Everyone loves a good campfire. There has to be some primitive element going back to our shared ancestral existence that draws us to campfires. They are a great source of warmth and the setting of many enjoyable social interactions. When camping, a fire is also an excellent method for cooking. The most important aspect to consider when attempting to cook on a campfire is that not all fires are created equally and not all foods cook the same.
Let’s assume you are camping at a place that provides you a fire ring with a moveable grate attached. The way you manage your fire in this setting will determine your success at having food that is edible versus food that is better suited for hockey practice. We are assuming that the supply of wood is plentiful and you have the proper means and knowledge to light your fire. I generally like to organize my campfires with a box design. I lay four sticks around an inch thick and about four inches long in a rough square with the tinder in the middle. I repeat the process until I have several layers of sticks built up. I then light the tinder and add small dry sticks on top of the tinder until the fire fully engulfs the square I made around it. From here, I add more and more fuel as needed until my fire is officially going.
The important concept at this point is to recognize that you are attempting to cook on this fire. You do not need a roaring fire at this time, so add fuel sparingly. What I like to see is a decent size bed of coals with very little active flame. If you have ever cooked on a charcoal grill, then you should be familiar with this sight. It needs to be hot enough that it can cook your food, but not hot enough that it will burn the outside and leave the inside raw. This is especially true if you are cooking chicken, fish, or any other meat. A good test is to count how long you can hold your hand 4 inches above the coals. If you can hold it for a count of 4 seconds or longer, you should be good. Anything shorter than that and your fire is likely too hot.
Using a stick or some other tool, do your best to shovel the coals so that they are only on one side of the ring. Attempt to lower the grate onto the fire and see where the majority of the cooking surface will be. You should try to put the coals in an area that is covered by the grate while leaving another area off to the side to allow for things to cool down if needed. This is the same concept as a two zone fire.
Many times it is handy when cooking on a grate to cover it in heavy duty aluminum foil before you begin cooking. Trust me when I say that this is far easier to do before you light the fire. Even if you can remove the grate from the fire, you will still have limited awkward movement available to you if you attempt to do this once your coals are ready.
Now let’s say you are camping in a secluded wooded area without a designated campfire
area. The main process is the same, though it will help you to take some precautionary measures first. To start, you are going to want to dig a shallow pit. It only needs to be several inches deep and a foot or so in diameter. You next want to line the outside of your pit with rocks from a dry location. You never want to use rocks that you pull from a steam or other waterway for this purpose since they run the risk for exploding as they heat up.
As soon as you have your rocks in place, you can build a fire in the same method as above. Since you are going to be cooking without a grate, you will need to devise alternate means for cooking over this fire. There are a number of ways you can do this whether it be by cooking over a spit, using the shish-kabob method, or cooking it directly in the fire itself. These methods are slightly different and require some different equipment and skills in order to do them well, but they aren’t hard by any means.
Regardless of the set up you are using, once you have your coals and your method for cooking all set, the last step is to simply cook. Be sure to have a ready supply of small fuel available so you can continue to develop new coals as the old ones burn out. Using this method, you should be able to cook most things over an open fire without great difficulty. Just remember to keep your fire small and keep it consistent!