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:
- Use lids whenever you can
- Serve/eat out of bowl instead of plates (both practices help retain heat in the food longer)
- 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.