Campfire Cooking

Living in a wall tent as a temporary residence presents many challenges, one of which is meal preparation.

Apple Crisp in Dutch Oven

Apple Crisp in Dutch Oven

Yet anyone who thinks camp meals are limited to burgers and hot dogs is in for a surprise. The possibilities are endless, limited only by the cook’s imagination, initiative and time. Campfire cooking can be as simple as a one pot meal or as elaborate as a full course dinner. If Ron’s lucky, I might even bake him a pan of Brownies in my Dutch Oven.

Cooking Over a Campfire

I have 2 options when it comes to how I will cook meals. One is an outdoor campfire, which I try to use as much as possible, and the other is an old Coleman camp stove powered by pressurized gas. The camp stove is certainly the easiest, fastest and the most similar to cooking on a household range, but the camp stove has its limitations. Fuel is expensive for one thing. And roasting that Thanksgiving turkey would be quite the chore. But the range of possibilities open to a cook who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and explore campfire cooking is astounding

For those reasons, I generally only use the camp stove in the morning to heat water for tea or hot chocolate and prepare a hot breakfast such as oatmeal, pancakes, eggs or toast. Lunch is usually something quick such as a sandwich or a salad. The evening meal is usually prepared over the open fire. That’s where the real camp cookery takes place.

Bear in mind that one of the drawbacks to campfire cooking is the time it takes. Time to make the fire, let it burn down to coals, then finally time to cook the meal. One mistake novices to open fire cooking commonly make is to build a rip roaring fire and try to cook over the blaze. An inferno is fine for boiling water but coals are what should be used to grill meats and vegetables or to bake in a dutch oven. Therefore, depending on what I plan to make I’ll build a fire early to late afternoon.

Setting Up My Fire Ring

But before any fire is made I first need a fire ring. Although campgrounds and picnic areas typically have a round fire ring, my ring is really a misnomer. My fire area is outlined with rocks in the shape of an oblong, something akin to a keyhole arrangement. Why? Because I want to be able to rake out coals from the main fire area since coals are what I use to cook, yet I want to keep the fire going to generate fresh coals to replace ones that are spent. A round fire ring makes this virtually impossible. I also want to be able to place my baking dutch oven in among the hot ashes and coals. An oblong fire ring accommodates my dutch oven perfectly. A round ring is simply too confining.

Our Fire Ring Setup

Our Fire Ring Setup

To prep my cooking area, I raked a large area clean of all flammable materials. I essentially wanted to get down to mineral soil. Then I outlined my fire area with rocks. Firstly because I have an abundant supply of them and also because they eventually get hot and radiate heat into the cooking area which helps to keep my dutch oven at an even baking/cooking temperature. A word of caution. Never should rocks that have been submerged in water be used to encircle a campfire. These rocks contain enough moisture that once heated, may explode and become deadly projectiles.

Nothing Like Cast Iron Cookware

Aside from a rock lined fire area, what else is needed for open fire cooking? Cookware obviously. I swear by cast iron. I have an assortment of skillets, griddles and dutch ovens all in various sizes. Be aware any cookware will become sooty when used over a campfire. This includes cast iron but since it’s naturally black, no harm done. By the way I use cast iron skillets and griddles on the Coleman stove too. Toasting bagels and bread in a hot skillet works great.

Skillet Pan Bread

Skillet Pan Bread

Long handled utensils such as flippers, tongs, spatulas and spoons, the type used for a BBQ grill, are essential too as are pot holders and oven mitts. A rack or grill is also handy . My adjustable grill attaches to a spike that’s driven into the ground. The grill has a “T” handle so that it can be easily raised and lowered as needed. I use it to grill meats and vegetables over hot coals, sit skillets or dutch ovens on of it for “stove top” type cooking and cook foil packets of various items.

Speaking of foil packets, in addition to cast iron, I use Aluminum foil quite often. Potatoes wrapped in foil and baked in hot coals are a favorite that’s easy to prepare with little fuss other than turning them occasionally during their one hour of cooking. I also use foil to cook various vegetable concoctions. A favorite is sliced potatoes, carrots and onions seasoned with salt and pepper and herbs such as thyme or savory. I sprinkle a little water over the vegetables prior to sealing up the packet by carefully crimping the edges together. Place this packet atop the grill over hot coals, flip it periodically and in 1 hour enjoy! One of the beauties of foil cookery is there are no dishes to wash!

I have a stainless steel grill pan that is great for stir fries. To use I add some oil, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary to about 4 cups of prepared vegetables, toss well, put the mix in the grill pan, place over hot coals and cook to desired doneness stirring frequently. Yum!

One pot meals are a boon to the camp cook since as the name implies, the entire meal is in a single pot. Chili, homemade baked beans, chicken or pork chops over rice and hamburger goulash are some of my mainstays. I prepare all of these in my cast iron dutch oven set atop my cooking grate.

One Pot Meal

One Pot Meal

Campfire Baking and Dutch Ovens

Baking in a campfire pit is possible but requires a special type of dutch oven, one that has legs on the bottom on the outside so it can be placed over hot coals and ash. The lid is flat and has a lip around the outer edge so hot embers and ash can be shoveled on top. Once the oven is heated up, it doesn’t take much to keep it up to temperature especially if it’s located inside a rock lined fire area. The heat from the bottom and the coal covered lid in conjunction with the hot rocks that radiate heat back to the dutch oven bake whatever is inside. Don’t expect to be terribly precise with oven temperatures as in 325, 350,375 etc. The best you can hope for is a “slow”, “moderate” or “fast” oven. Try to avoid “incinerate!”  Oven temperature is determined by how much hot coals and ash you put underneath and on top of the lid.

I’ve learned it takes surprisingly little underneath a pre-warmed dutch oven to keep my item baking. Initially I burned the bottoms of my breads and cakes until I stopped putting too many coals underneath. Trial and error is the best teacher and as with anything practice makes perfect.

I’ve successfully baked quick breads such as muffins, pumpkin bread, brownies and casseroles in my baking dutch oven. I also bake cakes but use recipes designed for a bundt pan since it fits nicely in my dutch oven. It can’t accommodate 2 round cake pans at the same time or a 9X13 pan. Layer cakes must be baked 1 layer at a time. So I say forget that hassle especially when my bundt pan works so well. About the only item that isn’t feasible to do is cookies since there’s no way a rectangular cookie sheet will fit in a round dutch oven and no I’m not interested in baking 6 cookies at a time in a round pan! But bar cookies or “squares” would be a good option in a round cake pan. Incidentally a square 8X8 baking pan will fit in my round dutch oven too and I have used it to bake cakes and squares.

Pumpkin Bread in Dutch Oven

Pumpkin Bread in Dutch Oven

Once I’m done cooking and baking, I always build up the fire with more wood and place a large kettle of water over the fire to heat for dishes and bathing. In the past I’ve used a tripod arrangement whereby a chain was attached at the peak of the tripod. I suspended the pot of water from the chain’s hook. Presently, I simply put my kettle of water on my cooking grate once the food has come off.

Having lived around wild animals, especially bears, I am meticulous in keeping camp clean and tidy. All food remnants are burned completely. That includes burning off any food residues from the grill. And finally, I always keep a bucket of water handy as a precaution and douse the campfire completely when done.

Bon Appétit!

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to Campfire Cooking

  1. Margy says:

    Great post. Of course, on a floating cabin I can’t build an outdoor fire, but I can use a dutch oven on top of my woodstove in much the same way. Mine is a flat bottom to connect directly to the hot woodstove surface. But it does have a recessed lid. To keep the top warm, I use heated rocks rather than coals. Not as heat giving, but I keep them rotating. For baking I use a pan inside like you do. A small metal trivet keeps the bottom of the pan away from the hot lower surface so bottom burning is reduced. Now that I have a propane oven I’m spoiled for baking, but in the winter when the woodstove is going 24/7 it’s fun to use the excess heat to our advantage. And I know firsthand about exploding wet rocks. On a trip to Mexico we built a fire on a rocky beach. Fortunately no one was hurt, even by the scorpion crawling on the piece of firewood. – Margy

    • Ron Melchiore says:

      Hi Margy. You could actually have a nice outdoor fire on your boat. It would just be a one time event. 🙂 I’ll bet you have some fantastic campfire sites around the lake and at your anchorage.

      Good catch on mentioning the trivet. Thanks for pointing that out. I should have mentioned trivets especially for those new to campfire cooking. More forgiving and easier to learn with. There are occasions when we use the big dutch oven and we utilize the trivet as well. We’ll deal with that subject a bit more when we do a post or two on cooking on a wood stove.

      The aluminum dutch oven with feet is strictly for the outdoor campfire.

      I’m glad nobody was hurt with the exploding rock. I raked up a bunch of wood debris this summer out here and inadvertently picked up a few small rocks. I dumped the pail in the fire and it wasn’t long before one rock came zipping out in a few pieces. Enjoy your fall season. It’s coming too soon!

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