Call it what you want. Peace, quiet, a brief window to disconnect from the social world we live in. It’s listening to the rustle of green leaves and the crunch of dried sticks beneath your feet. It’s watching your dog sniff in each and every direction with deep pulls to his sagging belly like he’s never smelled life until just then, and waking up to his chin cupping your forehead in your tiny two-person tent. Bourré tends to think that people faces make the best kind of campout pillows.
It’s the gurgle of the creek that runs behind your tent, bubbling and churning, and you know the salmon are spawning at this time of year. That life and death are intersecting in a world where the human breath means nothing.
It’s the smell of cedar smoke mixed with french press chicory coffee in the morning and crisped fat-laced meat in the evening. I’ve already told you the whole cooking part has been an evolution of sorts, I wasn’t always savvy to campfire meal preparation and all that it entails. I had to grow out of the cereal and sandwich camp lifestyle and into the one that filled the cooler with fresh ingredients for cooking over an open flame. And it wasn’t always successful. Like the time when I acquired third degree burns to my right cheek. Or when we, just a couple of twenty year-olds without a clue, doused our brat-topped fire with lighter fluid to quickly grow the flame. That lesson was learned hard and fast. Lighter fluid and hungry stomachs do not mix.
Now we know to build a fire using only wood and to keep our foods out of the yellow flame where good ingredients go to die. We stop at Whole Foods on our way out of town, our car packed to the brim save for the single cooler where we’ll store a thick cut of tri-tip, a half a dozen fat scallops, two-skewers of already-deveined shrimp, and a rainbow of whatever fresh produce is inspiring us, all to toss with some kind of fat, salt, and pepper and throw on the oiled grill grate until perfectly seared and brown, each item wrapped in a just-thick-enough blanket of campfire smoke. All the important things are there. The highest quality, sustainably-sourced ingredients, a gentle heat coming from sunset orange and grey coals, a little fat, a little seasoning. You don’t need anything more for a successful camp feast. Good ingredients speak for themselves in settings like these.
But because I want you to have the same kind of experience with campfire cooking, and because I don’t want you to be the person I was nearly a decade ago with a plastic bottle of lighter fluid in hand and without a clue, I’ve provided some suggestions here for your next campfire cookout. From what equipment to bring, how to build the right kind of heat, and how to avoid the dreaded flare up. If you want to go beyond the standard fat, salt and pepper method for flavoring your food, you could also pair it with some of the sauces below. A classic chimichurri for your red meat, a briny nori butter for your seafood, and a black garlic aioli for your vegetables. All conveniently made ahead and packable in your camp cooler.
Here’s to hoping this campfire cooking guide will inspire you to get out of town these last few weeks of summer…and to leave that bottle of lighter fluid behind when you do.
Buy the Best
There is perhaps no more important time to have quality ingredients on-hand then when you’re on a campout. When preparations have to be basic, so flavor has to be maximized. I do all of my campout shopping at Whole Foods Market, choosing the cuts of meat, seafood, and produce that are in season and inspiring me that day.
Build the Heat
To begin, build a fire, contained in a fire ring or a ring of rocks. For the purpose of cooking, I prefer the log cabin stack method to the teepee method as it burns into a more even base of coals for your grate to hover over. Allow the fire to burn, feeding it with more wood as it burns down, until a solid layer of coals forms on the bottom, about 30-45 minutes. These coals are what will generate the heat for your ingredients, not direct flame. In fact, you should avoid allowing your food to come in contact with yellow or orange flame as it will give off a bitter flavor to the food.
Prepare the Grill Grate
Scrub and oil your grill grate well and then place over the coals. The distance from the coals will determine how hot it gets and thus how long your items need to cook through, but I recommend letting it hover six to eight inches above the coals for ideal cooking temperatures.
Bring Backup Bottles for Flare Ups
Keep a bottle of water, or a spray bottle filled with water, near the fire just in case there are any flame flare ups while you’re cooking. You can simply pour the water on the flame to put it out, so that it doesn’t char all of your food or infuse it with bitter flavor. If you want to get really fancy, you could use flavored water to do this, so that it will flavor any food it comes into contact with. I like to use just a standard chicken stock-spiked water bottle (about a 1:2 stock to water ratio) or water infused with garlic and herbs.
Time it Right
When I’m preparing multiple food items over a campfire, as I am here, I always begin with the meat. Because meat has to rest for some time to redistribute its juices, you can cook it first and then wrap it in tin foil while you prepare the rest. See below for timing recommendations on the ingredients grilled here, including beef tri-tip, gulf shrimp, scallops, corn, tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, and green onions.
Sauce it Up
While quality ingredients can stand on their own with just a little bit of fat and a little bit of salt and pepper, I like to have a few sauce options to choose from. Below, I offer recipes for three sauces: a classic chimichurri for the meat, nori (seaweed) butter for the seafood, and a simplified black garlic aioli for the vegetables. Of course, the sauces can be mixed and matched if you prefer to use the black garlic aioli on your meat or the chimichurri on your vegetables! If camping, prepare these in advance and store in small airtight containers.
And Don’t Forget…
- Airtight containers (for storing sauces)
- 1 long pair of sturdy metal tongs
- 1 water bottle or squirt bottle
- 1 quick-read meat thermometer
- 1 good sharp knife for slicing
- 2 bamboo skewers for the shrimp
- 1 roll of tin foil
- Plates for serving and for resting meat and seafood, about 6-8
This post was sponsored by my friends at Whole Foods Market. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you, readers, for supporting the brands that I believe in and that keep C+M thriving.
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- 1 pound of beef tri-tip
- 12 large scallops
- 16 medium-sized shrimp, shelled and deveined (tails can stay on if you like), skewered on 2 bamboo skewers
- 2 ears of corn, cut into 4 pieces
- 1 bunch of vine-on tomatoes
- ½ pound of green beans
- 1 summer squash or zucchini, sliced into ¼-inch strips
- 1 bunch of green onions
- 2 tablespoons ground nori, about 2 sheets
- 1 teaspoon miren
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 8 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons of Chinese hot mustard powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt or ¼ teaspoon of regular or sea salt
- 2 cups of cilantro leaves, chopped
- 1 cup of parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 serrano pepper, chopped roughly
- 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of lime juice
- ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, or ½ teaspoon of regular table salt
- For the black garlic aioli
- 1-2 cloves of black garlic, about 10-12 grams
- ½ cup of mayo
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Rub (or toss) each grilled item with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Tri-tip is unique in that it has varying degrees of thickness throughout so some of the pieces of it will be more rare while others will be more cooked. I like to remove my meat when the thickest part registers an internal cooking temperature of about 135-140 degrees F, cooked on the grill grate for approximately 12-16 minutes, flipping halfway. Remove from the grill grate, wrap very loosely in tin foil and allow to rest while you prepare the rest of the food.
- Seafood is the most delicate of items, so when you’re working with it, you’ll want to keep a close eye. Place the scallops and the shrimp skewers on the grill grate and cook for about 4-6 minutes, flipping halfway. If the scallop or shrimp seems to be sticking to the grate, this means it’s not ready to flip. Allow to cook 1 more minute and then try again. When seafood is cooked, remove from heat, tent on a plate with tin foil and set aside.
- Add the vegetables to the grill grate and cook until turning tender and blistering in some places, about 10-15 minutes, flipping halfway. If some of the thinner vegetables fall through the grate, simply use tongs to fish them from the coals. Sometimes, a little “coal” flavor on a few of the items helps boost the flavor.
- Remove the vegetables from the grill grate and plate, along with the tri-tip, scallops and shrimp. Serve with sauces (see recipes below).
- Pulse nori in a food processor (or spice blender) until it forms thin crumbs, almost like a powder. Mix with miren, soy sauce, butter, mustard powder, and salt. Cover in a bowl with a plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator, ideally overnight and up to 7 days.
- Add cilantro, parsley, pepper, vinegar, and lime juice to a food processor. Pulse until fully blended. Add olive oil, salt and pepper, and blend again. Store in a bowl with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
- Mash the black garlic cloves with the back of a spoon until a paste forms. Stir in mayonnaise and salt. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve, or up to 7 days.