There’s nothing like cooking over a fire and enjoying a meal outdoors. However, the process can feel intimidating for those who’ve never tried it. But if cavemen could do it, so can you! Read on as we break down the basics of how to cook over an open fire, the tools you’ll need, and some of the best dishes for your next camping trip. Let’s get started!
What Makes Cooking Food Over a Fire So Good?
There’s a lot to like about a meal cooked over an open fire.
First, there’s the unmistakable fire-cooked flavor. Some food benefits from being grilled or roasted, producing charred or caramelized spots rich in incredible tastes. However, even many dishes cooked in pans or dutch ovens over a fire can benefit from the smoky flavor of open-fire cooking.
Cooking over a fire can also be a crucial factor in the overall experience of a meal. There’s something primal that many enjoy about open-fire cooking. Instead of a rushed weeknight dinner to feed yourself or your family, campfire meals are leisurely and frequently team efforts from a lead cook and their loved ones. This makes the cooking process a fun and social experience, and what better way to cap it off than with some tasty homemade food?
Is It Safe to Cook Over an Open Fire?
Like any cooking style, cooking over a fire has some risks. Unlike electric grills or induction stoves, this style involves open flames, increasing the risk of accidental fires from drifting embers or those who get too close. Breathing too much smoke from a fire can also be hazardous and irritate your lungs.
However, this cooking style can also be extremely safe when you use basic practices and common sense. This includes lighting fires safely and ensuring you completely extinguish them afterward. A little awareness of the flames while cooking will go a long way toward staying safe.
Pro Tip: Start your campfire with ease with one of these 8 Best Campfire Starters to Bring on Every Outdoor Adventure.
How Do You Cook Over a Fire?
One of the best things about cooking over a fire is that there’s more than one way to do it, but all share some essential ideas. You can tweak this versatile style to fit your campsite and meal needs. From using a grill grate or dutch oven, to wrapping food in protective aluminum foil, your technique will depend on what’s on the menu. Let’s examine a few fundamental principles.
Get a Grill Grate
While some campfire cooks may get away with setting a pan near hot coals or roasting food on spits or sticks, most people will want a sturdy, reliable grill grate as a cooking surface. Grill grates can work as surfaces to cook directly on or a place to set skillets or other cookware. Some fire rings or fire pits come with a grate, but you should use caution before cooking on these. Ensure no coatings or treatments can transfer hazardous chemicals onto your food. It’s best to clean any public grill grates thoroughly before use.
Tripods are a helpful but optional addition to your open-fire cooking arsenal. These three-legged devices suspend a grill grate or pot over the fire, allowing cooks to raise and lower the cooking surface. This is one of the best ways to adjust the temperature while cooking over a fire.
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Choose Your Cookware
When it comes to campfire cookware, cast iron is the star of the show. People have used durable, naturally nonstick cast-iron pans for cooking over a fire for centuries. As a result, investing in cast-iron cookware is one of the most worthwhile purchases a camping cook can make. It will last decades if you correctly care for it. Cast iron’s only potential downside is its weight, which can make it less practical for backpackers or those looking for ultralight camping.
Within the cast-iron family, the most common choices include a skillet, a dutch oven, and a griddle. Most people are familiar with a typical skillet, though cast-iron versions are heavy-duty and sometimes have higher sides for easier stirring. Dutch ovens are large pots with lids, perfect for soups, stews, or any other recipe benefitting from a tall pot with a top, including baking! Finally, griddles provide spacious, flat surfaces for preparing multiple items simultaneously, like sumptuous breakfasts with eggs, meats, and hash browns cooking side-by-side. Most people who enjoy cooking over a fire have a favorite piece of cookware but often use all three for various dishes.
Pro Tip: Make campfire cooking easy by using one of these 7 Best Campfire Cooking Kits for Amazing Outdoor Meals.
Do Your Food Prep
Cooking over a fire is often faster than cooking in a kitchen, partly because you can’t quickly raise or lower the heat source. That’s why food prep is vital ahead. Wash, chop, and prepare vegetables before cooking, and pre-measure other ingredients or seasonings when possible. That way, you can toss them into your cookware at the appropriate time, allowing you to focus on the meal.
Those taking shorter trips, like weekend campers, may even prep their ingredients before leaving home, taking advantage of their larger home kitchen and more comprehensive food prep tools. However, it would be best if you always considered freshness, as some ingredients can rapidly degrade, lose flavor, or even rot when you prepare them too long before cooking.
Build a Cooking Fire
Building a cooking fire starts with the most critical element; dry wood. Some campgrounds may have wood for sale, or cooks may have some if boondocking or cooking at home. Dry wood burns more evenly, produces heat more efficiently, and emits less unpleasant smoke and aromas.
Cooking fires are primarily of smallish to medium-sized logs, three to six inches in diameter and roughly a foot in length. These are small enough to burn easily while avoiding the need to feed the fire constantly. Smaller twigs, log scraps, and other pieces of wood are also necessary as kindling to start your fire. People often use commercially-produced firestarters, though cooks should be cautious about cooking over fires burning chemicals or other synthetic firestarters.
The most common type of fire is a standard cone style, where you lean logs together to form a cone. You then set kindling inside and light the fire. While some may try to start cooking immediately over the roaring flames, truly experienced campfire cooks know you’ll cook the best dishes over hot coals or, occasionally, low flames. This provides steadier heat, allowing food to cook more evenly over time. Large flames can burn the outside of a piece of food long before the inside adequately cooks.
Use Aluminum Foil for Prep and Cooking
Aluminum foil is one of the best friends of a campfire cook. First, it’s a crucial tool for food prep. It can also line various cooking vessels for some recipes to make cleanup easier. Foil also provides a unique style of cooking for campfire chefs.
Typically, you place vegetables or easier-to-cook proteins like chicken or shrimp on a sheet of foil, then season them and fold the foil to seal the food. You cook the packets over the fire, providing a self-contained, flavor-filled meal. You can even use aluminum foil to fashion simple cooking tools or utensils, which can be a lifesaver for campers who forget those critical items at home.
Top Tips and Techniques for Campfire Cooking
For those new to cooking over a fire, there’s a slight learning curve compared to regular cooking. But there’s nothing a hungry cook can’t quickly learn!
Cooking over coals instead of high flames is one of the most crucial tips to not burning and ruining your food. Some cooks even build a keyhole fire, which resembles its namesake with a circular top and a more extended, narrower rectangular base. You’ll burn wood in the central circular area before transferring hot coals to the rectangular area, where you’ll set up a cooking grate.
Once your fire is ready, keeping a close eye on the temperature is critical. Unlike turning up or down a knob on a stove, raising or lowering the temperature while cooking over a fire takes time and a bit of finesse, so consistently fuel the fire. Learning to do this takes trial and error but will come quickly for most campers.
Cooking over a fire can also require more patience than some at-home meals. This is another result of the low-and-slow heat provided by hot coals. However, this isn’t a bad thing! Campfire cooking is typically a social activity. Use the extra time to relax with friends and family or work on other parts of the meal.
Finally, it’s vital to remember that you shouldn’t throw anything in your fire that you wouldn’t want on your food. This includes leaves, other debris, and garbage.
Pro Tip: Mamma Mia! Cook up the perfect pie with this guide on How to Cook an Amazing Pizza Over the Campfire.
What Are the Best Meals to Cook Over a Fire?
The best meal to cook over a fire is what you and your fellow diners want the most! However, some dishes or styles of food are better for this cooking style than others.
One of the simplest types of meals involves grilling all your ingredients over the fire, with proteins like steak, chicken, pork, seafood, or even tofu supplemented by grilled veggies like asparagus, squash, peppers, eggplant, corn, and much more. It’s hard to find an easier meal than this! The only competition would be foil-packet meals. You can also prepare these meals, making cooking and plating dinner much faster than alternatives.
Other popular ideas include breakfast foods, which you can prepare in large batches. They involve few ingredients and are a favorite of many people. Stir fry and fried rice dishes can also be good choices. They require adding elements to a single cooking vessel over time. These one-pot meals are convenient since they can double as a serving dish.
Once campfire cooks become more confident and experienced, they can think creatively about adapting their favorite dishes to the campsite. You can prepare them with a heat source, pots and pans, and a few cooking utensils.
Need more inspiration? Check out these 10 Amazingly Good Camping Meals for Your Next Camping Trip.
Take Your Camping Trip to the Next Level by Cooking Over a Fire
There’s no need to limit yourself to takeout, cold sandwiches, or snacks from a vending machine on your next camping trip. Cooking over a fire produces meals as delicious as they are simple to prepare. Keep these principles and tips in mind, and you’ll quickly become the most popular person around the campground.
What recipe are you looking forward to cooking over the campfire? Tell us in the comments!
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