Cooking on a campfire is something very special. Getting that beautiful smell and aroma from the burning coals harks back to the days when humans have to utilise fire to cook all meals.
Although the principle of cooking on an open fire is very simple, if you want to enjoy a tasty meal instead of burnt piece of coals, there are a few rules you should follow.
Warning! Cooking on a fire can be dangerous. We are literally playing with fire here so stick to the below guidelines to stay safe.
- Always use designated fire pits or rings
- Keep your fire area clean (no trip hazards, no combustibles near the fire)
- Have a shovel and a eight litres of water close by
- Wear fire retardant clothing (avoid synthetic materials)
- Wear protective clothing, such as leather gloves
Preparation and tools
Before you even consider starting a fire, you should make sure you have everything you need at hand for your meal preparation (this is the same for cooking at home also). There is nothing worse than not being ready when your fire is.
Here are a few things I always like to have handy, no matter what I cook on the campfire:
- Leather, fireproof gloves
- Metal tongs
- Dry wood or charcoal
- Fire starter
- Long gas lighter
- BBQ grill and holder
- Chopping board
- Cast iron or fireproof cooking pots
- Aluminum foil
- Cooking oil
- Spices and condiments
- Cooking ingredients
When you have all of your tools ready, you can start your fire and prepare your ingredients to be grilled.
If you are good at multitasking, there will be few minutes to prepare ingredients while the campfire coals are getting nice and hot.
If multitasking is something you struggle with, it’s a good idea to get some of the preparation done ahead of time. When marinating meat or vegetables, I would also get this done before starting the fire.
Preparing the fire
Unless you are planning to do a string roast (an ancient technique of roasting using a cotton string in front of a fire), you will most likely be cooking over coals.
When preparing a fire for cooking, your fire pit should be split in two areas – one for the burning fire and the second area is for the hot coals. The latter is also where you will have your grill.
If, like me, you use a plain grill without legs, make sure you have some way to prop the grill above the coals. I often dig a small hole surrounded by a few wet logs of wood to hold the grill and the heat.
Cooking with charcoals briquettes? Be patient. You have to wait till the briquettes are thoroughly gray rather than black.
Wood logs will produce coals quicker but the coals usually are not as warm and do not last as long. This is why it is good to have a burning area to produce the coals and a cooking area. In both situations, I use a pair of metal tongs to move the coal around when needed.
When cooking, you should have minimal flames (if any at all) coming from your coals. This is really important as too many flames when cooking directly on the grill will give a bitter taste to your food. It will also quickly scorch what ever food you are trying to cook. If you are cooking in a cast iron, flames will overheat the metal and again food will burn.
When planning to cook on coals, it is important to know how what technique you will use to cook your food. Some food can be cooked right on the fire and others will need to be protected from the high heat.
Here are some tips on how to cook some of my favorite food directly on coals:
If you are cooking vegetables, you will want to cook them nice and slow. A cast iron pan or dutch oven is ideal to use, if you have one.
Foil is a decent alternative and works particularly well when cooking delicate vegetables like leafy greens or small vegetables like button mushrooms or sliced peppers.
Another great way to cook your vegetables is to skewer them and cook them over the grill.
- Baked potatoes or sweet potatoes are really easy to cook. You can practically just throw them on hot coals wrapped in aluminium foil and you will have amazing baked potatoes
- Some vegetables like portobello mushrooms and asparagus can thrown right on the grill
- Squash and pumpkins are also great to cook right on the grill. Keeping the skin on you can cook them whole or use the foil papillote method.
- Corn is one of my favorite vegetables to put on the fire as you can cook them straight in the husk.
Cooking meat on the fire can be as easy as throwing a steak on the grill. On the more complex side, you can use a dutch oven to make a pot roast or try string roasting.
Whatever style of cooking you decide to use, keep in consideration of the type of meat you are cooking and the tenderness you want to achieve. No one likes a steak that tastes like a shoe sole!
Steaks are along the easiest to cook on the grill. When getting your steaks make sure you have a cut that is tender and appropriate for grilling. I prefer a thick cut, on the slightly more fatty side.
If you are trying to cook cuts of meat that are less tender, you might want to slow cook them in a dutch oven or foil with a bit of moisture.
Fish can be a challenge to cook on the fire because of how delicate they are. There are a few tricks that can help avoiding the catastrophe of a destroyed fish, however. Using a cedar plank is a great way to cook your fish. Another option is to use some corn husks.
Most societies in the world have some sort of flat bread cooked on the fire, whether that is on a stone, grill or right on the coals.
Cooking bread on the fire might sound intimidating but it is actually quite easy. Bannock is a good example of how simple it can be to cook bread in the wild.
Making flat breads on the grill is one of the easiest methods. If you are looking for a more conventional bread, using a cast iron dutch oven is more difficult but is definitely worth the effort.
Now it would not be a fire without some marshmallows but cooking and eating a good desert in the wilderness is always a special treat.
Along with the traditional s’mores, baked fruit like baked chocolate bananas or apples are really easy to make and delicious to eat. If you have access to a dutch oven, you are opening yourself to possibilities of making crumbles, cakes and cobblers.