Campfire cooking for the gourmand

How to cook more than smokies and s’mores at your next campout

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

For many of us, camping means spending time with friends and family, howling at the moon and eating delicious campfire-cooked meals. After all, food always tastes better roasted over a fire under the stars.

While smokies and s’mores are the go-to for any campers (let’s face it, Woods jalapeño cheese smokies are basically a North Idaho food group of their own), there are a plethora of tips and tricks you can tap into that can turn your usual campfire fare into a full-blown gourmet meal.

Aluminum foil is the minimalist’s friend

While packing for your upcoming campout, don’t forget the aluminum foil. It’s a cinch to prep foil-pack meals before leaving home, making dinner time as easy as tossing the packets on hot coals when your gang gets hungry.

When cooking with foil, it doesn’t hurt to wrap your meals twice to avoid burning, and always remember to seal the packets so the juices don’t dribble out when you flip them over. Add water or oil to keep your meal from drying out.

Side dishes are especially easy to prepare using foil. One go-to is to line up green beans in a foil-pack with chopped garlic, olive oil and herbs. Same goes for baby potatoes, Brussels sprouts or anything, really — the sky’s the limit. After cooking, just crumple the foil packet so you can pack them out.

A grilling grate makes life easier

Any campfire chef knows that cooking over a direct open flame is a no-no. While it may seem logical that the hottest part of the fire is the flames, it’s not exactly the case. To truly cook an item over a campfire instead of just burning the outside, more consistent heat is necessary. The best bet is to rage your fire and build up white-hot coals, then pile them up under a grilling grate (you can prop up this grate between two rocks or, if it’s large enough, over the rocks around the fire). 

It’s helpful to have a dedicated cooking area in your fire pit so you can move the coals over to this area while keeping the main fire burning and producing more coals to renew your cooking area’s heat source.

A grilling grate doesn’t have to be anything special — it can be as basic as an old oven rack, which can be found in area thrift stores for a buck or two.

Pro tip: Use the crumpled tin foil from your foil-pack meal to clean the grate before or after cooking. 

Embracing cast iron

A good cast iron skillet or Dutch oven can last a lifetime, if you take care of it. These pans will never get ruined by the high temperatures of a fire, and if you season the iron well, the flavor produced by cast iron cooking is incredible.

If you only want to purchase one piece of cast iron for camping, consider a Dutch oven with a lid that transforms into a skillet or griddle. A good cast iron pot will have legs to keep its base elevated so coals can be placed beneath. Same goes with the lid.

There are endless recipes to create with cast iron. One is to place a whole chicken in a Dutch oven with some water and oil in the bottom. Include onions, garlic, herbs and root vegetables, then place on the coals. Once placed, pack coals along the lid to give your chicken more of an even cooking. In 30-40 minutes, you’ll have a delicious, smoky roasted chicken that will make you wonder why you shoved hot dogs down your gullet for so many years.

Another excellent recipe is to brown a couple pounds of buffalo or organic, grass-fed ground beef in the Dutch oven, add onions and garlic and cook a bit longer. Then add some pinto beans and some taco seasoning and water. Take some rice that you cooked before leaving the house and warm some tortillas over the fire. Then spoon the mixture into your tortillas and add any vegetables you’d like, wrap in foil and watch your hungry campmates line up.

Dessert can be more than s’mores

Whoever invented the s’more should probably earn a Nobel Peace Prize or something. But why limit yourself on dessert options when there are so many different directions to take your taste buds?

One go-to for Dutch oven cookers is a dump cake, which is literally just a can of cherry pie filling, a packet of cake mix and a can of lemon-lime soda. Dump the pie filling in the bottom of the oven, and then pour over the cake mix and soda and place the lid on the oven. Use your nose or hunger to guide when it’s finished — it usually only takes about 20 minutes.

(Pro tip: Lining the Dutch oven with foil will help with cleanup later.)

Another super easy camp dessert is to cut open a banana longwise, insert milk chocolate squares inside and peanut butter if desired, then close the banana back up, wrap in foil and toss on the coals. When finished, peel open one side of the banana and spoon the dessert into your mouth while still warm. The banana takes on a pudding-like texture and is complemented nicely by the chocolate and peanut butter.

Speaking of s’mores, have you ever tried to change them up a bit? Instead of Hershey’s chocolate bars, what about a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Or a York Peppermint Patty?

There are countless resources online for when you’d like to step up your game and impress your camping buddies. The main idea is to have fun while cooking and don’t settle for charred hot dogs when your campout has the potential to be an adventure for your taste buds, too.

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