Whether you volunteered for the job or got appointed, being the cook is one of the most important jobs at hunting camp, so you want to do it right
Hunting is unpredictable. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control the game movement. You can’t control how everyone handles the adrenaline when it comes time to make the shot. But no matter how everything else shakes out, the one thing you can control is the food. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the hunting is, if everyone leaves camp well fed, they will remember it fondly.
A good meal makes a satisfying end to even a bad day.
Whether you volunteered to be chief cook and bottle washer, or you drew the short straw and got appointed, here are a few tips for keeping everyone well fed and happy. It starts with planning well before the hunt. Make a menu and print any recipes you plan to use before you leave; keep them in a folder so you can find them when you need them. Make a supply list from each recipe and stock up before you head to camp.
Next, do as much prep work at home as you can. If time allows, I’ll do as much of my chopping, peeling, and measuring as possible in my home kitchen. Then I’ll vacuum-seal the ingredients and label each package with the contents and intended recipe. This makes it a snap to throw a meal together in a hurry once everyone makes it in from the evening hunt. Here are a few more tips I’ve picked up over the years that will help you master the art of camp cooking.
Put Together a Camp Kitchen
There’s nothing worse than getting to camp and realizing you left half of what you needed back at the house. You can prevent this by assembling a permanent camp kitchen that you can pack to every camp and know that you have all the necessary tools. Mine consists of a few iron skillets, some basic pots and pans, utensils, tools, and seasonings. It changes over the years as new things come along, but the basics stay pretty constant. For a more detailed look at my kit from a few years ago, read “The Timber2Table Camp Kitchen Kit.”
Plan Your Day Around the Food
Yeah, you’re in camp to hunt, but whenever possible, plan your schedule around the food. I’ll often head out late or come in early to make sure meals are ready for everyone else when they return. With the pre-dawn wake-up calls for most hunts, no one wants to stay up till midnight waiting on dinner to be ready. If kitchen duties start to cramp your hunting style, delegate some of the responsibility and share it with other camp members so that everyone takes a turn prepping the food while others hunt.
Plan meals that will work around an uncertain hunting schedule.
Celebrate the Kill
It’s a tradition around our camps to share the first harvest of the camp with everyone there. For deer or elk, grilled backstrap or tenderloin is a great choice. So is fried liver or heart and onions. For waterfowl camps, bacon-wrapped poppers are always a hit. It doesn’t really matter what you cook. Just sharing it in camp with your fellow hunters makes it special.
Celebrate the first harvest of camp with a special meal.
Master the Griddle Like a Hibachi Chef
Propane griddles like those from Blackstone and Camp Chef have changed the way I go about preparing a camp meal. There is nothing handier than cooking up a big meal all at once on the griddle. And you don’t need electricity to use them. Breakfast? Yep, bacon, eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast — do it all on the griddle at the same time.
A griddle is the perfect way to make breakfast for a crowd in a short amount of time.
Toss on some burgers and onions for a quick and easy lunch. Or do cheesesteak sandwiches and cook the peppers, onions, and mushrooms right alongside the meat. You can even sear a danged fine steak on a griddle. Once you’re done cooking, simply scrape and wipe down the surface and you are good to go. No stacks of dirty pots, pans, and skillets to clean.
A propane griddle is the perfect way to cook for a crowd with minimal mess.
Become a Grill Master
Charcoal, pellet, and gas grills are extremely handy for a camp kitchen. Like the griddle, you can cook nearly an entire meal on one and not dirty up a ton of dishes (see the theme here?).
Like propane griddles, a grill is the perfect way to make a meal without a ton of dishes to wash once you are done.
I particularly enjoy the versatility of my pellet grills, since I can put a big cut of meat like a pork butt or a few whole chickens on while we are in camp, then head out for an evening hunt and come back to a ready-to-eat meal. Don’t have electricity at your camp? Most modern pellet grills will easily run for hours off of a small generator or portable power station. Most grill companies now offer a small, packable model that is easy to tote to camp without taking up your entire truck bed.
Modern pellet grills will even run off a small generator or power station.
Channel Your Inner Oregon Trail and Break Out the Dutch Oven
Back in the day when folks on this continent were still exploring vast areas of unknown lands, a good Dutch oven was one of the most important pieces of gear they had. There isn’t much you can’t do with one. Cook soups and stews over an open fire, bake biscuits or other bread with the precision of a modern oven, fry up the backstrap from the deer you killed that morning, or even make a fruit cobbler with those berries you foraged earlier in the day.
From soups and stews to biscuits and dessert, a Dutch oven is the camp cook’s best friend.
Practice using your Dutch oven at home. Learn how many coals you need below and on top to maintain a good baking temperature. Figure out how close to the fire it needs to be to boil and simmer or heat oil to fry. Once you get it figured out, the list of foods you can’t make in one is pretty short. If you don’t enjoy cleaning your Dutch oven after use, there are liners and other methods that will let you enjoy fabulous Dutch oven meals without the cleanup.
If All Else Fails, Make a Fire
Mankind has been cooking over an open fire since we called caves home and spent our days hunting with a pointy stick and gathering nuts and mushrooms for sustinence. It still works. Pack along a large grate in your camp kitchen that you can position over your fire. Support it with rocks so that it suspends above the flames.
An open fire has been a viable option for camp cooks for as long as camp cooking has been around.
Here’s a tip for campfire cooking. Build a two-stage fire. Have a bigger fire to one side for building a nice bed of coals, then rake those coals under your cooking grate with a stick or a camp shovel. Temperatures are much easier to control over coals than open flames.
Do Something Special
If you hunt a fixed camp and have the time and capability, a special meal to start or end camp will make a lasting impression. What are good special meals for hunting camp? A pig roast fits the bill if you have a large enough smoker and enough time.
If time and smoker space allows, it’s hard to beat a pig roast for feeding a crowd.
Smaller scale but still a great meal is a fish fry or seafood boil. I’m a big fan of disposable aluminum pans for serving any of these. You know, the fewer dirty dishes, the better and all that.
A fish fry or a crawfish or seafood boil makes a meal that camp members will remember fondly for years.
Don’t Forget Dessert
I don’t know about yours, but for our crew, hunting camp is a special occasion. And nothing says special like a nice dessert before turning in for the night.
Fruit cobblers are easy to cook in a Dutch oven or on the grill.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, but a cake baked in a Dutch oven, a fruit cobbler made on the grill, or even caramel apples cooked in foil packs on the campfire coals is the perfect end to an evening meal and will leave everyone with a smile at the end of the day.
Caramel apple packets wrapped in foil and cooked on the coals are an easy dessert everyone will love.
Remember the Camp Cook Golden Rule
What’s the Camp Cook Golden Rule, you might ask? It’s pretty simple. The first person to complain about the cooking or the food automatically inherits the job for the duration of camp. Golden rule addendum? If someone else cooks the meal, especially if they missed out on hunting time to do it, then pitch in with the cleanup and the dirty dishes after everyone has finished eating.
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