You may consider yourself a pretty good cook at home, but you have to resort to different tactics when you’re camping. While it’s always easy to throw your food on a grate over a fire or use a roasting stick, there are some tricks you can keep in your back pocket that are bound to make your friends go “oooooh”.
Here are 5 handy tips for cooking over a campfire that we’ve pulled out of the hat in the past, and they’re sure to impress your friends.
1) Wrap meat, cheese, or freshly caught fish in wild leaves
This is a pretty nifty little thing that can impart a fresh flavor to your food, but that can also subtly impart a unique characteristic to your food. I love cooking fresh-caught fish wrapped in ramps, or wrapped like a spiral with long cattail leaves, which taste earthy and bright at the same time. Trout in walnut leaves is especially good. Simply overlap the leaves around the fish and tie some wet twine around the whole shebang to hold it together (alternatively: if the leaves are long or big enough, simply fold them under and place them folded-side down) and put it right above the coals, or right next to the fire. The leaves will help the meat steam, and protect its skin from burning.
There are tons of edible leaves you can use to wrap your food in. Of course there are the perennial favorites like palm leaves, banana leaves, reed leaves, corn husks, and grape leaves but you can use the leaves from wild garlic, sorrel, linden trees, hibiscus, nettle, lotus, common mallow, ramps, cattails, potato beans, hoja santas, walnut trees, sycamore trees, chestnut trees, oak trees, maple trees, cherry trees, and many more (anyone else just think of Forrest Gump?).
2. Boil water in a paper cup
Yep, I said it. Here’s the thing about water–it’s a fantastic thermal conductor, and as long as it’s under normal atmospheric pressure (15 psi or so), it will not get hotter than 212 degrees in its liquid form. Since paper doesn’t burn until 451 degrees, you can literally take a cheap paper cup, fill it with water, and put it directly on the coals of a fire. You may have to experiment with the right brand of cup, but basically the water will prevent the paper from burning. Next time you’re out camping, whip out the old Dixie, fill it with water from the local stream, put it right on the coals, and when it’s done, CAREFULLY pick it up, throw in some hot cocoa, and look at your friends like, “Yeah, that’s right, I boil water in paper. Who wants to touch me?” This technique will work with other materials like plastic as well (Les Stroud boiled water in his Camelbak!), but bear in mind any material that is not directly in contact with the water WILL burn, so watch out for extended seams or irregular surfaces.
3. Cook an egg in an orange peel
This process uses the same concept as the above tip, but utilizes it for a sweet breakfast idea. Grab that orange you brought with you, and cut it in half. Carve out the flesh from both sides, being careful not to cut through the skin. While you’re enjoying your yummy fruit, crack an egg or two into each of the two orange peel “cups”, and drop them into a bed of loose coals. When you see the albumen (that’s fancy talk for the whites) set up, grab the cups out of the coal and have yourself a tasty treat. You can do this with whisked eggs, cheese, and veggies as well for a little omelet. Obviously if you like the yolk hard, leave it in until you get to your desired level of doneness. It tastes pretty damn good, with a hint of smoke and citrus. Very cool.
4) Use a Frisbee as a chopping board
Obviously you’ll want to clean it when you’re done, but everyone in camp will think you’re clever as hell when you whip out the ‘bee and start cutting up wild veggies with your swiss army knife! There’s not a lot of instruction needed on this one, just, you know, do it.
5) Learn the art of the venerable hobo meal
Way back in the day you may have learned this technique as a Scout, and may have heard this technique referred to as a “hobo’s dinner” or “tin-foil dinner”, but I think the sheer performance and versatility of this method of cooking deserves better nomenclature. If you were at home using a similar technique in your oven with parchment paper, snooty chefs would say you’re cooking “en papillote” because everything sounds better in French. (Seriously, look up the french word for baby seals). I say if we’re gonna be snooty, let’s call this technique “cuisson dans une feuille d’étain” and start elevating it to the level it deserves. This is basically a wet-cooking method that moderates the heat of the coals, and all you need is to combine some aromatic vegetables (celery, onions, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, leeks, celeriac, etc.) with your favorite starch (potatoes, yams, turnips,), some other yummy veggies (brussel sprouts, green beans), a protein of your choice, some herbs or spices, some fat or oil, and a small amount of cooking liquid or something that will release liquid (water, broth, wine, fruits, citrus slices). Simply fold it all up in a double-layer of aluminum foil, roll the edges up tight so nothing can get out, and drop the whole thing on the coals. How long you leave it in depends on what you’re cooking–my trick is to cut up the pieces so that everything comes out at the same doneness. Meat, for example, should stay in large pieces, whereas long-cooking items like potatoes should be cut into smaller pieces or thinner slices. This no-clean up method of cooking can produce anything from steamed salmon with lemon, butter and dill, to a bouef bourguignon, to a chicken pot pie, or a Moroccan lamb stew. It’s awesome!