Campfire Cooking – Beyond Hot Dogs

Aug 16, 2019 | Cooking Tips

I don’t go camping that often. If I get out 2-3 times a year, that’s good. When I do go camping, I see no reason not to eat just as well as I do at home. Now, I have absolutely no problem with hot dogs. I am actually pretty fond of them. But cooking food over an open wood campfire is a rare treat that I’m not going to waste on hot dogs.

I want to just say first, I am not an expert in open fire cooking. There are some people out there that are and I tip my hat to them. I just love cooking good food and if I get to do that with wood and flames sometimes then all the better.

So, in this post, we are going to take a look at some basic principles of cooking over a campfire. We will talk about foods that are well or ill-suited to campfire cooking. Essentially, I’m just going to tell you everything I know about cooking over a campfire. So, let’s get to it.


Basic Principles of Fire

To say that we are “cooking over a campfire” is actually a bit of a misnomer. What we actually are doing is cooking over the coals of what was a campfire. Just to clarify, when cooking, flames aren’t really our friend. We want smoldering coals.

When I go camping the first thing I do is get the fire going. I put four or five logs on and let them burn down while we are setting up the rest of the site. This way, when I’m ready to cook lunch or dinner (depending on the time of day we arrive) the fire has burnt down and the coals are ready to go. What becomes very apparent is that a pile of glowing embers is way hotter than a big flame.

In Nova Scotia, and I’m sure other places as well, most campgrounds are equipped with fire pits and grills. There are two main types of fireboxes as can be seen in the pictures below. These are great for containing a fire, but both styles have their pros and cons.

As you can see from the picture the first box is a small rectangle about two feet long and one foot wide. It is only about ten inches high. These boxes are actually terrific for cooking because the grill grating is low and close to the fire. However, they are pretty terrible for a campfire because they are small and restricted.

The second box is larger in every way and round. It has a two to a three-foot diameter and is probably almost two feet high. These fireboxes are great for getting a really nice campfire going but not so great for cooking if you are planning on using the grill grate.

Either style can be used for cooking, but the technique you use may have to change. For example, in the picture on the right, you may notice the logs piled vertically in the corner of the box. I did this because as those logs burn down and began to smolder they were just the right height from the grill grate to cook with. So, with a little creativity, anything is possible.


Coal Cooking

One of my favourite ways to cook while camping is right up against the coals. This works really well for any kind of root vegetables. In the picture above I am cooking potatoes and onions, but I have done this with sweet potato, and squash as well. Sometimes I will just put the food right on the coals as opposed to right in front of them. This works really well but you have to keep turning the food every few minutes so it doesn’t just burn. And yes, I learned that from experience.

I’m sure that some people are looking at the picture above and thinking that the potatoes and onions look really dirty and that they may not want to eat them. To that I say this; what is happening to those potatoes and onions is absolutely magic. The outside, dirty and burnt as it maybe is forming something of a crust. This protects the insides of the roots from the extreme heat. It also seals in moisture. So, the onions and potatoes in this picture are being steamed from the inside with their own aromatic juices. When you cut into these and take a bite, that flavour is unparalleled.

As for the cooking technique, all I have done in the picture is form a bit of a circle of hot coals around the vegetables. Every few minutes I turn the onions and potatoes for even cooking. It takes about forty-five minutes to an hour to cook through, but what else do you have to do. And, it’s not like you have to sit there watching them the whole time. Just like at home, poke with a knife or form to see if the vegetables are cooked.

If the fire pit is big enough keep a small fire burning a bit away from the food. This way you have fresh coals that you can keep adding to make sure the cooking temperature is even.


Other Vegetables to Cook on a Campfire

Root vegetables aren’t the only vegetables that cook well over a fire. Corn on the cob is fantastic and can be cooked either on the grill grate or right next to the coals like the root vegetables. The trick is to keep the husk on and not catch it on fire. The husk traps moisture and the corn steams in its own juice just like the potatoes and onions. The result is corn that is so sweet and so tender. It is amazing.

I love cooking asparagus and green beans on the grill grate as well. All they need is a touch of oil and some salt and pepper. The heat and smoke from the coals will do the rest. Roasted bell peppers or chili peppers are fantastic cooked over a fire as well.

In all honesty, I would be surprised if you found a vegetable that with a little creativity couldn’t be cooked over a campfire. The trick is just to give it a try. Only two things can really go wrong. The vegetables can be overcooked, or they can be undercooked. If they are undercooked, put them back on the fire and eat everything else while they are cooking. If they are overcooked, cut away what you can, and eat the rest.


Meat on the fire.

There is something about meat cooked over a wood fire that is unexplainable. The flavour from the smoke penetrates the meat. The heat from the coals crisps up the fat. There is nothing like it.

There is no meat that you can’t cook over a campfire. Having said that, I don’t usually take chicken with me unless it is cut and put on skewers. I just feel like it could be a little dicey.

I usually take steaks, pork chops, or even fish. The cut doesn’t matter just take good quality meat that you already like to eat. And remember this is a rare treat so feel free to splurge a little.

Just like when cooking at home, we want a higher heat for smaller pieces of meat and lower heat for larger pieces. So, more coals, closer to the grill grate equals more heat. Fewer coals further away from the grill grate equal lower heat.


What I take with me.

You may be thinking that I pack up my whole kitchen and take it to the campsite with me. Really, I try and keep what I pack to a minimum. Obviously, I take a cooler packed with cold packs. Other than that I take one spatula, one pair of tongs, one cast iron pan, a kettle, a small cutting board, salt and pepper, butter, and olive or canola oil. Some times, depending on what I’m cooking I will take some fresh thyme, rosemary, or a lemon, but that’s it. I keep it as simple as I can.

With the herbs, I will usually leave them whole and put them right on the grill grate then put pork chops or steak right on top of them. This imparts a really nice flavour. Or, I will just throw the herbs right on the coals and let the smoke flavour the food.

The cast-iron pan I take is only nine inches in diameter. So it is fairly small. I pretty much only take it for cooking eggs in the morning. But, if I were so inclined, it would make a great stir fry for dinner. The nice thing about cast iron is that it can be put directly on the coals for high heat cooking. For lower heat cooking it can be placed on the grill grate.



Conclusion

This post is getting pretty long, and I am about half an hour late posting it so I am going to wrap it up now. I just want to leave you with two final points. Don’t be afraid to cook over a fire. It is so much fun and can make such delicious food. Cook things that you like to eat and adjust as you go. Understand that things are going to cook a bit differently, the timing will be different and that’s okay. If you have to eat your pork chop first and your squash a little later, it isn’t the end of the world. You’re camping after all. Relax and enjoy it.

I woke up yesterday morning at a campsite overlooking the bay of fundy. I got the fire going, made some coffee and let the logs burn down to embers. I cooked up some bacon, onion, and potatoes with a little salt and pepper. When that was all cooked I cracked some eggs into the pan and added a bit of cheese. I let this cook for a few minutes, flipped it to finish the eggs (my wife is pregnant so the eggs have to be fully cooked) and served it up. The bottom got this really nice crispiness, the eggs were over hard but tender, and the only seasoning came from a little salt and pepper and the bacon.

As we sat there eating my wife remarked how delicious it was. I agreed with her, it was delicious, it was amazing actually. But then I thought about it and I said that if I had made this dish at home I would be really disappointed in it. I would actually be kind of upset with myself. The bottom was really crispy which it shouldn’t have been, the eggs were too hard, and there next to no seasoning. But there, around the fire, with the sun coming up through the trees over the bay of fundy, it was exactly what we needed and wanted.

If you take anything from this post take this; Do not cook over a campfire and judge your food with the same level of expectation you would at home. Enjoy the fact that you are outside, in the fresh air, having a good time eating good food. That’s all you need. It doesn’t need to be perfect to be perfect.

2 Comments

  1. PAtrick pilon

    I love camping and the outdoors and between you and a guy I watch on YouTube you guys made me realize that you can cook more than hot dogs and beans (not that there is anything wrong with that). As the YouTube guys says it’s all about cooking good in the woods

  2. Chef Ben Kelly

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the post Patrick! There is so much that you can cook over a campfire it is amazing.

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