Campfire cooking

Keys to Campfire Cooking

I often tell friends that the only difference between cooking at home versus during a camping trip is the height of your cooking source. Basically, a well laid out campfire presents a few different challenges than your home stove, but that just makes the experience even more enjoyable.

Searing a steak over a bed of hot coals is one thing, but building and blending flavors in a one-pot meal requires more than that. It requires care and temperature control. Likewise, some foods may not need the intense heat but merely a prolonged snuggle up to the warmth to bring them up to temp. Creating a large, well laid-out campfire means it can work for both a roaring bonfire as well as a suitable cooking station for your early morning breakfasts.

The fundamental key to good campfire cooking is sustainable, controllable heat. Choosing hardwoods that produce hot, long-lasting coals means you can have a steady supply of heat throughout your cooking routine.

Your actual fireside cooking area should be away from the main body of the campfire. You want to rake over those glowing pieces of charcoal to create a bed of hot embers (this is going to be your stove-top burner element) upon which you can cook without excessive, rapid-cooking heat.

This is the part of the campfire where you position your grill so you have both a cooking and a “keeping-it-warm” space. If your grill is too small, or to avoid knocking over side-lined pots or that open can of beans, create a space away from the main fire, against the side of the fire ring where you can keep foods warm until dinnertime.

I believe having a pot of hot water handy at all times is an essential part of any campsite. It’s handy for thinning down a soup, it’s already on it’s way to boiling for a cup of java, and it may already be hot enough to be used for clean-up afterwards. Even if there’s no room along the edge of the fire ring, keep it as close to the heat of the fire as you can.

Even after your cooking fire has long burned down, you can still make use of residual heat in the dying embers. One breakfast treat that I enjoy is fried onions and potatoes. The problem is that fresh potatoes take too long to cook. So normally during dinner, I wrap a few potatoes in foil and set them aside.

Later that evening when the fire dies down to a shimmering glow, I’ll place the wrapped spuds at the inside edge of the fire ring, rake some warm/hot ashes over them and hit the sack. Those foil-wrapped potatoes have all night to slowly bake. Come morning, the spuds are at least partially cooked, and ready to be finished off along with the onions and other pot additives.

A couple of other cooking tips, especially in colder weather: 

  1. Use lids whenever you can
  2. Serve/eat out of bowl instead of plates (both practices help retain heat in the food longer)
  3. Use wooden spoons to stir—metal ones can transfer the coldness of the metal into your warm food


Campfire cooking is one of the fundamental pleasures of camping…and cooking a hearty meal over hot coals should be a memorable part of your overall backcountry cuisine experience.

Campfire Cooking Layout

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6 Responses to “Keys to Campfire Cooking”

  1. Mark Peters

    Having a ready source of hot water can make your time spent in the wild a lot easier. Whenever we camp, whoever was picked to start the campfire, also was in charge of filling the “Hot Water Bucket” which gets set up next to the fire to begin heating.
    We use a big stainless steel stock pot with a lid, that holds a couple gallons of water and is made out of a thick enough metal to snuggle up next to the fire ring for long periods of time without worrying about “melting down” the pot. The lid helps to retain heat, and it also keeps any bugs or forest debris out of the hot water supply.

    • tom watson

      Exactly…it’s there, already warmed, if not hot, and can be used for cooking, washing, etc. One trick is to obviously keep any hanging handles on the outside of the heat source or if place a stick across the lid and rest the handle on the twig instead of enabling it to hang down towards the flames – still might be hot but not as bad as too hot to grab because of the nearby fire.

  2. Tony Fraschilla

    Do you have a spark resistant screen for a 36″ fire ring that can be used at the end of the night to let the fire burn out safely?

    • Tom Watson

      I’ve never used a screen but this is a good point, especially if the wind picks up and gets the embers flaming and sparking again. Basically I arrange the coals so they will burn slowly through the night so they can be used to re-kindle the fire in the morning. Again, the wind is the biggest concern assuming you’ve contained your fire with a circle of stones. You must always be paying attention to lit fires.

  3. Soul Train

    Makes me want to camp tomorrow. Nice post. Remember about the local inhabitants. I’ve had an enormous raccoon hop right up on a bench and releave me of my malt beverage, not three feet from me as my back was turned whilst attending to the fire. Raccoons drink beer…unabashedly so…
    Watch food around the fire. Camp grounds are especially prone to this…

    • Tom Watson

      Raccoons are bold buggers, indeed. I had a carton of milk on picnic table, turned and went to tent to close flap, turned around, milk was gone – 15 seconds, tops! Heard a thud/splash and there, on the ground at the base of a huge tree was the ruptured milk carton lying in a puddle of milk…must have been one disappointed, and clumsy raccoon.