The art of cooking over an open flame
By Jason D. Martin
I used to hate campfires.
They’re dirty. They make your clothes smell bad. They’re a lot of work. And they’re kind of dangerous.
But then I started camping with my children and I rediscovered the fun, warmth and social value of a campfire. Indeed, after my daughter became a Girl Scout and went to a seminar on campfire cuisine, I once again became acquainted with the joy of cooking over an open fire.
It can be daunting though. The first time you actually push it and try to cook something even mildly complex over a fire, you’re likely to end up with a meal that’s raw on one side and burned on the other. But like anything else, campfire cooking takes practice, and to get really good at it, you’re going to have some minor disasters. If you bring a little bit extra of everything, then the inevitable mistake will not result in someone going hungry, but with a better final product.
It should be noted that when we talk about cooking over a fire, what we’re really talking about is cooking over coals. A bonfire might be fun, but it’s too hot and too uncontrolled to effectively cook anything. The skilled campfire cook will build a fire and then let it burn down to coals with limited flames. Coals can be more easily manipulated than flames, and it’s much easier to control the heat.
If you intend to cook on a stick or on a grill, it’s not a bad idea to bring your own. Outdoor stores sell metal skewers for cooking and you can find a grill grate almost anywhere, though some are available specifically for campfire cooking. When looking for metal skewers, select a brand that is long enough to keep your hand far away from the fire. Several on the market are quite short, placing your hand uncomfortably close to the coals.
You should avoid cooking on the grates attached to campground fire pits for two reasons. First, the bars are too far apart to easily cook on and things can easily fall through. And second, some people think it’s fun to put out fires with urine. This inevitably results in pee on the grates, which will likely give your food a little bit of spice, but it might not be the kind that you’re looking for.
Campfire cooking is dirty. The bottoms and sides of pots and pans become coated in black carbon, something that doesn’t easily wash off, but seems to get on everything. Consider using cast iron skillets, heavy-duty pots and Dutch ovens that you designate for camping. I have a specific plastic box that I keep these in for travel so that they don’t get carbon on camping equipment that doesn’t need black camouflage.
These cooking implements might seem heavy, but you shouldn’t have to worry about weight. Campfire cooking – and campfires for that matter – should be reserved for front-country campgrounds and designated fire pits. Camp stoves are far more appropriate for the backcountry.
It’s not uncommon to cook directly on the coals. A Dutch oven can be placed directly in the coals, and so can root vegetables like potatoes and turnips (wrapped in foil). Dutch ovens are heavy enough that one can place coals on top of the oven as well as underneath it and on the sides.
There are three levels of skill to the art of campfire cooking. At the beginner level, one cooks on sticks or maybe on a grill over the fire. We’ve all done this with hot dogs and marshmallows. Some of us have cooked hamburgers or steaks over an open fire. And a few of the more adventurous of us have experimented with shish kabobs and just about anything else that we can skewer or grill.
At the intermediate level, you discover tinfoil. Not for hats to keep the aliens out of your head, but for food to keep heat and moisture in while you cook. Here is where you start to cook potatoes or maybe processed food like hot pockets; perhaps you cook cinnamon rolls in foil containers. You might experiment with hamburgers or fish. Perhaps you try corn on the cob, muffins or even some kind of stew. Tinfoil is your friend, and a solid intermediate fire cook should be able to figure out a way to heat up just about anything in it.
At the advanced level, you’re actually cooking real food over a fire. You’re so dialed in that people might not realize you didn’t have a full kitchen at your disposal during the food prep. What they may not realize as they watch you cook your gourmet camp dinner is that you did have a full kitchen to prep. The key to this highest level of campfire skill is pre-trip preparation. The more you do at home, the easier it will be in the field.
Advanced-level cooks chop everything that needs to be chopped ahead of time. They pre-mix everything that needs to be mixed ahead of time. They marinade meats and pre-cook touchy elements of their meals ahead of time. Then they freeze everything that can be frozen and put it in a cooler. In other words, they think ahead.
If cooking is an art, then cooking over fire is an ancient art. People have been cooking over fires since time immemorial. But they probably haven’t been cooking s’mores and marinated meats that long. And they probably weren’t drinking craft beer while they were doing it. This is where the ancient art of fire cooking becomes modern art. This is where we experiment with all the comfort foods we love from home and see what works and what doesn’t. It’s where outdoor cooking becomes incredibly fun.
I can’t believe I used to hate campfires… x