Whether you’re blistering hot dogs on a stationary grill at a state park or placing skewers of oil-slicked vegetables over embers in the middle of nowhere, eating in the woods is hard to beat. Something about the experience — the primal sense of cooking over flames, or simply the calm that comes with being in a secluded spot — makes everything taste better.
Now, let’s be honest: cooking at a campsite requires patience. Equipment is limited, you have to do a lot more prep, and you can’t Seamless a pizza if dinner ends up scorched. But honestly, the higher stakes are part of the fun. And when you nail it? It’s a great feeling.
If you’re looking to level up your outdoor cooking game, we asked a variety of chefs to tell us their favorite meal to make at a campsite. From tangy, fork-tender ribs and a fire-roasted salsa to spicy beef skewers and peach cobbler, here are their suggestions for a truly exceptional meal in the woods.
Now, Before We Begin…
Each of the recipes below can be made on a gas grill, charcoal grill, or foldable grate positioned over a fire. None require more than 30 minutes of cooking time at your campsite. Most do, however, require varying degrees of at-home prep: marinating, slicing, spice-mixing, cooler-packing. This is for efficiency’s sake (the more you do before you leave, the less you must do to get a meal going at your campsite) but also flavor (your taste buds will thank you when a marinade has time to do its thing).
As far as tools are concerned, each of the recipes below are, relatively speaking, light on campsite accessories (again, at-home prep helps). You will, however, need to bring the following with your other gear.
- A cast-iron pan.
- A foldable campfire grill (if you’re cooking over flames).
- Heat-resistant barbecue gloves.
- A cutting board or other prep surface.
- A good knife.
- A basting brush.
- A few stainless steel or other such food-safe bowls.
- Reusable plates, cups, and utensils.
OK, on to the recipes…
1. Main Course: Brad Leone’s Sous Vide Mountain Ribs
Brad Leone isn’t a big fan of s’mores. If you’re one of the millions who’ve watched the “It’s Alive With Brad” star known for his New Jersian pronunciations, fermented recipes, and jocular, everyman appeal, this is somewhat surprising. The classic campfire treat just feels like a Brad Leone thing. But nope. Not really his style.
“I like the flavor profile, but I don’t love them,” he says.
Leone’s two boys, 4 and 6, however, love s’mores. And he’s not going to ruin that childhood experience when they’re near a campfire. “I’ll do the whole thing — toast the graham cracker slightly, get that golden toasted marshmallow, warm up the chocolate, and all that,” he says. “But I don’t enjoy them as other people do.”
Fair enough. Leone does, however, love being outdoors. He grew up around nature and is an avid fisherman, paddler, hunter, and forager. His cookbook, Field Notes for Food Adventure: Recipes and Stories From the Woods to the Ocean, is a distillation of that. It’s a seasonally focused guide — part travelogue, part cookbook — centered around a year of adventuring in the Northeast. Leone’s dad, an avid hunter and fisherman, passed down an appreciation of the outdoors to him and he now enjoys passing the same joy to his sons. They often go camping, hiking, and fishing (“They’re a bit too young for anything serious,” he says, “but we have a lot of fun.”).
Meals, of course, are a big part of the experience. One of Leone’s favorite recipes to prepare for outdoor trips with friends and family is these ribs. They’re cooked sous vide beforehand — that is, vacuum-sealed with a marinade and cooked low-and-slow in a temperature-controlled water bath. Then, all you need to do is pack the sealed, fully cooked ribs in your cooler and throw them on the grill when it’s time for dinner. “Sous vide is a great way to cook food for eating on a hike in the woods,” Leone writes in Field Notes. “You do the hard work ahead of time at home, where life is easy, and finish the perfectly cooked ribs on a fire in the woods.”
The recipe below is excerpted with permission from Field Notes For Food Adventure by Brad Leone. Copyright © 2021 by Brad Leone.
- 1 rack pork ribs, any style, cut in half
- ¼ cup fermented black bean sauce
- ¼ cup sesame oil
- 3 Tbsps. Soy sauce
- 2 Tbsps. Honey
- 3 garlic cloves, grated
- 1 scallions, sliced
- 1 Fresno chile, crushed
- 2 tsps. Pepper mix*
- 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
Throw all the ingredients in a vacuum bag and vacuum-seal it closed. Preheat a sous vide cooker to keep your water bath at 165 degrees F. Place the bag in the water and cook for four hours. The ribs will be perfectly cooked and ready to blast on the grill.
Once the ribs have cooked in the vac bag, they can stay in the fridge for at least a week. When ready to eat the ribs, remove them from the bag and place on a hot grill or over a fire until they’re hot and charred, about 15 minutes. Save the sauce from the bag, which will be nice and fatty and sweet. Brush this over the ribs while they reheat and char.
*equal parts ground pink and black peppercorns
2. Side Dish: Felipe Donnelly’s Fire-Charred Tomatillo Salsa
When Felipe Donnelly, partner and executive chef of the restaurants Disco Tacos, Colonia Verde, and Comodo, heads into the woods, he asks himself a question we should all ask ourselves: What is the most I can do with the least amount to carry? The answer leads him to think about simplicity. “Simple menus, simple preparation, simple food with tons of flavor,” he says. This salsa is an embodiment of that, a recipe that’s low on effort but high on reward. Whole tomatillos and onion are set beside a fire until soft and charred (you can also grill them for a similar effect) then chopped, spritzed with lime, and sprinkled with cilantro. “The result is a super delicious side that goes with anything,” he says, adding that it’s particularly great on hot dogs.
- 5 tomatillos (mediums sized)
- 1 yellow onion
- Juice of two limes
- 1 bunch of cilantro
- Serrano peppers (optional)
Place the onion (skin on) and the tomatillos next to a roaring fire directly in the pit or grill.
Cook the tomatillos (and serranos if you’re using) rotating them with tongs regularly to get a good char. They’ll be ready in about five minutes, depending on the heat. Once they begin to blister, it’s time to pull them out.
Let the onion cook for about 20-25 minutes, rotating every eight minutes. The skin will be completely charred. Remove the onion from the fire and stick a knife into it. If the blade goes straight through with little resistance, then it’s ready. The result should be a soft caramelized onion.
Chop the onion and tomatillos into a bowl. Add the lime juice and cilantro and enjoy.
3. Main Course: Chef Richard Sandoval’s Beef & Corn Anticucho With Aji Amarillo Sauce
Meat on a stick is made for the outdoors. It cooks quickly, is quite forgiving, and comes with its own built-in utensil. Anticucho is a popular Peruvian street kebab that, per chef Richard Sandoval, makes for an excellent campsite supper. The acclaimed restauranteur behind the pan-Latin restaurant Toro in Denver marinates beef sirloin in a traditional sweet, spicy mixture featuring red ají panca (you can sub ground ancho chile if you can’t find it) before threading it on a skewer with chunks of corn on the cob, and roasting them over a fire. “Thick and spicy, this is not your average marinade,” says Sandoval. “And you’ll be glad you made it.”
Marinate the meat beforehand — and prepare the salsa if you’re making it — and place it in a cooler so all you need to do at your campsite is thread the skewers and hit the grill (Sandoval says inexpensive metal grilling skewers work best for holding the beef and corn). If you’re cooking over a campfire using a grill grate, Sandoval says to let the skewers cook for about three to five minutes, then flip them over using tongs or gloves and cook them for another three to five minutes. “To test to see if the meat is done, pull a piece off of one of the skewers and cut it open slightly,” he says. “If it’s not ready yet, simply slide it back onto the skewer and cook it until it is.”
For the Marinade & Beef:
- 1/2 cup aji panca paste
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. sriracha
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 2 lbs. beef sirloin (trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks)
For the Aji Amarillo Salsa:
- 1 medium yellow bell pepper (cut into two-inch chunks)
- 1 tsp. canola oil
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 Tbsp. aji amarillo or aji panca paste
- 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice kosher salt
- 3 ears of corn (husked and cut crosswise into 4 chunks each)
- 4 long metal grilling skewers
Make the marinade: Puree the aji panca, oil, soy sauce, vinegar, sriracha, garlic, oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper together in a blender. Transfer the marinade to a 1-gallon zip-top plastic bag. Add the beef. Seal the bag and refrigerate it, turning the bag occasionally for at least two hours (and up to 16 hours).
Make the aji salsa: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Toss the yellow pepper with the oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake it, stirring occasionally, until the pepper chunks are very tender but not browned, about 25 minutes. Let them cool completely. Puree the yellow peppers, mayonnaise, aji amarillo paste, and lime juice together in a blender. Season the salsa to taste with salt. (The salsa can be covered and refrigerated for up to three days.)
Prepare an outdoor grill for direct cooking over high heat. For a charcoal grill, let the coals burn until they are covered with white ash and you can hold your hand about 1 inch above the coals for one to two seconds. For a gas grill, preheat it on high and adjust the heat to 550° F. (See instructions above for campfire cooking.)
Remove the beef from the marinade and shake off the excess. Thread four chunks of beef and three chunks of corn onto each skewer. (Skewer each corn chunk through its center, like a bull’s eye.) Brush the grill grates clean. Cook the skewers, turning them once or twice, until the beef is browned, eight to 10 minutes for medium-rare.
4. Dessert: Chef Ryan Schmidtberger’s Sautéed Peach and Berry “Cobbler”
This recipe is courtesy of Ryan Schmidtberger, executive chef and partner of Hancock St., an American-style neighborhood bistro in New York City’s West Village. In the summers, Schmidtberger takes his family on camping trips in upstate New York so his city kids can get a taste of the outdoors. “It gives them a chance to see the stars, turn over rocks, and find roly-polies and bugs they never get to see in the city,” he says. “Our last trip we had three wild turkeys show up each morning in our cabin yard. The girls loved seeing them and gave them names.”
When at a campsite, Schmidtberger keeps things low-key (“We usually do a protein and summer vegetables,” he says). But that doesn’t have to mean boring, as this easy dessert of candied fruit and shaken whipped cream proves. It’s simple to prep (only the cream requires refrigeration, and only the sugar mixture really needs to be assembled before you leave), comes together quickly, and can be made on a grill or in a campfire. It tastes incredible — sweet, smoky, and crunchy — and has the bonus of providing kids the occupying task of shaking up the cream in a mason jar while everything else comes together.
- 4 ripe peaches, pitted, sliced
- 1 cup blueberries or raspberries
- 4 Tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ginger powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 cup muesli or favorite granola
- 1 cup heavy cream, stored in a pint-sized mason jar in ice chest or refrigerator
Mix sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a snack pack-size bag. Remove pits from peaches and slice into half-inch-thick pieces. Place in freezer zip-top bag and remove any excess air to reduce oxidation. Measure 1 cup of heavy cream into a leakproof pint-size mason jar
Place cast-iron skillet on top of a hot grill or directly on coals of fire for 10-15 minutes.
Start shaking the jar of heavy cream. (This is one of those tasks you can pass around the campfire for everyone to help out. You want to shake until you make whipped cream.)
Carefully add sugar mix directly to the hot skillet. The sugar will start to caramelize quickly.
Once the sugar starts to turn to liquid, carefully add the peaches. Try not to move them around too much initially, as the caramel starts to quickly cook them. The peaches will release a lot of liquid, which will help cook them.
Stir after a couple of minutes and make sure the peaches are coated evenly.
Add berries last and cook for one more minute, making sure not to smash them.
Remove fruit from pan. Top with Museli or granola and serve in paper cups or coffee mugs.
Serve with fresh whipped cream.
5. A Cocktail: The Colorado Campfire
Ideal for s’mores, a toasted marshmallow also makes an excellent accompaniment to a fireside cocktail. This one, a gin-based drink created by the crew of Deviation Distilling in Colorado, uses it as a char-adding garnish. “We dreamed up this cocktail during COVID when the great outdoors was one of the only places that was ‘open,’” says Cindi Wiley, the co-owner of Deviation. Batch the drink ahead of time, pour it into a glass, and top with a freshly charred marshmallow when you’re relaxing by the fire and the kids are enjoying s’mores.
Combine all ingredients over ice. Stir with a spoon until chilled. Serve over ice in a rocks glass. Top drink with a toasted marshmallow.