The Dos and Donts of Campfire Cooking

Senior man sitting on log, watching cooking pot on campfire, low section

Getty ImagesHugh Whitaker

You know how you can watch the Olympics, or the moon landing, or, like, American Ninja Warrior, and come away from it both inspired by the boundless potential of the human spirit and deeply shredded in a self-conception sort of way? There’s a scene from the Netflix series Mind of a Chef that does that to camp cooks.

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In it, Magnus Nilsson, über-outdoorsman and head of Michelin-starred, Norwegian destination restaurant Faviken, pulls a pork chop out of his bag that is so marbled it looks like a pink photo of the Earth from space. He dresses it with hand-churned butter and puts it directly in the fire in a long-handled pan. To season it, he leans over and just PULLS SOME LEAVES OFF THE BUSH BEHIND HIM, WHICH JUST HAPPENS TO BE A JUNIPER BUSH, WHICH SOMEHOW HE KNEW.

You are not that good. I am not that good. No one but Magnus Nilsson (except maybe his buddy, who dives for Mahogany clams in Arctic waters on another episode, then slurps one on a boat in a drysuit) is that good.

But we can all be better. Here’s how:

Select Your Recipe

    Simple is good—grilled meats, one-pan casseroles, tacos, anything you can put in a foil packet and stuff in the coals. If you’ve cooked it at home and it required a ton of pans, it’s probably not going to work when you are surrounded by bears. (Try not to cook while surrounded by bears.) Camping cookbooks are useful. I have two—Charlie Palmer’s Remington Camp Cooking and Emma Frisch’s Feast by Firelight. Both contain lots of adaptable tips. Don’t buy Nilsson’s book about Faviken. You can’t even make that stuff in a professional kitchen. The guy is a maniac.

    Bring the Right Equipment

      Yes, you can use a camp stove, but to really impress people you’ve got to go cast iron. A big sauté pan is useful, as long as you can lift it, and Dutch ovens are the stuff of dreams. Be aware—you will need a serious potholder or a silicone sleeve for the handle so as not to burn your fingers off. And if your campsite doesn’t come with a grate over the fire (most do), you’ll need a portable grate or a tripod setup as well. Other things I’ve forgotten and really regretted: a knife, a can opener, and something nonplastic to stir with.

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      Bring Paper Towels

        I can do this with a kitchen towel! Paper towels aren’t natural! I won’t need them!

        No, you can’t. Yes, they are. And yes, you will. You can burn them in the fire afterward or use them for kindling. You are not Magnus Nilsson. You have been warned.

        Stock Camping-Specific Materials

          Keep tiny versions of salt, pepper, and olive oil in your pantry. Having a dedicated set makes getting out the door faster, and you can even store them with the rest of your camping gear so you don’t forget. Premix other spices for your recipes and store them in Tic Tac containers.

          Prep Correctly

            This was an option not available to me on my first camp cooking adventure, in which my boyfriend informed me that I was making dinner for six people on the way to the campsite, but I have used it on subsequent trips to excellent results. Anything you have to chop or measure should be chopped, measured, and combined in advance. Chefs call this mise en place, and it’s almost like people who cook for impatient restaurant patrons in cramped sweatboxes know something about making food in a time and space crunch. Put pre-chopped early/mid/late ingredients in separate containers so you can just toss them into the pan at the correct times. Bring premeasured batches of wet and dry ingredients (e.g., for cornbread) and mix them together right before you bake. Ideal containers are ball jars, which can double as glasses once empty, or small plastic storage containers that can double as bowls (use the lids as cutting boards, in a pinch).

            Beef broth mise en place.

            You want this, but more combined. Skip the little bowls, obviously.

            Getty Imagesannick vanderschelden photography

            Build a Suitable Fire

              A good cooking fire is a steady, even source of heat. In my experience, a very early fire requires too much tending, and a hot fire with too many new logs will try to smoke you out. Late, mostly red-coal fires are perfect, but you won’t have that kind of time. Start by building a solid teepee-style fire that extends partway (but not all the way!) under your grate, so you have multiple heat zones. Wait until a few big logs catch and you’re not worried about it fizzling out. As you’re cooking, move around so you’re not getting blasted in the face with smoke. (You will anyway. Sorry.)

              Clean the Pan

                My boyfriend (who is wonderful, despite the anecdotes I keep telling about him) once suggested we clean a cast-iron pan by inverting it over the fire and burning it out. Do not do this. It doesn’t work and will take several days and most of your spirit to clean for real. A better method: Wipe the pan out as much as possible, fill with water, and boil over the fire. Dump the water (carefully) and rub with oil and salt.

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