6 tips to elevate your camping meals

Co-creator of the 'Kitchen Unnecessary' series shared cooking advice on WPR’s ‘Central Time’

A cast iron over flames
Basheer Tome (CC BY 2.0)

To author and photographer Ashley Rodriguez, there’s nothing wrong with roasting hotdogs or potatoes over a fire on a camping trip.

But to elevate the cooking experience, Rodriguez started playing around with more options. She expanded her horizons by thinking of the campsite just as she would her home kitchen.

“Really, you can look at your campfire as you would an oven or a stove,” she said.

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Rodriguez co-created an online video series called “Kitchen Unnecessary,” which explores cooking in the outdoors. In 2019, the series received a James Beard Award nomination for online videos. She recently joined Wisconsin’ Public Radio’s “Central Time” for a Food Friday program on camp cooking. Here are a few tips she shared.

Prep work needed

Rodriguez likes to prepare some of her meals at home, limiting what she has to bring to the campsite. She recommends planning ahead.

If you’re camping with a group, divide up the assignments. Someone brings chopped vegetables. Someone else brings the dressing or sauce.

“What I’m doing is just cooking over the fire and assembling some of the things that we prepped ahead,” she said.


The fire, she said, is wild. It’s uncontrolled. But she likes that.

Rodriguez said the fire forces her to be present, to stay in the process. That’s also what she loves about camping and being outside — it takes you away from an email inbox and shuffles your list of priorities.

“It also connects to us in a way that feels really primal,” she said. “There’s something instinctual about cooking over the fire that I absolutely love.”

It won’t be perfect

Rodriguez said she loves to bake bread over the fire. But more often than not, she will find a large, charred spot.

Mistakes can happen. Adjust expectations. Allow for creativity and pivot from your plans if needed.

She maintained: “There is still nothing better than homemade bread, especially when you’re eating it sitting around a fire.”

What to bring?

Rodriguez has a knife kit packed and ready when she goes camping. She also brings a wooden spoon or spatula, as well as long metal tongs, which help keep hands free from the fire. She likes to use a fireproof glove for safety, too.

She said she brings basic seasonings and pantry items, such as salt, pepper, olive oil and sometimes a fresh lemon.

“I keep it really, really simple,” she said.

‘It’s all about the coals’

Rather than stick food directly in the fire, which could involve too much smoke and flames, Rodriguez relies on coals to cook her food. Fire can char food before it cooks. Coals allow her to have a “nice, elongated heat source for a really long time,” and they help control the cooking temperature, she said.

It’s worth noting that Rodriguez tends to do car camping. She said she’s not backpacking and bringing charcoal and a cast-iron skillet with her.

If the firepit or cooking area is big enough, she likes to have fire in one spot and a bed of coals in a separate cooking section. Or alternatively, two areas of coals offer different temperatures.

“It’s all about the coals,” she said.

What about cleaning?

Well, maybe the cleaning is best left for someone else.

“If you are the campfire cook, then you shouldn’t be doing the dishes,” she said with a laugh. “We’ve got it worked out. So, when we go camping, I’ll do the cooking. But I’m not going to be doing the dishes. I let other people deal with that.”

READ MORE: Rodriguez on the “Kitchen Unnecessary” website lists recipes for ember cooked cheese with rosemary ash; cast iron pizza with mushrooms, speck and arugula; smoked clam carbonara; and roasted pumpkin fondue with chanterelles and chorizo.