If you think eating while camping out consists largely of little bags of trail mix and strips of beef jerky, I’ve got news for you: Campsite cooking possibilities are as vast and varied as the adventures you can have in the great outdoors.
Allow me to introduce you to Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson. Sure, the food writers have recipes for trail mix and jerky in their book “The Campout Cookbook,” but the fact that the trail mix calls for pepitas and dried gooseberries, among other ingredients, and that the jerky is bulgogi beef might tell you something about their approach to cooking in the great outdoors. (The book’s dedication: “For survivalists with standards.”)
“I think there’s a lot of confusion in America between camping and backpacking,” says Hanel. “We tend to imagine when you’re roughing it you’re eating dehydrated meals.”
The truth is, you can eat just as well in a campground as you can at home — or better, if you think nature can make anything taste better.
Here are some top tips from the two outdoor enthusiasts (their first cookbook collaboration was all about picnics) to make your next camping trip as delicious as it is fun.
(Keep in mind: We’re essentially talking about car camping here — not a backpacking trip where coolers and cast-iron might not be an option.)
Make a list, and actually use it. “It takes a lot of planning, but don’t let that intimidate you,” Hanel says of the preparations. A list will go a long way toward peace of mind. You want to keep track of the equipment, tools and ingredients you’ll need. A list of what you plan to make for each meal is crucial, too. And then once you pack, double-check to confirm you actually have everything you’re supposed to.
“Our motto is pack heavy,” Stevenson jokes (mostly). You may not want to bring as much as they typically do, but there are a few must-haves. Among them: A Dutch oven (plain cast-iron, not enameled), cast-iron skillet, sturdy and long tongs, heavy-duty oven mitts, knives and cutting boards. Don’t forget trash and recycling bags, a wine opener if you plan to sip, and fire tools (more on that later). Keep your utensils and tableware cheap and lightweight (enamelware is great). For packet cooking, aluminum foil is a must.
Prepare and pack food smartly. This is not an episode of “Man vs. Wild.” You do not have to do all your food prep in the woods. In fact, you shouldn’t! “We love our kitchens, so we lean heavily on them,” Hanel says. Do as much as you can in advance, whether it’s whisking together a dry mix for your pancakes, making pizza dough, marinating meat or chopping vegetables. Be sure you have your first meal pretty much ready to go, so that when you arrive at the campground you’ll be ready to eat as soon as you get hungry (or hangry, if you’ve had a long trip . . .).
You’ll certainly want a cooler, or even two. Start by freezing anything you can (bread, juice, butter, water, etc.), which will keep it longer and also double as an ice pack. Hanel and Stevenson recommend 3/4 to 1 pound of ice per quart of cooler capacity, with block ice or reusable packs at the bottom and cubes scattered between layers. Arrange layers according to when you’ll need them, being sure to leave delicate items such as eggs (ideally in a hard egg carrier), fruits and veggies at the top.
Treat your car trunk like a pantry, giving thought to what you place where, Hanel says. Group ingredients in bags by meal so you can pull one out at a time rather than rummaging through them all to find what you need. Just use common sense on where you store your food and waste, as it can attract more than just the wildlife you want to photograph. If you’re in bear country, you’ll need to take extra precautions, including specially designed storage containers (more bear advice here from the National Park Service.)
Get over the romance of cooking over an open fire. “Few things (frankfurters, secret wills) are suited to roasting over an open flame” is the philosophy Hanel and Stevenson share in their book. Flames are great for atmosphere and warming up your feet, but for the purposes of heat and control, the pair prefers to do their cooking on a grate with folding legs over charcoal — hardwood lump, to be precise (aim for one bag per meal). Have a chimney starter, too, and you’ll have your fire ready to go in 15 minutes. Feel free to use logs in conjunction with the charcoal, or throw them on after you’re done cooking.
Another option is a camp stove that is reliable, relatively cheap, durable and lightweight. Be sure to test it at home before you leave (never operate it indoors), and bring along plenty of extra fuel (typically propane) canisters.
Eat well. Go simple or fancy — it’s up to you. Here are ideas for each type of meal.
- Breakfast: “Breakfast should be hearty; very, very hearty,” Hanel says — with a lot of bacon. “This is your time to indulge. It’s a party in the woods.” The aforementioned pancakes are a no-brainer. And as long as you’ve got those eggs you packed so carefully, “you can make anything,” according to Stevenson. Pull out the skillet and make a frittata or a hash. Fried eggs with bacon or sausage is a crowd-pleaser, too. If you’re a baker, have dough for cinnamon rolls you’ve brought from home and can cook in a Dutch oven. Dutch babies — big, puffy pancakes — work great in cast-iron skillets.
- Lunch: Hanel and Stevenson don’t typically plan on being at the campground for lunch. That usually means they’re toting a plowman’s lunch with nuts, cheese, fruit and bread. Even if you are at your site, try to keep things quick and simple, so consider putting out sandwich fixings. For a sandwich upgrade, bring along a pie iron, which is kind of like a campfire panini press, to make “pudgie pies.”
- Dinner: If you have a group, think about meals people can customize. Stevenson is a huge fan of pizza cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Another classic possibility is the foil-packet dinner, so everyone can put together their own mix of vegetables and meat or other proteins. Rather than throwing ingredients in haphazardly, put ingredients that need a longer cook time (meat, potatoes, carrots) on the bottom, with more delicate, quicker-cooking ones (herbs, cheese) on top. (You can always flip the packet over, at least briefly, to get a hit of direct heat on the top.) Use heavy-duty foil, or a double layer of regular, and include a bit of moisture (wine, coconut milk, even water) so the ingredients steam. Just don’t get a steam burn when opening them! If you’re especially well-stocked or ambitious, you can cook a lot of different meals, such as roast chicken, chili or lasagna, in your Dutch oven.
- Dessert: Poring over the “s’moregasbord” in “The Campout Cookbook” almost made me want to run out into the woods pronto, what with combinations such as Milanos + Andes mints + sprinkles, and stroopwafels + blackberry jam + smoked honey. And while s’mores will always have a gooey marshmallow place in my heart, I have an especially soft spot for the banana boats of my summer-camp youth. Make a slit in a banana, stuff it with your choice of toppings, wrap in foil and bake/roast until heated through and melty.
- Drinks: Sure, you want the basics (coffee, juice, milk, etc.). But “don’t forget the bar,” Hanel says. Cocktails in flasks or thermoses you can pass around the campfire are convivial. Fall evenings with a nip in the air also beckon for hot chocolate — Hanel and Stevenson make a dreamy version with peanut butter and bittersweet chocolate — and other warm beverages. What was that? Hot toddy bar? Don’t mind if we do.
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