Striking out into the wilderness doesn’t mean you have to subsist on trail mix and PB&J sandwiches (unless that’s your thing). To me, there’s nothing more satisfying than wrapping up a long day of outdoor adventures by lighting a fire and cooking a flavorsome meal under the stars.
That is, if you know what you’re doing. The key to campfire culinary bliss is to keep things simple, get organized before embarking on your trip, and to make food that not only tastes delicious but also replenishes you from the day’s activities and fuels you for what’s to come.
First Things First
There are a few basic rules to campfire cooking success. First, plan your meals ahead of time. Measure and prep what you can at home and pack ingredients wisely. Heavy-duty Ziplock bags are your best bet for preserving dry ingredients and preventing wet ingredients from leaking.
Freeze a few water bottles or one large water bottle for your cooler — this will help keep food cold without getting everything wet. (Plus, it becomes more drinking water when it melts!)
On the other hand, if ice is more your thing, block ice lasts longer than cubes.
Finally, pack separate coolers for food and drinks to minimize how often you’re opening the food cooler. This will help to keep your ingredients at a safe temperature.
Outfitting Your Outdoor Kitchen
Make a list of all the gear you’ll need and be sure to include utensils, plates, cups, a spatula, a knife, a cutting board, matches, lighter fluid, tongs, an oven mitt, and supplies for cleanup.
Aluminum foil is always a good idea, as it can be used for foil packet cooking or to line cookware for easy cleanup. If camping is a regular activity for you, consider making a camp cookware kit, placing all the basic supplies in a Tupperware bin so you’re ready to go whenever the woods beckon. You can also outfit a tackle box with spices, cooking oil, and other small cooking gadgets.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
Depending upon your campsite setup, you can cook using direct or indirect heat from charcoal or firewood. Charcoal is slightly easier, but firewood is ideal if you’re going to be making a fire to hang out around anyway. If you’re a novice firestarter, do some research ahead of time on the best methods, and bring along some notes. (See our expert tips on building a campfire here.)
For the classic foil packet method of campfire cooking, you’ll wrap food in foil and place it directly on hot coals, checking frequently as it cooks to avoid burning. To cook with indirect heat, which takes longer but gives you more control, you’ll want to rake hot coals into a surface area large enough to accommodate your cooking vessel and cover with a grate. You can also use a propane cook stove, which is effective but arguably way less fun.
Check with your campsite ahead of time to determine the firewood and grate situation — you’ll likely need to bring your own if the site isn’t stocked. If you’re using charcoal, hardwood lump charcoal is the ideal choice, as it isn’t soaked in chemicals. You’ll need about one small bag per meal.
If you’re using a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, preheat it for about 10 minutes before cooking.
For the following recipes, you’ll want to start by creating coals with charcoal or firewood, raking them into a bed large enough for your cast iron skillet and positioning a grate about 4 to 6 inches above the coals.
The last thing to remember about campfire cooking is to relax. Cooking over a fire or charcoals requires a little more instinct than over a stovetop. Trust your nose and eyes. If something looks or smells done, it probably is. If that sounds intimidating, just know that the more you do it, the better you’ll get — sounds like a great reason to go camping more often!
Campfire Simple Breakfast Tacos
1 strip bacon, cut into pieces (optional)
1 large handful of kale
Generous dollop hot sauce
Dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt
- Add bacon to the skillet, stirring occasionally, until cooked through to your liking, about 4 minutes. Set bacon aside and cover; pour out most of bacon grease, reserving enough to cook kale and eggs.
- Add kale to the skillet; drizzle with hot sauce. Stir frequently. Kale is done when wilted and edges are beginning to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove kale from skillet and cover.
- Add grease to the skillet if needed. Crack eggs into the skillet, season with salt and pepper, and fry until done to your liking. You can also scramble eggs for larger crowds. Remove eggs from skillet and set aside.
- Add tortillas to the skillet, working in batches if necessary. Cook about 30 seconds per side until beginning to crisp and brown.
- Assemble tacos. Add kale, eggs, and bacon to each tortilla. Top with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
Fireside Melty Cheese Plate
1 small wheel of brie
Fresh rosemary, chopped (can use dried)
Large handful of grapes
- Place brie in cast iron skillet. Drizzle with honey and top with rosemary. Add grapes around cheese (can also cook in two separate skillets) and season with salt and pepper. Cover skillet loosely with foil.
- Place skillet over coals and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring grapes occasionally. Remove from heat once grapes are blistered and brie is beginning to turn golden.
- Cut open brie and enjoy with crackers and sliced apples.
One-Skillet Sausage Supper (serves 2)
2 small russet potatoes, cut into small cubes
1 red onion, chopped
2 to 4 sausages, cut in half
Three large handfuls of baby spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat a glug of olive oil in the pan until shimmering. Add potatoes and onions. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are beginning to brown. Stir frequently. If vegetables are sticking to the pan, add a little extra olive oil.
- Make space in the center of the pan for the sausages. Cook for an additional 15 minutes, or until sausages are cooked through and potatoes are soft, rotating occasionally.
- Add spinach to the pan, stir to wilt. Remove pan from heat. Squeeze lemon over pan. Add additional olive oil, salt or pepper as needed.
Tentside Berry Crumble
½ cup oats
6 Tbsp. flour
¼ cup packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
3 Tbsp. butter, cut into small cubes, or coconut oil
1 ½ cup blueberries
1/2 lemon (optional)
- Combine oats, flour, sugars and cinnamon in a bowl or resealable plastic bag (this can be done ahead of time at home).
- Add butter and combine by rubbing into dry ingredients until mixture is crumbly.
- Add blueberries to small cast iron skillet. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and stir. Spread crumble mixture on top.
- Loosely cover with foil and bake over coals for about 20 minutes, or until bubbly and golden.
- You can also cook this in a foil packet. To do so, rub some butter on a large piece of foil. Add blueberries, then crumble mixture. Loosely seal foil packet and proceed to bake.
Author: Stephanie Zeilenga is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Photos: Courtesy of CJ Zeilenga.