Perfect tinfoil dinner requires simplicity – plus a few tricks

04 May

Author’s note: I’m getting a lot of hits to this page from Googlers looking for a good tinfoil dinner recipe.  Well, you’ve come to the right place!  After reading, allow me to suggest you check out the Essential Articles page and the category list in the sidebar for more good outdoor reading.

by Clint Thomsen

It wasn’t the calm, trout-rich waters that anchored my memories of my first trip to Vernon Reservoir. Nor was it M.C. Hammer, who provided the trip’s incessant soundtrack via Jeremy Soderquist’s boom box. Long after pegged parachute pants lost their awesomeness and the aroma of putrefied crawdads finally dissipated from the back seat of our scout leader’s suburban, it’s the memory of my dinner that night that remains most lucid.

Okay, technically it wasn’t my dinner. My food cooler, it turns out, hadn’t made it into our scoutmaster’s utility trailer, and still sat on the curb of his West Valley home– along with my tent, pillow, and sleeping bag. Luckily, somebody’s dad had packed an extra tinfoil dinner. When I gratefully accepted it, I had no idea I was about to partake of the dinner of the gods.

It’s possible that my enjoyment of that meal was enhanced to some degree by what I perceived as extreme hunger, as well as by the “everything tastes better when you’re camping” phenomenon. Still, I can’t forget how tasty that coal-roasted mess of meat and taters was that night.

What was the secret? I think I asked, but I don’t remember the answer. I’ve tried many times since to recreate that tinfoil dinner. I may have come close on Saturday night.

Mostly a staple for scouts and young fathers who don’t have the patience or equipment for Dutch oven cooking, the legendary tinfoil dinner is a quick and fuss free way to fill the belly. Wrap some hamburger and veggies in foil, place on hot coals, and voila: dinner is served!

The term “tinfoil dinner” is actually a misnomer. Foil made from pressed tin was used widely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but mostly for industrial purposes. It was stiffer than today’s aluminum foil and it infused a light metallic taste into whatever food was wrapped in it.

According to the Reynolds Wrap website, the use of foil for cooking did not become common until the 1940’s, 30 years after aluminum foil was introduced and almost 15 years after it officially replaced tin as the standard. It was aluminum, not tin, that brought us the “tinfoil dinner.”

In my experience, most tinfoil dinners look and smell much better than they taste. Playing out the marriage of ingredients in my mind while it sizzles on the coals only exacerbates the let-down. The meat has a boiled texture. Potatoes and carrots are bland.

Tired of disappointment, I embarked on a quest to craft the perfect tinfoil dinner. My research tapped relatives, old scout leaders, and Google. If there was a better way to make a tinfoil dinner, I was bound to discover it.

Most recipes I found were predictably similar: some kind of meat, potatoes, carrots, and basic seasonings. The major differences were in preparation method. Tips and secrets also varied.

No offense to the food editors in outdoors magazines, but I rejected all chicken and turkey recipes outright — and not just because they all seemed a little too milquetoast for camping. The beauty of the entrée lies in its convenience. Poultry requires some cooking prior to foil packaging, and if a tinfoil dinner takes longer than three minutes to compile, it’s not worthy of the moniker.

The urge to go gourmet is strong, but there’s simply no substitute for good old ground beef.

I chose two recipes for my experiment. The first was the recipe I grew up with. The second came from a Boy Scouts recipe database and differed only in cook time and the addition of bell pepper. I gathered the kids and built a fire in our fire pit. By the time the coals were ready, the kids were mesmerized, fully in their outdoor element.

I cooked several dinners using both recipes, applying the tips and tricks I had culled from my research in a semi-scientific manner. The only missing element was wilderness, but I figured if it tastes good at home, it will be heaven in the field.

After multiple tweaks and tastings, I came up with the recipe and preparation method closest to my donated tinfoil dinner of so long ago.

Here is my advice: Meat goes on the bottom. Mix sliced onion by hand into the meat before packaging. This enhances the meat’s flavor and cuts its overall density.

Toss raw potato slices in olive oil to avoid clumping and to ensure even browning on each slice. Add chopped bell pepper, sliced carrots, and more onions. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Top with a pat of butter.

I didn’t measure ingredients at all. It’s best to follow your gut when it comes to a tinfoil dinner. Wrap any old way in aluminum foil. Logic suggests that shiny-side-in will speed up cook time because of heat reflectivity, but scientists on the Internet (backed on some websites with a wealth of supporting equations) claim the difference is negligible. Cook time varies with packet size, but 15 minutes on each side is a good rule of thumb. Rule of gut applies to cook time too.

Tinfoil dinners are best served, in my opinion, around the fire and in the tinfoil packet itself. No need to bring the kitchen table and plates into the equation.

For desert, I prepared roasted apples by stuffing cored gala apples with cinnamon and brown sugar. For variation, I peeled and sliced one apple and sprinkled it with the seasonings. I wrapped the apples and roasted them each for five minutes.

The dinners were a hit, as were the apples (the kids preferred the peeled/chopped variation). We followed those up with a second desert of s’mores. I sat by the fire with the kids late into the evening, listening to their deep thoughts on life, Star Wars, and the average life expectancy of goldfish. For a nanosecond, I thought about looking up some M.C. Hammer on iTunes. But then I caught myself. Some memories are better left as-is.


6 responses to “Perfect tinfoil dinner requires simplicity – plus a few tricks

  1. Kristine Shreve

    May 4, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I remember those dinners from when I was a Girl Scout. We called them hobo dinners for some reason. I have to say, your version sounds tastier than the ones we used to have. I’ll have to try that.

    • bonnevillemariner

      May 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm

      Kristine, my family has called them hobo dinners too. Good stuff!

  2. Christel Astrella

    February 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

    A exemplary Blog about how to prepare OVO-VEGETARIAN recipes.

    • bonnevillemariner

      February 17, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      Christel, I’m sorry, but the word ‘vegetarian’ has no place in any conversation about tinfoil dinners.

      • Travis

        August 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm


        Sorry, but I’ve made some killer vegan tinfoil surprises (what I’ve called them). I went super veggie because others would make over the top meat 🙂

        I try to make them in order of vegetable delicate-ness so heavy thick items to the outside and tender stuff on the inside.

        -bell peppers
        -brocoli –> yes! This goes so well!
        – and any veggies you like even tofu if you like

        then I add a little teriyaki sauce (a little goes a long way), salt/pepper.

        My trick is I do this several days in advance and freeze it. Then I have a thick block of ice in the cooler to keep everything cold.

  3. Kristin

    August 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Have you ever heard of wrapping the food in a green cabbage leaf before you wrap it in tin foil? I guess the concept was to keep the liquids in…but I’m wondering if that would make it too juicy. Any thoughts?


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