Naturally, there are more differences between cooking in your kitchen and cooking outdoors than just a lack of walls. In fact, according to Wikipedia and personal experience, there is an entire canon of outdoor cooking techniques supported by specialized equipment developed by centuries of outdoor cooking experience.
Can you just start a fire and put your cast-iron cookware over it? Sure. You can even tote along your portable grill and forgo the whole campfire thing. But if camping is going to become a serious hobby or pastime for your family, it will be worth your while to broaden your cooking horizons. With that in mind, let’s look at five ways to cook outdoors: direct heat, boiling, frying, grilling, and roasting.
Cooking over a roaring campfire is the most traditional—and perhaps, romantic—method of outdoor cooking. Campfires can cook food a number of ways. The techniques for cooking on a campfire are no different from those used for everyday cooking—before the invention of stoves and ovens, that is.
How do you build a fire? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating. Here’s a 3-minute video and a basic 11-step process that can help:
If you’re backpacking in an area that allows the gathering of firewood, you may decide to cook on a campfire to avoid the need to carry extra equipment. However, campfire cooking can be tricky for those not accustomed to it. Also, since campfires are illegal in many areas, many campers prefer to use a portable stove instead.
Boiling water is one of the most common kitchen operations undertaken on the trail, used for cooking or reconstituting food, making hot beverages, cleaning up, and even sanitizing drinking water. Like camp frying pans, camp pots are generally made of cast-iron.
Roasting may be the simplest method of cooking over a campfire. In fact, one of the most common is to roast food on long skewers held above the flames—think hotdogs or marshmallows (for s’mores). All kinds of outdoor cooking equipment is available. Tip: When roasting meat, you can reuse the grease that drips off the food while cooking if you place a fireproof container under the food.
Grills are simple to use and food cooked on them picks up great natural flavors from the smoke. Grills over a campfire are used in the same way you would at home. If the food is simply placed on the grill, it may catch fire so it requires constant attention. Consider trying a grill pan. In cases where open fires are not allowed, lightweight charcoal grills can be used for grilling.
Frying is often used for fish or wild game caught while on the trip, as well as pancakes and certain kinds of bread and desserts made on the trail. Many campers prefer a cast-iron skillet, but other types are also available.
A “round the clock” technique, where the frying pan is moved repeatedly to expose different parts of its base to the flame, is a common campfire technique, though it is also possible to use a flame diffuser to achieve the same effect. Tip: When making pancakes, pour enough batter into your skillet to make one large, moderate-thickness pancake that takes up the entire pan. Then cut the large pancake into smaller, individual portions.
An improvised griddle can be made by putting a flat stone (be sure to clean thoroughly, first) directly on the fire. Place your food on the stone.
Closely associated with the American Old West, the Dutch oven of tradition is a heavy cast iron pot. While they can be heavy if you’re back-packing, Dutch ovens are often used in group camp-outs and cookouts.
The oven is placed in a bed of hot coals, often with additional coals placed on top of the lid. Dutch ovens are convenient for cooking dishes that take a long time such as stews or baked goods. Some campers prefer to lift the pot up off the fire to increase airflow. Often two small logs of similar size may be used on either side of the pot to raise it off the coals.
One down side to this form of cooking is that the pots can become blackened with soot and ash, which can be difficult to scrub off. However, savvy campers avoid this by applying a thin layer of dish soap (preferably biodegradable) to the outside of the pot before cooking. The ash and soot will stick to the soap, which is easily rinsed off later.
For more ways to cook outdoors over a fire, see the Wikipedia article much of this information came from. As you camp more often, you’ll develop your own techniques and short cuts, but the ideas here will help you get started.