Cooking in your RV can be challenging but it offers several benefits over taking the lazy way out and ordering a pizza or visiting a local eatery. First, it’s by far the biggest way to save money while on the road. Going out to eat, particularly if you travel in a large group as we do can easily surpass $100 for a single meal. In contrast, we run about $5/day per person for all meals combined when can stick to keeping the meal creation at the campsite. If we couponned (another story for another time) or used other money saving techniques we could probably do even better.
Also, by cooking in, it forces you to visit local markets, perhaps even farmers markets or local specialty shops which will get you out into the community and allow you to better experience an area and it’s cultural diversity.
Finally, you can better control what you eat which can lead to a much healthier lifestyle. We try to buy fresh ingredients and even make a lot of things (like bread) ourselves so we know it contains fewer processed ingredients and far fewer things we cannot pronounce. The results are often as good or better then food we would get eating out.
So how do we feed a family of 6 from our RV? Let’s start with the basics.
RV Cooking Appliances.
Let’s not sugar coat things here. As a general rule of thumb, RV appliances are terrible. That stands to reason because they are basically made to be used occasionally – or not at all. It can be a shock to go from double ovens in your home that talk to Alexa and cook just about anything perfectly with the touch of a button to a tiny stove that won’t do anything until you figure out how to light the old school pilot. The most common reason people don’t like to cook in their RV’s is the perceived poor quality of the appliances. That’s not to say that great results can’t be had, you just have to understand the limitations of what you have to work with and how you can overcome those issues. Let’s take a look at what you typically have to work with.
The RV stove.
The typical RV stove is run on propane and relies on technology your great grandparents would equate to “the good ole’ days” for operation. If you are shopping for an RV and plan to use the stove frequently you’ll want to pay particular attention to the size of the stove. They will all be about the same width and depth, but there are at least two different heights – small and tiny. We have the tiny one, which leaves space for a drawer underneath it. While, the extra storage space is great, the oven space is so small inside that you cannot put a whole chicken in a pan and put it in the oven without the top of the chicken touching the top of the oven. So, if you’re shopping for an RV opt for the taller stove if you can.
Regardless of the stove size you have, don’t expect to just toss food in there and cook it to perfection like you did at home (unless your home had an RV stove). In the vast majority of cases, you will burn the bottoms and have the top barely warm in fairly short order. Why is that? RV stoves are made to be small and lightweight (and cheap). That means the burner is going to be very close to your food. Since it’s small, there is only one burner and that burner usually runs right down the middle of the stove box. To offer some protection to the food from the direct heat there is usually a thin metal divider right above the burner. That thin metal sheet helps some. It dissipates heat well enough to burn 2 rows of cookies in 2 minutes instead of one row in 3o seconds. For most of us that is still not good enough. To really make the stove useful, you have to dissipate that heat much better. You can do that by putting a tile or pizza stone on top of the metal plate and under the cooking rack. If you use a tile it should be an unglazed tile like terra cotta or something similar. You can get them at the big box stores. Thickness is important and you may have to experiment a little but anything 1/4″ or thicker should make a huge improvement in your ability to bake consistent food in your oven. The tile or pizza stone should be as large as possible without covering any of the vent holes that allow the hot air to go from the lower burner chamber to the upper baking area.
For our stove we purchased a 14″ x 14″ x 1″ thick pizza stone made by California Pizza Stones from Amazon. It fit in the stove, but covered the vent holes in the divider plate. We used a tile saw to cut it down to 12.5″ x 12.5″ and it works great. At 1″ thick, it barely fits between the divider the backing rack when it’s in the lowest position. A 1/2″ or even 3/4″ thick stone would probably have given the same results without the tight squeeze. A quick search of Amazon shows that California Pizza Stones now sells a 12″ x 12″ x 1/2″ stone, which would probably be perfect.
Once you have your heat dispersed properly in the oven then it’s time to move on to controlling and measuring that heat. First off, with the stone in there the oven will heat slower so make sure you keep and eye on it the first couple of uses. Our’s takes 20 – 30 minutes to reach stable temperature so if you are used to pre-heating your oven (as you should) then keep that in mind.
As far as temp goes, the control knob is a best guess circa 1923. For example, ours tends to run about 25 degrees low. To get an accurate reading, grab an oven thermometer with a hook on it. We hook ours right to the oven rack and the door still closes just fine with it on. After a few uses, you’ll get a good idea of where you need to set your thermostat to get the temp you need.
Unless you’re a huge fan of Aunt Edna’s world famous moisture free chicken, a good probe thermometer is also essential. I’ve found the biggest factor in making great meals is making sure it’s cooked to the proper temperature. You can’t do that without a thermometer and you can pick one up these days for $10 – $20 so there’s no reason not to have one.
These thermometers also work great cooking outside over the fire or grill.
Stove Top Burners:
Most RV stoves have 3 burners and they are spaced relatively close together. Some pointers on the stove top:
- They burn less propane our outdoor cooker so we use it when propane supply may be an issue.
- Being close together it’s hard to have more then one pan going at a time. Small pans are helpful.
- Ours has 2 back burners and one in the front. Lodge makes a reversible cast iron griddle (smooth on one side, ridged on the other) that covers both back burners perfectly. It’s 16.75″ x 9.5″ and makes a nice wide surface for making eggs, pancakes, french toast or just about anything you’d make in a fry pan quickly. We use ours quite frequently.
- If you have a fume hood over the stove use it. Since an RV is a very small space it will quickly fill with heat, smoke, and water vapor from anything cooking on the stove. The vent hood will do a lot to keep the heat and humidity down inside the rig.
Aside from popcorn, melting things like butter or chocolate or heating frozen veggies a plain old microwave is pretty useless. Yeah, it can heat up your chicken nuggets too, but that’s not really cooking either. If’ you’re shopping for an RV or want to upgrade the one you have, get rid if the plain microwave and get a convection microwave. Convection microwaves are the best of both worlds. The cook fast and can brown things up nice and pretty. These are about as close as you’ll get to a higher end convection home stove in an RV.
The only downside is they run on 120V A/C. If you have big batteries with solar and an inverter, or a good generator then you can rely on the microwave or convection microwave even while boondocking. Even so, you’ll want to make sure you have your propane stove set up and working well just in case.
Unfortunately, we only have the plain microwave so I can’t give too many tips on the convection type. We never upgraded because I prefer some of my other toys when cooking – more on that later.
Since we’re on the topic of cooking with things that came with the RV, let’s talk outdoor kitchens for a minute. I love ours. I would never by an RV without one (at least, I can’t think of time that I would). I also almost never cook with it. I realize that sounds crazy but consider this. Our outdoor kitchen is like most you’ll see. It has a small (120V only fridge – more on that in a minute). A tiny two burner cooktop, a sink, a TV, a stereo system and some storage cabinets.
The cook top is too small to be useful. We may make a quick something on it when we’re traveling and don’t have the desire to setup our real outdoor kitchen. But other then that, it generally goes unused. In 3 years I think I can count the number of times we used it on two hands and a foot.
Our outdoor sink just drains right on the ground. Technically, that is grey water which makes doing that illegal just about everywhere. I’m not worried about the grey water police throwing the book at me but just having it drip on your toes is reason enough not to use it and getting out hoses and things to prevent if from dripping on your toes isn’t worth the effort.
The real benefit to the outdoor kitchen is that it brings the heart of the RV outside. There’s entertainment, storage and a fridge which are basically the only things you use routinely inside other then the bed. This gets the family outside and provides access to the things I need for my real outdoor cooking adventures – which I’ll get to later.
One note on the outdoor fridge. Since it only runs on 120V A/C, unless you have it tied to an inverter, it will be off when you travel or otherwise don’t have access to shore power. Ours has a tiny freezer in it which collects ice. If it’s going to be off for awhile we either defrost and dry it out thoroughly or we put a dry rag across the bottom and close the door. As the ice melts, the rag will soak it up. If you don’t do that, the water will leak out and eventually cause water damage in your outdoor kitchen. Make sure you don’t leave the wet rag in there too long with the door closed – it’ll get stinky.
Gadgets and Other Hardware:
Here are the gadgets we have and use for cooking indoors.
- 2 stainless stock pots (one with pasta strainer insert)
- 12″ & 14″ nonstick fry pans
- 2 QT nonstick and 6 QT stainless boiling pans
- 14″ stainless saute pan
- 14″ Wok
- Quality knife set in a wood block with set of steak knives
- Kalorik Air fryer
- Coffee maker
- Slow cooker
- Small food processor
- Hand mixer
- Large clam steamer
- Plastic cutting board
- Avalon Bay ice maker
Pretty standard household stuff. We’ve had a lot of other things that we’ve tossed – like a bread maker. And there are other things we’ve had in storage that we’ve considered taking but have not. We basically have a rule. If we use it, we keep it. If we can’t remember the last time we used it, it goes. That was the case with the bread maker as well as an oil fryer we had. The oil fryer was replaced with the air fryer and we really love it – its the most used cooking appliance we have, seeing action almost every day.
The most used appliance goes to the ice maker. It runs 24/7 365 days a year. Ours is nearly 4 years old and still going strong so we think they are pretty good quality. We do have to do regular maintenance on it to keep it running well, it’s pretty simple and I’ll post the procedures to do that at a later date.
Of the things we own but don’t have with us, the one big one (literally and figuratively) is the Kitchenaid mixer. In our house, I loved that thing – it’s great. Unfortunately, its heavy and large so we can’t justify having it in the RV based on how much I think we would use it. That’s judgement call though, I know there are many people that do RV with them and are glad they do.
Things we don’t have:
Pressure cookers (most common brand is the Instantpot). We’ve talked about it several times and I just can’t make myself do it. There are reports out there of people injured by them (steam or boiling liquid burns) even when using them properly. “Properly” of course is hard to define, in most cases that means per the manufacturer’s instructions. Unfortunately, these produce super heated liquids which under certain conditions can suddenly boil violently (appear to explode) with disastrous results. This is a physics/chemistry issue so it affects all cookers of this type. So you have to know what you’re doing when it comes to that sorta thing to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. The dangers are amplified in the small space of an RV. From the kitchen, the kids on the couch are not out of range of a boiling steam explosion. Even if they were 100% safe (no cooking appliance is), I love to cook and to me the pressure cooker is a tool for making food, not cooking. There are those occasions where tossing a bunch of stuff in a pot, closing a lid, pushing a button and eating 10 minutes later would be nice but that’s generally not my style. So, no pressure cooker here.
Cooking like a real camper:
I’ve covered standard RV gear for cooking on the road and gone over how we’ve set it up to be successful. You can stop here if that’s all you plan to do, but you’d be missing out on the best part – cooking like a real camper.
How do I define that… Fire in the great outdoors of course! I talked earlier about the outdoor kitchen on an RV and how that can give you a little taste of this, but now we’re gonna get more serious. In order to do that, you have to consider your environment in choosing your best options for outdoor cooking.
First and foremost know the rules for your area and be smart about it. If there’s a red flag warning and 30 mpg winds then don’t be lighting fires outside – even on your gas grill. We’ve been in places that didn’t allow any outside fires, others gas only, still others we could have wood fires but you had to have your own fire pit. We were at another place that had a bonfire so big you could roast marshmallows a 1/4 mile away. So, know the rules and always error on the safe side if you don’t.
The two outdooor setups we have are a basic open fire cooking setup and a gas grill system. Which I use is determined by the allowable rules, what I want to cook and how much time I have to cook it.
The Fire Setup:
Cooking over an actual wood fire is by far my favorite way to cook. There’s just nothing like it, from the experience of doing it right down to how the food tastes. There is nothing more rewarding than creating a perfectly cooked meal over an open fire. The best part is that there is almost nothing you can’t cook over an open fire. There are things that are easier to cook or that may come out more consistently over our gas system, like pizza or bread. However, even those things are doable. We typically do burgers, steaks, wings, chilli, hams, corn and potatoes over the fire and it’s always great.
The other nice thing is that it can be super inexpensive. Many campgrounds provide fire pits with cooking grates already on them. All you need is the food, some wood and a little know how and you’re all set. Even if the campground doesn’t offer that, but wood fires are allowed all you need is a $30 portable fire pit and a $20 cooking tripod and you’re all set. We have an Ozark Trail tripod that we picked up from Walmart for about $20 which looks identical to the Coleman model linked below. It has 3 collapsible shock corded legs, a cooking grate and a chain mechanism so set the grate height. It’s about 5′ tall, weights a pound or two and folds up into a tiny space for storage while traveling. It can also double as a lantern holder when you’re not using it to cook. It’s the perfect cooking tool and we get outstanding results with it.
We also carry our own fire pit just in case we need it. Our camper pass through storage door is 32″ wide so we bought a 29″ fire pit which will fit inside nicely for travel. Below is a link for a 29″ folding fire pit which would be an excellent choice.
Our Gas Set-up.
For gas cooking we have the Camp Chef Explorer two burner system with several accessories. Our complete system consists of:
- Camp Chef 14″ 2 burner explorer stove
- Camp Chef 14″ 2 burner cast iron griddle
- Camp Chef 14″ 2 burner grill
- Camp Chef 14″ 2 burner pizza oven.
We love this system for a number of reasons:
- The burners are 60,000 BTU so it gets hot and cooks fast.
- It brakes down into pieces that are easily stored for travel
- It’s big enough to quickly cook for a small army. On the griddle I can do a pound of bacon and 12 pieces of french toast at the same time.
- It easy to change attachments to cook what I want, the way I want to.
- The pizza oven is awesome – great for cooking pizza, fresh bread, or anything that you want a nice toasty brown crust on.
- It is easily converted to run off the RV’s propane system if your rig has a quick connect propane port.
But … it does have it’s downsides
- The 60,000 BTU burners are great for cooking but burn a ton of propane
- It’s pretty heavy
- Even though it brakes down for easy storage, there are still a lot of parts to store.
Stock, out of the box, the Explorer stove includes a regulated propane line to connect it to a standard 20 lb propane grill tank. With the big burners you have to be careful if you don’t want to use a lot of propane. Cooking 2 meals a day it can easily burn through a full 20 lb propane tank in less then a week.
We purchased an 10′ low pressure propane hose for ours that allows us to just plug it into the RV’s propane system via the factory quick connect. This hose has a 3/8″ female nut on the end to connect to the grill and a male quick connect fitting on the other end to connect into the RV system. This can be used on any propane grill with that 3/8″ port.
The accessories can be purchased to cover one or both burners. So you can have a griddle over the one burner and a grill box over the other. We have all the accessories that cover both burners and that works well for us. Camp Chef also makes a ton of other stoves and accessories (including a stainless steel version of this model) that will fit just about any need. Ours is over 6 years old and still going strong after a lot of use all over the country – it is our primary cooking appliance so I can’t say enough about it’s durability for the price.
So, that’s what we have setup for outdoor cooking. With this setup we’ve cooked everything from lobster/clambakes in Maine to big pots of Dungeness grabs in Oregon. We’ve also done a 16 lb turkey and all the trimming for Thanksgiving, and knocked out some stellar pizza during our family favorite “make you own pizza nights”.
While the specific products I list here work great for us, you can easily mix it up if your needs are different. There are excellent gas, wood fired and electric grills on the market in a wide variety of sizes to meet almost any need. I think the setup is the desire to get out and master using them, and the time spent with family and friends doing so is the most important part.