When it comes to cooking in the great outdoors, it's not all hot dogs and marshmallows. In fact, "some of the best food is made over a fire," attests Bryan Calvert, owner of Brooklyn's James and author of Brooklyn Rustic. You just have to build it—and bring the right things.
Luckily, you're not alone in the proverbial woods of cooking while camping. We caught up with three camping chefs to find out how you can make the most of your outdoor cooking experience. Here's what they bring when they pitch a tent (or park a trailer) and how they use each ingredient, tool, and technique in their backpack. Get ready to camp and cook out.
When it comes to cooking while camping, you can't go wrong with potatoes, says Andrew Zielke, chef of The Fifty/50 in Chicago. "They're a staple, and they fill you up," says Zielke, who started camping when he was just four years old. ("I'll camp anywhere that has fire pits or enough open space to set a pit," he tells Food & Wine.) Plus, you can eat potatoes any time, Zielke points out, making them an indispensible ingredient from morning until night.
You'll need olive oil for those potatoes—and almost everything you'll cook while camping, says Calvert, who recently returned from a week-long camping adventure in Baja, Mexico. "It adds flavor to everything from meat to vegetables to salad, and it's shelf stable," he says.
Another versatile ingredient these chefs pack is onions. "They can add so much flavor to anything savory with very little effort," says Zielke. And should you sneak in a hot dog or sausage to your weekend menu, "they're great to grill up and put on top," Zielke says.
Speaking of sausage, you can easily upgrade a camping staple—hot dogs—by swapping the franks for Andouille, bratwurst, or even Italian sausages. Pack several, Zielke says, and you can have a different one daily. "They're super quick to heat up for lunch or dinner," he says.
For a side dish, consider zucchini squash, says Zielke. "Some vegetables just don't hold up well on the fire, and zucchini squash can be halved or quartered for a perfect, no-fuss side," he says. "Plus, they keep really well in a cooler." Another good side? Rice or lentils, Calvert says. "Both of these foods give you so much energy," he says, "and they are really versatile in cooking. They're great when you're backpacking and need tons calories and nutrients."
Then, to season all that delicious, fire-cooked food, these chefs pack several spices—some that might take you by surprise. Calvert packs mushroom powder (or dried mushrooms) to add an umami flavor to almost everything he cooks. "You can make a mushroom and rice casserole," he says, "or dust meat with it to give it extra flavor." Calvert also brings coconut milk—a shelf-stable ingredient—to mix up as a marinade for fish or chicken. "You can also make coconut rice with it, which makes a great side dish," he says. And fresh garlic doubles as a spice or as a condiment. "You can drizzle olive oil over a head of garlic, wrap it in foil, and cook it in ashes," Calvert instructs. "It's delicious with meat, or used a great spread to put on sandwiches the next day." He also never leaves home without chili powder, salt, and pepper. "Spices are so great to bring with you when camping," Calvert says. "When I'm backpacking, I put premade rubs in little canisters so I can continually eat flavorful meals."
Without the right tools for out-in-the-wild cooking, the awesome ingredients above won't do you much good, these chefs warn. Most of the meals you'll cook while camping will be placed over a fire—and the best way to start one, says Zielke, is with flint steel and dryer lint, two "tools" you can likely shop from your basement without ever going to the store. "Those both work wonders," he says. Light each with a match beneath the sticks and wood in your fit pit, and you'll soon have big flames over which you can cook your meals.
While you may want to pack a cast iron pot or Dutch oven for your one-pot meals—think: a savory chicken and rice casserole made with mushroom powder—it's really foil that will become your new best friend when you're cooking over an open flame or on the grill, says Calvert. "A lot of times with camping, cleanup is difficult," he admits. "You can use tinfoil to cook with and save yourself a lot of time cleaning up." Wrap veggies, meat, or even whole fish in foil, recommends Zielke, and steam or roast them over your heat source.
These chefs never forget a cutting board—"when you're cooking, you need a proper work space," Calvert explains—which can double as a serving platter, too. And "it's obvious, but you need a good knife if you're going to be preparing many different ingredients," he says.
Calvert also recommends traveling with a steamer insert. "If you make fresh vegetables, it's very easy if you have a steamer insert you can fit over a pot with some water," he says.
You might be so focused on cooking that you're not thinking of where to put those hot pots and pans once you're done searing your meat and veggies. That's why Justine Kelly, chef of Sun Basket, always packs a cooling rack. She uses it to hold her hot cooking utensils, but "it's [also] great for grilling and for using as a surface to place pans over coals," she says.
Kelly, who regularly camps with her family in Yosemite National Park and in Marin County in California, always brings something to help her clean up, too: a hanging water bag. As long as it's got a spout, the bag is ideal for washing everything from fresh produce to sticky hands, Kelly says. "Just place it in the sun so it warms up," she recommends.
Lastly, don't leave home without a grill brush. "Too often I see people eating food off of dirty grills that haven't been cleaned or seasoned," Calvert says. (To which we say, gross.) "Using grills like that makes food tastes worse, so I always bring a great grill brush. I also take an old rag, soak it with a high-heat oil, and rub the grill with it," Calvert advises.
"There is something special about cooking over an open flame that you made yourself," Zielke says, and we can't help but agree. The flames, embers, and coals of a flickering fire add a special flavor you simply can't achieve on a stovetop or even an oven. "Plus," as Zielke points out, "you get to do whatever you want, culinary-wise, without anyone to critique or judge." That seclusion can lead to exciting experimentation—with the right techniques.
You know how to build a fire—by adding flint steel and dryer sheets to the pit—but don't add your dish while the flames are still flickering high, Kelly advises. "It is best to let a campfire burn down to mostly coals before cooking in or over them," Kelly says. Think: low and slow, like you might use your own gas range at home. "You can always add more wood after cooking to enjoy the fire while eating dinner and roasting marshmallows," she says.
When using a grill, however, "a little live flame is OK," Kelly says, "but coals are best." She packs a Weber grill plate to place directly on top of the grill's coals, "propped up by the rocks that surround the fire," Kelly describes. Plus, "I use the same grill as a base to place a pan on for sautéing, but with the coals more evenly spread out beneath."
No matter what—or where—you're cooking outdoors, Zielke recommends keeping your food in the largest pieces possible. "Trying to chop or dice ingredients too small can be tricky when cooking over an open fire," he says. Not only that, but Zielke adds, "it's also easier to eat hearty pieces when it's dark outside."
And one last tip: Before Calvert leaves on a camping adventure, he pre-marinates a steak in a chimichurri sauce and freezes it. "Throughout the day, it defrosts and by the time I get to camp, it's ready to be grilled over a fire," he says. And fine fare doesn't get easier than that.