We tend to associate campfires with cooking with a Dutch oven, frying in a skillet, grilling or food on a stick, but there are other options, and one of them is steaming. Steaming enabling you to produce some tasty gourmet style dishes when out in the bush.
Something every family seems to crave when out in the bush is desserts. After a few nights without desserts, children particularly start having intense chats about the desserts mom makes and wishing some would descend magically into their laps.
The fun of roasting s’mores wears off after a night or two of that intense sweetness, so while they want a hit of sugar they want something more crafted and homestyle.
This is where steamed cakes, and desserts can make parents the kings and queens of the campfire. But it’s not only desserts that benefit from steaming – fish, chicken pork and vegetables can all be steamed with great success.
Basically, whatever you steam at home, you can do over the campfire. You just need the right equipment, or the ability to plan.
Utensils for Steaming When Camping
Quick disclosure: If you visit a link in this article and then you buy something, I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. You can read my full disclosure here.
You need something to hold the boiling water, a steamer basket, and a well-fitting lid for your container. The lid isn’t absolutely essential, but it just makes steaming more efficient.
You can use your cast iron Dutch oven. Try use a quality one like Lodge.
For the steamer rack a stainless steel one that is 8 inches in size, or you might need a larger 10 inch one if you are using a larger Dutch oven.
A Dutch Oven that comes with folding legs for easy packing is an option for camping.
But, if you are on a camping trip and the urge to steam food suddenly overtakes you, and you don’t have a rack for steaming, you can actually make one on the spot.
Roll up some aluminum foil into 3 balls of the same size, and set the dish you plan on steaming on top – it could be a cake in a cake tin, although cake tins do take a bit longer to cook the food compared to a bamboo steamer.
While you can steam in a Dutch oven it is also good to steam in a wok. The best cast iron woks for camping are pre-seasoned and come with a lid made of either metal or wood.
Be careful about improvising with steaming – soda cans made from aluminum will not do as the plastic-coated interior can melt. Then, galvanised containers such as buckets, can produce toxic fumes when the galvanized metal is heated. Cast iron or stainless steel are best.
Why Steam Food?
There are a number of advantages, not the least of which is the fact that unlike with boiling food, the good nutrients aren’t thrown away with the water it was boiled in.
There’s an old joke about boiled food saying throw away the food and drink the water because that’s where the vitamins and minerals have gone.
With steaming, all those nutrients are retained, yet the gentle heat of steaming cooks it through – the heat can’t go above the boiling point of the water which is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 Celsius). When steamed, food is more flavorful, has a better texture, and retains more of its color.
Steaming is also quite quick – taking around 5 to 10 minutes depending on what you are steaming. It is ideal for delicate flesh like fish.
The bonus with steaming is that you can’t actually burn the food – unless of course you allow the water to run dry in the steamer, but then you’ll burn the pot, not the food.
You also don’t lose some of the food when it gets stuck on a pan, or falls through a grid. Just think – how many pieces of barbequed meat during your lifetime have you watched being throw away when they have fallen into the sand – or even worse into the fire?
For survival purposes you need to make use of every scrap of food you can forage, harvest, or hunt.
Not all food benefits from steaming, so we have provided some links to recipes that work well with this method of cooking. For pork particularly, you need a fatty piece otherwise the lean cuts come out too tough and dry.
Precautions When Steaming
Although the temperature is lower, steam can still be dangerous, so be careful when removing the lid from a steamer, so the escaping steam doesn’t scald you.
Also, be careful when setting up a steamer over a campfire that children are kept well away in case the stand should be bumped and dislodge the pot with its boiling water.
Recipes for Steamed Fish, Seafood, Chicken and Pork
This recipe offers three options – steaming, boiling or broiling crab legs, but steaming retains more of the flavour. Serve with butter, Old Bay seasoning and lemon wedges.
Depending on the state you are in you may be able to get your own crabs, whether snow crabs, blue crabs or Dungeness crabs, and cook them over your campfire. For those not so lucky to be near a crabbing area, take along a pack of frozen crab legs.
This recipe can use many types of fish – a long list is given and will be a great way to use what has been caught on the camping/fishing trip. The fish is given a taste lift with scallions, ginger and cilantro and some soy sauce.
For this recipe you can steam the chicken over the campfire, although the recipe uses a pressure cooker. It will take longer over a campfire, but the taste with the addition of garlic, cilantro, soy sauce and sesame oil will be just as tasty.
Although not particularly colorful, the pork patties are tasty and quick to steam. And when recipes, like this one, call for a Chinese cooking wine, don’t panic, a dry sherry is a great substitute.
Many steaming recipes are of Chinese origin, so when they call for various sauces, like oyster and soy sauce do try them out. I’m hooked on Oyster sauce and use it in a lot of my cooking, even in dishes that are not Asian. The sauces impart a genuine depth of flavor.
This is a great all in one accompaniment to barbequed meat or steamed fish. The tomatoes are stuffed with couscous – a really quick instant mix- that is livened up with raisins, spices, honey and pine nuts.
You can substitute with other nuts, but the basil required in this recipe works perfectly as a complement to the tomatoes.
The chile lime butter makes this mix of steamed vegetables super delicious and as long as the chili is really mild the kids should eat up their vegetables without a fuss, as the butter makes them extra special.
Desserts and Cakes
When you steam a cake, it is best to use a tried and tested recipe for a steamed cake, because the usual oven baked cake or baked dessert recipes consider that you are using a dry heat that goes up to around 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 Celsius).
When steaming, the temperature will be around 212 degrees F (100 Celsius), which is considerably less. Since baking is rather precise, use the correct recipe formulated for the moist heat.
The good thing about a steamed cake is it will retain its moisture – but you have to check it is properly cooked, through. Bring water to the boil before adding your cake tins with the batter.
To save time when camping it is a good idea to divide the cake batter into reusable silicone cupcake holders, then stand them on the grid over the boiling water. They will be cooked through very quickly and you won’t need a very high water level.
On the other hand, when you are cooking a large cake you have to add quite a bit of water and will need to have some extra water in a pot, boiling alongside on the fire, just in case you need to top up.
The idea is to get the cake almost done before you need to open the lid to add more water otherwise the cake batter may not rise properly.
Because steam condenses off the lid you’ll need to cover the cake pan with foil and tie with string to stop water getting in. Using a bamboo steamer is easier as you simply line it with parchment paper and put the lid on before setting it on the grid over boiling water.
This has only three ingredients – milk, sugar and eggs, takes around 17 minutes and is guaranteed to be a hit with toddlers and younger kids when you go camping and they are missing a sweet comfort food.
When it comes to camping over the festive season there is no reason to forego the traditional dishes.
A homemade steamed pudding is so special and you can prepare all the dried fruit in advance, soak it in the brandy, and take along the few dry ingredients to complete the pudding, then steam while enjoying festive drinks around the fire. Either serve cold, or re-heat by steaming on the day you plan on eating it.
This well-known Asian dish is served with a variety of fillings of choice. They are probably easier than doing a campfire baked bread that involves heat from above and below.
All you need is active dry yeast, flour, full cream milk (long life milk is fine) and little sugar and salt and you’re ready to make these – each bun is placed on parchment paper and cooked on a steamer grid over boiling water in a Dutch oven, or on a grid in a wok.
The name doesn’t tell you much about the cake but it is a popular one in Hong Kong and is made with dark brown sugar, oil, evaporated milk and custard powder in addition to the usual cake ingredients of flour, baking powder and eggs. The result is a darker cake with a rich taste.