Tips for Creating Your Camp Kitchen
By David Gabel, KEEN Kanteen Head Chef
Camping season gives me a whole new kitchen environment to work in, and I love challenging myself with new recipes and cooking methods (last year it was all about perfecting the cast iron camp pizza).
It's also the time of year when I get a lot of emails and Slack messages from fellow KEENers heading out to campsites with questions about must-have gear and favorite recipes. It can be challenging to figure out how to translate recipes, tips, and tricks from the KEEN Kanteen or home kitchen into a mobile car camping setting. But it doesn't mean you have to grimace through boring boiled bag meals.
Here are a few of my top tips for creating an organized, efficient mobile kitchen:
Start With Good Organization
Staying organized and spending the time to pack properly will be the first key to success. I have several sized Rubbermaid totes I use depending on the amount of people going, meals to be prepared, and duration of the trip. My large tote (40 liter) really never changes contents and stays packed most of the year for a quick exit when needed. Smaller reused cardboard boxes of varying sizes with the tops removed are a big help in vertical organization, as they will break your tote into easily packable and manageable spaces.
Plan It Out
Planning your menu can be fun and exciting. But just as I would never cook a recipe the first time for an event, neither would I try a new meal in the middle of the woods without testing it first.
Plan a meal you know well and can execute while wrangling kids and pets and still be able to enjoy time with your camping friends. It is also imperative to prep your food items ahead of time. I will cut and marinade meat for teriyaki chicken then freeze in bags to inhibit spoiling and make for easy cooking when the sun is going down. The frozen product will be thawing out perfectly for the first night on the road. I also cut and pack all veggies into deli containers for easy cooking come meal time.
Bring Your Flavor
A compact seasoning kit will allow you the freedom to personalize your meals while on the road or in the woods. Some fun items in mine are smoked sea salt, Spanish paprika, onion and garlic powders, as well as crushed chili flakes. Whether you are upcycling plastic to-go cups from your favorite Thai takeout or buying durable plastic bottles (ranging from 1-6 oz size), you will be happy to have some fun seasonings to jazz up breakfast potatoes, and can turn a basic meat and veggie dinner into something special!
My 10 must-haves
Cooking equipment is a big conversation and can really be broken down into a basic 10-item-or-less list that I use not only in the professional and home setting but also for camp cooking. These are not the only items you will need but will give you the map to start your cook kit.
1. 12-inch cast iron pan. This can be used on the fire or camp stove. I love them for their even heating surface, consistency, and they also keep the meal warm off the fire so everyone enjoys a hot meal. It's versatile enough to move from the fire to the stove. This Lodge cast iron pan is affordable and can be found just about anywhere kitchen supplies are sold.
2. 8-inch chef's knife. Buy a simple plastic sheath or make one with cardboard and duct tape to pack and carry safely. This is a great starter knife. I have had one for years.
3. Slotted spatula. These are a favorite in the industry, and I never cook a meal without one nearby.
4. Well-made, sturdy tongs. Nothing plastic, rubber, or with some locking mechanism that may break. You may even end up moving burning wood and coals in your fire pit with these.
5. Heat-proof silicone spatula. Here's one I like.
6. Heavy handled metal spoon (8-10 inches). This will come in handy for cooking as well as serving.
7. Large cutting board. Mine is a thin packable wooden board (16x28 inches) that my buddy made for me. Adding the extra kitchen and prep space with a large board is helpful.
8. Camp stove (and pot or kettle). Whether a single or double burner you will be glad you packed it. In the Pacific Northwest, we are under a fire ban the majority of the year so most meals will be prepared on it, and being able to boil water for coffee and dishes is a plus! (Speaking of that, we also pack a 15-quart dish tub to clean up dishes in.) I just graduated to this 2-burner stove after using a single burner variety from the grocery store for the past 6 years or so.
9. Dish towels! I cannot stress enough how important these are! At home, in the KEEN Kanteen, or in the woods, I will always use a large stack of thick kitchen towels when preparing meals. Moving hot pans, prepping, and cleanup will be a breeze with these packed in your kit. Be sure to bring ones you don’t mind getting dirty, and you will be happy you did.
10. Resealable plastic bags and deli containers. I’m not going to tell a tall tale here about my use of plastic. I use them sparingly and upcycle at every avenue I come to. You can use these items as I do, but be smart about it. I have been packing camping and backpacking supplies into the same box of gallon bags for several years, you will always find them flipped inside out drying on my kitchen counter after being scrubbed clean. Duct tape even holds some of them together and patches cracks in plastic deli containers.
Creating your ideal camp kitchen setup is like a well-honed recipe — one that gets fine-tuned a little bit more every time you get out there. Have fun with it, and please share your camp stories with us at @keen.
David in his element, in the elements.