Nothing compares to grilling over an open fire.
Camp stoves have their uses, especially if you just want to perk up a quick pot of coffee or heat some soup. But to truly enjoy the flavor of eating outdoors, nothing compares to grilling over an open fire.
These days, there are all kinds of tools available to make the experience simple and fool-proof, including nifty gadgets like tripods from which you can suspend cast-iron Dutch ovens, and South American Asado Crosses capable of supporting an entire lamb. But you don’t need a major investment to start cooking over the fire—a grill that fits your firepit, a cast-iron pan, tongs, gloves, and the ability to get a fire going are all you really need.
In some cases, you can even dispense with the grill. Every kid, and the kid in all of us, deserves the experience of impaling a hot dog or marshmallow on a sturdy green stick and holding it over the fire till it’s done to perfection. Even for this, there’s a knack to having the right sort of fire.
Lump charcoal is helpful here. If you’re using wood alone, you’ll want to build your fire up from kindling and twigs to larger hunks of seasoned hardwood that will burn hot for a while. For steady heat, coals are better than flames, so start your fire at least 45 minutes before you intend to start dinner and let it burn to a bed of glowing coals.
Not sure how to get a fire going? Location is key. You want to make sure your firespot has at least eight feet of clearance on all sides and above. (You do NOT want to accidentally melt a power line or singe a low branch.) Build a U-shaped perimeter from rocks or green wood; stand up a taller “chimney rock” at the farthest point of the U and it will channel the smoke up and away from your eyes.
You’ll first need tinder: dry grass, wood shavings, or crumpled-up paper. Make a small, loose ball of tinder and then construct a sort of conical “tipi” around it from small dry twigs, known as kindling in this context. (A loose grid shape works too. Just make sure your burnables are loosely packed enough to allow air to flow.)
As the twigs catch, you simply add larger ones to the structure until it collapses into a blaze, then add some larger hunks, preferably oak, ash or hickory. In 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll have a glorious bed of hot coals. Using a poker of some sort (a green stick works; so does almost anything clean that won’t burn), push the coals together toward the back of the U, leaving a lower pile toward the front. Presto! You now have high, medium, and low heat zones. Place your grill on the rocks, making sure it’s flat and will hold steady. You’re all set to cook some exceptionally delicious treats.
Steaks, chops, chicken pieces, and burgers are simple. Just pop ‘em on the grill. It’s a good idea to have a spray bottle handy in case the dripping juices create rogue flames. Veggies can be pre-seasoned and wrapped in foil for grilling. Whole potatoes can be wrapped in foil and cooked directly on the coals. So can corn on the cob, or you can leave the husks on (eliminating a rather bothersome prep task) and soak in water for half an hour, then throw your ears directly onto the grill.
For things that need more containment, cast iron is best, and a long-handled spoon is essential. Digital meat thermometers take the guesswork out of doneness. Kebab skewers are wonderful—load ‘em up with shrimp, chunks of marinated meat, or your favorite veggies.
A grill that fits your firepit, a cast-iron pan, tongs, gloves, and the ability to get a fire going are all you really need.
Cooking over an open fire is a mindful process. You’ll want to make sure the heat stays even, banking the coals as they wane to keep the heat focused where you need it. Even heat distribution is more important when you’re baking over an open fire, which is entirely possible using a cast-iron muffin pan or Dutch oven. (For baking, you may want to do your measuring and mixing indoors and bring your pan of batter out when it’s set to go.) Now for the best part: Pile the cooked goodies on a platter, use the tongs to remove the grill (you can lean it on your chimney rock if you want) and toss on a couple of logs to convert to evening campfire mode while you’re feasting. Bon appetit!