by Todd Walker
Prepping a cook fire depends on what type of cookin’ you’ll be doing and the fuel available. In my area of Georgia, we have an abundance of hardwood to choose from. I’ll describe my experience with wood we burn. Not every area is as fortunate. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook up goodness over a campfire. Use the resources available in your woods.
The problem with campfires is they don’t have a knob to dial the heat up or down like a kitchen stove. Learning to managing your cook fire for what you’re cooking is key. If all you’re having is ramen noodles and hot cocoa, a hot burning twig fire will get the job done. Cast iron cooking needs a whole new arrangement of hot coals. Baking biscuits in a reflector oven requires radiant heat from flames.
This is not a comprehensive guide to open-fire cookery. I’ll give you basic guidelines that have worked for me when baking and cooking at fixed camp. If you cook in your kitchen, you can cook over a campfire.
Cooking at a permanent or semi-permanent fixed camp is different than when sauntering from one camp location to the next. This article won’t apply to the ultralight hiker cooking freeze-dried meals with a cup of boiling water. Weight is not as big of an issue if you’re canoe or car camping. So load the equipment you need to whip up stick-to-your-ribs food and take to the woods and streams.
Wood Processing Tools
Charcoal briquette don’t grow on trees. You’ll have to collect wood and make your own coals. An ax and saw are tools you’ll find useful. We have two pages on our blog if you need to hone your ax skills: Ax Cordwood Challenge and The Ax-Manship Series. Our YouTube channel also has instructional videos in a few playlists you may find helpful: The Axe Cordwood Challenge and Ax-Manship.
You need dry/seasoned wood for your cook fire. Look for standing dead trees since you don’t want to wait six to nine months to season your wood. Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a good choice for dry kindling in my area. Red cedar works as well. Both burn fast and hot but won’t produce the hot bed of coals you’ll need for grilling. Add hardwoods like oak, hickory, and beech for long burning coals. Can’t always be choosy so use what you have available.
Improvising in the woods is often what happens to get food cooked. No need to if you bring the cookware needed for meals. Keep in mind that we’ve got a way to tote this stuff; car, canoe, mule, etc., etc.
My load of cooking stuff is in a constant state of evolution. But I think I’ve settled on a system. Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft introduced me to stainless steel milk pails a few years ago in his book, The Woods Cook. As a Master Maine Guide, Tim has been feeding folks professionally over an open fire since 1999.
Below are a few items I use to cook at fixed camp and our outdoor classroom at RISE Academy…
- Cast Iron skillet
- Steel Fry Pan: Lighter than cast but doesn’t cook as evenly
- Stainless Steel Pails: 2 quart with six-inch rim (6 inch pie tin for lids), and a 9 quart with a nine-inch rim (9 inch pie tin for lid)
- Pot/Lid Lifter makes it easy to handle pails and lids when hot
- Cast Iron Dutch Oven: 10.5 inch with a flanged lid and three legs
- Improvised Reflector Oven: Stainless steel drywall mud pan is large enough to bake a few muffins/biscuits/cookies at a time
- Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil: Great for hobo meals
Most folks I know take only one pot to save pack space when camping on foot. Having two or more pots is a game changer around the campfire. The beauty of these milk pails is that they nest together decreasing the footprint when compared to the several cylindrical cook pots. This is a space-saving advantage if you’re traveling on foot or any other means of transportation. The pie pan lids also double as plates when you’re ready to eat.
Managing Cooking Fires
You’d best process or collect enough kindling-size wood to keep your heat steady. Once lit, keep adding kindling sticks to maintain a robust fire that eats through the top of your fire lay. Take advantage of these hot flames by hanging a pot of water from a cooking tripod for coffee, tea, or cocoa. A second pot can be added to disinfect drinking water.
Once your fuel has burned long enough to produce a nice bed of coals, drag or scoop a pile of hot coals from main fire. When grilling meat at fixed camp, I’ll use two green wrist-size sticks (if I can’t find my metal pipe) to support a grill grate over the coals. Adjust the height of your grate up or down for temperature control. No grate available? Lay the steak directly on the hot coals. Sounds unsanitary but I end up eating a little ash in most of my camp meals anyway.
For a camp dutch oven with three legs on the bottom, sprinkle coals on top of the flanged lid and around the perimeter at the bottom of the oven. With experience, you’ll learn to adjust the amount of coals to control the temperature of whatever you’re cooking. You can’t count wild coals like store-bought briquettes.
To bake small servings of baked goods, I found that a stainless steel drywall mud pan does the trick. Place the reflector oven on the ground level with your fire. The drywall pan isn’t really large enough for a baking rack. You need radiant heat from flames for baking. Stoke the fire with your driest kindling sticks so that the flames cover the opening of your reflector oven throughout the baking process.
To gauge the heat entering your reflector oven, place you palm just in front of the oven and count to 5 quickly. If you reach 5 before nerves in the back of your hand tell your brain to jerk out of the heat, you’re at a good baking temperature (around 350 F). Any lower in the 5-count and the temperature in your oven is above baking temperature.
I fill cupcake liners with cornbread mix and place them directly on the bottom of the pan. Rotate the muffin tins as needed to brown and cook evenly. This diy oven has no handles so be careful when lifting it from the fire’s edge. Thick leather gloves or a pot/lid lifter, described above, are recommended.
At my fixed camp, I prefer a bipod system instead of a tripod for hanging pots over the fire. Two sturdy poles are lashed together with a long pole (waugan stick) laid in the top of the crotch. The other end of the waugan is lashed (loosely) to a tree opposite my fire pit. Minor height adjustments can be made to the waugan by spreading or closing the bipod. You can also swing the entire system off the fire safely by lifting and moving the bipod while the opposite end of the waugan pivots around the tree.
Of course, if you don’t have a tree near your fire pit, a tripod system may be your best option. Add a crossbar to the tripod to suspend more pots.
If you favor traditional woodcraft style, here’s our article on carving several useful pot hooks. I use carved pot hooks and modern chain to hang pots from my pot suspension system. Carving your own pot hooks boosts your knife skills considerably. Use whatever suits you.
Plate and Enjoy
The entire experience of cooking over an open fire, collecting firewood, starting your fire, managing the flames, and timing the meal is a celebration of sorts. Everything doesn’t always go as planned, but that happens in the kitchen, too. I’ve had some major flops in camp cooking. In the end though, and you’ve probably heard it said, food tastes better flavored with woodsmoke from campfires.
Serve your food up on warm plates. I lay my 9 inch pie tins on coals or propped up near flickering flames just before the last recipe is done. Nothing disappoints like what used to be hot cheese eggs on a cold plate. My daddy always said, “It just ain’t right! Ya gotta eat ’em hot.”
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