By Dan Kidder
People who camp with me always remark on one thing; we eat very well. Camping is my time to really go all out for feeding the masses. From grilling wild game over an open fire, to baking in a Dutch oven, I really enjoy preparing meals that really only can be cooked in the outdoors.
When it comes to cooking over the coals of a wood fire or using some of the great new outdoor cooking products available on the market, I enjoy the special flavors that make cooking in camp a special experience that enhances the overall fun of a campout. The following are some of the great tools available for outdoor cooking and some tips and tricks to make you the king of the campfire.
For cooking in the outdoors, nothing is as ubiquitous as cast iron. I use cast iron that dates back nearly 100 years. It lasts for generations, evenly conducts heat and is easy to maintain with just a little know-how and some elbow grease. Other than my ancient cast iron, of which the name of the maker is an unknown quantity, when I buy new cast iron, I always go with Camp Chef. The Dutch ovens they make are second to none. Camp Chef cast iron comes pre-seasoned, so they are easy to use right out of the box.
Seasoning is the thick black patina that a piece of cast iron develops over years of use. This seasoning should never be scrubbed off with steel wool. It is this crust that prevents food from sticking and also protects the cast iron from rust and pitting. Because cast iron is naturally porous, it is necessary to properly season it and touch up the patina anytime you see a place where the seasoning has been worn or washed off.
There are as many myths about Dutch ovens as there are sizes and types. One myth is that you cannot use soap to clean cast iron. This is completely false. Dish soap and a soft scrubber can be used to remove cooked on food. Let the Dutch oven soak and then wash it like you would any pan with a non-stick coating, leaving the seasoned patina in place. If you accidentally scrub off the seasoning, re-apply it as needed. We will talk more about that later on.
Another myth is that a Dutch oven only gets as hot as a frying pan. I wasn’t aware of this one until very recently, but some folks think that a Dutch oven only gets as hot as the surface on which it is placed. There are two principles involved in Dutch oven cooking; conduction and convection.
Conduction is the direct transfer of heat through a conductive surface. In a Dutch oven this is the direct transfer of heat through the metal cast iron. Where the metal touches the coals, heat is transferred into the surface of the cast iron. Cast iron is a highly efficient conductor of heat making it ideal for use over an open flame, such as on a gas stove or over a camp fire. The efficient nature of cast iron also make it ideal for convection cooking.
Convection heating is the indirect heating of the air inside the Dutch oven. As the metal heats up it transfers to the air inside the lidded Dutch oven. This allows the inside of the vessel to reach temperatures very close to your oven at home. These increased temperatures allow campers to bake in the Dutch oven almost anything that can be prepared in a regular oven, with the only limitation being the smaller dimensions of the Dutch oven. At a recent campout I whipped up a batch of peach cobbler with just some canned peaches, sugar, spices, a little butter and some Bisquik and it disappeared in less time than it took to make.
Even though a Dutch oven is an efficient conductor of heat, the irregular nature of a campfire means that some places where the coals touch the oven will be hotter than others and if the oven isn’t properly turned and moved, then some of the food will burn and some will not get cooked fully. It takes some practice and is a bit of an art form, but over time outdoor cooks will learn the proper way to distribute coals, turn the oven and check to make sure food is cooking properly. Once you do, people will think you are a camp magician because you have mastered the mystical arts of the Dutch oven. Really, you just get better at it each time you do it. The more you cook in your Dutch oven, the easier it gets.
In addition to their great line of cast iron Dutch ovens, Camp Chef has a book of Camp Cooking Recipes that you can use to wow the masses at your next campout. More than 100 recipes for everything from Dutch oven stews, desserts, breakfasts and more are right at your fingertips in the Camp Chef Camp Cook Book.
To keep your Dutch oven properly seasoned so that it provides years of culinary delight, use Camp Chef’s Cast Iron Conditioner. This special formulation of grease melts into the pores of your cast iron and bakes on to a hard finish that will prolong the life of your cast iron as well as prevent food from burning on the surface. Wipe down your pans with the conditioner, heat it until it starts to smoke and then let it cool. I suggest doing this outdoors, as it will get very smoky inside.
When cooking with a Dutch oven there are two other must have tools; the Dutch oven lid lifter and a shovel. The lid lifter has a 22-inch reach, so you don’t have to bend over. It allows you to pick up the hot, cola-covered lid of a Dutch oven to stir the contents or check cooking so you can adjust the number of coals easily without risk of dumping the ash and coals in your food. It will also allow you to lift the full oven out of the fire when you are done cooking. The shovel allows you to arrange your coals and easily add or subtract how much heat you are cooking with.
Camp Chef Portable Camp Oven
For those who haven’t quite mastered the art of the Dutch oven, but who may want to bake in camp, Camp Chef makes the versatile Portable Camp Oven. This oven runs on one pound propane tanks and works just like your oven at home, scaled down. It won’t take those large cookie sheets you use at home, but it will let you bake on smaller, 9×13” sheets. Anything from roasting meat to baking cookies is possible in this small portable oven. To make it even more useful in camp, the lid of the oven is a pop up two-burner stove, making the Portable Camp Oven a full kitchen range on your tailgate. Click here to see a Video Product Review of this oven.
Lodge Color Porcelain Enamel Dutch Oven
Having a Dutch oven that requires no seasoning, maintenance or fuss is an attractive proposition, literally and figuratively. The Lodge Color Porcelain Enamel Dutch Oven offers the great heating properties of cast iron and combines it with the ease of use of porcelain cookware. These bright and colorful Dutch ovens are at home on the campfire or in the oven at home and are an attractive way to present food after it is cooked. On the outside, they are coated in your choice of brightly colored enamel. On the inside, the same porcelain in white is applied with a thicker coating to provide a non-stick surface that cleans up in a snap. Available in various colors and sizes, these heavy duty vessels can be used as pots, casseroles, Dutch ovens and skillets, making them a versatile addition to any home or camp kitchen. The one downside to them is they lack a lid ridge and feet that help to distribute coals on the top and bottom. But, with a few modifications to your cooking technique, they work great in the role of a traditional Dutch oven.
The Perfect Campfire Grill Pioneer
Not only is the Perfect Campfire Grill Pioneer an ideal grill for cooking directly over an open fire, it incorporates several features that make it a must-have item in my camp. A rim around the top of the heavy-duty dual nickle and chrome coated grill keeps burgers and other food from sliding off into the fire. A heavy steel collapsible stand drives easily into the ground and is adjustable so you can position the grill at any height. An optional pot holder arm can be attached to the post allowing whatever post or Dutch oven full of goodies you can think of to hang over the fire at the perfect distance from the flames. All of this collapses down and fits into its own bag that is no larger than the 18-inch grill surface. The grill is large enough for 10 good-sized patties or an assortment of kabobs and hot dogs. It’s high polish grilling surface prevents meat from sticking and makes cleanup a breeze.
The Perfect Campfire Grill Explorer
The same company that makes the Pioneer also makes the Explorer grill. This grill is a 12” by 18” rectangular, foldable free-standing grill that just sits over your coals on its folding legs. It features the same raised lip design as the Pioneer so food doesn’t slide off. It is also double coated with nickle and high polish chrome and made of heavy duty cold rolled steel for easy cleanup and rugged use.
Camp Chef Pro 60 Propane Stove
Across the West, dry conditions have created fire restrictions that could hamper good camp cooking over open fires. The Camp Chef pro 60 Two Burner Propane Stove offers a pair of 30,000 BTU burners that are powered by a standard barbecue propane tank. The legs, windscreen and stove all fold into a compact unit that easily slides into its optional carry bag. The stove covers unfold during use to offer a pair of work shelves. The entire stove weighs 45 pounds, so you aren’t going hiking with it on your back, but for car camping, this rugged workhorse will provide you with years of service on its 14 by 32-inch cooking surface.
Camp Chef Two-Burner Stove Fry Griddle
If you have ever wanted to be a grill cook like in your local diner, this heavy duty steel griddle is for you. Featuring heat diffusers on the bottom to avoid hotspots, this seasoned griddle is a dream whether you are making breakfast for a hungry pack of Cub Scouts or flipping flapjacks for the local fire department’s fundraiser. It fits on top of most of Camp Chef’s two-burner stoves. Add a Camp Chef Professional Spatula set for the full experience.
Camp Chef Grill Box
If you want the taste and convenience of a gas grill without hauling your Weber Summit with you, a one or two burner grill box can be easily slapped onto your Camp Chef stove to provide the flavor of a grill in the backcountry. These easy to use boxes utilize heat diffusers and infrared technology to evenly cook your food and prevent grease flare-ups. The cast iron cooking surface is easy to clean and maintain and prevents food from sticking. The hinged lid helps keep in heat for even cooking. The temperature gauge on the lid lets you easily see when the grill is ready for cooking.
Whatever your outdoor cooking plans, having the right gear can make all of the difference. With a little practice and preparation, you can wow the masses with your culinary artistry in camp and kiss the days of eating dehydrated camping food goodbye. Eat well my friends.