Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to get out and experience the great outdoors. I am writing this on the eve of my 33rd birthday and now that I am a husband and father I realize there are a million different ways to camp and an additional million reasons of why we romanticize about our idea of what camping is.
Without getting into all the reasons I find pleasure in sweating all day while packing up the family into the cabin on wheels, one reason I love camping is to get away from the distractions of suburbia living and to do the activities that, while may take longer, bring us back to our “caveman” roots. One specific activity I absolutely love is cooking over a campfire. The process of starting a fire, listening to the cracking and sizzling of the food, rotating meat makes me want to climb out of my camping chair and squat in a loincloth in anticipation. The smoky flavor infused in each meal sends me to a primitive world where men are men and I provide protein for my cavewoman and little caveling. I get it, it is much more convenient to pull out the gas grill and portable gas stove, throw it up on the picnic table and eat 20 minutes later. I have the gas grill that plugs directly into the camper LP line and a full kitchen inside. I get it, I really do. Some days I use these things because it is raining outside in the morning, or we jam packed the day full of activities and if the wife says “I’m hungry” that doesn’t mean when you get around to it in an hour. Camping is supposed to be relaxing after all. But when I get a chance to cook directly over the campfire I jump on it every time. Why, because it tastes better and I enjoy celebrating our ancestor man and the invention of fire!!
“Where do I start?” you might ask. As I see it there are 2 types of campfire cooking. Backcountry backpack cooking and campsite cooking.
When cooking over a campfire while backpacking in the backcountry, and depending on what all you want to pack in with you, this can be as simple as starting your fire, configuring a roasting spit out of sticks and cooking meat. From this you can take it to many different directions but that will be for a later time. Just make sure you cook the meat to the appropriate doneness.
For the sake of simplicity, and to keep this article on point, let’s say we are at an established campsite. This could be wherever your car, van, truck, camper, or wagon train stops and you have the amenities of coolers, cast iron cookware, etc. that you didn’t want to carry in a backpack for 20 miles.
Step 1. Build a fire. We could have a bunch of conversations here but let’s say that you get that part. In Minnesota to make a campfire at a state park you have to use approved firewood to stop the spread of tree diseases. For more information on that go to the Minneasota DNR website. This wood is typically dry, also called seasoned, and burns quickly but nice and even. This is good for cooking because the sap is dried out which prevents flare-ups and ultimately uneven cooking temperatures in your fire.
Step 2. Understand temperatures. There are a bunch of different ideas of how specific to get but here is my general guideline. Start by holding your hand 3 inches, roughly the width of your hand when made into a blade, above your cooking surface. Hold your hand there until you have to remove it because of the heat.
High: (450+ degrees) 2- 3 seconds. Steaks, chops, anything seared
Medium: (350 degrees) 6-8 seconds. Typical cooking temperature in the oven or stovetop.
Low: (300 or lower) 10 seconds. Slow cook brats, hot dogs and anything that calls for low and slow. Keep these foods out of the wind as it will cause a large disparity in temperature from the top of the meat to the bottom.
Keep in mind that a campfire (in a typical campground fire ring at a state park) does not retain heat from coals very well. You will have to tend to your fire quite a bit
Step 3. Select your cookware. You have liberty here to do what you want for what you are preparing. I use a campfire grill that I bring with me for things I would cook on a traditional grill and I have cast iron cookware for things like bacon, eggs, hash browns, sausage, stew, soup, anything I would make on the stovetop at home. Cast iron cookware is often associated with cowboys cooking beans over a campfire while driving cattle and let’s be honest, who doesn’t want that. The reason you see cast iron being used to cook over fire is because it is a phenomenal conductor of heat and is very forgiving when it comes to hot spots in your fire. This means that cast iron heats very evenly and maintains an even temperature throughout very well. Also, it’s cheap! Go out and get yourself a nice big skillet and a dutch oven. You can use these 2 pieces for just about anything and you can use it when you get home also. I have to also say that it is a great idea to get a pair of grilling gloves. I’ve been disappointed (burned) by using a classic oven mitt to pull a hot cast iron skillet off a hot fire. I bought myself a pair of the Eastman Outdoor 19″ Cooking Gloves and can literally move around burning logs to adjust my fire right where I want it.
Step 4. Cook! Enjoy the process and the fact that you have to just sit there, relax and cook. Grab a beer and Celebrate Man!!
Like I said the process takes a little longer than what you are used to at home but the aromatics of the food and the fire while cooking take me back to a simpler time.
Campfire recipe’s coming soon…
JG’s Venison Stew
That deer camp soup that Jeff made
Jake’s Turkey Camp Kabobs
Tommy’s Cheesy Breakfast Burritos which require a pit stop on the way to the blind