Forgetting a flashlight? Check. No matches? Yup. Making six trips to the store after repeatedly overlooking key items? Again, guilty. We’ve learned from previous camping mistakes. But there’s a great resource: Robin Donovan, and her book Campfire Cuisine: Gourmet Recipes for the Great Outdoors. Donovan has tons of wisdom on how to pack a cooler, prepare food safely, and cook over a campfire.
Pack Your Cooler the Right Way
Follow these tips to keep your food cool and safe.
• Buy an appliance thermometer and use it to be sure your cooler stays at 40°F or below (frozen foods you want to keep frozen should be stored at 0°F or below).
• Prechill your cooler by filling it with ice 30 minutes before adding food.
• Prechill all foods and beverages before adding to the cooler.
• Prefreeze meat, poultry, seafood, fruit, and noncarbonated beverages—already frozen, they’ll help your cooler stay cold longer.
• Bags of frozen vegetables (such as corn and peas) do double duty as ice packs, helping to keep the cooler cold until you’re ready to defrost or cook them.
• Block ice will last longer than ice cubes or ice chunks. Make your own block ice by freezing water-filled 1-gallon or 1/2-gallon resealable freezer bags. (Use the type of freezer bags that stand up on their own for easy filling.) To minimize leakage as the ice melts, double-bag the ice blocks.
• Pack the food you will use first on top, and try to group the food by meal to avoid unnecessary opening and rearranging of the cooler.
• Keep nonperishable beverages in one cooler, perishable food and beverages in another.
• Keep the coolers well stocked with ice and open them as little as possible.
• Keep the coolers in a shady spot or in the coolest part of your car.
• If you’re planning a long trip, use two coolers. Fill one cooler with what you need for the first half of the trip. (Be sure to plan your meals so that the most perishable items appear on the menu in the first half of the trip.) Place the food you won’t need until the second half of the trip in the second cooler, pack it with ice, and seal it with duct tape. Don’t open it until it’s time to start using that food.
Preparing Food Safely
• Always wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap before and after handling food.
• Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood away from other food.
• Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood in the cooler until ready to cook.
• Always thaw frozen meat, poultry, or seafood thoroughly before cooking, to ensure that it cooks evenly.
• Frozen foods should be thawed in a cooler at 40°F or below. Be sure thawing meat, poultry, or seafood is well wrapped to avoid dripping juices onto other food.
• To thaw food more quickly, place it in a sealed, leak-proof plastic bag and submerge the bag in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the food is completely thawed. Cook immediately.
• Never use the same dishes or utensils for both raw and cooked meat, poultry, or seafood.
• After cutting raw meat, wash your hands and the cutting board, knife, and work surfaces with hot, soapy water.
• Always keep marinating meat in a cooler with a temperature of 40°F or below.
• If you’re unsure how to tell when meat is fully cooked, use a meat thermometer. Place it into the thickest part of the meat to test for proper temperature:
• Ground meat (beef, veal, lamb, and pork) should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F.
• Ground poultry should be cooked to 165°F.
• Beef, veal, and lamb (steaks, chops, or roasts) should be cooked to 145°F.
• Pork (chops or roasts) should be cooked to 160°F.
• Dark poultry meat should be cooked to 180°F. Breast meat should be cooked to 170°F.
• Note: These are the temperatures recommended by the USDA.
Creating Distinct “Cooking Zones”
Once your coals are ready for cooking, you can create “cooking zones” by varying the depth of coals in different areas under the grill. The closer the coals are to the grill, the higher the heat will be in that area. By creating different temperature zones, you can simultaneously cook foods requiring different heat levels.
Create three distinct cooking zones by dividing the grilling area into three sections. For high heat, layer the briquettes under one section so they are just 4 to 6 inches from the grill rack. For medium heat, pile the briquettes under the second section so there are 8 to 10 inches of space between them and the grill. For low heat, in the third section spread the coals so there is a 12-inch space between the coals and the grill.
Wrap It Up: Cooking in Foil
Cooking foil-wrapped food over hot coals is a convenient way to create dishes with multiple ingredients and complex flavors. The important things to remember are to use a heavy-duty foil (to avoid breakage) and to leave room inside the foil (to allow heat and steam to circulate). You are essentially creating a minioven in which to bake your food.
Cooking in foil is an ideal preparation method for fish too delicate to keep from flaking apart on a grill rack or for dishes in which you want to retain the sauce and juices as they cook.
Foil can also be used to protect food you wish to cook directly in the coals, like our Boozy Campfire Cheese. Whole potatoes and yams wrapped in foil, for example, can be baked in the glowing coals (this is one instance where you don’t need to leave room inside the packet). Cook the yams or potatoes about 45 minutes, or until they are easily punctured with a skewer.
Use fairly large squares of foil—about 12 inches by 12 inches. This will allow enough room for the heat and steam to circulate inside the foil packet.
To prevent food sticking to the foil, always coat it with oil or butter before adding the food. I prefer to use olive oil spray for most dishes, as it contributes flavor as well as nonstick qualities, but any nonstick cooking oil spray will do. Alternatively, use a paper towel to rub 1/2 teaspoon or so of olive oil, vegetable oil, or butter on the foil.
A few additional advantages to cooking in foil are that packets can be made up ahead of time and stored in a cooler until ready to cook, leftovers can be kept in their cooking packets for storage, and cleanup couldn’t be easier.