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Quick & Delicious: Three Ways to Cook Fish Over a Campfire

Camping Fishing
on
May 7, 2021

Camping alongside a fish-filled river or lake provides you with the chance to catch your meal straight out of the water. There’s nothing better than the satisfaction of catching your own dinner and cooking it over a well-built campfire. If you’ve ever tasted freshly caught fish cooked directly at the campsite, you know that the taste is unmatched. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

When it comes to serving up your day’s catch, you can cook fresh fish over an open fire in several delicious and simple ways. From placing it straight on the embers to frying in a cast-iron pan, there’s no shortage of ways to turn a successful day out on the water into a campfire meal. Below are 3 different methods you can use to cook fresh fish over a campfire.

Using A Pan To Cook Fish Over Campfire

One of the most popular ways to cook fish over a campfire is to pan-fry. Enjoying a good, old-fashioned fish fry anywhere is so satisfying, but doing it out in nature, over a campfire, and with fresh-caught fish is the ultimate pleasure. Just remember, you can’t turn down the flame , so controlling the heat is important in order to keep your fillets from burning. Small, low fires or fresh hot embers work best for pan-frying.

fish on black frying pan over campfire
It’s easier if you cut fish into fillets, but this works as well – Alaska, USA. Photo by John Salzarulo.

Freshwater fish like walleye, pike, trout, and panfish are top choices for this method. When you pan-fry your fish over a campfire, there are other items you need to have on hand. 

Items Needed to Cook Fish With a Pan

Cast-Iron Skillet

A cast-iron skillet creates an even cooking surface and eliminates hot spots when cooking over an open fire.

Cooking Oil

Not all cooking oils are ideal for frying fish in a pan. Safflower, peanut, and corn oil are some of the best options because they heat quickly and fry evenly. Olive oil is also a good choice if you want to keep things a little healthier. 

Breading/Batter

Some fish are very mild in flavor, and seasoned breading can amp up the flavor. Seasoned cracker crumbs, bread crumbs, cornmeal, and flour are good options.

Making a beer batter is one of the most popular techniques when it comes to pan-frying fish. Combine commercial mixes with a 12-ounce can of beer to create a pancake-batter consistency. Other wet batter options include buttermilk or a raw egg and milk combination.

Other Supplies

Don’t forget a cooking grate, containers for breading/batter, spatula, and a set of tongs. Check out the Camping checklist for a complete list of camping necessities!

black round bowl on campfire
Simple fish fillet cooking in a pan in Frøya, Norway. Photo by Hasse Lossius.

Steps To Take When Cooking Fish With A Pan

  1. Gut, skin, and clean fish, and cut into fillets.
  2. Blot-dry the fillets with paper towels to help breading stick.
  3. If using a wet batter, place in a container such as an aluminum or disposable pan or pie plate.
  4. Place seasoned breading in another container or ziplock bag.
  5. Dip fillets into the batter and seasoned breading until well-coated on both sides.
  6. Prepare the cooking surface by adding about an inch of oil to the pan and letting heat up for about one minute.
  7. Add fillets to the hot oil and fry for about 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
  8. When meat inside is shiny white and readily flakes, the pan-fried fish is ready.
  9. After removing the fillets from the pan, set on a plate covered with a paper towel. This will help soak up any extra grease.

When using a pan to cook fish over a campfire, you don’t necessarily need to use breading or batter. Simply flavor the fresh fillets with your favorite seasonings, and add directly to the pan. To impart even more flavor, try adding a little butter with the oil. 

Campfire Fish & Chips

Pan-fried fish makes for the perfect “fish and chips” campout meal. Try slicing and seasoning a few potatoes, onions and peppers, wrapping in tin foil, and setting the foil packet on the cooking grate prior to starting your fish fry. Campfire potatoes are an amazing addition to breaded, battered, and pan-fried fresh fish.

If you’re going for a multi-day trip, check out our camping food guide with an example of a 4-day camping trip menu.

Using a Stick to Cook Fish Over Campfire

One of the most primitive ways to cook whole, fresh fish over a campfire is the fish-on-a-stick method. It takes the least amount of prep work and even fewer supplies. Prepare the fish by gutting and cleaning it, but leave the skin on to protect the meat. 

skewered fish cooking over campfire
Mackerels on wooden sticks tied with string so the meat holds while cooking. Photo by Denis Agati.

With your cleaned and gutted catch, slide a long, sturdy, sharpened stick through the mouth and poke it through the flesh at the rear of the rib cage. You may need to take two or more smaller sticks or skewers and jab them sideways through the upper and lower portions of the belly to stabilize the fish.

Hot Embers, No Flames

The most important thing to remember when using a stick to cook fish over a campfire is that there shouldn’t be any fire at all! The most effective way to cook the fish to smoky deliciousness is to wait until the fire has died down and hot embers are left burning in the fire pit. While holding onto the stick, place the whole fish over the embers and turn often as it cooks. In no time, you’ll enjoy flaky, cooked fresh fish-on-a-stick.

Using Tin Foil to Cook Fish Over a Campfire

Just like with cooking fish over a campfire with a stick, start with the whole (remove the head if you prefer) fish with the skin still intact. Cook over a low flame or campfire that has died down to burning embers. When you use a sealed foil pouch, it creates moist flaky fish that’s full of flavor, especially when you add a few extras inside the pouch.

beans and fish in tin foil cooking on grill
Fish cooking in tin foil. Notice that the campfire has died down. Photo by Virginia State Parks.

Steps to Take When Cooking Fish Over a Campfire With Tin Foil

  1. Gut, de-scale, and clean your fish.
  2. Grab enough tin foil to liberally cover (create a sealed pouch) the entire fish.
  3. Rub the fish with oil or butter to keep it from sticking to the foil.
  4. Place the fish in the center of the foil.
  5. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper or your favorite seasoning blend.
  6. Get creative! Add lemon slices, diced onion, garlic, a splash of beer or white wine, or a few more pats of butter.
  7. Seal up the foil pouch, making sure it’s sealed tightly.
  8. Place the pouch directly over the hot embers or on top of a cooking grate, flipping and turning a few times.
  9. Your nose should tell you when it’s done, but it may take about 10-15 minutes to cook. Fish is cooked completely when it easily flakes apart and is no longer translucent.

Enjoying Fresh Fish in the Fresh Air

If you love to fish, there’s nothing better than spending a day out on the water catching your own dinner and enjoying that fresh-caught fish after it’s been cooked over an open flame. Whichever method you choose, your fish will cook up flaky, tasty, and full of flavor. If you can’t decide which to try, don’t worry, there’s plenty of fish in the sea (or lake or river)! Grab a pole, start a campfire and get cooking.

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