Like many kids, I spent most of my warm weather weekends as a youth at a campground with my family. It wasn't exactly "roughing it" but it always seemed like an adventure, except for the food. Apparently there is some secret camper's code that says the only forms of sustenance allowed at a campground are hot dogs, potato chips and fire-blackened marshmallows, because that is what we had just about every time that we went. When I was a kid, I never gave it a second thought. What red-blooded American boy would object to skewering something with stick, cooking it in the mesmerizing flames of fire and then eating it? But years later, when I attended my first deer camp - ironically a true, no-frills, roughing-it camp with the only source of energy being a well-used fire pit - my eyes were opened to a whole new world; a world of delicious, "home-cooked" meals prepared far from home and without much hassle.
Although kids love them, campfire cooking doesn't have to be limited to marshmallows.
As the name implies, one of the most important aspects of campfire cooking is the actual fire. Making a fire is not difficult but does require a little practice to master. Clear a spot on the ground of all leaves and debris until you have created a 10-foot diameter circle. This may sound excessive, but sparks from the fire can travel much farther than you think. Large rocks should be gathered to make a ring in the middle of the cleared area. Rocks containing moisture, such as those from a stream bed, should be avoided as the water will expand when heated and could cause the rocks to explode. The fire ring should only be big enough to cook the desired amount of food. Building one that is too big will only result in inconsistent temperatures and more time spent collecting wood.
Clearing an area of debris and leaves and creating a ring of rocks will help
prevent problems caused by sparks or rolling logs.
Gather all the wood you need prior to starting the fire. There is nothing more frustrating than getting a fire started and then watching it burn out before you can find more wood to fuel it. Select hardwoods if they are available and try to avoid pitchy woods, like pine. Adding a few sticks of pecan, cherry, apple or mesquite wood can tremendously enhance the flavor of the meal.
With tinder about the size of a pencil, arrange a small teepee in the middle of the fire ring. Start the fire by stuffing a few dry wood shavings or leaves beneath the teepee and lighting with a match, magnesium fire starter or other method. Once it is lit, slowly add increasingly larger pieces of wood until the fire is burning efficiently with pieces that are 2- to 3-inches in diameter or larger.
Wood shavings and small sticks light easily and arranging them in a teepee shape ensures
that enough oxygen circulates to keep the fire going while progressively larger wood is added.
When the wood has become a bed of hot coals, you can check for the desired temperature. Carefully hold your hand about six inches above the coals and begin counting (one-one thousand, two-one thousand) until the heat causes you to move your hand. A temperature of about 400 F correlates to a time of two seconds. The temperature is about 25 degrees less for each additional second (i.e. 3 seconds = 375 F, 4 seconds = 350 F). When the coals are the desired temperature, cooking can begin.
A few items can be taken along that will eliminate a lot of hassles from campfire cooking. Most camping supply stores carry small, foldable grates that are invaluable for placing the food where it needs to be - over the coals. Another item that is worth its weight in gold (and weighs just about as much) is cast iron cookware. I wouldn't want to lug a dutch oven or skillet into a remote location, but if it is something you can take along you will need little else to make most meals. A well-seasoned cast iron product cooks evenly, cleans easily with only water, is virtually indestructible and can be placed directly over the coals. Trying to use your household pots and pans will only result in melted handles, warped metal and ruined meals. It is also a good idea to take along a small selection of seasonings (salt, pepper) to satisfy the taste buds of individual campers.
With its numerous uses, aluminum foil is the duct tape of campfire cooking. Cover the grate with foil to prevent small food from falling into the coals. Add a little olive oil and seasoning to a freshly caught fish or vegetables, wrap in the foil and seal tightly to create a packet that permeates every moist bite with flavor. Aluminum foil can also be shaped into just about any form of pot, pan or utensil that you need. Wrap the foil around the end of a Y-shaped stick and you have a primitive but usable skillet. Cover the end of a log with foil, remove the log and use the can-shaped foil to boil water or heat other liquids. Skimping on the quality of the foil will only cause frustration. The new "non-stick" foil is truly non-stick but needs to be double or triple wrapped or covered with a single layer of heavy-duty foil. If you opt for just using heavy-duty foil, nonstick cooking spray, oil or shortening will make food removal easier and should also be used if any food will be placed directly on the grate.
A small grate and a roll of aluminum foil are two of the campfire chef's most valuable and versatile tools.
Knowing how to build a fire and having something to cook the food on or in are necessities, but if you are still going to just roast hot dogs and marshmallows you are better off building a bon fire and grabbing a couple of sticks. That first deer camp experience made me realize that there is very little that can be made at home that can't be made on a campfire. The only limitation is the campfire chef's imagination and ability to adapt.
Many of the food preparation steps can and should be done at home. Hamburgers can be pre-shaped into patties. Steaks, chicken, pork, seafood and vegetables can be cut as desired and put into leak-proof plastic bags with a marinade so they will be ready to throw on the grate at camp. Nobody wants to spend their time at camp bent over a cutting board or mixing bowl and anything that can be done at home will reduce onsite work and cleanup.
Foods can also be selected that don't require refrigeration or much preparation. Canned goods (vegetables, baked beans, etc.) can be opened, seasoned and the tin can (with label removed) placed over or into the coals. Baked potatoes only need a couple of wraps of aluminum foil and placed directly in the coals. A tasty meal doesn't have to be a complicated meal.
Simple foods like potatoes can become 5-star dishes with a little adaptability and creativity.
With a bed of glowing coals, a known temperature, a cooking grate and bags of fire-ready food, you have leveled the playing field. Campfire cooking becomes no different than cooking on the propane grill in the backyard. It doesn't matter if you've driven to a local campground or hiked five miles into the woods. If you can carry the few items mentioned, your menu possibilities are virtually the same. Once you break tradition and give it a try, you will likely find yourself feasting like a king and only resorting to roasting hot dogs and marshmallows at the request of the kids or for an occasional trip down memory lane.
Campfire Cooking Checklist
A few items that make the process much easier.
- Aluminum foil
- Long-handled tongs
- Heat-resistant gloves
- Grill grate
- Can opener
- Metal knife/fork/spoon set
- Metal dinner plate
- Cast iron oven or skillet
Simple Campfire Recipes
Marinated Beef Tenderloin
1 whole beef tenderloin
½ cup red wine
½ cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp seasoning salt
Combine marinade ingredients in small bowl. Pierce tenderloin several times with fork, place in plastic sealable bag and add marinade. Leave in refrigerator or cooler overnight. Grill over 400 F coals for about 15 minutes per side. Remove carefully and serve.
Grilled Corn on the Cob
Remove the husk and silk from the corn. Wash the ears in cold water. Spread butter on each ear and wrap in aluminum foil. Grill over 350 F coals for about 15 minutes per side.
1 bag frozen cut vegetables
(California mix, stir fry mix, or any other variety)
(A selection of fresh vegetables can also be used)
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Creole seasoning, to taste
If fresh vegetables are used, cut into bite-sized pieces. Place cut vegetables on aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with seasoning. Seal packet and place on grate over the coals. After 10 minutes, turn packet over and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes.
1 whole trout
1/2 small onion, sliced
1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Field dress trout, leaving whole with head removed. Place trout on aluminum foil and put onion in body cavity of trout. Add olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to cavity. Fold foil and seal tightly. Place packet directly on coals and cook for 4 minutes. Turn packet over and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until fish flakes with a fork.
Larry R. Beckett Jr. is a full time freelance writer, photographer and videographer. His greatest joy is spending time fishing, hunting and hiking with his wife and son. Larry discovered his enthusiasm for the outdoors at a young age and devotes much of his time trying to instill that same enthusiasm in future generations.