I have cooked over an open fire and in a fireplace for years and have learned a few things along the way. Here are a few things that I think are very important. Oh … you wonder why someone would want to cook over a fire instead of over an electric or gas oven? I do it because the food tastes better, it slows me down, its peaceful out side and because I just like it. You may not choose to cook over a fire on a daily basis, but if you go camping the know-how might come in handy.
First and foremost, you need the right equipment. Cast iron is the best choice for cooking over a fire. I have used other metals in a pinch but for durability and better cooking you need cast iron. There are several brands out there and you will get what you pay for. I recommend that you comb antique stores and flea markets to find heavy, old cast iron that has already been cured. These older, heavy pans are ideal for cooking over a fire. The heavier a pan, the more the heat will be distributed throughout the pan evenly. This is necessary for any kind of cooking but especially for open fire cooking where you are cooking over a few coals
Three things to remember when cooking on a fire:
1. If you place a pan directly on the hot coals, your food will likely burn.
2. If you hang your pan too far above the coals, it will not cook.
3. If you try to cook over a fire instead of a bed of coals, you will be frustrated. So what you need to work toward is a bed of hot coals, and a pan that is not too close nor too far away from the coals.
HOW close? Well, that depends on what you are cooking, and most of that knowledge will come with experience, however you can logically expect the coals to be hotter when you are closer to them.
How to Make a Fire For Cooking
A fire for warmth and a fire for cooking are two different things. For warmth you want that roaring crackling fire that fills up the fire box and continues to burn with medium sized flames.
For a cooking fire though you want to start with that roaring fire and really feed the fuel to the fire. This is going to make it roar and make the flames really big for a while. But the idea is to feed the fire as much wood as you think you will need coals to cook over. The flames will die down as the wood burns and the wood will become hot coals or embers. These coals are what you will cook over, not really the fire itself.
Remember that coals die out and have to be replaced with new coals. It’s better to have too many coals than not enough. So fuel up your fire to make it big at first and allow it to die down. I make my fire big and then move the coals over to the side of the burning fire. This way I can have coals being made constantly in the big fire while I am cooking on the cook fire. If I know I will be cooking very large amounts of food I will build two separate fires and transfer coals to my cook fire in a small bucket as they are needed.
You can always fuel your fire while you are cooking but you need to be careful of two things. First, don’t refuel in such a way that the fire burns violently near your pans of food. It may burn your food or throw ashes and embers into it. Second, you must time yourself when you fuel the fire. It takes some time to make a coal, about 20-30 minutes. So start early making more coals when you are cooking.
Always, always use wood to cook over. Other fuels may cause fumes that are harmful. Use dry wood that has been aged if possible so that it will be completely dry.
After the fire has died down you will need to gather the coals up to cook over. This is where you need some of your cast iron tools like a shovel or spatula. Rake the coals together in a spot that you can reach. This is your cooking spot. You may have one to 4 cooking spots in most fireplaces. You can have as many as you like in a fire that is outside. Leave yourself plenty of room to move around and for the coals to reach all the pans.
Obviously you will have to replenish your hot coals from time to time as you are cooking. So, for example, if you are using a fireplace to cook in, choose another place to the side or rear of the fireplace to keep a fire going. I cook all along the front and one side of a fireplace, and allow the fire to burn in the left rear portion of the box. Whenever the coals burn out or loose some of their heat, scoop hot coals from the fire area to the cooking area. Some of the spent coals can be removed during cooking, but I usually wait until the cooking is over to do that because it stirs up ashes that can get in the food.
There are many, many items that you could purchase to use for cooking in your fireplace, but here are my favorites:
Spyders – These are three or four legged trivet-like things that hold your pans above the coals. They have a ring for the pan to sit in and an open bottom. They can be purchased in varying heights so that you can cook close to the coals or several inches away from them. Three different heights would be ideal, but two would do. The really tall ones are great for keeping food warm. Often a cast iron pan will have long legs cast onto the pan itself. Either one of these, the trivet-like contraption or the legged pan, can properly be called a spyder.
If you equip your fireplace with a trammel or hanging arm, you can buy all kinds of doo-dads to hang on it and hang your pots from. I like the one that adjusts from short to long so you can adjust how quickly your food is cooking without moving the pot off the fire. This is especially handy if your fireplace is small and you are cramped for room in there.
Utensils – Well, obviously you want long ones….but don’t get them any longer than what is comfortable for you to manage. My very longest ones are 18″. Also consider getting cast iron utensils instead of stainless or wooden ones. They just last longer. You need a spoon, a slotted spoon, a fork or three of various sizes, two spatulas, one short and one long, and that is all that is really essential. As you cook more and more you will find that there are other utensils that you would like to have. Choose very sturdy ones, for you will find that you use them for lifting Dutch Oven lids, pots and pans and other heavy items out of the fire. I finally got a utensil that is nothing more than a big hook to do just that!
You might want a spit to roast meat on, but I bind the meat up with cotton thread, season it and hang over slow coals for about 6-8 hours to roast. Works well, if you can stand the aroma for that long!
Another good way to roast meat like venison steaks, is to skewer the meat onto a large fork and prop the fork up in front of the fire, turning frequently til the meat is done.
There are reflector ovens made for the fireplace and they are really great…..once you learn how to use them properly, and that takes practice.
They can be used to cook meats, breads, cakes, cookies, or casseroles. They are relatively slow cooking, but they do the job very well, as soon as you learn how to keep the coals at an even temperature and how to pull the oven back from the fire when it becomes too hot.
There are also Dutch Ovens. I recommend one with a lid that has a lip on it so that you can put hot coals on top of it without them sliding off. The coals on the top of the lid helps the food to cook from both the top and bottom of the pan, much the way a conventional oven does. This is the best way to bake in the fireplace, besides the reflector oven.
You want Dutch Ovens that have LEGS. You will need at a minimum of three Dutch Ovens to cook a large meal. They can be used to cook cakes, cornbreads, puddings, soups, stews, roasts, on and on.
I find that I like to move my Dutch Oven around and reposition it with new coals every 5-15 minutes. It’s very easy to burn a cake or breads in a Dutch Oven!
Other Pots and Pans – Well, just get cast iron and make sure that they all have LEGS on them! You want the coals to be able to get up under the pans to cook the food, this way you don’t have to sit the pan ON the coals and risk burning. If your pans don’t have legs, just make sure that you have something for them to sit on like a spyder or cast iron tripod. Make sure they have handles, or bales, too. The idea is to cook safely on the fire. With a lid on your pan, you can lift it, move your pan and generally be in control of the pan while it is hot.
You will need a safe place to sit hot pans coming off the fire, lots of dish towels and all of the usual fireplace accoutrements like a shovel, ash bucket, bucket of water for emergencies, poker, large flat rocks for heating and using to keep food warm and towels or cloths to protect your hands while you lift and move around hot pans. You will also need a large pan or tray to place your utensils on while you are using them to keep them clean.
One last thing I have learned about cooking over a fire. When I am pushed for time and I have hungry people to cook for I have to use higher heat and therefore more grease in my cooking. However, if you are not pressed for time and you can relax a bit, you can cook with lower temperature coals and use less grease. This may not seem important now, but as you cook on the fire more and more you will catch yourself adding more grease to whatever you are cooking because the temperature is too high.
You are going to have to grease the pans a lot more than you are probably used to doing anyway with conventional cooking, especially considering our low fat ways these days. But as you become more experienced, you can cut back on the grease considerably.
One last thing about cooking over a fire. Take your time when you cook over a fire. Make sure your hair is out of the way and that your clothing is not going to drag in the coals. And don’t cook with little ones all around you.