Campfires: Cooking on an Open Fire

Round CampfireCooking on a campfire is a skill every prepper should master.  Hopefully you will never be in a situation in which you will be forced to make a fire and cook your fresh kill.  Surprisingly, many people think it’s simple.  Build a fire and start cooking, right?  Not at all.

Skills to cook on a fire are important because you many not always have the items you need to make campfire cooking easier and safer.  Big ones, small ones, burning coals, you name it.  Each fire has a different purpose and requires skills for those purposes.  Fires are not just to boil water and heat canned goods.

Can you fry fish on an open fire?  Why is that important?  Because frying over an open flame can be dangerous at best and disastrous at worst.  If the flames lick up in the pan your frying fish may just become an exploding fire bomb that can cover anyone standing near enough with flaming hot oil.  It can also start a forest or range fire.  For this reason, children should never be near the fire!

Cooking over an open fire is not as easy as it might seem.  A skilled camp cook is a must.  Fortunately, almost everyone can gain those skills.  It just takes practice.  Start in a camp ground that allows camp fires, ask if there is water at each site, and bring your garden hose.  You must ask specifically if they allow camp fires.  Starting a camp fire in a location other than in designated areas could have serious consequences.

If you already have, or know how to use, a gas grill, you are a bit ahead of the rest of the class.  But, using the gas grill for this project won’t work.  Gas grills are pretty much just cooking on a gas stove top.  As a matter of fact, that pretty much goes for charcoal grills and smokers too.  Those are all well controlled systems for cooking.  If there’s a flare-up simply take the food off the grill, turn off the gas or put a lid on the pan.  With an open flame, your only options are to put a lid on it and taking the food out of the fire.

Okay, lets begin with choosing a location.  It needs to be:

  • away from buildings and structures
  • away from trees and brush
  • not in a “red flag” region (burn ban)
  • in an appropriate fire pit (dig a hole and place the dirt pile close to the fire)

When practicing, safety requires you have a garden hose handy in case your fire climbs out of the pit.  Remember, fire can double in size very quickly.  If your fire gets out of hand, go for help immediately.  Do not stay.

How you build your fire is as important as where you build it.  That’s why they say “build” a fire.  First, dig the pit six inches or more deep and twice the diameter of the intended fire.  It should be at least 12 inches deep on windy days.  Clear the area twice the size of the pit around the pit to stop any hot embers or flames from starting a fire outside the fire pit.  For us, a three foot square fire has an additional ten feet of cleared space around the fire.  The fire area is the size of a 12 x 12 room with the fire in the center.  No children and unskilled persons allowed!!  Kindling is placed first and the fire started.  This is a good place to put the bark if you choose to strip it from the wood.

Gradually adding larger and larger pieces until the fire is the the size you need for cooking.  Logs are skillfully placed in an arrangement that allows flames to form in a controlled pattern according to the purpose of the fire.  Logs must be placed flat so they support the pan well and so that when they burn through they fall into the fire pit instead of out of the pit.  

The fire in the picture above is a typical cone shaped fire.  To cook on a campfire without a grate, you need a flat fire, square or rectangle shaped fire.

The trick is to keep the flames small and shallow while providing enough wood to keep the fire going for the amount of time you will be cooking.  Too much wood on the fire causes larger flames.  Flames should never lick up the side of the pan.  This is unsafe as well as too hot and will burn your food even if you don’t have a flare up.  If your fire does flare into the pan, put the lid on it immediately.  If you are unable to put the lid on the pan, go to a safe distance until the fire subsides.  Your dinner will be ruined, but the fire should remain within the pit and cleared area.

How to practice?  NEVER camp cook alone!  You many need help for any reason or emergency!!  Get out your well seasoned cast iron dutch oven set (with stabilizing lid lifter) and use it on the fire to prepare all manner of foods not using a fat or oil for cooking.  When you can prepare foods without burning or scorching them, you are ready to to try frying.  Practice with small amounts of food, just enough chicken to make one small layer on the bottom, and just enough oil to make a 1/4 to 1/2 inch layer on the bottom of the pan.

To begin cooking, place the clean, dry pan in the heat just until it is hot enough to “bounce” droplets of water off the dry pan.  If the water bounces, remove it from the heat and set it somewhere safe and let go of the pan.  If the pan is too hot, the oil may catch fire immediately when you put it in the pan. If this happens, put the lid on and wait until the pan cools.  Poor off the oil into a safe disposal area.  You will need to clean the pan before you can begin again.  Once the oil is in the pan, add then the chicken legs and return to the fire and turn the chicken to brown both sides.  Remove the pan it when the chicken is as done as you like.

Now that the cooking is done, you will want to clean the cooled pan.  This is the best part about cooking over a fire.  Empty to cooled oil to a safe area.  Grab some leaves and sticks to remove most of the oil and any “crumbs” in the bottom of the pan.  turn the pan upside down and place in the fire.  Allow to cook just until it stops smoking, just a few seconds or minutes.  If you leave it too long you will damage the pan.  Remove from flame and check for cleanliness.  If it needs to be cleaned again, let it cool and start the process again.

Once you are finished with the fire, douse it with water if available, then cover with the dirt from the hold you dug to ensure the fire smothers and does not escape the pit.  The pit will remain hot for a long time if it is not completely doused with water, so be careful where you walk.

Before you start practicing, read more information about the topic before you start.  Find someone who practices campfire cooking skills and ask them teach you.  If your teacher does anything that goes against the safety practices in the articles you read, do not use them as a teacher.  Only learn from the very best camp cooks.  D.P.N. assumes no responsibility for anyone who is learning this skill.  

photo by: Furryscaly