Camp cooking: how to make flavor on the fly

Ian Carroll
 
Outdoor cooking

So, we all spend a lot of time outdoors. Most of us here at Outdoor Revival are at least what you could consider casual campers. Heck, you might basically live in the backcountry. Inevitably, a life outside the city means you have to do plenty of camp cooking.

Most people settle for simple, packaged MREs (meals ready to eat) or sacrifice flavor in exchange for portability or nutrition. Hey, picking an outdoor lifestyle is going to come with certain sacrifices. But flavorful food doesn’t have to be one of them!

 

You can make great meals in a single pan.

Today we are going to cover a number of easy tricks to make camp cooking taste better. We’ll also cover the type of equipment that comes in handy as well as some miracle ingredients you should definitely pack. If you haven’t already checked out my recent post about basic, healthy cooking tips, then read that here first. It will cover a lot of basics that will come in handy in the backcountry.

Cooking more with less

Now, the main difference between camp cooking and home cooking is how much you’ve got to work with. That’s really the art of camp cooking. How do you do more with less? Less cooking surface, fewer burners, less heat, fewer ingredients, fewer seasonings?

 

It doesn’t need to look like a cooking show to taste great.

Well, some cooks opt to not have to and they pack elaborate camp cooking sets so they can have pretty much their entire kitchen in the car and take it on the road with them. That’s what my parents did and it instilled a deep respect for camp cooking in me.

However, if you’re backpacking, you just can’t fit the whole kitchen in your pack. In fact, the goal is often to take as little as possible. Even living out of a car, it’s pretty hard to bring it all. So today we’ll talk a lot about how to use the same thing for multiple uses. Ingredients, utensils, pots and pans all have multiple uses in the backcountry. Camp cooking is all about resourcefulness and ingenuity.

The right stuff

If you’re going to cook great food in the woods, you don’t need a lot, but it’s got to be good. After all, the world of camp cookware is all about minimizing weight and conserving space. How can you cook all your food with the least equipment? Well, by getting the right equipment, that’s how.

 

TOAKS makes great titanium cookware that packs up tight.

The most important thing is a good cook pot, and maybe a frying pan if you have space. Nonstick is usually easiest and the lightest. It cleans well, cooks well and is really affordable. Just make sure you treat it right with rubber utensils and soft sponges. There are also steel and titanium cookware kits, but they’ll change how everything cooks, so start wherever you’re comfortable.

 

A multi utensil like this is great for camp cooking.

When it comes to utensils, it’s best to have one perfect spatula, one perfect knife, and maybe one big spoon. Less is more. If you can complete all of your cooking tasks with three utensils or less, you’re doing it right. One spork-knife combo for eating with, and one mug/bowl for eating out of.

 

best camp cookware kit

Hard anodized aluminum is a great material for ultralight and extra-cheap camp cookware kits.

There are a lot of camp cookware kits on the market these days that retail for under a hundred dollars and are incredible. They’re designed to pack down tight and be just about everything you need. If you’re curious to know more, here’s an article I published last winter about the topic. You can also search the web for reviews and comparisons without end.

Conserving gas

There are a lot of things you have to conserve when you’re camp cooking, and gas is right up at the top of the list. Even if you’re on a short trip and have more than enough to last you, the stuff is expensive. There are a lot of things you do in your home kitchen that require a lot of fire power, so to speak. On the trail it becomes painfully obvious what they are.

 

This is the type of camp stove I have in my car. Works great as long as I don’t run out of gas.

Boiling water is number one on the list. It’s one of the most important things you’ll do on your camp stove, but man does it take a lot of fuel. A lot of camp cookware is actually ranked by how quickly it boils water. That’s because different materials and constructions transfer heat in different ways. Getting camp cookware that heats up fast is a great way to save gas. Some camp cookware sets even have stackable pans so you can on top of your main pot. Whatever you do, be sure to use some sort of lid when you boil water.

 

Stackable cookware makes the most of all your fuel.

Any dry food that needs to be cooked in water is next on the list. That includes rice, beans, lentils, all that good stuff. It’s got to go. When you’re camping there are alternatives you can take along instead. We’ll talk about them in a second. But I made risotto recently on my camp stove. Something about impressing a girl. And sure, it tasted good. But there’s nothing impressive about waiting around for thirty minutes while you waste gas cooking rice.

Precooked foods

So, if you do want to bring foods like rice, lentils, beans, or mashed potatoes on the trail with you, you’ll want to bring them precooked or ready to go. That doesn’t mean you make rice at home and put it in a Ziploc bag. Well, I suppose you can if you want, I won’t stop you. But these days, you can buy all sorts of packages of precooked, flavored rice, cans of beans, or powdered potatoes.

 

Precooked rice can go in the pan with all your other ingredients and be ready in minutes.

These will heat up in minutes and cut your cook time by about 80%. That’s a big deal when you’re tired and hungry after a long day of hiking. Or if you’re in my situation where the gas your stove uses isn’t available in Mexico. You’ll be pretty careful about conserving what gas you do have.

Furthermore, packaged and pre-flavored foods like this mean less spices you need to carry. Sure, they aren’t necessarily as good for you as if you start from scratch. However, you can find natural and healthy precooked foods if you look. If you’ve got the budget, stores like REI actually sell bags of dehydrated soups and MREs that are specifically designed for camp cooking.

Cooking in layers

Speaking of doing more with less, why waste heat off the top of your pan? I already mentioned layered cook sets that let you cook two things at once. For example, you can boil water for coffee while cooking eggs on top. Or you can simmer a soup while heating up bread above.

 

The Vargo TiBoiler combines lid and fry pan in a common design. A good set like this one can cook two things at once on a single burner.

However, most of those setups never get all that hot in the top pan unless you’re boiling for a long time. Besides, you don’t need an over-top pan to cook two things at once. Using tortillas as lids is a great way to warm them up and make them extra soft. Putting bread right on top of your rice pilaf is a great way to heat it up.

Or, if you’re veggies are cooked and now you need to fry your bread for sandwiches, stack your cooked veggies on top of the bread like a hot rack. That way, they stay warm while your bread turns golden brown. This stacking method can come in real handy when you’re making meals with multiple parts.

Saving flavor

When it comes to the actual art of camp cooking, flavor is where most people falter. Sure, you’re hungry and warm hot dogs in white bread is probably enough to satisfy you. But with a little practice and creativity, you can coax incredible flavor out of a single pan.

 

camp cooking

You don’t need a fancy pan to achieve fantastic flavors.

The trick is to design meals that can be done with what you have. One of my single pan favorites is to start by frying meat and veggies on high heat. Once they’re brown, I deglaze the pan with whatever liquid is around and sounds good. Usually, that’s just water. Then I add some spice and let it cook down a bit. By doing this, you can get quite a bit of flavor into a single pan.

 

Cooking in one pan is one of the best ways to use all your flavor.

This is also a great time to add a package of pasta or precooked rice. Boxed mac and cheese can be made ten times better by frying real food in your pan before you put in the water. No need to measure, just don’t add too much. Better if you don’t have to pour out water and flavor with it at the end.

 

Fresh ingredients, packaged pasta, and a touch of liquid create a delicious, saucy dinner.

Sometimes, I’ll even save grease in my pan until the next meal. Bacon is a great example. Any time I cook bacon for breakfast on the trail, I leave the fat for later. Just cover it to make sure nothing gets to it. Never try this in bear country (that’s very important!). Then, when lunch or dinner roll around, you already have a whole world of flavor waiting for you in your pan.

Secret spices

Camp cooking is all about having your own secret tricks. And they really do have to be your own. That’s because each person’s camp cooking kit is unique to them. Where you live, how you camp, and what you cook all have a big impact on what you need in yours. But whoever you are and wherever you’re cooking, you’re going to need some secret spices. You’ll have to decide what ones you like to take along and what you leave behind, but here are some pointers based on what I’ve used over the years.

 

camp cooking kit salt seasoning

Steak seasoning is basically always a good blend in my book.

First, you need salt and pepper. At least, I do. I go for sea salt, it’s cheap in bulk and way better than regular table salt. For pepper, I like having a little pepper mill that can fresh crack it. But the simple stuff works too. Sometimes I also travel with garlic powder, chili powder, and paprika. But lately I’ve left them behind in favor of my new spice blend of choice.

 

Back country spice kits can’t be as good as a home kitchen’s.

Spice blends are the best way to fill out your camp cooking kit. Personally, I have one big box I bought a year ago at my local grocery store and I use it basically anytime something needs spice. If you like though, you can get a couple and alternate them for different trips based upon the meals you’re bringing. Because I live on the road, I don’t switch anything out, I just use it ‘til it’s gone, then I’ll get another.

Go for something in the middle of the flavor range. Onion, garlic, salt, celery, cumin, thyme, are all common ingredients in multi-suse spice blends. Go for spicy if that’s your style. But avoid anything that is described as applying to a specific cuisine such as ‘Indian curry blend‘. Otherwise, everything you cook will taste like Indian food.

 

Garlic is cheap and easy to keep unrefrigerated.

It also never hurts to have raw, real spices on hand. Garlic and ginger are the most universal and best options. They basically never go bad and they taste great in everything. Plus, they’re incredibly cheap.

Cheating is allowed

Most professional cooks would never touch a spice blend. There are a number of reasons. The spices are almost always of lower quality and components like pepper and cumin can’t be ground fresh in a blend. They aren’t wrong. But when you’re camp cooking, that’s just not how it works. You don’t get to bring your mortar and pestle into the woods with you.

 

Are these fresh mashed potatoes or from a package? I’d bet you can’t tell.

Besides, spice blends are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cheating. There are so many other great ways to use products a chef would turn their nose up at to make camp cooking delicious and easy. My personal favorite is seasoning packages for meat. Taco, meatloaf, or sloppy joe are all common flavor packages and are an easy way to make a specific flavor without buying all the component spices.

 

They don’t teach these tricks in a book.

The same is true for packaged sauces and meals. We already mentioned buying precooked, packaged food, or even using boxed mac and cheese. At home, that’s pretty much considered to be as close to the microwave as you can get while still “cooking”. However, on the road, they can make great meals. Just add fresh veggies, meat and other flavors. Ramen is a great example. It costs 25 cents and can become a gourmet delicacy when you add the right fresh components to the pot.

Be creative

If you haven’t already noticed, everything we’ve talked about today comes down to creativity. You’ve got to make it up as you go. There’s a reason why there aren’t cookbooks for camp cooking. It’s because everyone’s camp cooking kit is different. What you have with you will vary from one trip to the next. There are just too many variables to take into account.

 

Sometimes on the trail you have to improvise.

The only way to learn to make great meals on the trail is to try. You’ll never learn to be an excellent camp cook by making hot dogs and pasta with red sauce every time you “eat out”. Instead, come up with something new you can try. Base a meal on an ingredient you’ve never cooked in the woods or a spice you’re unfamiliar with.

Is your camp cooking kit up to date?

So, if you’re planning on spending lots of time in the woods this summer, check in with your camp cooking kit. Make sure you have a good pot and pan, the right utensils and a solid stove with plenty of fuel. Make sure your spices of choice are full and you have at least one type of cooking oil (high heat is best). Think about cleanup. Do you have everything you’ll need to clean up after you cook and keep your kit looking good?

 

Why not just go camping already?

Heck, what are you doing sitting inside thinking about it? Why not just plan a camping trip for this weekend and pack it all in the car? Get outside and use it to make something delicious and new. There’s nothing like hitting the trail to get your stomach churning and your creative juices flowing. If you come back with a revolutionary recipe, be sure to share it here.


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