Better Camp Eats & Drinks: 2 Essential Spice Rubs for Camp Cooking

This article is a part of The Growler’s Outdoor Guide. Find more tips for outdoor adventure and dining here

Everything tastes better in the wilderness, but that’s no excuse to eat bland food out of plastic bags. One of the most versatile (and lightweight) weapons in a camp cook’s arsenal is the spice blend. The right mix of dried herbs and spices, when rubbed or sprinkled onto steak, pork, fish, or vegetables (and much more) can help add a deep, flavorful bark to fire-cooked foods. If you’re using some kind of an oil- or yogurt-based marinade, a healthy blast of blended spices can put your protein on good footing to receive the blast of a campfire cooking environment and give you great flavor in return.

Spice rubs can go in many different directions. Some solid, versatile choices include Chinese-inflected blends with ingredients such as Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, cinnamon, and clove; Indian-inspired mixes that lean on coriander, cumin, and garam masala; or good old ras al hanout, a git ’er done mainstay of Middle Eastern cuisine. You’ll find through experience that while different blends work better with different foods, nearly any classic, balanced blend will improve just about anything. Sometimes that improvement will be subtle, sometimes it will be dramatic, but it’s nearly always enough to make a difference around the campfire. 

My own go-to is great when slathered on a mustard-rubbed pork shoulder sitting in a backyard smoker, but I’ve taken it on the trail and thrown it at taco filling, beans and rice, fish fillets, and more. It leans heavily on paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder for its kick, so use it with a gentle hand or prepare to have it dominate the conversation. (Sometimes the latter isn’t a bad thing.)

Compared to chef and Growler columnist J.D. Fratzke, I’m a novice in the kitchen and on the trail, so I also pinged him for his go-to rub and got his recipe for Campfire Adobo in response. He writes: “This is a pretty robust all-purpose spice mix that I shove in plastic vials for camping trips. It works just as well on the walleye that were landed an hour before as it does on the burger patties thawing in the cooler.”

He adds: “I’ve used it as an all-purpose meatball seasoning, added it to vinaigrettes, and whisked it into room temperature butter, later slathering it on resting steaks. And try it with fresh lemon juice on grilled oysters and load up on the Blanc du Blanc [Champagne]!”

Regardless of what blend you pack for the trail, pack it in something durable (not glass) and tightly sealed to avoid spillage, breakage, and water.  

Illustration by Rebecca Cahill

Old Smokey

1½ cups paprika
1 cup fresh ground pepper
¾ cup kosher salt
¼ cup cumin
5 tablespoons garlic powder
5 tablespoons onion powder 
3 tablespoons chipotle powder
3 tablespoons dried oregano 
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk together until well-incorporated.

Campfire Adobo

Via J.D. Fratzke

2 cups kosher salt
4 tablespoons lemon pepper
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons onion powder
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper (or 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground sweet paprika

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk together until well-incorporated.