Summertime finds many of us grilling in the backyard or roasting s’mores around a campfire. Ashley Rodriguez, though, as producer of the James Beard Award-nominated video series “Kitchen Unnecessary,” is passionate about getting people cooking outside over a fire year-round.
“I believe that the more time people spend outside, the more they’ll realize we do need to take care of this land,” she says. “Get outside, cook over a fire, get back to our roots, and enjoy this incredible bounty.”
One necessary tool for adventures in dining alfresco is a good cooler. Seattle-based Rodriguez values durability and portability in a cooler: “There’s so much gear, depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing.”
Cliff Jacobson, a professional canoe guide and author of outdoors books out of River Falls, Wisconsin, advises thinking about how long the food will need to be cold. Better thermal efficiency comes with trade-offs: The more insulation, the longer it stays cold, but the bulkier the cooler will be. Before packing any cooler, take it inside to dial down its temperature. Make sure all the airspace is filled once the food is in, using insulated material like bubble wrap if necessary, Jacobson says. No matter how well-made the cooler is, sometimes parts break. If you’re at the campsite and the latches fail, set something heavy on the lid and contact the manufacturer when you get home.
Jacobson has a collection of coolers for his outdoor adventures; as an Eagle Scout, he likes to be ready for anything. (Of course he hardly ever brings a cooler on extended wilderness canoe trips — there’s nowhere to replenish the ice.) For a long camping stay with a lot of food, or a fishing trip where the catch needs to be hauled, he recommends Rubbermaid’s Gott Marine Cooler ($180 for 102-quart cooler, amazon.com). “I like Gotts a lot. They have stood the test of time,” he says.
In 2015, Becky Finn moved her store Picnic Fashion from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to West Palm Beach, Florida. She immediately found that it was harder to keep food cool outside in the lower latitude. For a picnic, she trusts the 18.5-by-10.5-by-11.5-inch Collapsible Picnic Tote ($58, shoptiques.com). “The cooler collapses for easy storage and is completely insulated and guaranteed leakproof,” she says. “It has a large capacity for a family.”
If you think you can’t bring ice cream camping, think again. Tyler Malek, head ice cream maker and co-founder of scoop shop Salt & Straw in Portland and Seattle, and author of a new ice cream cookbook, likes to pack it up in the Coleman Steel-Belted Portable Cooler ($92.99 for 54-quart cooler, amazon.com). The retro-looking steel is rust-resistant and the handles have comfort-grips. Malek even named his latest flavors after camping food favorites: skillet corn bread, s’mores, buttermilk pancakes, barbecue sauce and more. (The flavors are packaged in Pendleton prints and proceeds support the National Park Foundation.) He says that ice cream, packed with dry ice on top, will last up to two days.
“There’s different coolers for different purposes,” says Rodriguez, also a cookbook author. We talked to her after she went fishing for the morning, and she brought the Backpack Cooler from Barebones ($80 for 18.5-quart cooler, barebonesliving.com). “On the day-to-day, that’s the one that I grab most often. I can wear it on my back, and it doesn’t look like a cooler. I’m hands-free to carry my fishing pole.”
Ashley English, author of “A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well in the Great Outdoors,” is fond of Foster & Rye’s Metal Cooler ($62.99 for 11.5-by-12-by-9.25-inch cooler, wayfair.com), which is “compact enough to be easily carried to picnicking spots.” Often, coolers are stored in garages where they can get hot, so — especially with a metal coolers such this one — bring your cooler inside to cool before packing it with food and ice.