Humans have been cooking and eating outside since the dawn of mankind. But somewhere along the way, we got more sophisticated with how we prepared our food, swapping survival-mode hunting and gathering for something a little more pleasurable.
Today, campground cooking can be as easy or intricate as you’d like, depending on your budget and how you’re camping.
Because we believe the great outdoors are even greater when you’re eating well, and interest in camping and RV rentals are up exponentially during this pandemic summer, we spoke to camping and cooking experts to get their tips.
Plan every meal, and do so according to your skill level
It’s hard to wing it when it comes to camp cooking.
“Camping is a little more high stakes than home cooking, because you can’t order pizza if it all goes badly,” said Michael van Vliet, who runs Fresh Off the Grid, an online cooking resource for outdoor enthusiasts, with his wife, Megan McDuffie.
Plan each meal and snacks in advance of your camping trip to make sure you don’t burn through your food on the first night or get stuck eating chips for breakfast. How that plan will look will vary greatly depending on how you’re camping (i.e. backpacking through the wilderness or RV camping).
If you’re car or RV camping, you should be able to bring enough gear to make meals as you would in your own kitchen.
“One of the tips that we would give is to keep things simple and stick to the sort of recipes or at least cooking techniques or methods that you’re familiar with,” van Vliet said.
The couple tries to stick to meals that call for 10 ingredients or fewer, or take about 30 minutes to cook. For breakfast, that’s a skillet hash with seasonal vegetables, some eggs and maybe bacon. Lunch and dinner could be chili mac, a one-pot mac and cheese with seasoned ground beef and vegetables.
“We try to do stuff that’s kind of from scratch, but not a total headache,” McDuffie said.
But just because a meal is simple, that doesn’t mean it can’t be romantic. Follow the lead of world-renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, author of “Mallmann on Fire: 100 Inspired Recipes to Grill Anytime, Anywhere,” if you want to be a real bon vivant while you’re roughing it.
“I wrote a little story for a newspaper the other day in which I said that I woke up in the morning, went by the kitchen and I got two onions in the pocket of my jacket, two potatoes in the other one, some garlic, a little olive oil, parsley in my top pocket of my blazer and went out to the forest and had incredible lunch,” he said.
The forest lunch was simple, and that was perfect.
“I think that that’s the beauty about cooking outside,” Mallmann said. “You don’t need that certain idea of big fires and whole animals.”
Prep and marinade before you head to camp
A little investment in your meal prep can go a long way once you start cooking at your campsite. Not only will your meals turn out better, they’ll be easier to execute.
McDuffie and van Vliet chop their ingredients and prep side dishes like rice to streamline their cooking process at a campsite. They also make cocktails in batches at home, seal them in Mason jars and pack them in a cooler for later imbibing.
For Jimmy Ly, chef and owner of New York restaurants Madame Vo and Madame Vo BBQ, the best camping meal — marinated grilled chicken cooked over a portable charcoal grill — starts the night before he heads out on a trip.
To marinate five pounds of chicken, Ly’s family recipe calls for 2 cups soy sauce, a half cup of sugar, 15 cloves garlic minced, 3 tablespoons of MSG, 4 tablespoons of white pepper, 3 tablespoons of garlic powder and a half cup of water.
“It’s best to do overnight,” Ly said. “The longer the better. You preserve more flavor.”
It’s a recipe that comes from a remarkable family history, when eating outside wasn’t done for leisure, but survival.
“This was the go-to recipe for my dad when he was escaping the [Cambodian] war,” Ly said. “They were living in the forest, hiding from soldiers, and anytime they found meat this was their go-to marinade.”
The recipe that got his family through such a difficult time has brought Ly joy to cook, both camping and at home, since he learned how. On camping trips as a kid, his mother would pair the marinated chicken with wonder bread and her homemade mayonnaise.
Pack standard kitchen essentials, and don’t forget the cast iron
On Derek Wolf’s Instagram page Over The Fire Cooking, you’ll find plenty of pictures of big, juicy pieces of meat or hearty breakfasts cooking outside in a cast iron skillet. It’s one of Wolf’s essential pieces of gear for cooking and camping.
“I highly recommend like a 12-inch skillet, something that’s relatively formidable,” Wolf said. “It’s definitely not a copper skillet that they use in professional kitchens, but it’s going to do everything that you want it to.”
For beginner-friendly cast iron camping meals, Wolf suggests shrimp or skirt steak with chimichurri sauce with some vegetables on the side.
McDuffie and van Vliet make campsite cobblers and crisps using chopped seasonal fruit, topped with a crumble of oats, sugar, flour and butter cooked over the fire in a cast-iron Dutch oven.
Once you’re done cooking, cast iron clean up is very simple.
“When it comes to cleaning cast iron, it’s literally just hot water and elbow grease,” Wolf said. “I’ll just glaze it with a little bit of oil at the end to kind of rebuild another layer of seasoning.”
Along with the cast iron, Wolf brings long tongs, a wooden spoon, a cutting board, a knife and a natural tumbleweed-style fire starter.
“I tend to steer clear of any form of lighter fluid at all, mostly because I feel like it stays in the flavor of the fire for a very long time,” he said.
Wolf always tells camping newcomers to buy wood near the campsite to avoid bringing foreign diseases that can spread to surrounding trees, even through smoke.
If you’re going to be camping regularly and want to make sure you never leave any essential cooking tools behind, McDuffie and van Vliet recommend making a kit reserved for camping only.
“We try to have duplicates of things that we have in our kitchen, but they’re just for our camp box,” McDuffie said. “You can do that really cheaply by going to Goodwill and picking up a duplicate of a can opener, a bottle opener, these things that you just don’t want to drive out to the woods and be like, ‘Oh, honey, you remembered XYZ, right?’ ”
Pack your cooler wisely, and in order of your meal plan
If you want ice-cold beers or Ly’s chicken while you’re camping, you need to bring a cooler on your trip. The key to keeping it cold as long as possible is how you pack it.
McDuffie and van Vliet have this down to a science. First, they make sure their cooler is cold before they start packing it — they don’t just grab it from the hot garage and throw in ice. The same goes for the items going inside.
“You really want to use a cooler to keep things cool, not to cool things down,” McDuffie said.
The couple packs chilled items in the order they’ll be used to avoid rummaging everything around, exposing the cooler’s contents to warm air. Things you’ll use right away can go on top, while ingredients for meals later in your trip should go in the bottom.
How long your cooler will retain its cool depends on the model you have. McDuffie and van Vliet say the high-tech ones can last half a week, but your standard one should get you through a couple of days when used properly.