How to Have a Successful Camping Cookout

The first time I camped in Minnesota, I spent most of the night wild-eyed, clutching the back seat of a Honda Civic, watching through the black windows for murderers. What was that noise—the wind? That cracking noise—a raccoon? I was fresh out of a New York City childhood in which camping seemed like the terrifying thing you did with a shopping cart in a doorway when everything else had failed. I’ll never forget the relief of finally seeing the lemon sun cresting the horizon the next morning, my heart fast as a hummingbird’s, my fingers ice. “It’s so beautiful,” I said, tensely, to the interior of the Civic as the sunbeams traced a golden path across a sparkling pewter northern lake.

Undaunted, I tried again. And again. I fell in love with Minnesota, camping, and the fire: an orange crackle of infinite variety and depth. Stare into it, and you find meditative well-being, sparks flying up like fairy-sized fireworks, and constant transformation. Along the way, I read up on camp cooking and brought pizza dough on one voyage only to watch it drip through the fire grate. “That’s not camping food!” cried my college boyfriend. Our party made a jest of it all night. Even now, despite my mature security, when I think of this I find: still mad! Twenty years later.

Anyway, in the years since, I’ve been vindicated: Camping culture decided that pizza was very much appropriate, and there are about a million camping pizza pans these days. While I haven’t invested in one yet, I have become something of a camping-food pro.

A year into the pandemic, trapped in my Minneapolis house with my wonderful  kids, I began to plot my escape. I needed to find a way to get back into the world and resume my life as a person who had adventures. I set a goal: Solo camp three times before Labor Day. I bought a Coleman pop-up tent (you simply fling it, and like a snake in one of those prank cans, it is suddenly ready to go). I bought a fold-up foam mattress, thick enough to use as a real bed, because I’m worth it. And I began perfecting camp cooking.

There are two dominant mindsets regarding this kind of cooking. One is that you attempt to recreate your favorite restaurant, but in the woods. A chiffonade of fresh mint brings surprise to your malted Belgian waffles! The other is that impossible things should not be attempted, so why not just add boiling water to dehydrated eggs, dehydrated chicken gumbo, and dehydrated “cheesecake dessert” in a bag?

I think there’s a third way. Skip trying to replicate restaurants in the woods—it’s a waste of time and diminishes the primal fire and air of it all. Don’t be intimidated and think you must only eat rehydrated gruel in nature—it’s not that hard to master a few skills that yield big payoffs. Instead, I humbly suggest this third path that embraces the right tools and ingredients. It starts with a milk crate’s worth of cooking gear and ends with the joy of eating tremendously well with a sense of ceremony, specialness, and eventfulness out in the woods. A luxe eating life in the wild awaits. Here are some tips and tools to get you going:

Your kitchen must fit within a double-wide milk crate (or similar). I can’t emphasize this enough: Putting together a camp kitchen that is ready to go at all times is efficient and cuts down on the intimidation factor. Everything comes home dirty, you clean it up and return it all to the box, and you’re ready to go again. Trust me, if you try to pack from scratch each outing, you’ll forget something every time! As you begin to use it, you will find other personal things to add. Honey? Hot sauce? If you put everything in the box, it’s guaranteed to make it to camp.  Here’s what you need:

Camp Cooking Essentials Packing List

  • Cutting board
  • Knives
  • Cutlery
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Unbreakable plates
  • Unbreakable coffee cups
  • Unbreakable stemless wine glasses if you’re fancy
  • Salt & pepper
  • Small bottle of dish soap
  • Butane
  • Catering burner
  • Small pot (for boiling water)
  • Frying pan
  • One pie iron per camper
  • One skewer or Rolla Roaster marshmallow/wiener roaster per camper
  • Grill basket with lid
  • Grill basket without lid
  • Spatula
  • Tongs
  • Corkscrew bottle opener
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Kitchen matches
  • Fire-appropriate kitchen gloves
  • Fire-starter

A butane catering stove is a game changer. Let me tell you about the miracle of the butane catering stove—it’s a cheap and easy way to boil or sauté in the woods. Like a single gas-stove burner, this little cooktop uses an easy butane canister popped into one side. Simply lock the canister into place and turn the dial that ignites and controls flame—it’s that easy. These portable favorites of catering chefs are superior to every camping stove I know of because all camping stoves are both over- and under-designed. They are tippy, expensive, and have only one use. The workhorse catering stove, however, is cheap; every hardware store has butane canisters; and you can use it to flambé bananas tableside at home next Christmas if you get the urge. I’ll also add that last summer I was on the North Shore when there was a forest fire in the region, and no one was allowed to light a campfire at their campsite. While all the restaurants instantly became overrun and ran out of food, I was happily cooking with the butane burner and a pan at my campsite. I use my catering stove to boil water in the morning for coffee in my stainless steel Bodum French press. You could use yours to make eggs or pancakes or sauté vegetables. Or just use it anytime you don’t want to make a fire. If it’s wildly windy, use your cutting board and milk crate to make a screen around your catering stove.

Fire-ring cooking is the greatest thing on earth if you know how. Now, I will argue that the fire ring in a Minnesota state park or campground is an unsung culinary treasure. Cooking with fire is what separates humankind from all the other wonderful critters on earth. Read anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human—it changed my life. Cooking food over a wood fire out of doors feels so primal, so right in every way, and is so very delicious. However, cooking over fire can be tricky. It’s hot, obviously, but did you know that wood ignites at around 600 degrees and a good fire can reach between 800 to 1,000 degrees? This can rapidly lead to scorching. How, then, can you cook without scorching? You need the right tools to get things in and out of the fire rapidly.

For the flames, grill baskets are key. I cannot say enough good things about the aluminized steel Nordic Ware Grill ’N Shake Baskets. You can cook every vegetable in the world in them, including items that would fall through a grate, like scallions or small-cut onions. You also can heat up little things it was probably silly to bring, such as donut holes or poppy seed knots. Fill your grill basket with broccoli florets, dribble a bit of garlic butter or herb vinaigrette you brought, toss over the fire so the excess dressing goes into the flames and doesn’t have to be cleaned up, and then use the grill basket as a serving dish. If things in your grill basket start getting too hot, use your fire gloves to take the whole thing off the fire, adjust, and return. The open-top Nordic Ware grill basket makes it easier to mess with the food inside, stirring and flipping individual pieces easily. You’ll also want to have a closed grill basket so you can clamp and hold your food in place. This basket’s long handle lets you easily move it in and out of flame rapidly. Slabs of thick bread, whole rainbow trout, pork chops, sausages, and burgers are all flippable and easy to cook on live fire with this tool.

Don’t underestimate the power of a stick. You don’t need a culinary professional to tell you that a marshmallow on a stick over the fire is good. Also, a hot dog or sausage on a stick is very good. Sometimes, though, a stick is hard to find, and standard skewers aren’t long enough. I am exceptionally fond of something called a Rolla Roaster, which is a sort of collapsible two-pronged fork with a handle. On the one hand, I am embarrassed to have paid $15 for a stick, but on the other hand, I love these things so much. Cook a sausage, take it off, put it in a bun, and then cook the sausage and bun together. Happiness.

A pie iron is a secretly fancy panini press. Some people call them pudgy pie makers; some people call them pie irons. They are cast-iron sandwich contraptions that hold bread and ingredients in a clamp and can be inserted directly into the fire to create a toastie of some magnitude. Kids love these, but adults should take the culinary possibilities more seriously. Butter the outside of bread, put something in the middle that is good when hot (such as cheese), clamp, and cook to get something smoky and hot and spectacular. Some people preheat the pie iron, then add everything. I find this risks burned fingers without much culinary benefit. Obviously, the problem with pie iron cooking is that you can’t see what’s going on in there, but around two minutes a side should work. The classic pudgy pie recipe is white bread with jam in the middle, but I recommend letting kids pick out their own loaf of bread at Tobies on the way north to make their own special thing. Raisin cinnamon swirl bread with sliced bananas and Nutella? Pizza bread from Tobies with mozzarella and pizza sauce? Really, anything you’ve ever heard of or imagined from a panini press can be made as a pudgy pie.

So, ask yourself: Is this the summer you eat roadside strawberry-rhubarb pie during the day and strawberry-rhubarb pudgy pies beside a crackling campfire at night? If so, you’ll be experiencing the very best summer has to offer, in the very best places.

For me, I’ll be forever grateful that Minnesota taught me to camp—because people are not something outside of nature; we are part of it, as surely as a leaf or a fox is part of the forest. It’s easy to forget that, except in the dark, looking at fire.

DIY Pudgy Pie

Ten different combos for you to try:

  1. Walnut bread, Taleggio, and honey
  2. Sourdough, olive tapenade, provolone, and ham
  3. Rye bread, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, mustard, and any meat
  4. Olive bread, pesto, sliced tomato, and fresh mozzarella
  5. Semolina bread, roasted red peppers, garlic oil, and Brie
  6. Rye bread, cheddar, and mango chutney
  7. Rye bread, braunschweiger, mustard, raw onion, and provolone
  8. Any bread, apple butter, and cheddar
  9. Any bread, apricot jam, and chèvre
  10. Any bread, smoked trout, arugula, and cream cheese

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