My first experience with campfire cooking was at Girl Scout Camp where, after cutting the lids off of coffee cans and after cleaning out the grounds, we added diced potatoes, carrots and beef, set the open can on the flat surface of a fire and waited for our stew to cook.
And then we waited some more, getting hungrier by the minute. Unfortunately, the meat and the potatoes never cooked long enough to become tender, and errant mosquitoes found their way into the open tins. It was not, overall, an experience that made me want to try it again.
“Campfire cooking doesn’t have to be just hot dogs and marshmallows,” says Brad Bumgardner, head interpretative naturalist at the Indiana Dunes State Park. “Almost anything you cook at home you can cook outdoors.”
Bumgardner, who recently returned from a 10-day camping trip across the western part of this country and up into Alberta, certainly knows about outdoor cookery. He says it’s a matter of common sense.
“When you’re working with fire, either on an outdoor grill or a campfire, you need to be careful where you place things so you can get to them easily when the fire is going,” he says. “And you need to keep in mind that heat transfers to handles but that’s no different than in your own kitchen.”
Other safety factors include not wearing sandals or open toe shoes when you get close to the fire and don’t use cookware with plastic handles as they can melt. Fried foods that splatter should be avoided as well as fatty foods which can drip and cause the flames to flare up.
And while you don’t need a lot of equipment to be a campfire cook, Bumgardner praises the effectiveness of a Dutch oven — one of those large metal (usually cast iron) pots with lids. He uses his to make a variety of dishes, including his personal favorite Easy Cheesy Potatoes — seasoned hamburger meat layered with a mixture of shredded cheese, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, a can of cream of celery soup and another of cream of mushroom and chopped onions.
“You cover it all with some more cheese and let it cook for about 20 to 25 minutes,” he says.
But campfire cooking can be even more basic than that.
“It’s easy to make an omelet using Ziploc Zip'N Steam cooking bags,” Bumgardner says. “Just put some water in a Dutch oven or metal container, mix eggs and cheese with salt and pepper and put it in one of the bags, place in boiling water and just cook until they’re done.”
In her book, "Campfire Cuisine: Gourmet Recipes for the Great Outdoors" (Quirk $15.95), author Robin Donovan says she became interested in writing the book after noticing many of the campers around her were dining mainly on hot dogs.
“Food just tastes better when you’re outside and if you go to the effort of making a nice meal with good ingredients while camping, you’ll appreciate it that much more,” she says. She focused on easy and quick to make recipes with less that call for five to six ingredients at the most. “The biggest thing you can do to make it easier is to plan ahead. Before you go, make a meal plan, get what you need at the store and organize it in such a way that when it’s time to cook, you’re ready to go. I measure a lot of stuff ahead of time and put it in marked plastic, sealed bags. For example, with pancakes, you can pre-mix the ingredients and then all you have to do is add an egg and milk.”
Tin foil is your friend when you’re cooking over an open fire, Bumgardner says.
“You can use it to wrap up anything from fish to dessert for cooking,” he says. One easy recipe is for banana boats — bananas sliced lengthwise and then topped with marshmallows and chocolate chips which are wrapped tightly in tin foil and cooked for about five to 10 minutes, he says.
Donovan says s’moredillas — a take on s’mores — are one of her favorites. Place chocolate chips (you can use either all milk chocolate or a mixture of milk and white chocolate, too) and marshmallows in a flour tortilla, fold into a packet and then wrap in tin foil. Cook over the fire for three minutes on each side.