Cooking in Camp: Campfire Methods
Naturally, there are more differences between cooking in your kitchen and cooking outdoors than just a lack of walls. In fact, according to Wikipedia and personal experience, there is an entire canon of outdoor cooking techniques supported by specialized equipment developed by centuries of outdoor cooking experience.
Can you just start a fire and put your cast-iron cookware over it? Sure. You can even tote along your portable grill and forgo the whole campfire thing. But if camping is going to become a serious hobby or pastime for your family, it will be worth your while to broaden your cooking horizons. With that in mind, let’s look at five ways to cook outdoors: direct heat, boiling, frying, grilling, and roasting.
Cooking over a roaring campfire is the most traditional—and perhaps, romantic—method of outdoor cooking. Campfires can cook food a number of ways. The techniques for cooking on a campfire are no different from those used for everyday cooking—before the invention of stoves and ovens, that is.
Let there be flames!
How do you build a fire? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating. Here’s a 3-minute video and a basic 11-step process that can help:
- Plan a place for your fire at least 10 feet away from tents, trees, roots, overhanging boughs or dry leaves, and other flammable items—especially if there’s no fire ring available.
- Clear a space 29 to 32 inches across.
- Make a ring of rocks if one isn’t already there. This will help contain the fire and prevent the fire spreading.
- Create a fire control plan. Prepare a bucket of water for each tent and an especially large bucket for the campfire location.
- Gather dry firewood and kindling using only fallen branches. Gather twigs and sticks and of varying sizes (less than a quarter inch in diameter, no more than an inch thick, and larger sticks up to three inches in diameter. Note: many parks and wilderness areas forbid gathering fallen material, which plays an important role in the ecosystem. Consider bringing your firewood with you.
- Gather a handful of dry pinestraw, leaves, or any other similar plant remains (grab as much as possible with one hand – have some fuel busting out of the gaps in your hand). If forced to use larger pieces of starter fuel such as paper or large leaves, rip them into thin strips before lighting.
- Build a small, loose pile of kindling, allowing space for air to feed the fire. Include paper scraps, dry plant matter, and any type of wood shavings or straw and other small, flammable items.
- Construct a pyramid or a lean-to: For a pyramid, make an inward pointing tepee of dry twigs and small sticks around and above the kindling pile, leaving a gap on the side for entering air. For a lean-to, lay down one piece of wood of about two inches in diameter. Lean your smallest kindling against so that you have an air space underneath.
- Light the kindling with a match.
- Add increasingly larger sticks and then logs as the fire grows in strength, always leaving enough space between them for the fire to breathe. Place your largest sticks in an arrangement that gives them stability and exposure to the fire without suppressing the airflow to the heart of the fire.
- When your fire is done, take special care to completely, even what may seem excessively, extinguish every ember. Do not assume it will safely “burn itself out.” Fire aggressively seeks more fuel.
If you’re backpacking in an area that allows the gathering of firewood, you may decide to cook on a campfire to avoid the need to carry extra equipment. However, campfire cooking can be tricky for those not accustomed to it. Also, since campfires are illegal in many areas, many campers prefer to use a portable stove instead.
Boiling water is one of the most common kitchen operations undertaken on the trail, used for cooking or reconstituting food, making hot beverages, cleaning up, and even sanitizing drinking water. Like camp frying pans, camp pots are generally made of cast-iron.
Roasting may be the simplest method of cooking over a campfire. In fact, one of the most common is to roast food on long skewers held above the flames—think hotdogs or marshmallows (for s’mores). All kinds of outdoor cooking equipment is available. Tip: When roasting meat, you can reuse the grease that drips off the food while cooking if you place a fireproof container under the food.
Grills are simple to use and food cooked on them picks up great natural flavors from the smoke. Grills over a campfire are used in the same way you would at home. If the food is simply placed on the grill, it may catch fire so it requires constant attention. Consider trying a grill pan. In cases where open fires are not allowed, lightweight charcoal grills can be used for grilling.
Frying is often used for fish or wild game caught while on the trip, as well as pancakes and certain kinds of bread and desserts made on the trail. Many campers prefer a cast-iron skillet, but other types are also available.
A “round the clock” technique, where the frying pan is moved repeatedly to expose different parts of its base to the flame, is a common campfire technique, though it is also possible to use a flame diffuser to achieve the same effect. Tip: When making pancakes, pour enough batter into your skillet to make one large, moderate-thickness pancake that takes up the entire pan. Then cut the large pancake into smaller, individual portions.
An improvised griddle can be made by putting a flat stone (be sure to clean thoroughly, first) directly on the fire. Place your food on the stone.
Baking with a Dutch oven
Closely associated with the American Old West, the Dutch oven of tradition is a heavy cast iron pot. While they can be heavy if you’re back-packing, Dutch ovens are often used in group camp-outs and cookouts.
The oven is placed in a bed of hot coals, often with additional coals placed on top of the lid. Dutch ovens are convenient for cooking dishes that take a long time such as stews or baked goods. Some campers prefer to lift the pot up off the fire to increase airflow. Often two small logs of similar size may be used on either side of the pot to raise it off the coals.
One down side to this form of cooking is that the pots can become blackened with soot and ash, which can be difficult to scrub off. However, savvy campers avoid this by applying a thin layer of dish soap (preferably biodegradable) to the outside of the pot before cooking. The ash and soot will stick to the soap, which is easily rinsed off later.
For more ways to cook outdoors over a fire, see the Wikipedia article much of this information came from. As you camp more often, you’ll develop your own techniques and short cuts, but the ideas here will help you get started.
Summer is the prime time to go camping! But what about meals? What special tools or methods of cooking to you need to use your campfire for more than just a gathering place? Check out these blogs on Cooking in Camp from CHEFS Mix:
- Cooking In Camp: Campfire Cooking Like A Pro
- Cooking in Camp: Food on the Trail
- Cooking in Camp: Campfire Methods
- Cast Iron Cookware: Not Just for the Campfire
Your turn: Are you a newbie or seasoned camper? What do you like best about camping?