Cooking in the great outdoors can be an entire adventure in itself. Get expert tips for successful campfire cooking and must-have gear to make cooking over an open flame safe, easy, and enjoyable.
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Camping or off-roading this summer may be a safer bet for many Americans looking to take a vacation but stay within the limits of their state due to COVID-19. But just because you're in the great outdoors doesn't mean you can't create a delicious meal that is a bit more complex than a hot dog and a couple of ears of corn over the campfire. With the help of a few choice kitchen tools and a little bit of knowledge, you'll be able to battle the blaze in no time.

How to Handle the Heat

cast iron dutch oven hanging over a campfire
Credit: Svetlanka777/Getty Images/

Unlike cooking in your kitchen, there is no "set oven to 350 degrees F and timer for 30 minutes" with a campfire. Instead, this elemental form of cooking requires gauging and controlling the level of heat. This can be done by creating two fires, one for cooking and one to create a source of coals.

Nikki Fotheringham, the author of several cookbooks on campfire cooking and owner of Greenmoxie.com, notes, "Your cooking fire should be a channel off the main fire. You would move coals from the fire pit to your cooking fire. This allows you to control the temperature. It also means you don't get caught with a dead fire and a half-cooked meal! (We've all been there!)"

Another pro tip: Ashes are an ideal way to control the heat of the embers without extinguishing the fire entirely. Cover the embers with a shovel of ashes to help diminish some of their intensity, according to Nico Stanitzok — a chef, food blogger and co-author of The Campfire Cookbook.

To check on the heat level, Fotheringham recommends holding your hand 4 inches away from the coals until it gets too hot. Depending on when it feels this way will indicate the degree of heat and therefore what would be best to cook. "If your hand feels too hot at the 2–3 seconds mark, this is a hot fire. You can cook steak on this perfectly. If it takes 5–7 seconds, this is medium hot. Breads, puddings and frying veggies are all done at this temperature," says Fotheringham.

Plan Your Meals

Campfire Foil Packs
Credit: Allrecipes Magazine

Try this recipe: Campfire Foil Packs

With a bit of prepping and planning, a scrumptious meal can be yours, with the added bonus of some wood smoke flavoring. The less chopping and mixing that needs to happen on site the better, according to Fotheringham, as this requires less gear being hauled out, as well as less opportunities for cross contamination or foodborne illness.

Stews and soups are easy to prep beforehand and then cook onsite. Just be sure to keep food chilled until it is cooked. A common household product highly recommended by Stanitzok is aluminum foil. He shared with us this easy tip: "Aluminum foil is wonderfully suitable to prepare delicious food in. Take the sausages for the hot dogs and cut them into half-inch pieces. In a bowl, mix with a few diced peppers, onions, crumbled feta, and some olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, thyme or rosemary, or both. Wrap them in aluminium foil and cook them directly in the embers. It's like a feast and very easy to make."

High heat from your campfire can be just right for delivering delicious and unexpected results. Fotheringham recommends trying out grilled pizza and even bread, which can also be done simply on a cast iron skillet or in a Dutch oven, respectively. We love this versatile 12-inch Lodge skillet, which can sauté veggies, fry up pancakes or be the ideal vessel for a memorable personal pan pizza. Take that sourdough starter you've been working on all quarantine on the road and bake it in the coals with this Dutch oven by Staub.

Gear Up

Campfire Skillet Breakfast
Credit: KGora

In addition to a piece of cast iron cookware, remember to bring heat-resilient utensils, as plastic can melt. A longer set of tongs can be incredibly useful for flipping steaks and grabbing burgers or sausages.

Maintain food safety by using a cooler packed with both ice and bags of cold water for any meat, dairy or other items that require refrigeration, as food safety expert, Keith Warriner, explained, the water keeps the temperature cooler for longer.

If you're uncertain about the doneness of food, we love this instant read thermometer by OXO to ensure that foods are cooked through to between 145–165 degrees F, as suggested by the FDA.

The item most highly recommended by our campfire cooking expert is an oven mitt. "I have a very lightweight silicone one that is easy to pack. Using a t-shirt [as an oven mitt] is a sure-fire way of getting a bad burn — the last thing you want on a camping trip," says Fotheringham.

cast iron skillet over campfire cooking a pancake
Credit: FrankieCarr/Getty Images

Due to COVID-19, access to park facilities may be limited, so ensure that you take bottles of water and soap for washing anything that touches raw foods, as well as hand sanitizer to help kill any harmful pathogens. Be wary of outdoor critters, both big and small, and make sure you pack food in tightly sealed containers.

However you enjoy your campfire cooking this summer, be it a gourmet gathering or just a couple of toasted marshmallows, always be sure to extinguish all fires before you leave the area and stay safe.

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Plus, browse our entire collection of Camping Recipes.