage, but one must be mindful not to leave it out during a summer day because it can spoil if it gets too hot. Much like salumi, canned and pickled foods are great additions to any meal because they also don’t need to stay in a cooler, and let’s face it — they bring an awful lot of great umami flavor and texture to a dish. Chop up a pickled chili pepper or a lightly pickled cucumber and toss it into an egg scramble or salad.
Respect the fire and know your temperatures
Having a bit of backyard grilling experience really helps to understand hot zones and distance that food should be from the fire. But the bottom line is that hot coals are what you want to use for cooking your food, not the flames. Coals are hotter than flames and as an advantage they provide consistent heat and can allow you to better control temperature. Flame-cooking is inconsistent and can often char the exterior of the food and never even heat the middle, which can make sense for a thinly sliced flank steak, but not for a chicken breast.
You’ll want to establish a great, roaring fire well ahead of meal time and keep adding wood with the intent to reduce them into a large collection of hot coals. You can control the temperature by how you distribute the coals inside the fire pit, and by the distance you place the food away from the coals beneath your grill grate. The closer the food is to the heat source, the faster it will cook (such as for searing meat). The farther away you place the food, the slower it will cook (great for veggies or a slow-cooked stew).
It is also possible to place some foods directly into the fire without even using a grill, e.g.: Hobo packs (bundles of cut-up ingredients wrapped in foil packets and cooked right on the coals) and Japanese foil yakis, or cast iron pots such as a Dutch oven. You can even place a great steak directly onto the hot coals for an awesome, ashy sear. The Colombian Lomo Al Trapo might make you rethink the way you grill beef.
Your tools of the trade
For car campers, there are some tools that are essential for upping your outdoor kitchen game:
- Ziploc bags for storage, mixing, and marinades.
- Aluminum foil for food packets, indirect heat grilling, and food saving.
- Snowpeak cutting board, with a chef chef’s knife partition inside. It is a handy space-saver and quality knife.
- Butane-powered kitchen burner for boiling water or when running out of space on the grill.
- Large tongs for moving coals and wood, obviously for flipping food too.
- An instant thermometer and digital probe thermometer with extended cable and temperature display that can be read from yards away.
- Campfire panini press to make sandwiches. Sur La Table carries a great version. Grilled cheese, anyone?
- A portable grill grate just in case it may be missing from the fire ring or if you have to build your own cooking pit.
- A sharp hatchet to break down wood.
- Multi-purpose tools such as Leatherman’s Signal. Keep this on your belt, you’ll use it more than you think.
- Small grill brush if grilling right on the grate. In the case of wire brushes, after brushing the grill remember to always wipe it down in case any wire is left behind.
- A great headlamp with high lumens. You can also wrap a headlamp around a milk or water jug for a DIY lamp.
The king of all cooking tools is our handy Dutch oven, and really anything cast iron. As a cooking vessel it is on the heavy side, however, there are lighter models, which would be ideal for folks who prefer to hike in or canoe into a secluded destination.
Sometimes you’ll need to improvise
The beauty of campfire cooking also revolves around being resourceful, and this could mean making up meals with the ingredients that you may have at hand. For instance, whisk up a few eggs with a little cream and shredded cheese, add some diced up greens and previously caramelized veggies, add salt and pepper to taste, pour mixture into a skillet on the fire, and you have yourself a frittata for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
If we ever go camping lakeside or along a river, I always bring a few fresh herbs and lemon just in case we catch something.
Foraging can also factor in while creating great meals. From picking berries, to wild greens, and mushrooms alike, these ingredients are bountiful in the wilderness if one knows what to look for. Having said that, foraging is a completely different category on its own and one must be extremely careful and knowledgeable when determining what is edible and what is not. It is important to have deep experience in identifying wild edibles before consuming them, especially away from civilization. If you’d like to add this skillset to your repertoire, I highly recommend that you join a local foraging group or mycological society to learn from the pros.
Stay inspired and go all out!
Over time as we become better campfire chefs, the desire to get out there and cook will keep you thinking about how to bring your favorite campfire meal up a notch. If you are like me, it might even become an obsession. I like to keep a small journal in my gear where I can take notes on what failed and record ideas as to how to improve a dish the next time around. Once you’ve acquired the basic skills, and as your confidence improves you’re ready to take on more challenges. Think about some of your most memorable meals and try to deconstruct them for your outdoor kitchen.
Maybe your favorite restaurant makes a delicious Jambalaya or Rabbit Paella. How about a rustic peach cobbler? The possibilities are endless, be creative and take risks. Grilled oranges? Sure! Steamed clams? Absolutely.
And beyond experimenting with new and exciting recipes, there are other outdoor cooking techniques to consider in order to elevate the way you cook. These could include the Argentinian-style asador to slowly roast a butterflied lamb, or digging up a hole in the ground as a fire pit (in designated and safe areas away from dry brush) for a New England clam bake or Kālua pork gently cooked right in the earth oven.
Stay inspired and look for ways to amplify your outdoor meals and motivate your pals to do the same. Include them in the process by distributing tasks in the kitchen while enjoying a great bottle of wine. Just remember: don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the adventure of cooking in the great outdoors.