grilling steak chicken and salmon over open fire

Camping Cooking Tips From Chefs

Last Updated on July 6, 2021

Cooking outside can be the ultimate sensory experience—with the tastiest reward. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as cooking over an open fire and an open sky, working with just a few basic tools.

Whether you’re camping or glamping, a delicious meal is a perfect way to end a day exploring the great outdoors. It’s not always easy though, and things can go wrong if you don’t know what to expect.

Here are some tips from top chefs on how to elevate your camping cooking.

Build A Strong Fire

Chicago’s John Manion, chef-owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar, specializes in cooking meats over an open flame, so he knows how to build an outdoor fire. First, he recommends gathering dry kindling and stacking hardwood logs in a cross-hatch pattern to make a 10-inch square, building it three levels high. Then, place the kindling in the center.

“I like to drizzle the newspaper with a little vegetable oil and light it to fuel the initial burn,” he says. “Fan the flames furiously with a trusty cardboard square. It should look like a proper campfire and produce a decent amount of smoke.”

fire on beach

Start The Fire Early

“Starting the fire pit early creates some good charcoal, which is going to be more consistent with smoking and controlling temperature,” says Seattle’s Shota Nakajima, chef-owner of Taku. “One of my favorite things to do is catch some trout, clean the inside, salt cure it, stab it on a stick and smoke it a foot away or so from the charcoal depending on the temperature.”

Nakajima recommends curing trout for at least an hour before cooking. You can also cure fish overnight in advance, or bring cured fish to cook over the fire.

Bring A Cast-Iron Skillet

Ocean Prime corporate chef Ian Rough is an avid camper and outdoor cook. He says he carries a cast-iron skillet everywhere he goes so he’s always ready to cook over some good coals. “When I build the fire, I try to find a big flat rock for the skillet to sit on when time comes to cook,” he says. “I build the fire right over the rock and then push all the coals down around the rock. You can keep feeding the fire around the sides as needed. The rock makes for a great spot to put the skillet and sear meat on all sides.”

One of Rough’s favorite dishes to cook in this fashion is pork loin, seasoned with a mustard BBQ rub that he brings in a Ziploc bag to marinate until it’s time to cook.

cast iron on open fire

Or, Cook Directly On The Coals

Chef Hunter Evans of Elvie’s in Jackson, Mississippi also enjoys searing steaks—and vegetables—directly on the coals. He recommends seasoning steaks liberally with salt and pepper and cooking each side directly on the coals for three to four minutes to achieve a medium-rare temperature for an inch thick steak. Then let the meat rest for 10 minutes before digging in.

“For a side, try vegetables en aluminum,” he says. “Throw your favorite veggies in some foil, with some garlic cloves, fresh thyme, a knob of butter, drizzle with oil, salt, and pepper, then wrap it up, set it on some coals by the side of the fire, and let it roast for 25 minutes while you cook the main protein.”

Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in travel, food, wine and wellness. Her bylines have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Saveur, NPR, NBC, Robb Report, Departures, Travel + Leisure, Fodor's and National Geographic Traveler among many others. Amber is currently based in Venice, California. Champagne, dark chocolate and gelato are her biggest weaknesses.