Camping skills: Top tips for campsite cooking
Life under canvas doesn’t have to mean a staple diet of greasy fry-ups, tinned stews and burnt sausages. Cooking outdoors is all part of the great camping experience, But you don’t need to be Jamie Oliver to cook up a treat on site
Cooking outdoors is a major part of family camping holidays. Instead of the usual hectic supermarket sweep and microwave meals, the slower pace of life on holiday encourages us to seek out real food and cook it with care.
In a primal sort of way, there’s something extremely satisfying about rediscovering your hunter-gatherer roots and heading out to forage for food – down at the beach, in the countryside or at the local farmers’ market – before returning to camp to cook it.
Preparing a hearty meal at the camp stove isn’t all that difficult. With a few essential items packed into the camping box and a basic array of condiments, herbs and spices, you really can escape the horrors of ‘traditional’ camping fare.
The key to eating well under canvas is to leave the tins and packets at home and use what’s in season locally. Locally grown veg and produce from the village shop all helps support the local economy. One of the many things about camping is that you are never that far away from a great supply of local produce - there’s always a local food story to be told.
At the seaside, look out for fresh mackerel and sardines – which are just divine cooked simply on the barbecue or over campfire embers.
Inland, try to find authentic local sausages and pork chops from happy outdoor reared pigs. Traditional family butchers are usually the best places to visit and while you’re at it, why not splash out on a couple of pieces of steak, but don’t break the bank with fillet or ribeye, go for the cheaper cuts like sirloin or rump, they’ll taste just as good – if not better – cooked on the barbie.
To facilitate your foraging, a well-insulated cool box, with sides at least 3cm thick, is indispensable for keeping meat and fish fresh until you get it back to camp.
A repertoire of campsite favourites is far better than head scratching each day wondering what to have; one-pot recipe books are a great source for camping meals. Barbecues always appear easy but a little imagination makes them much more interesting than just burning burgers and bangers. Camping life is ideally suited to fresh food - salads, fruit, veggies - involving little or no cooking but loads of variety and taste. At home, cook and freeze an easy meal for the first night - spag, chilli, curry. It'll defrost whilst travelling and be ready for heating up whilst the pasta or rice cooks.
IN THE KITCHEN
Camp kitchens don't have acres of cupboards and shelves and the camping larder needs to be wildlife-proof but handy to access. Plastic or metal food storage boxes are practical and durable whilst cardboard boxes and loose food attract unwelcome visitors.
Worktop space is at a premium when camping so press gang your spare hands and dining table into service and make sure everybody pulls their weight as galley slaves and waiting crew having fun together rather than getting through a chore. Probably the most important items (apart from a corkscrew) are a decent-sized chopping board and a sharp knife – it’s so easy to overlook them as are so many items that are always to hand at home so a checklist is useful.
For convenience, you cannot beat cooking on gas – butane, propane or a mix of the two – but if you have hook-up, and electric stove is a clean and safe alternative. A double burner stove is best as it allows you to have two pans on the go at once – and in the morning means you can boil the kettle for a brew as you fry the bacon. Cooking inside the tent is not recommended – not only is there the risk of fire but carbon monoxide poisoning is also a real danger. If weather allows it, cook outdoors or in the front porch area of your tent. If you really need to cook in the tent, make sure it’s as well ventilated as possible and that children are kept out of the way.
The novelty of crouching on the ground to cook a meal for four people soon wears off for most camping chefs and a stove stand, possibly with some shelves and worktop space, transforms the camp cooking experience. A windshield is also a very useful addition to the set-up. Though pots and pans from home will do for your first camping trips, pulling together a dedicated camp kitchen kit makes packing and travelling easier.
There are dozens of options in lightweight folding tables and chairs for camping so try a variety out for size and convenience before buying. If you've ever seen four adults trying to eat a meal off a small table then you'll appreciate the value of a larger table or perhaps two smaller ones. Consider lightweight unbreakable crockery and tableware rather than packing the family china and silverware. Again, the options seem infinite and it's really a matter of budget and personal preference. Water is a key element in cooking but a huge jerrycan is heavy to lug about when full so smaller water carriers with a tap are handier; it also means that youngsters can take on the responsibility of keeping the water on tap.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Finally, keep your pitch clean, tidy and healthy by cleaning pots, pans, crocks, cutlery, stove and table thoroughly. Clear up rubbish and leftovers and put it the campsite bins rather than a plastic bag by your tent - it's one area where being obsessive pays dividends.
KITCHEN KIT ESSENTIALS
- Double burner gas stove
- A decent non-stick frying pan
- Two saucepans with lids
- A large stock pot
- Chopping board, spoons and spatulas
- A set of sharp knives (big, medium and small)
- A grater
- Pestle and mortar (for grinding seeds and spices)
- A camping kettle (water boils quicker in a kettle – saves gas!)
- A set of Tupperware boxes (handy for storing chopped and grated ingredients)
- Kitchen roll
- Olive oil and sunflower oil
- Box of flaked sea salt
- Black pepper mill (and plenty of peppercorns)
- Cumin, coriander and fennel seeds (whole is best, but ground is fine)
- Dried chillies
- Fresh herbs; garlic, rosemary, thyme, coriander, basil, bay leaves