Now that the pandemic has made us all camping experts, it's time to elevate the outdoor food game.
Roughing it in the wilderness doesn’t mean skimping on cuisine. It's time to take our camping meals to a whole 'nother level, and we know just the person to help us. Linda Ly, author of both The New Camp Cookbook and The Backyard Fire Cookbook, is the face behind Garden Betty, a website filled with resources and tools on everything from pantry stocking to outdoor adventuring.
Like many of us, Ly didn't grow up camping, but once she got into it she realized that good campfire meals are as important as sturdy hiking shoes and a comfy place to lay down your head.
“One of the things that I love about cooking outdoors is that every time you make a meal, it's so different,” says Ly. “Meals can taste a whole new way depending on whether they're cooked over charcoal or wood, what kind of wood (say, cherry instead of oak), how hot the fire is... these types of things."
"It might be the slightest nuance, not noticeable enough where you can pick out the flavor. You just know that's something different, and most of the time it's going to be something wonderful.”
Ly believes part of the beauty of campfire cooking is that it allows us to engage all of our senses, like breathing in the wood scent of natural mulch as we eat, or feeling the sticky salt air blowing in from the ocean while preparing a steak.
“All of the sights, smells, and sounds around us affect the way we perceive our food,” she says.
So how do we go about embracing campfire cooking, and taking our meals us a notch... or five?
Prepare a cooking kit
The essential cooking kit includes prep bowls, a cookset with pots and pans, thin cutting boards, a spatula, serving spoons and sporks, and anything else you'll need to prepare a meal. Most people can find self-contained cook-sets at places like REI and Amazon, as well as stand-alone pieces like a Dutch oven or frying pan (also often available at hardware stores).
“Anything that can be grilled directly on a grate is my preference,” Ly says. “This way, you don't really have any dishes to clean."
Here are some other items to keep in a cooking kit:
- a set of plates, bowls, cup, and real utensils
- knives for slicing meats and vegetables
- skewers for cooking over the fire
- dishwashing soap
- matches or some sort of fire starter
- reusable ice packs (for foods that need refrigerating)
- a cooler for either car camping or backpacking to store perishable foods
“You can add to these things or simplify them, depending on whether you're at an actual campground or a remote site that requires carry-in water,” says Ly.
For those of us heading into the backcountry—e.g. wilderness where there's no access to facilities or water—remember that everything you bring has to fit inside a backpack, or at least split among campers. Car camping offers the extra space of a trunk or backseat.
Starting off small (with a small fire)
“One of the main things that always scares people new to camp cooking is how to cook over over a fire,” Ly says. “Is the flame too hot? Too low? Are they going to burn themselves, burn the food...set the whole campsite on fire?”
Rather than work yourself into a tizzy, start off making one simple meal on a camp stove (“because everyone knows how to turn a knob,” Ly says).
Consider something that's pre-marinated and/or a dehydrated meal (go for ones you already know you like) that can be easily cooked with water or oil, and then further spruced up with fresh garlic, mushrooms, or even sun-dried tomatoes. With the extra texture and flavor, camping cohorts might think they're bedding down beside a master chef.
Other ways to enliven a simple dish include oils (packets of olive oil exist), sauces, soy sauce (not just for Asian recipes, Ly says, but also for eggs or any kind of meat), and some sort of hot sauce.
Ly uses spices such as cumin and basic Italian seasonings to infuse foods with even more depth. “Just a little flavor goes a long way,” she says.
Easy-to-make dishes to kick it up a notch include a big pot of chili (for COVID safety, make sure only one person doles out the chili so that the ladle’s not changing hands) that can be eaten with chips, rice, cheese, onions; breakfast scrambles (using pre-scrambled eggs and any leftovers ); or any Dutch-oven recipe, “because they're as hands-off as it goes,” says Ly.
To get really creative? Try a foil packet, which includes meats, veggies, and seasonings all rolled together into individual foil packets and then just cooked over the open fire, using tongs to turn every few minutes. They are especially COVID-friendly, since they can be made at home in advance and each camper can prepare their own.
“They take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to cook, depending on the pack,” say Ly. “Then the only remaining garbage is the foil.”
Think strategically about time, effort
Nobody should feel the need to take on all the culinary footwork. Each camper can be assigned a different meal and/or portion of food prep, so everyone gets ample time around the fire. Morning people get the breakfast shift!
“Bring the meals that you know you, your family, and your friends will enjoy,” Ly says, “and have some variety. It also helps to know what people like to drink, and bring plenty to go around.”
One plan-ahead strategy that can really help keep things stress-free around the campfire (and allow more time for sipping wine and socializing) is to choose meals based not only on personal preferences, but also on how much time there is to cook it.
“Given a choice between chicken and steak, I will always choose steak,” says Ly. “It cooks really quickly and can be eaten medium-rare to rare. Chicken has to be cooked through thoroughly, and it takes a really long time to cook over the fire. You almost have to babysit it.”
There are also all those bones associated with chicken thighs, wings, and drumsticks, which have to be carried out after a meal in the wild. With steak, you eat it and it's gone. Finished. Done. Over.
Consider lunch as something that can be eaten on the trail and/or doesn't require a lot of fussing. For instance, think of easy-to-make wraps with ingredients like hummus, olives, artichoke hearts, or peanut butter packets. “Foods that you don't have to worry about getting wilted or smashed,” Ly says, “because everything has kind of a soft texture anyway.”
Go big or go home (when you’re ready)
Soon enough, campfire cooking becomes like a routine. You know just how long that pasta with the crumbled feta takes to cook, and how a simple pinch of seasoning will turn it from a dullsville dinner into one that’s utterly delightful.
This is when it's time to go all out with those newfound culinary camp skills and make a meal that will crush all campfire meals that came before it.
Ly's recommendation: Korean flank steak (it's COVID-friendly, since everyone can cook their own).
“It's like my signature dish at camp,” she says. “It feels really gourmet, but it's incredibly easy to make. Serve it alongside pickled cucumbers, add rice to it, or make it into a lettuce wrap.” Then serve it all up with an ice cold beer and you've got yourself one hell of a campfire cookout.
Ly adds, “Around the campfire you've got no other distractions and all this time to cook. Why not cook something amazing?”
Now on to the recipes...
These dishes are all COVID-friendly for serving except for the sweet potato hash. For recommended safety, it is best to assign one person to the ladle for distributing servings.