GO BEYOND MEAT AND POTATOES WITH THESE CAMP COOKING TRICKS
One of the best parts of being outdoors is camping, and one of the best parts about camping is cooking over a real fire—but it takes some special skills and tools to do it right.
“Although many knives are marketed as camp knives, I believe in using what you have on you.”
Imagine taking a one-dimensional martial artist and throwing them in a cage-fighting match. While some of their techniques will be useful, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to match blows with the more diversified fighter. The same applies to a person who knows their way around the kitchen.
Imagine putting them outside to cook with open flames and coals while the wind is howling. Though some practices overlap, cooking is a different experience outside.
I’ve heard it said that cooking is about timing and temperature. Sure, there’s more to it than that, however; these are mainstays, no matter the cooking venue. Just about any cooking method used in the kitchen can be duplicated around the campfire.
This goes for baking, frying in a pan or over a flat stone, boiling, roasting, and braising. Camp cooking and cleanup can be easier with the right equipment brought or made in the woods.
CAMP COOKING ESSENTIALS
When camping, you do not have the luxury of a full-sized kitchen. What you take depends on your backpack, how much you are willing to carry, what you eat, and where you are camping.
The following items are what I usually consider to be essential for cooking wild camping recipes: a pot for boiling water and a small stew, a multi-purpose kuksa (wooden cup), a folding twig stove, and at least one knife.
In my opinion, there are a few things that will make anyone feel more woodsy, and drinking coffee from a wooden kuksa is one of them. I use the Überleben Dursten Kuksa (made from oak), which holds a total of 8 fluid ounces. It comes with a carabiner and leather lanyard to attach to your pack or as traditionally carried on a belt.
I have seen older diagrams and photos where kuksa cups are carried right on the belt via some cord. At 5 ounces, it isn’t light, but I do consider a kuksa to be more than a cup. The large capacity lends itself well to a bowl for food preparation, especially keeping rolly things together, such as mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Turn the kuksa over, and you have a small cutting board. That’s multi-purpose use at its finest.
2. Bush Pot
To boil water, melt snow, cook stews, saute, and brew coffee, no other piece of camp cookware can compete with a good cookpot. I have used many, but I came to rely on the Kessel Bush Pot from Überleben. The Kessel has two features that make it stand out over other cookpots. It has a curved metal handle (previously wrapped with paracord on the original model) that can be hung from a support stick and a wooden lid-lifter.
These two features offer more than just a standard pot with a lid and bale. It also has a pour spout making it a kettle as well. The HD 304 grade stainless steel is easy to clean, and mine is rust-free after years of constant use outdoors.
3. Frying Pans
I have two small frying pans I use and recommend. One is a tiny carbon steel skillet 5.75 inches in diameter with a 4-inch cooking surface. My larger skillet is made in Japan of light cast iron with a 9.5-inch diameter with a 6.75-inch cooking surface (wok shaped). It’s called the TAKIBI Deep Frying Pan. It has a socket-style handle mount where a stick must be inserted as the handle. For two people or larger dishes, this skillet is perfect.
Although many knives are marketed as camp knives, I believe in using what you have on you. Some people try to keep their food preparation knife stainless steel. I often see Opinel knives assigned to kitchen knife duty in the woods.
Morakniv stainless steel knives are also a popular choice for camp food prep. I use a sizeable Chinese chef knife (cleaver) at home for 90% of my cooking, but there’s no way I will try to duplicate it outdoors.
I use whatever sheath knife I have with me for my camp food preparation, but often I don’t take a sheath knife if I am using a larger blade such as a machete, kukri, bolo, or parang. In that case, I use the large blades for my food preparation, which is an excellent skill to have.
However, I always have a Swiss Army Knife with me, no matter where in the world I am. Making do with whatever knife you usually keep with you in the woods as a camp food prep knife is fun and a real skill.
When it comes to a good cook fire and making food, preparation is critical. The better the quality of wood you can use, the better and easier the cooking process. Use hardwood such as oak, maple, birch, mesquite, eucalyptus, black walnut, and hickory as your cooking fuel.
Ultimately, use what you have. Get the fire going and start establishing cook coals—this will take 40-60 minutes of burning.
I like to use that time to slice and dice, as well as arrange my ingredients. I try to use a lot of vegetables in my cooking, so slicing them up first is a priority before any meats I may have. This helps avoid cross-contamination. A cutting board is helpful to have, although bulky.
I use the Überleben kuksa and Kessel pot because they can both serve as field cutting boards. The lid of the pot has that bulbous wooden lifter that is wide. I cut food directly on it. The lid has a raised lip around it that keeps food from rolling off and acts as a food catcher.
The kuksa has a broader area to use as a cutting board. You need to place a plastic/paper bag underneath to catch the ingredients. The kuksa also is a good prep bowl when it’s time to cook.
OPEN FLAME VS. COALS
I heard around the campfire years ago that open flame is suitable 100% of the time for boiling water and scorching food only. While many of us probably may have burned a thing or two using nature’s “high-heat,” there are ways to use it wisely.
Open flame cooking is often misinterpreted. Hot dogs and marshmallows on a stick may be the exception; however, open flames are unpredictable. Even a flare-up from dripping fat can create uneven surface cooking on meats. Placing food directly over the open flame is a guaranteed way to get a burnt meal.
Instead, build a fire and designate one side of your cookfire as the side primarily for hot coals. Then you can place a camp grill directly over the fire, which you use to boil water in a pot.
“The heat from coals is more uniform over an extended time for good camp cooking than flame every time.”
A tripod or any other pot suspension system can also be used with an open flame. The side with the hot coals now has options—cook vegetables in aluminum foil packets or place your frying pans directly on the coals. As needed, rake coals over for more heat and cooking area.
To raise the heat, you can often blow on the coals and watch the red glow increase your heat—fast. You can cook various things using this method, such as corn on the cob, potatoes, meat, and fish.
When water is boiled and coffee is brewed, move the pot over to the edge of the coals and keep it warm. The heat from coals is more uniform over an extended time for good camp cooking than flame every time.
USING WILD FOOD
Keeping it simple, fresh, and healthy, try adding some wild food to your camp meal. In the spring, a variety of wild food is often abundant. With a bit of knowledge and confirmation (three sources), finding/adding wild food is not only super ‘woodsy’; it adds variety to your meals. Wild onions, ramps, garlic mustard, and mushrooms are usually the better choices.
1. Garlic Mustard
Garlic mustard is pretty easy to spot for newbies, especially as the growing season progresses and it sends up flower stalks. This stem terminates in a small cluster of tiny white flowers with four petals. Garlic mustard is edible and should be harvested when young.
The roots taste much like horseradish, and the leaves are bitter when mature. The seeds are excellent in spicy food. Young, soft sprouts can be cut up into salads, sautéed in stir fry, or added to soups and stews. When harvested at an almost lime green color, the youngest leaves will enliven a mixed green salad. These can also be chopped and used as a seasoning herb.
2. Wild Ramps
Generally, each plant has two leaves anchored below ground by a white bulb similar to green onion. The stem is also a great indicator. Look for a red hue that runs from the base of the leaf to the bulb. You’ll know it when you walk into a patch of ramps. The bulb is a combination of a garlic/onion taste, and the leaves are like a flat green onion—the best of both worlds.
3. Wild Onions
Wild onions are identified by their thin, waxy, spear-like leaves. Wild onion is often confused with its close cousin, wild garlic. Wild onions have flat leaves, while wild garlic has round leaves.
Wild onions grow from white bulbs. I use these in omelets, stir fry (cut longer), and as garnish. Stick with the greener, younger variety as the longer older pieces can be fibrous and chewy. If you find the latter, cutting them small works best.
4. Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is an edible polypore mushroom whose sight rarely disappoints its spectator, at least when fresh. Hard to miss in the woods, this beyond tasty mushroom has a chicken-like texture that pulls apart, just like chicken. I shred it and add to my camp chili or bread in an egg/flour/panko wash and make Chicken of the Woods nuggets.
Do some research on similar mushrooms like Hen of the Woods (Maitake) and Black Staining polypore, all edible and can be used just like its colorful friend.
Pro Tip: Look for a floral smell with a white spore print. Research Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms, which is a poisonous look-alike.
5. Oyster Mushrooms
The first thing to look for when identifying an oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) is its oyster-shaped cap. It should be oyster or fan-shaped and approximately 2 to 10 inches across.
They grow in clusters on dead or dying oak. They can be kept in a cluster and fried like a steak by smashing it down with another heavy skillet. Add some BBQ sauce to it and slice it up for a fantastic BBQ chicken-like mushroom. Tear them up and add to chorizo, a stir fry, or an omelet.
Pro Tip: Look for a fishy aroma and a white to lilac-grey color spore print.
EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new recipes or to try something new. Camp cooking should be fun. It gives you the chance to improve your skills and explore new possibilities. Also, utilize the tools you have, and adapt your cooking to the natural surroundings.
Überleben Kessel Pot
Materials: HD 304-grade stainless steel, natural hardwood grab handle, polished exterior for easy wipe-down of soot and debris
Case: Waxed duck canvas bag (YKK zipper and carry handle)
Capacity: 1.1 liters (37 fluid ounces)
Weight: 16 ounces
Überleben Stöker Flatpack Stove
- Fueled entirely by organic matter (twigs, bark, pine needles, etc.), this stick stove/bio stove will keep you going indefinitely—no more fuel canisters
- Simple five-panel assembly allows for low profile/flat pack stow
- HD 304-grade stainless steel is anti-corrosive and extremely strong
Includes: Unwaxed canvas sleeve (wax or leave breathable, according to your climate/preference)
Weight: 14.5 ounces (including canvas sleeve)
ESEE Xancudo Knife
Overall Length: 7.12 inches
Cutting Edge Length: 3 inches
Maximum Thickness: 0.125 inch
Steel: S35VN, 59-60 Rc.
Weight: 3.8 ounces (knife only)
Weight: 6 ounces (knife w/ sheath)
Handle: 3D G10
Overall Length: 8.13 inches
Blade Thickness: 0.125 inch
Weight: 6 ounces (knife only)
Steel: 1095 high carbon steel, 55-57 Rc
Finish: Black oxide stonewashed
Blade: Scandi grind
Other: Leather pouch
Victorinox Camper Knife
Tools: Large blade, small blade, can opener, screwdriver 3 mm, bottle opener, screwdriver 6 mm, wire stripper, reamer/punch/sewing awl, corkscrew, wood saw, toothpick, tweezers, keyring
Height: 0.7 inch
Length: 3.6 inches
Weight: 2.6 ounces
Bio Stove vs. Open Fire
For most of my life, I have cooked outdoors using an open flame and coals. The idea of anything else seemed artificial to me. These days, fire bans and natural resources should be kept in mind. While a large campfire has a special place in the hearts and minds of most campers, a campfire isn’t always permitted and is often frowned upon in many areas. It also takes a lot of energy and preparation, not to mention skill.
I realized that I could cook more consistently over a small manageable flame and save resources for the next person. A bio stove is efficient and uses a fraction of the wood. An armful of branches can fuel a bio stove for about an hour, and a handful of twigs is all that’s needed to start the stove up.
With a bio stove, there is still actual wood preparation required to get a stove going. So, there are still hatchet/knife skills used and the romance of fire, but it is made simpler and more efficient. A bio stove won’t provide the heat and healthful glow needed in a winter camp, but for an easier, hassle-free cook fire, it just makes sense.
RED EYED HOG SEASONING
In the kitchen of the outdoors, we want to be as lightweight and well organized as possible. Bringing five different spices won’t do. An award-winning BBQ pitmaster designed Red Eyed Hog (REH) for the backpacker, bushcrafter, camper, and outdoorsman.
REH Original is a versatile camp seasoning. It comes packaged in a small, lightweight, space-saving container that easily fits in your kit.
REH Original is just the right blend of sweet, spicy, and smoky to give a distinct flavor profile that reflects its BBQ origins. It’s perfect on freeze-dried meals, MREs, wild game, fish, soups, or stews.
If you are more at home without walls, ceilings, and electricity, this seasoning was created specifically for you. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you’ll never eat another bland meal in the backcountry again.
OPEN-FACED CHILI CHEESE DOG SKILLET
ONE-POT CAMP Recipe
Two hot dogs (any sausages)
¼- ½ onion (cooking and topping)
1 can of chili
Green onions to top (author foraged wild onions for this recipe)
Take that American classic to the next level, as well as your camp cooking menu. This easy-to-make meal won’t break the bank. This rib-sticker can be made on any scale and is open to creative, tasty additions of your own.
How to Make It
Make on hardwood coals or a small stove for a controlled temperature.
- In a carbon steel or cast-iron skillet, heat it up until smoke starts to rise from the skillet.
- Make bite-sized slices in the hot dogs and place them on the skillet to brown.
- Once the desired browning (char) is achieved, add a small amount of oil to the skillet and pour chopped onions in to caramelize. Cook onions to the desired likeness.
- Sprinkle some Red Eyed Hog on the onions and hot dogs.
- Add the can of chili to the skillet and let it come to a boil. Sprinkle some more REH seasoning.
- Add some shredded cheese over the top, and mix some in to get a creamy texture.
- Add diced green onions or the remainder of the onions as a topping.
- The initial hot dog cuts will make it easier to eat. Enjoy with a spoon or fork to get all that chili cheese goodness.
Red Eyed Hog
Victorinox Swiss Army
SwissArmy.com or Victorinox.com