Foil Dinners

Foil Dinners

My in-laws spend every summer, from June through October, at their tiny cabin in the North Woods of Michigan, on Beatons Lake. My husband and I try to spend a week there every summer, and I have come to believe that there is nothing better in the entire world than being at this cabin. There is no cell phone service, no wifi. The lake is small and calm, and at least once a week a killer thunderstorm rolls through slow and steady, and you can watch it coming from the end of the dock. The house is nothing fancy, and neither are my in-laws—it’s a simple existence, with everything you need, and nothing you don’t. A crappy coffee maker, an absurdly old-fashioned stove, and running water that’s red and metallic from the iron-rich earth. When we're there, my mother-in-law makes a series of delicious, down-home meals, heavy on the meat and potatoes, light on the fuss. She bakes glorious pies from the bounty of blueberries lining the lakeshore, and every night as the sun starts to sink, we gather by the water for a cold New Glarus—just one, these are good Christian folk, after all—a beloved beer brewed and sold only in Wisconsin. For entertainment, we make music around a campfire, and listen for the loons. If we're feeling feisty, someone’ll drum up a two-hour game of Hand & Foot Canasta. The cabin is a seven-hour drive from absolutely anything, and it feels like it. It is peaceful in the deepest and most profound way, and I love it down to my bones.

The most-anticipated cabin meal, at least by me, is what we call foil dinners. The foil dinner is a DIY pouch of ground beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, and butter. You load up your pouch with your chosen ratio of ingredients, then add a couple teaspoons of water, and seal it up. From there, it goes directly on red-hot campfire coals, where it simmers for ten minutes, a quick flip, then done. The finished product looks boring as hell, but it tastes like a hug—and don’t you want a hug right about now? We like to eat ours with some bad boxed wine and a simple, bright salad—the perfect meal for just about any late-summer foray into the woods. It’s the perfect cabin food, the perfect camping food, the perfect food for simpler times. And you need it in your life.

Gather ’round the fire.

Foil dinners are very simple and very forgiving—you really cannot mess them up, and anyway, just relax, it’s meat and potatoes. The key is this: Drink a beer around the campfire while they cook. There’s nothing like cooking food over a real, honest-to-goodness fire. Savor it.

Time: 30 minutes
Active Time: 10 minutes
Serves: Six people, in individual packets
Drink: Cold, easy beer.

  • 3 pounds ground beef, or about 8oz per person
  • Three white or yellow onions, sliced or chopped
  • 3 large Russet potatoes, sliced into coins
  • 6 carrots, sliced into 1/2" chunks
  • Butter
  • Salt
  • Pepper

  • 1. Start a fire
    Build a small fire and let it burn down to hot coals. You could also use a grill if you can’t do a campfire.

    2. Make some foil squares
    Make some large foil squares in advance, about 12–18" on each side. Bigger is better, so you have plenty of extra foil to wrap up the ingredients.

    3. Shape ground beef into six large patties
    Season the ground beef with salt and pepper. Shape them with your hands into six large disks roughly the same size, about 8oz each.


    4. Build your own foil dinner
    Everyone builds their own foil dinner.

    Place a square of aluminum foil on the table or counter, shiny side out. Slather a bunch of butter in the middle—about a tablespoon will do.

    Place a ground-beef patty in the center. Add your desired accoutrements: potoates, onion, carrots. Season with lots of salt and pepper. 


    5. Seal ’er up
    Fold the foil around the food to make a little pouch. Just before closing it up completely, add a couple teaspoons of water. Write your name or initials on the foil with a Sharpie, so you know which masterpiece is yours.

    6. Cook
    Place each foil dinner directly onto the hot coals (or grill), and let cook for ten minutes. If you have the tools to do it without getting burned, flip them over and let cook for another couple minutes. If you don’t, just let them cook for a couple more minutes. 

    6. Serve!
    Open ’em up, spill everything out on a plate, and go to town.


    Um, excuse me?

    Wait, so it’s basically a hamburger cooked in foil?
    You betchya. 

    How do I make a campfire?
    My favorite technique is to make my father-in-law do it. But, if you don’t have a Boy or Girl Scout in your group, Smokey the Bear has some tips for you.

    Any tips for doing foil dinners on a camping trip?
    Why, yes! Dylan’s boss writes about foil dinners in his upcoming book, and she loves this idea: Make the foil pouches well in advance, freeze them, and then let them thaw while hiking deep into the mountains. When you get to the campsite, just toss them on some hot coals, and voilà—dinner!

    Where can I buy New Glarus?
    Only in Wisconsin! You should go there. It’s worth it.

    Do the potatoes need to be Russets?
    Nah. Any potato will do. Bigger is better so they cook on a similar timeline to the meat, but if you use small ones just cut them thicker. And on that note, none of the veggies OR meat we suggest is law. You could use ground turkey, steaks, or fish. You could try sweet potatoes, broccoli, or whatever else you love in the summer.

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