The Pack Report

Cooking Over a Fire Is Easier Than You May Think

Folks who love the raw, primitive power of grilling find their favorite barbecue treats even more delicious when cooked over a fire. And with the right tools and know-how, doing so is a snap. 

“Going paleo” takes on a whole new meaning in the deep woods. Knowing how to cook over a fire minimizes waste and lets you enjoy a hot, delicious meal anywhere. It also makes the chef the campsite star.

Don’t be afraid to embrace your caveman side. Here’s why cooking over a fire is easier than you may think. 

The Benefits of Cooking Over a Fire 

The health benefits of cooking over a fire parallel those of grilling. Although these methods don’t remove every ounce of fat, they melt away a considerable portion of it, making dishes leaner without compromising flavor. 

Additionally, smoke lends a mild saltiness to many dishes, eliminating the need for a shaker. Many Americans suffer from high blood pressure, and excessive salt intake is a contributing factor. Cutting your salt addition by even a little bit can go a long way.

Cooking over a fire is even healthy for the planet. Sourcing food by hunting and fishing is the most sustainable way to eat, promoting long-term survival of natural resources. However, wild-caught game and fish don’t keep for long — cooking them over a fire makes immediate use of nature’s bounty.  

Tools You Need to Cook Over a Fire

Can folks cook over a fire with nothing more than sticks? Absolutely. All that’s necessary is a knife to sharpen forked branches into stakes for a primitive rotisserie. 

However, such a setup requires constant minding to prevent the wood from bursting into flames or tumbling over, taking dinner with it. Cooking over a fire is much easier with the right tools. Here are some recommended products every hunter and camper should keep in their mess kit. 

1. A Camp Grill

Camp grill grates come in various shapes and sizes. Some come equipped with long handles, allowing the user to hold it over the flames or support it rotisserie style. Others have four legs, creating an open grate table above the blaze, and still more use various poles. Look for compact, foldable models that fit in your backpack to maximize convenience.  

2. Aluminum Foil

There’s more to a great meal than meat. Aluminum foil can act as a veggie basket to roast what you forage for an amazing taste. It’s also ideal for premade treats like keto-friendly asparagus or for letting the smoke open those clams collected by the seashore. 

3. Grilling Accessories

Many campfire grill sets come equipped with the following: 

  • A grill brush for cleaning the grate
  • A marinade brush 
  • Tongs 
  • Spatula 
  • Apron

Look for small models that attach to your grill grate for transport, and don’t worry about taking along fancy fuel like wood chips — nature provides plenty of seasoned hardwood to make anything cooked over a fire taste like a 5-star chef prepared it. 

4. A Compact Fire Extinguisher

Safety first. The massive 2023 wildfire season is testimony to the urgency of taking proper precautions when cooking over a campfire. Keep in mind that using water can cause grease to splash and spread the blaze, so it’s wise to keep a fire extinguisher handy when cooking out in the wild. 

5. Cups, Plates and Sporks

Many mess kits come with collapsible cups and bowls. Sporks serve a dual purpose and strap easily to a camelback or Molle pack. 

6. A Coffee or Teapot

It’s nice to have hot drinks to start the day or complement a great meal. A stainless steel, fire-safe teapot is a must on chilly camp mornings. It also makes treats like hot toddies possible miles off the grid. Choose one with a full handle so you can clip it to your backframe with a carabiner. 

Depending on the nature of the trip, it’s possible to add to this list. For example, a Dutch oven is essential for making hearty stews or biscuits. However, it takes up considerable space, making it okay for campers with trucks and ATVs to haul gear but less ideal for backpackers. 

Crucial Safety Rules to Follow When Cooking Over a Fire  

Cooking over a fire might be easy, but it does involve some risk if the fire isn’t managed properly. Food safety is also an important concern — getting sick in the middle of nowhere is not fun, and getting help may be challenging in the event of severe illness. Therefore, please follow these safety rules: 

  • Clearance: According to Smokey the Bear, chefs should locate campfires at least 15 feet away from tents, shrubs, walls, trees or anything flammable. 
  • Build a pit: Instead of sparking fire on bare ground, build a fire pit with large rocks. This structure can also add support to stakes for grill grates. 
  • Mind the wind: Make smaller fires and deeper pits in windy weather, or skip the blaze if conditions are too dangerous. Always heed burn restrictions. 
  • Don’t use liquid fuel: Avoid using kerosene or gasoline to start or maintain a fire. The fumes affect the food and can cause an out-of-control blaze. 
  • Not too close: Both the cook and the food should stay a safe distance from the flames. Cooking directly over open flames burns the outside while leaving the insides raw. 
  • Go well done: Cook seafood, pork, game, burgers and poultry thoroughly. It’s okay to leave the inside of a beef steak a bit pink. You might take along a meat thermometer if you want to be absolutely sure your food is cooked through.

Quick Tips to Make Cooking Over a Fire Even Easier

For those who want to up their campfire cooking game, these tips can take you from basic to gourmet. 

1. Use What You Have

Resourcefulness is key to having a great time cooking over a fire. For example, use ashes to control the size of the blaze without extinguishing it entirely. Tin cans make excellent makeshift pots for heating liquids or building primitive ovens, and aluminum foil is perfect for nestling potatoes and root veggies among hot coals. 

It doesn’t take a herbalist to recognize some common cooking additions that grow wild. Sage and rosemary are simple to spot and can make wild game or fresh fish taste delicious. 

2. Choose the Best Fuel

Instead of only looking down to gather firewood, look up. What kind of tree did that branch fall from? Hardwoods like birch, hickory and maple burn best and impart terrific flavor.

Specific Campfire Cooking Techniques for Different Foods

Want to up your outdoor dining game? Try these techniques to hone your skills when cooking over a fire.

3 Ways to Cook Steak Over a Fire

The first way to cook steak over a fire is to use your camp grill. However, what if you forgot to pack it in your mad rush to get to the campsite? Is that meat doomed to go to waste? Not if you have a knife.

Have you ever gone to the Renaissance Faire and eaten steak on a stake? Get whittling, removing all bark from the area where you plan to put your meat. Make the tip sharp, as you’ll need to skewer it several times to keep it from plunging into the flames. Then, pretend it’s the world’s slowest marshmallow, cooking it high above the flames first, then dipping it close for that perfect sear.

A third and final method is to use heated stones. As you build your firepit, include several flat rocks that can serve as hot plates just inside your perimeter circle. Build the fire over the stones, then let it die back enough to let your steak sizzle on the rock as it would in a frying pan.

Making a Ground Oven

You bagged yourself a duck and want to roast it to juicy perfection in the wild. You can, without lugging an oven with you — build one in the ground.

It’s a variation on the stone technique above, although you’ll begin by digging a hole. Line the bottom with rocks, rinsing them clean in a creek or using a touch of your water. Put aside one large, flat stone to use as a cover, although you can also use earth.

Then, build a fire in the pit, letting it burn for at least 45 minutes to get everything good and toasty. Let it burn down and sweep out the ash.

Add your root vegetables first, then your cleaned, plucked and stuffed duck, using wild herbs to fill it with flavor. You can go wild with mesquite, hickory, wild thyme, sage, wild onions, chicory and even pine needles — a rich source of vitamin C in winter that can help you stave off scurvy in a survival situation. Finally, add the top rock or pack your ground oven with mud.

Time does the rest. While most recipes take three to four hours to cook with this method, you may need as many as seven or eight when roasting thick slabs of venison.

Campfire Fish Fry

The beauty part of the above two techniques is you can play with them if you’re an angler, too. Fish cooked on a hot, flat stone is one of life’s delicacies.

The lighter flesh of this meal is a natural match for the delicate flavors of many wildflowers. Try using chickweed, wood sorrel, nasturtiums, dandelions, violets and clover. You can create a beautifully garnished presentation worthy of the Four Seasons in the middle of nowhere.

Cooking Over a Fire Is Easy — and Fun 

Cooking over a fire may be a return to primitive methods, but it’s one of the most delicious ways to prepare food. The next time you’re craving that smoky flavor, follow the above tips and enjoy your time as the campsite’s celebrity chef.

Happy cooking, friends!

Happy Adventures - Duluth Pack

Guest blog post contributed by: Jack Shaw