Cooking on a Camping Holiday
Created | Updated Aug 28, 2009
Many families go camping for their holidays. Out of tradition, out of lack of funds, out of a failure to have booked anything else in time, out of a sense of adventure, or a desire not to be tied to a set itinerary.
For general hints on camping, there is a collaborative entry here: Tips for Camping in the Wild.
All the ideas suggested below are based on the assumption that 'camping' means simply sleeping in a tent, otherwise living and cooking in the open. The tent and other equipment are transported on foot, by bicycle or in a car.
As this is the most primitive of scenarios, all the ideas can be expanded and used for the more luxurious versions of camping, including travelling in a camper, caravan, or with a larger tent.
Furthermore, it is assumed that the campers will stay on an official campsite. Camping in the wild, as thrilling as it may sound, is illegal in many parts, or at least forbidden/frowned upon, and in this Researcher's experience, extremely dangerous - a very close friend lost his life this way.
On a camp site you will have unlimited water available (with a bit of luck!), but open fires will not usually be permitted. (Barbecues are a different matter - check the site's rules and use your common sense!)
Please be careful when cooking with an open gas flame near your tent, or near dry wood or grass.
The fire risk cannot be stressed enough. Please, never cook inside a tent.
Always have a pot holder for hot saucepans handy.
Make sure you know how to turn the gas off and can reach the valve at all times.
For hikers and bikers, the equipment will have to be minimal - you can buy tiny little sets with a saucepan, cup, plate and cooker all packed into a kit the size of a large tin of beans.
For those short on funds, but convinced an open fire will be allowed wherever they are going, various cheaper versions can be bought or made out of bits of sheet metal, stones, and bricks. Don't forget, though, that for an open fire, you will need wood or charcoal, which may be hard to come by in amounts small enough to carry.
Don't forget matches or a lighter, in a plastic bag or waterproof container.
Things that have dual functions are nifty:
Plates that serve as saucepan lids.
Tea cups with markings so that you can measure liquid.
Middle-sized and large saucepans can also serve as salad bowls, fruit bowls and washing up bowls.
Knives that do everything.
Plastic mugs with lids so that you can store or mix things in them.
Saucepans and Frying Pans
Aluminium is light, but very difficult to clean, and doesn't keep the heat. Take at least one of each. But there is no need to buy special 'camping' pans. In fact, the good ones from home are best for camping, too, if you have sandwich-bottomed pans. They are easier to clean and save gas. Only an option for car-driving campers, though.
Cups, Plates, etc.
There is no need to buy special crockery. It is far nicer eating off china than off plastic. So use up old plates this way. The only advantage of the traditional tin plate is that it is lighter and unbreakable. The disadvantage is that you might burn your knees when balancing a plate of hot food on them, and the taste of aluminium is unpleasant in conjunction with some foods - it is said by some to cause Alzheimer's.
Cutlery and Gadgets
At least one good knife which will satisfactorily cut bread, meat, fruit, veg and cheese.
A tin opener.
A corkscrew - one of these should have a bottle opener attached, if not, that might be useful, too.
A wooden spoon.
Knife, fork, spoon and teaspoon for each person.
Washing-up liquid and a dishcloth.
Tea towels - they're not only useful for drying up, but for preventing clattering when you pack your equipment and for keeping food fresh if dampened and wrapped around same (vegetables, especially celery, keep well like this).
Plastic bags. Quite possibly the invention of the century. Look how they managed in the Arthur Ransome books - everything in heavy biscuit tins, and waxed cloth. The Asda carrier bag will keep things dry, keep them wet, keep them separate, keep them together, keep smells in, keep smells out, collect rubbish and hang on hooks while it's doing all that.
A small chopping board (as big a one as possible, really, there is never enough surface for working on).
A grater - these are usually integrated into other things, too - like a serving/storage dish.
A sieve. This serves as a colander, but a colander will not serve as a sieve.
Of course, you may have a Swiss Army Knife which incorporates all these gadgets in one. Make sure you don't lose it.
You do not need:
A whisk - use a fork.
A garlic press - use a knife on a board.
A citrus press - but it's nice to have fresh orange juice if you do take one.
Also useful miscellaneous things - unfortunately only for motorised campers:
Some extra working surface (a carton or plastic crate with a large chopping board on the top).
A hanging basket - for fruit, veg (to keep them off the ground) but also for things you need to be able to find quickly like a torch for nocturnal outings to the loo or matches, string, clothes pegs, etc.
Hooks near the cooker where you can hang up the fish slice, the detachable saucepan handle if you have one.
The Best Way to Eat
Go to a restaurant or pick up a take-away and a bottle of wine. You're on holiday, after all, and you've been saving up all year for this. Why not enjoy it and let people work for you? This way, you also support the local economy, and that is, after all, how tourism works. You can also see how the locals cook their food and learn from this - one of the most rewarding side-effects of travel.
But, as most of the 'fun' of camping is the cooking part, let us turn our attention to preparing food in conditions far worse than the kitchen at home can possibly provide.
The Economics of Cooking Your Own Food
There are two extreme ways of catering for your family on holiday (apart from eating every meal in a restaurant):
Take absolutely everything you are going to need for the whole holiday and pre-cook as much as possible.
Take nothing but salt and tea bags and buy and eat each day what you are going to need.
For families with caravans, the first option is quite realistic, while those travelling by car may find a solution somewhere in-between.
This is a very subjective matter. It is often better for reasons of economy to buy large packets and take a small amount with you, rather than, say, buying the expensive smaller packets (breakfast cereals, butter, spring to mind) as you go along. Here, too, many things serve several purposes. Pack everything in waterproof bags and mark well with a waterproof marker.
In order of importance - bikers and hikers just follow the list until you can't fit any more in:
- Salt, pepper, sugar
- Tea bags, instant coffee
- General purpose cooking and salad oil (sunflower, corn or safflower)
- Stock cubes (better still, in powdered form)
- Fruit for the first day and next breakfast
- Breakfast cereals
- Gravy powder
Flour is a good standby for thickening sauces and stews, and for making pancakes. Pancakes cook far better on gas, so these are a serious option for campers. Roll ham or cheese in them as a main course, or jam, syrup, orange juice or melted butter for breakfast.
If you don't usually like a lot of salt, the stock cubes can be used for everything - pop some in the water when cooking pasta, rice and vegetables, and mix a pinch in with a salad dressing.
Use oil rather than margarine, as this can be used for dressing salads and on pasta, as well as for frying. Butter is very unsuitable for frying, as over gas it will turn black very quickly. And of course, butter is useless for pouring on salads.
The most space-saving breakfast cereal are porridge oats - they don't crumble like corn flakes, they swell up on cooking, and they should bring back Scouting memories. If you'll excuse the reference, porridge oats may also help any digestion problems caused by travel or a change of water.
Oranges are more practical than trying to transport half-full cartons of orange juice. And you can eat them as well as drink them. Perhaps you will need the lemon squeezer after all.
The same applies to lemons. These can be used for salad dressing, and are less risky to carry than a glass vinegar bottle. Depends on your taste, though.
Just take round rice (usually arborio) - that way you can concoct a risotto, or any other rice dish, as well as a rice pudding. The long-grain is not so absorbent and does not make successful rice puddings.
Cartons or tins of strained tomato make for nice thick stews, can be used as a base for sauces, and on their own as a soup (with some evaporated milk or cream, some herbs and seasoning).
The First Meal
Arriving on the first evening and setting up your camp for the first time usually means it is quite late before you can think about preparing a meal. Apart from buying some fish and chips or whatever the local dish may be, it is a good idea to take a frozen one-pot meal that you prepared and froze at home a few days in advance. A turkey stew is a delicious option, including potatoes. Or a pilaf, a nasi goreng or chowder. Anything which is hot and sustaining, as you will probably have got up early for an early start and only had sandwiches on the way.
The advantages of carrying a block of thawing stew are:
It will help keep the rest of your food cool on the journey.
It requires no preparation - straight into the pan and thaw out/heat up while setting up camp.
It minimises washing up.
You don't have to wash and change before digging in.
General Guidelines for Chefs de Cuisine de Tente
When eating in the open, food cools off very quickly. If it is served on tin plates, it cools off even quicker. To counteract this:
Eat cold food - salads, obviously, but cooked foods like patties, sausages, chicken legs, rissoles. These will make you feel as though you have had a square meal, and you don't have to hurry with it.
As mentioned above, use china plates, if you do want hot food.
Cut food up into bite-sized pieces before cooking it. This speeds up eating time, thus reducing cooling time, and cuts down cooking time, also saving gas.
Serve small portions and leave the rest in the cooking pots to keep warm1.
Make sure everyone is ready on time.
Have plates, cutlery and drinks ready to start immediately.
Try and find somewhere shaded from the wind.
Have a cold dessert ready, otherwise the meal will seem hurried and hectic. You can take your time over a blancmange or a fruit salad and a cup of coffee to finish up, to recreate the atmosphere of 'mañana'.
When you're really hungry and want a good meal, you're thinking meat-and-two-veg. You're fed up with stews? No problem.
Rice, pasta and potatoes will cook on their own once brought to the boil. Take them off the gas, wrap them in a blanket and leave them to heat through. Potatoes cut up small, of course.
A frying pan which has had meat frying in it is not easy to wash up. So you don't have to waste time slaving over a hot Brillo Pad later, pour some water or other cooking liquid into the pan immediately after removing the meat, fish, eggs or whatever - you can use this to concoct a sauce.
Even if it goes against your usual cooking philosophy, there are several reasons for resorting to packet foods while camping (eg, packet sauces, complete pasta meals, soups, desserts and anything else where you 'just add water').
You can try some of the local dishes.
There are no half-chopped onions or open packets of individual ingredients left over.
It saves time and gas.
These are often cooked in only one pan or pot.
They usually contain less fat (the most extreme example being the sauce hollandaise: if made properly by hand, takes about half a pound of butter - the packet variety is thickened with cornflour or carob flour and less fatty) which is better for the family to digest if the weather is hot or (heaven forbid!) 'holiday tummy' is looming on the horizon.
For these dishes, don't forget to have some container with liquid measurements marked on it - mililitres are absolutely vital if you are on the Continent. A no-longer-used baby's bottle is perfect, as it has exact markings and packs away neatly.
A good instant mousse will actually work without a mixer if you have one of those plastic beakers with a grid or wheel in it, which you just shake. This is useful for all dishes where you have to mix a powder into a liquid, and is also a way to whip cream (it works - honest!).
It's more relaxing if you stand an ice box with the beer or drinks next to the table while you're eating, so you don't have to keep running about fetching drinks. Ditto for the washing up bowl. Just stand it by the table to collect the crocks.
How to Cook a Five Course Meal for Five on One Gas Ring
Can't be done?
First Course: Soup
For camping simplicity, serve this in mugs.
Boil the water or make up the soup as per instructions on the packet. Keep warm in a Thermos flask until the rest of the grub's up. Calculate 150 - 200ml per mug. If the Thermos does not take the calculated amount, leave the rest of the water in the kettle and the soup a bit thicker. It will still be fairly warm when you top up the mugs with it later on. If you have a whole kettle full near to the boil, you can serve coffee after the meal at the drop of a hat, too.
If the instructions say 'boil for 10 minutes', don't forget that it continues to cook in the Thermos, so you can shorten that time. Jazz up the soup by sprinkling some dried parsley, or some paprika on top when it's in the mug, or dolloping some thick cream or yoghurt on top before serving.
Second Course - Refreshing Salad
A green salad of your choice or other salad vegetables. Wash the lettuce, tomato, radishes, etc, well in advance and leave to drain. Have the bowl with the dressing ready and tip salads in and toss after the soup course. The kids will love drying the salad the traditional French way, whirling it around in a tea towel - just make sure they don't turn it into green mush.
Main Course - Meat & Veg
Or, to give it its proper name: Individual portions of meat or fish with potatoes or rice and vegetables à la boite.
Potatoes or rice boiled as described above - boiled in the bed, so to speak. Fry a steak or some fish, while the carbohydrates are cooking. When the meat or fish have been removed from the pan, drop (the contents of) a tin of peas or some other vegetable in to heat through while you're serving the potatoes/clearing away the salad course. The meat or fish can be left whole, but only if you have a decent knife to cut it up on the plates, or it'll get cold and tough while you're wrestling with it.
The continental thing to do. Eat these out of the wrappings, as you'll be running out of plates! Alternatively, if you are very well organised, or have assistance, arrange a single plate of bite-sized bits. They're guaranteed to all get eaten.
What's for Afters?
Fresh fruit is the easiest dessert - plonk it on the table in a basket, a Frisbee, or whatever matches the decor. A fruit salad is easier to eat, and there's no dishes left. Glasses or paper cups will make it into a Knickerbocker glory without ice cream. Instant whip, anyone?
Experiment with the Local Fare
Even with the simple meal described above, it really is part of the holiday to try local food. Maybe you've found some mysterious vegetable on the local market - try grating it, eating it whole, cooking it, mashing it, serving it with a sauce or just putting it in your stews. You can vary the meat or fish infinitely.
Most places have strange looking local fish. Fish is quick and easy to cook, there's no need to ask how or why - when the knife goes through to the bones, it's done. Try it fried or poached with a slice of lemon - you can't do anything wrong if you don't turn the gas up too high. Make sure you know how to gut a fish, by the way.
Try local cheeses and fruit. You can get bananas at home. Look for the place of origin on the crate or on the price label, to be sure that it really is a local type of apple or peach.
Try local bread and cakes.
The Pressure Cooker
If you are practised at using one of these, you won't want to go camping without it. It saves gas, you can cook lots of things together, and it is easy to clean. If you want to buy one specially, don't try it out at camp. As with all new gadgets (including the tent, cooker, etc) avoid making a fool of yourself or taking any risks by practising at home first. Keep a bowl or bucket of cold water nearby to bring down the pressure.
Collect ice cream containers or use square plastic containers - they are more compact to pack.
Spending the entire day outside makes people hungry - make portions bigger than at home!
For a traditional camp taste, use corned beef for a 'Pot mess'. Baked beans are also a traditional accompaniment for anything.
Try to avoid creating too much washing up. If a large amount has accumulated, get a whole crowd to help and have a sing-song while you're at it.