Camp Cooking 101

Tips and tricks for moving beyond freeze-dry fare in the wild

When my wife was growing up in California, she would camp with her family in the summer. They had a pop-up trailer that they’d park at the beach in Ventura or in Yosemite and for dinner pop open cans of Dinty Moore chili to cook in a pot over a small stove. Simple enough. Very little in the way of ingredients, utensils or preparation required. The first time we went camping together she was surprised by how, as she said, “gourmet” the items I brought with us to cook were. Instead of canned chili over a stove, we had steak and pasta, and instead of oatmeal and an apple in the morning, we enjoyed bacon and eggs. As someone who grew up in Colorado camping and backpacking in the summer—perhaps crossing the border into Moab for the occasional climbing trip—I was used to these types of meals. And to me they never seemed all that hard to execute.

After all, this is not California or Colorado. This is Utah. And in Utah we do the outdoors better. Colorado is too crowded. California is too tame. So while planning and cooking a fine meal may sound intimidating or even overwhelming to some—what with getting the car packed, the dog ready, the kids buckled in, the bikes strapped—it is possible for you to eat just as well while camping as at home. In fact, it is your duty as a proud citizen of Utah! Chances are if you’ve grown up in the West and spent any considerable amount of time camping, you know these tricks already, but in case you’re a newbie and looking to up your cooking-while-camping-game, look no further. With a little preparation and knowledge, pretty much anyone can move beyond freeze-dry “cooking” while camping.

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The Pre-Prep
To cook and eat well while camping, the first overall idea is to prepare as much as you can in advance and pack appropriate cookware. Prep or buy things ready to plop in a cast-iron skillet or a small pot (the only two large cooking utensils you’ll need) once you get into the wilderness. These, plus a cutting board, some utensils and a universal plate and bowl are all the items you’ll need. Buy a small tote to carry the items along with some salt and pepper, and a few of your favorite herbs. You can buy new items or simply rotate out some well-worn spatulas and utensils you already have in the kitchen. Fancy camping gear from REI is nice but not essential. I’d say I have about half and half currently: an old skillet and cutting board I pilfered from our kitchen, and a new 7-in-1 bowl/cook-pot set from Stanley that I use specifically for camping.

For food, think of items that grill or cook well by themselves in a relatively short amount of time, and that don’t need a ton of ingredients or temperature control. Consider food items that allow you to do all the prepping and pre-cooking in your comfy air-cooled home kitchen and then chuck into sealable plastic bags or containers. Then, after you’ve made it to the campsite and cracked open a couple of locally brewed beers, you’re ready to rock the camp meal.

An example: One of my favorite meals I recently cooked was a sort of jambalaya dish made from a box (boring, I know) but “elevated” with slices of andouille sausage from Frody Vollger’s Salt and Smoke Meats. We heated up some water, dumped the rice in, cooked the sausage in a skillet, sliced it up on a small cutting board, then mixed it all together with some pre-sliced veggies, and boom—pretty darned good jambalaya.
Before you leave home, you can also pre-mix fruit, veggie or pasta salads and pancake mix, marinade steaks or pork chops, slice up sweet potatoes and veggies, grate some cheese, crush garlic and (if you’re really fancy) pre-make your favorite sauce or gravy so you can simply reheat it over the fire. You can literally cut up a bunch of meats and vegetables (at home or at the campsite), wrap it in a ball of foil with some oil and cheese, and make a “hobo” meal that you then toss onto the outskirts of the fire and wait twenty or so minutes for it to cook. The only utensils required if you do all the prep-work beforehand is a fork.

A few general musts for all of these meals are salt and pepper, herbs, oil, butter, pre-marinating and pre-wrapping/packing before leaving. Take thirty or so minutes to prep at home in advance, and you and the rest of your family or significant other will thank you like they’ve never thanked you before. You’ll soon be eating steak, bacon and eggs, fresh sandwiches, pancakes and other entrées, all while gathered around a fire, sitting beneath the inky blackness of the night sky gazing at clear white stars, miles from the closest restaurant or sign of civilization.

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Meal Option 1 (dinner)
Meat: Marinate steak or pork chops in a Ziploc bag the day before you leave. Then just take the meat out and slap it onto your camp stove or over a small grate on the fire once the flames have died down.

Vegetables: Depending where you are, forage! Chances are you could find some sage or rosemary to sprinkle alongside the onions and pepper and squash you brought from home. If, and only if, you know what you are doing, find some mushrooms and maybe some roots. You can go with a salad already mixed in a bag or some chopped peppers, onions, sweet potatoes and corn cooked over the fire or on a stove with foil. My friend Scott’s favorite camping side dish is sliced sweet potatoes grilled and then dipped in barbecue sauce.

Grains: Instant rice, mashed potatoes and such might not be very sexy, but it’s what you add to them that really make them stand out. Use those herbs and other seasonings you brought or scavenged.

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Meal Option 2 (breakfast)
Before I do anything else, I make coffee. Cooking breakfast with no caffeine or warm beverage to sip while you wake up to watch the sunrise might be one of the worst decisions you’ll ever make, so don’t do it. Make coffee, tea or hot chocolate. It will warm up your soul and reduce the pain ringing through your body from the rock you slept on the night before. Bring a French press, a pour-over or an aero press, and a small kettle. You can pre-grind coffee before you leave or use a hand grinder.

Then, how about breakfast burritos or pancakes? For breakfast burritos, pack some prepped veggies, sour cream and salsa. All you have to do is cook eggs, bacon or sausage (even tofu), some frozen potatoes, maybe onions, and fold it all into a flour tortilla. For pancakes, you can pre-mix batter and then cook in a skillet. Just remember to pack a bit of butter and maple syrup. Or, for an even simpler breakfast, enjoy eggs, bacon and toast made with butter face-down on the skillet, which gives the bread a nice charred, buttery taste. Another tip: Buy a hard egg-protector case to make sure the eggs aren’t crushed in the cooler.

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Meal Option 3 (lunch)
Think simple: Fresh bread, cheese, salami, nuts, fruit. That sort of thing. Get some good bread from a local bakery like Vosen’s, quality cheese and salami from Caputo’s, fruit from the farmers market, and trail mix wherever it’s sold.

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Meal Option 4 (dinner)
Pasta or jambalaya: Heat water in a pan, toss in pasta or rice. Then slice up some sausage, onions, garlic and whatever else you want, mix it together for jambalaya, or heat up pasta sauce once the noodles are cooked. You can pack a strainer or just drain the cooking liquid using the cooking pot lid. (Consider using the liquid to thicken or reconstitute a sauce.) Perhaps break off a piece of baguette you bought fresh the day before in the city and slather it with a knife-blade of jam from Amour Spreads, or good old-fashioned butter.

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