Even the most dialed camp kitchen setup lacks mortars and pestles and artisan chef’s knives. But a good cook armed with the right equipment can make meal magic outside just as well as if they were in. Consider the following guidelines when purchasing your outdoor kitchen—it could mean the difference between camping as a backcountry bon vivant or in summer sausage shame.
Cooking Surface: Be it pot or pan, the surface you choose to cook on is the most essential piece of any respectable outdoor kitchen. And performance is most noticeable after the cooking is over and cleanup has begun. Choosing the best cooking surface for your needs begins with the materials.
Aluminum: This is heavier than titanium but lighter than stainless steel. It’s also the most affordable option and very susceptible to wear and tear. Although it heats up fast, aluminum does not always distribute heat evenly, staying hotter directly under the heat source. Aluminum cookware is best suited for those who won’t be using it every single weekend. A copperized bottom helps with heat distribution and adds to longevity of the product, but will add some weight to your pack.
Stainless Steel: Solid and rigid, stainless steel is great at distributing heat. It’s much easier to clean than aluminum, but quick-cooking food at high heat (take eggs, for example) can stick.
Titanium: This is the most lightweight option and is durable and easy to clean. It’s more expensive, but for those who camp and cook often, it’s a worthwhile investment.
Dimensions: When you’re on a long backpacking trip then you might not need to bring anything more than a pot to boil water for your dehydrated chili mac. But when you’re on a less ambitious mission then you might want to prepare a more sophisticated meal. And if you camp often enough then you know what you like to prepare most often. The first step in dialing in your outdoor kitchen is to do the obvious: create a list of the meals you’re most likely to cook. Then factor in how many people you’ll be cooking for. Based on those calculations you can decide the right size pots and pans for your needs.
Base Diameter: This measurement is the total distance across the bottom of your pot or pan. A single person can get away with a pan 4” in diameter, while a group of 8 might need something a bit larger. If the base distributes heat evenly, then you can get a pot or pan with a base much larger than the burner size. If not, then it is best to keep a diameter no larger than the burner itself.
Depth: Depth is important if you are boiling water or creating other liquid-based meals such as a soup or sauce. A shallow pan means less room to cook—anything less than 2 inches might as well be considered a pan. But if you plan on cooking rice and boiling plenty of water, make sure the depth of your pan allows for at least four cups for a standard meal for two people.
Volume: This is simply how much space the cookware can contain. A good rule of thumb is that a plate of food is roughly two cups. This is very rough, and you have to consider if your food is dense (like beans) or not dense (like popcorn)—from there you should be able to determine if your cookware’s volume is adequate to your needs.
Set vs. Individual: This depends more on where you’ll be cooking than what. If you’re hauling your gear in on your back or in a dry box in a boat and have limited room then a set that fits together snugly is ideal. If you’re driving to the state park and don’t mind bringing some beater cookware from home then you may only need to supplement the individual pieces that you don’t want to risk ruining with the inevitable scratches.
Handles vs. No Handles: While handles are convenient they can be awkward in your pack or dry box. If space is going to be an issue then you should look for cookware sans handles and also buy a pair of lifters, which are small enough to be easily stored in almost any pot. (Pro tip: A multi-tool makes a great lifter in a pinch. No need to burn those fingers.)
When you are shopping for the right cook set, always try to imagine first what you are cooking. That will narrow the choices down greatly. From there, it’s a matter of weight and quality vs. price. The more you will be using your camping cookware, the more you will want to invest to make sure it lasts a long time.