If you’ve never had to cook on a fire before beyond opening cans and skewering things, it may seem rather mysterious. Where do you put the pot? Can normal pots withstand the heat of the fire? How do you control the temperature? How do you prevent burns? Where do you keep all the ingredients?
Here, I am going to break down my method for fire-side cookery. It may need to be adjusted, depending on what you’re cooking and what tools you have available to you. But I think this is a good, basic guide to get you started.
Step One: Know how to build a proper cooking fire
I tried to find you folks a basic guide to building a campfire, but I couldn’t find anything suitable online. All the articles were written by manly men talking about fire like it was some sort of erectile dysfunction aid, or else were written by people who have never tried to cook anything bigger than a marshmallow over an open flame before. You want a cooking fire to be long-burning, stable, mostly coals (instead of big flames) and relatively flat (if you’re going to be setting your pot on the coals, vs. hanging it from a tripod above the fire).
- To start, build a basic tee-pee fire in a ring of rocks- the rocks are your fireproof counter, where you place the hot pots when adding or removing ingredients.
- Once you have logs big enough for your hand to grasp around it completely burning to coal in your tee-pee, build a log-house around it of four proper fire logs.
- When the logs are coal on the interior side and the tee-pee is a smoldering pile of hot coals in the center (approximately one hour in good weather without too much wind), arrange the logs as pictured above, with three logs perpendicular to the biggest log, with the coal side facing up. This will be your cooking surface.
- The bottom, uncharred side of the log will heat up as the top, charred side is cooking your food, so you can rotate the logs as needed to keep consistent heat. Check your food often and do not leave the fire’s side as you cook. This is the only method I know of to prevent burning your food.
If you haven’t any beautiful, evenly split logs to make your cooking surface, you can still make do. In the picture below, we only had access to a giant limb of dry cedar and smaller branches. So, we built a teepee and put the cedar log over, the center of it directly in the middle of the hottest part of the fire. This way, we could burn through the log, rather than chopping, and later combine the two halves as long-burning fuel for the fire. In the meantime, we were hungry, so I made a pot of camp soup by collapsing the teepee under the ceder limb and straddling a few small branches across the logs. They were very dry, but held up long enough for me to boil a whole pot of soup in a heavy cast iron pot before collapsing.
Step Two: Have the right tools for the job
You really don’t need to buy fancy, special camping cookware. You’ll want to use all metal or silicone construction utensils with long enough handles for you to safely reach your food. You can use wooden spoons, like I do, but be careful not to leave them in the pots. Wood handles burn as well as any stick. I used 3 wooden spoons, a metal spatula, a pair of tongs, and a ladle all week, and that was enough- it likely will be for you, too. Aside from that, a couple chef’s knives, a paring knife, and and bottle openers, two cutting boards and three dish basins (soap-rinse-sterilize) were all we used. The only special “utensil” you’ll need is a heavy stick with a crook or knot you can use to pry under the handle of your pot to move it about. Even then, sufficiently strong oven mitts (such as welder’s gloves) will do the trick. A smaller, sturdy stick can be used to loop into the pot lid to lift it off.
Bear in mind that camp fires are really, really hot. Unless you are confident you can get within arms reach of your pot without burning your face or hair, play it safe and keep your pot near the edge of the fire, and simply turn it often for better heating. Trust me, you especially do not want to accidentally burn yourself when you’re off in the woods and out of cellphone reception.
Cast iron is perfect for campfire cooking for a few reasons. First, it’s heavy enough to withstand the incredible heat of the fire without warping or scorching. Second, it insulates food from the irregular flame, distributing the heat evenly across the pot and deterring hot spots. Third, if you burn it or burn something in it or wish to get rid of the char marks on the outside of the pot, you can safely use steel wool and re-season the pot as needed. If you use something other than cast iron, be careful, and be sure it’s not dual-metal construction (such as a copper-bottomed aluminum pot), since campfires can easily break the bond between the metals leading to spilling accidents. I used a 10-inch cast iron dutch oven, and my grandmother’s old 8-inch fry pan. Additionally, I had a stock pot, smaller pot and nonstick griddle for the Coleman stove- you won’t need those if you’re cooking for fewer than 4 people and without the stove. The Dutch oven doubles as an oven, so you can bake in it by putting coals over and under the fire. I successfully made strawberry rhubarb crumble for 15 in this pot, but I want the 12-inch as my next purchase. You can actually stack Dutch ovens on top of each other, with layers of coal in between, for more efficient and controlled heating. How cool is that? I learned everything I know about Dutch ovens here, so take a gander before you buy.
Lots of folks talk about cast iron like it’s sacred- Never soap it! Never let it touch water! Never cook tomatoes in cast iron! Seasoning is an onerous task that takes hours and hours and must be done by the light of the full moon with extra-extra-certified-virgin coconut oil mixed with one part baby tears! Sorry to tell you folks, but none of this is true. So long as you use your pan regularly- every day or two- and don’t leave it soaking in water for a day, there’s no special care required for cast iron. Seasoning means oil cooked onto a metal. You can do this by heating any oil in the pot- i.e. swirl that tablespoon of olive oil around the pan before adding your onions, just like you normally would. Ta-da. That’s it. You can wash it off after and reapply oil each time you cook. No biggie. Don’t let all the dire warnings and stories of rust-ringed counter tops deter you. Cast iron only demands one thing- that you use it. Even if you don’t, it’s a simple thing to scour it with steel wool and re-season it. I pulled my grandmother’s cast iron out from under her stove ten years ago, covered in rust and untouched for 40 years. Fifteen minutes of scrubbing and an hour in the oven slathered in canola oil, and they’re still the main pans I use.
Step Three: Prepare your mise en place and set up your cooking nook
Find a good place to sit, level with your fire. You don’t want to be above the fire- heat rises, it’s hot up there. So, park yourself on the ground, perhaps with a sit-upon to protect from the cold. Wear long sleeves and pants in materials that don’t melt, such as denim or canvas, to protect from sparks and heat. Bring your chopped ingredients all on your cutting board next to you, separated into piles if not all being added at once. Bring any utensils you need, plus your oven mitts and pot/lid moving stick and a fire-poking stick. Lastly, bring any ingredients that you might want to add to taste as you cook, such as seasoning, oil, water, wine, herbs or spices. In the picture above, you can see I have Magic Vegan Bacon Grease, Earth Balance, tamari, red pepper paste, minced garlic in the plastic container (don’t forget spoons to get things out of jars!) and a glass of wine for me/the pot as needed. Once you are parked with everything you need at your disposal, cook away! Keep friends around the fire with you to keep you in good company, pass you anything you forgot, and poke the fire when needed.
Step Four: Enjoy your meal
Bring your pots and pans out of the fire and onto flat rocks of the fire ring as they finish cooking, then when everything is done bring the whole lot to a safe, lit place away from the fire to serve. Take your time and enjoy your meal around the lovely warm coals, or else by the lake to watch the sunset. Be sure that everyone else takes care of the washing up and putting away leftovers. The biggest pot can be emptied of food, rinsed, filled with water and put on the stove to heat water for washing up as you eat. You can let the fire die out on it’s own, but always douse with water, stir well, and douse again before leaving it unattended. We use the waste washing water for this job.
I hope this little guide is helpful and encourages some of you to try campfire cooking beyond the vegan marshmallow and veggie dog next time! Let me know if you have any tips for outdoor cookery.