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Camping Cuisine 101: How to Cook by the Campfire

Learn how to cook in nature’s kitchen

Tracy Block Staff Reporter
Published:
Updated:
7 min read
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Fire is alive, it dances, and you need to lead it properly.
- Daniel Asher, award-winning, Colorado-based executive chef


As the pandemic rages on throughout the US, maybe it’s time to gear up and hit the road toward a secluded wilderness adventure. According to a May 2 report published by American market research company NPD Group, key camping, RV, and road trip essentials saw double- and triple-digit growth leading into summer. So, if you are currently experiencing cabin fever and are itching to get outside, make sure you have everything you need for an enjoyable camping trip, including all of the campsite cooking necessities. Picture a weekend surrounded by the therapeutic sounds of the wild, the allure of the campfire’s glow, and the delicious aromas and hearty flavors that only a proper fireside meal can provide.

Maintaining the Campfire

Former Boy Scout, avid camper, travel guide, podcast host, and founder of the storytelling community known as Travel With Meaning, Mike Schibel spends as much time as possible in the great outdoors, as well as advocating for others to join him in the wilderness. The Californian’s brand focuses on “sharing tangible moments and authentic conversations for a meaningful journey.” To illustrate, Schibel camps about 6 to 10 times per year, depending on the weather and where he wants to roam. Additionally, he embarks on both tented camping trips and excursions via camper van, with trips that span anywhere from 5 to 10 days at a time, along with the occasional interstate road trip to Arizona or Utah.

However, despite his varied adventures, one ritual remains a constant: campsite comfort food. When he’s not employing his “old-school” Coleman camping stove, Schibel can be found preparing meals on the campfire. “I also love to cook over an open fire with a proper grill, but you don’t always find that everywhere you camp,” he says.

Moreover, when cooking on the campfire, Schibel notes that maintaining the fire is essential to a successful experience. “Taking care of your wood properly – to set up your campfire – is very important,” Schibel explains. “A big game-changer for me was when I got a solid camping axe. This (now) allows me to break up bigger pieces of wood into kindling that creates a better-burning and long-lasting fire.” Schibel also shares that good-quality campfire gloves are a must, along with first-aid supplies (in case of emergency), like coconut oil, aloe vera, Neosporin, gauze, tape, and bandages.

Must-Haves for Campsite Cooking

Before you spark the fire with your long lighter or long matches, there are a few other supplies to have on hand. Schibel’s checklist contains the following:

• A grill grate: This is essential for cooking atop the firepit.

• A good cooking knife: So you can tackle the toughest of textures.

• Cast iron pots and pans: Because they are an ideal match for the high heat of the campfire.

• A Dutch oven: For its volume and versatility; it’s also a great vessel for nostalgic Boy Scout peach cobbler – one of Schibel’s personal favorites.

• Utensils: Think metal tongs and spatulas, whisks, large spoons, and standard forks, knives, and spoons.

• Mixing bowls: For meal prep, mixing, and making sauces.

• Cutting boards: This makes prep easier when on-site.

• A good coffee maker: A French press or percolator, as well as a reusable, insulated Mizu mug /cup.

• A Rotomolded cooler: Consider a YETI or an RTIC, where ice can last up to 10 days.

• Aluminum foil: This is great for wrapping corn and veggies for the grill.

Still, Schibel encourages you to be more sustainable when cooking at your campsite. Therefore, he recommends supplies including Stashers reusable food and snack bags, environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid from ECOS, and Simply Straws, which offers stainless steel options.

Crafting Kitchens in Nature

Daniel Asher is an award-winning, eco-conscious, Colorado-based executive chef and partner at multiple food and beverage ventures, including River and Woods in Boulder, Ash’Kara in Denver, and Acreage Ciderhouse & Eatery in Lafayette, Colorado. Asher is also the executive chef and founder of EcoChef Culinary, a multi-faceted events and consulting company that centers around featuring organic, local produce, ethically raised meats, and sustainable ingredients. However, he still finds the time to get away to enjoy camping, being in the wild, and of course, cooking in the most natural arena on the planet.

Cooking over live fire, around a hearth that you have assembled yourself out of rocks, soil and focus, with the blackness of the sky above and the vast backdrop of millions of glimmering stars, is one of the most primitive and magical of human experiences,” shares Asher. “Creating your outdoor kitchen is an act of ritual, an action that is mostly lost these days.”

To illustrate, Asher spent 19 months travelling in his early 20s, camping across 17 states, eventually ending up in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona on a remote area of Bureau of Land Management terrain where he set up a wilderness kitchen with fire pits, multi-tiered cooking surfaces, and a cast-iron plancha. “I cooked over fire every night. Later, I led adventure expeditions, ending the trips with live-fire cooking at remote sites, cooking off a makeshift chuckwagon trailer that was the short bed of an old pickup truck, feeding 80 to 100 guests by candlelight,” says Asher. “I still have one of my old steel cooking grates that I have been using for over 20 years as my main cooking surface when camping.”

Also, Asher notes that the experience is enjoyable for him, regardless of the setting – be it remotely primitive or luxury glamping. “The fire is the central, sacred element; the unified expression of community. It’s where we gather, where we can feel like a tribe, where we think and nourish ourselves and get warm,” he shares. “Nothing can come close to being wild and free amongst the trees and the moon and the crackling of logs.”

The Convenience of Meal Prep

Asher is a proponent of meal prep, which, thanks to a good cooler, can be done ahead of time – prior to setting up camp. For example, he enjoys pre-skewering kabobs with cuts of skin-on chicken thighs marinating in a shawarma-style rub with olive oil, and letting this magic work for most of the day before the chicken hits the grill. Furthermore, Asher recommends marinating skirt steak in chimichurri for a delicious cut of meat, or pork loin with cumin, lime, orange juice, and herbs, which is a “fantastic start to fireside tacos.”

And, while Asher says canned goods are cheap, easy, and store well, “nothing beats fresh, seasonal produce, preferably from a farmers market or roadside stand as part of the journey to the remote location,” he offers. “Bringing fresh greens and making a salad is so refreshing; also, forage – if possible – for other ways to enhance your meal with wild greens, herbs, berries, etc.” On the other hand, Asher does admit that canned beans save time and energy for a pot of stew or chili, while a can of tomato paste adds plenty of depth and layers to multiple campsite dishes.

How to Approach Your Campfire Cooking Style

Asher explains that with the right skill on the flames, it is easy to incorporate multiple cooking techniques, from a high-heat, hard sear, to low-and-slow overnight braising/roasting, indirect heat, or direct-flame grilling. “Fire is alive, it dances, and you need to lead it properly. If all is lost, you can throw a hot dog on a stick and just hold it over a burning log,” he jokes. “With good friends and family, the sound of a bubbling stream, and the wind in your hair, this can be better than the most expensive multi-course tasting menu in the finest restaurant!”

Campfire Cooking Apps

While Asher tries to avoid technology as much as possible, so he can enjoy his time away from reality (he prefers no cell signal at all), Schibel offers a few helpful apps, for those willing to stay connected – just in case you need a bit of campsite cooking assistance:

• TrailChef, which includes camping recipes and a menu planning tool.

• Dutch Oven Helper Lite, which helps you calculate the briquettes needed for a Dutch oven meal.

• Camping List, which allows you to create electronic lists for your food and cooking needs.

Camping Sustainably

Both Asher and Schibel encourage sustainable camping and cooking however possible. In addition to the sustainable items Schibel recommends for your cooking supply list, he also suggests using compostables, like trash bags and plates from Repurpose. “I bury my veggie and fruit scraps under trees and carry an axe that also turns into a shovel,” Schibel offers.

After another glorious weekend out in the wild, it’s time to pack up camp, and this includes mindful cleanup. “On my last camping trip, I noticed more trash than normal and that leaves me feeling sad about people and nature,” shares Schibel. “We are all one, cohesive fabric and need each other to survive. Let's leave no trace when we travel.”  


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Camping Cuisine 101: How to Cook by the Campfire

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