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Camp Cooking Basics
One of the great delights of camping is meeting and eating around the campfire. From the first cup of coffee in the morning to the last roasted marshmallow at night, the campfire brings families and friends together in a communal atmosphere that is often lacking in our hectic daily life.
With a camping trip comes increased physical activity such as swimming, hiking, and bicycling. All this added exercise combined with fresh air and the wonderful aromas of food cooked over an open fire heightens the appetite and makes for hungry campers. People who usually skip the morning meal find themselves eating a farmer's breakfast of potatoes, onions, eggs, bacon, stacks of pancakes and anything else the cook serves up. Dinner often becomes a feast with the catch of the day being the main course. A campfire is perfect for cooking a multicourse meal. Potatoes, corn and other foil foods can be cooking in the coals while a skillet sits on the flames and a stew pot simmers overhead on a tripod. With a little planning you can cook enough food for a banquet all in one simple fire ring.
Preparing meals at home may sometimes seem like a chore but when camping it becomes more of an adventure, a time to experiment with different foods and different flavors. Often it becomes a family activity with everyone involved in one way or another. Some appoint themselves keeper of the flame – they can't resist poking and prodding at the fire, continually stoking the flames to maintain the right cooking level. The ravenous members of the group keep watch over the cooking pots or foil foods, stirring and checking and tasting. Neighboring campers drift over to offer suggestions or ingredients or just to pay a friendly visit and see what's cooking.
And when the magic moment arrives, the feast begins. Unlike dining at home, there is no need to stand on formalities when eating around a campfire. Fingers are an acceptable form of utensil. Fallen food becomes campfire fuel. And cleanup is often a snap with paper plates and napkins thrown in the fire. Then it's time to pile on the wood for a roaring fire, make s'mores, and kick back and relax. As twilight turns into night everyone gathers around the flames to tell ghost stories, share memories or just catch up on what's been happening in each other's lives. One by one, as the fire is reduced to a pile of glowing embers, the campers drift off to bed well nourished in body and soul.
Building a Campfire
Most campgrounds already have an established fire pit or ring at each campsite. If you do have to make your own fire pit, choose your area carefully. Make sure it is a safe distance from trees, tents, and brush areas. The ground should be hard packed earth, not spongy or mossy, and it should be clear of tree roots. Forest fires have been known to spring up days after a campfire has been extinguished from roots smoldering underground. Remember to check overhead. While you may be a safe distance from the tree trunk, overhanging branches can pose a danger. Brush away any leaves, pine needles and other combustible debris. Then outline your fire area with rocks and stones. Avoid using shale, slate or very porous river rocks. Steam can build up in them and they can actually explode from the pressure.
To build the fire you will need tinder, kindling and logs. Many campgrounds sell firewood bundles at their camp store. Always check with the management about their rules for collecting firewood. Fallen and dead trees provide habitats for wildlife and many areas prohibit collecting the dead limbs and branches. For tinder, use small dry twigs, bark, pine needles, newspaper or a commercial fire starter. Never ever use gasoline, alcohol or similar flammable liquids. Besides being highly dangerous, they add an unpleasant taste and smell to your food. Pile the tinder in the center of the fire ring and arrange the kindling (smaller pieces of wood or dried branches) over and around the tinder. Crisscross your logs log cabin style, taking care to leave enough ventilation so as not to smother the fire. Another popular way to build a fire is "tipi" style, with the logs arranged in a conical shape. You can use hard or soft wood logs but most people prefer hardwoods as they burn long and steady with a low flame. A good bed of hardwood coals will stay red hot and glowing for a long time, perfect for dutch oven or coal cooking. Softwoods burn quickly and can often impart a resinous flavor to food, especially if using pine or fir. If you are cooking with a reflector oven, however, you may want to use softwoods as they burn with a high hot flame often needed for this type of cooking.
Something that cannot be stressed enough:
Never leave a fire unattended. The atmosphere may seem calm but a sudden gust of wind can send sparks flying and ignite surrounding areas in an instant. Traveling through areas where wildfires have raged is a sobering reminder of the devastation caused by carelessness. Always keep a bucket of water handy. Before leaving the campsite or retiring for the night, extinguish the flames, spread and stir the coals and cover with dirt or additional water until you're sure the fire is dead.
Cookware and accessories
If you are renting anything other than a tent or basic cabin, chances are you will have a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal. Don't fall into the rut of using these conveniences to cook all your meals. You will start to feel like you never left home and you will miss out on one of the highlights of the camping experience. There are many ways to cook outdoors and camping retail stores carry a wide variety of stoves, cookers, smokers and accessories to fit every style and taste. The following are just a sample of what is available.
Saucepans/frying pans. Nesting pots are a complete assortment of cooking gear in a lightweight, compact package. Several different size saucepans are included, usually made of tin, that fit inside each other and double as bowls. The lids have detachable handles that screw on to become frying pans. Once you finish cooking, you can use them as plates. Nesting pots usually include a small coffeepot and tin mugs and sometimes even eating utensils.
Dutch oven. While there are many different styles of Dutch ovens available, the best for camping will have three legs on the bottom , a flat lid with a lip and a handle for hanging on a tripod. Just about anything you want to cook can be handled with this versatile pot. Cast iron, while heavy, conducts and retains heat evenly and is extremely durable. Because of its even heating, you can even bake in it, once you get the hang of how hot the coals should be kept – it can take a little practice. The downside is that it is extremely heavy, however, lightweight cast aluminum ovens are also available.Use it to simmer stews or as a deep fryer. Set in the coals with additional coals piled on the lid and it becomes an oven for baking or roasting. The lid can even be used as a frying pan by turning the pot over, piling coals between the legs and setting the lid on top.
Pie irons (Hobo pie makers). Once you use one of these handy gadgets, you'll never want to camp without it. Sold in camping goods stores and many campgrounds, the pie makers are cast iron (aluminum is available) and consist of two parts that lock together. They have various shaped hollows at the end for putting food in. Place a buttered piece of bread (butter side down) on each side, add filling, lock together and stick in the coals. Add tomato sauce, cheese, herbs, meats and vegetables and you have an individual pizza. Use canned pie filling for a delicious dessert, sprinkled with confectioners sugar when done. Try filling with peanut butter and bananas for lunch or use leftover meat and vegetables from the night before for a variation on the pot pie. There really is no limit to what you can cook in these little piemakers. They cook quickly but open easily for frequent checking.
Camp stove. Camp stoves are available using both LP and white gas with different burner configurations. They are compact and handy to have on a rainy or windy day. I find mine indispensible for getting the morning coffee going while I'm stoking up the fire for breakfast.
Reflector oven. With this accessory, you can bake anything over a campfire that you can bake in your oven at home. Made of polished sheet metal or aluminum, the heat from the fire reflects off the walls and around the food. The oven should be preheated just as you would a conventional oven. Make sure you keep the fire fed to maintain the same intensity of heat.
Aluminum foil. In addition to wrapping up leftovers, heavy duty foil makes excellent cookware with no cleanup. It works best when individual portions are wrapped separately. Lightly grease the foil to prevent sticking, add your food, seasonings and any sauces and seal. When tightly sealed, the individual foil packets become pressure cookers, steaming the food quickly while retaining the nutritional value. Foil cooking takes some practice to prevent scorching. Hold your hand over the fire at cooking height to test the heat. If you can keep it there 5-6 seconds, you have a medium fire. If you're snatching your hand away at 3 seconds, you have a hot fire. If you're not sure, test your food often. Foil packets can also be buried in coals to simmer and steam. If you're not sure of the heat, use a double thickness.
Heavy duty ziplock sandwich bags. I used to cart around several mixing bowls but after camping with the boy scouts, I learned these were an excellent mess free way to mix and boil foods. Just add your ingredients, seal and squish to desired consistency. Eggs can be mixed and then the whole pouch dropped into boiling water to cook scrambled eggs. Limit yourself to 2 eggs per bag as any more than this tends to cook unevenly. Leftover pancakes or french toast can also be boiled this way to reheat and avoid drying.
Accessories. A steel tripod stand with an adjustable chain/hook system is perfect for hanging coffeepots or kettles. Many come with hanging grills. Portable grills that set up over the campfire are lightweight and fold for easy storage. Grill baskets are mesh containers that lock together to make flipping foods easy. Available in different sizes, some have separate compartments so you can cook several foods at one time.
Other items you will want to have on hand include a coffeepot, tongs, can and bottle opener, variety of knives for paring and carving, long handled stirring spoon and slotted spoon, long handled fork, measuring cup and spoons. Optional items can include skewers, a griddle, mixing bowls, large strainer, egg beater, potato peeler, potato masher or whatever cooking accessory you just can't do without.
Basic items to remember: plates, cups, glasses, bowls, eating utensils, napkins or paper towels, garbage bags and, if you plan on storing food, plastic food and drink containers. For cleanup, bring biodegradable detergent, scouring pads, sponge or dishcloth, towels, plastic dishpan or sink (or use a large cooking pot).
Effects of Altitude on Cooking
Atmospheric pressure decreases as the elevation increases. The leavening power of baking powder and the boiling points of liquids are particularly affected. At higher altitudes, baking powder amounts should be decreased. For determining proper amounts at your particular location, you would do best to ask locally. Liquids boil at a lower temperature as the elevation increases. Generally speaking, for each 960 feet above sea level the boiling point of a liquid is lowered by 1.8 F.
A few simple steps before stocking your cooler and food storage areas can help to prevent insect pests and food born illnesses. Clean coolers and refrigerators with a solution of 1 tsp. chlorine bleach to 1 quart of water, rinse and dry. Clean sink drains with the same solution of bleach and water. Clean all cabinets and food storage areas with hot soapy water. Caulk up any cracks or crevices where bacteria and insects can hide. Make sure any food going into the pantries is well wrapped and sealed. Sprinkling bay leaves around will discourage ants besides adding a nice aroma.
Temperature has a profound effect on food. Care should be taken that all perishable items are kept well refrigerated. Refrigerators should be kept between 34?F/1ºC and 40?F/4ºC . At temperatures over 40?F/4ºC, bacteria tends to multiply rapidly. Any perishable food left out at over 40?F for more than 2 hours should be discarded. In extremely hot climes where the temperature reaches over 90?F/32ºC, one hour is the limit. While freezing will stop bacteria growth, it will not kill heat resistant bacteria that is already present in the food so it is of the utmost importance that you handle food correctly from the start. If you are stocking a cooler, transfer the food directly from the refrigerator to the cooler. Don't thaw frozen foods. They will thaw in the cooler and help to keep the temperatures down. Replenish ice often, as soon as it starts to melt. Make sure all foods are well wrapped in airtight containers to keep down cross-contamination and odors. Keep drinks in a separate cooler to eliminate frequent opening of where the food is kept. A full cooler maintains the cold better. If your cooler is only half full, fill with ice or non perishable items. When you're on the road, keep the cooler in your car, not in your trunk where high heat will rapidly melt the ice.
Good foods for traveling are fresh and dried fruits, carrots, cookies. Or make your own trail mix with your favorite items which can include: pretzels, cheddar crackers, cereal, M&Ms®, nuts, sunflower seeds, raisins. This provides a variety of taste and textures and you don't have to worry about spoilage.
Shopping on the road
You'll find that many foods have a distinctly different taste when eaten fresh in their native area. Traveling gives us the opportunity to sample local delicacies. Keep a supply of staples on hand and do the rest of your shopping on the road. When shopping, use local roadside stands for produce. Many areas have weekly farmers markets that offer an excellent choice of locally grown products. At fish markets you can purchase the catch of the day cleaned and ready to prepare. Buy freshly picked fruits and vegetables from roadside farm stands or visit a U-Pick-It farm where you can harvest your own produce. Some farms even supply meat, eggs and dairy products directly to the consumer. Grocery stores and restaurants often feature local foods as a way to support their communities and to provide fresh produce and meats to their customers. Buy fresh herbs for flavoring rather than taking multiple, seldom used spices. Besides taking up valuable space, they are an invitation to insects. And don't forget beverages. Almost every region has its own local vineyards or micro breweries and freshly made fruit juices are often available at produce stands.
Food festivals are a great way to sample a variety of local fare and there are hundreds of them to choose from. In addition to culinary offerings, the festivals often feature games, rides, arts and crafts, and entertainment. Following is a just a sample of regional offerings.
Northeast/Mid Atlantic: Maple syrup festivals take place from Maine to Pennsylvania in the early spring. While visiting Boston try the baked beans or attend the annual Chowderfest. Maryland is host to the Hard Crab Derby and Vermont honors the zucchini in late summer. There are also festivals devoted to rhubarb, mushrooms, blueberries, pumpkins, apple cider, and every type of shellfish. Sample cheesecake, bagels and bialys if you're in the New York area. And don't forget to pickup some
saltwater taffy for snacking on the road.
Midwest and Great Plains: Bring gallon-sized containers to the Burgoo Festival in Arenzville, Illinois to take home this hearty soup of chicken, beef and vegetables. Sample persimmon pudding at Persimmon Fest in southern Indiana, any number of cheeses in Wisconsin or sauerkraut and sausage at one of Michigan's many ethnic fests. Apples, raspberries, cherries, pickles, sweet corn and chocolate are also celebrated throughout the midwest. Prime mouth-watering cuts of pork and beef are plentiful in the heartland region and, while in the Great Lakes area, you must try the Chicago style hot dogs. For a true campfire cooking experience West Lafayette, Indiana hosts the Feast of the Hunters' Moon every October. Re-creating an 18th-century trade gathering, more than 60 foods are prepared over open fires including voyageur pea soup and frybread.
South and Mid South: The variety of foods and flavors in this region is extensive. For the adventurous, Rayne, Louisiana holds a Frog Festival in late summer. Citrus and swamp cabbage are celebrated in Florida, catfish in Mississippi. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September offers tips for mouth-watering cooking with the Bluegrass State's famous spirit. Georgia has an annual Vidalia Onion Festival along with celebrations honoring peanuts, peaches and sweet potato pie. You'll find pink tomatoes in Arkansas and chitlins and grits in South Carolina. Spice up your diet with jumbalaya, gumbo, or one of the other creole and cajun specialities in this region. Other regional delicacies include pralines, key lime pie, black-eyed peas, mangoes, okra, and the famous Virginia hams.
Southwest: Arizona is host to festivals as varied as lettuce in Yuma and ostrich in Chandler. But Texas can't be beat for the offbeat festival. Gatorfest in Anahuac offers a variety of ways to cook alligator and August brings the Champion Goat Cookoff to Brady. Fiery foods and chuckwagons abound in this region. Varieties of salsa, bean dip, chilis and peppers can be found at almost any festival. Barbecues of chicken, ribs and exotic meats take place year round. For mouth-watering pastries filled with fruit, visit the Kolache Festival in Caldwell.
West Coast: This bountiful area produces an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables. California's Stockton hosts an annual Asparagus Festival, Fallbrook celebrates the avocado and Castroville, the artichoke. And that's just the A list, not to mention apricots and apples. For an ethnic flavor, try the International Tamale Festival in Indio which offers up dessert tamales with raisins and cheese in addition to the traditional tamale. Stock up on garlic in Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World. Oregon celebrates the filbert (hazelnut) and if you're in the Portland area, Summer Loaf: an Artisan Food Festival offers mouth-watering bakery items along with cooking tips. Apples, grapes, dates and all manner of berries are plentiful in this region. Specialties to stock up on include berry jams and sea salt. A trip to the Pacific Northwest is not complete without a visit to a fishmarket or local seafood festival to sample the salmon, halibut, smoked mussels and other fresh catches.
The voice of experience
There are countless sources of information available in print and on the internet detailing recipes, cooking procedures, and food festivals. But don't neglect a valuable source camping right next to you, the tried and true camper. Veteran campers are usually eager to share their experiences and favorite recipes. They often can tell you the best places in the area to pick berries, fish for trout or gather apples. Besides learning some valuable cooking tips, you may gain a lifelong friend. I'll leave you now with a recipe for a simple but time-honored camping favorite.
1 graham cracker
4 squares milk chocolate
Roast marshmallow on a stick until golden brown. Place on graham cracker, cover with chocolate squares, top with remaining graham cracker. Makes one delicious serving.
For more information on campground cooking: Woodall's Campsite Cookbook, Woodall's Favorite Recipes from America's Campgrounds.