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Basic campfire cooking ~ by Margaret

Basic campfire cooking

The simplest campfire for your woodlands is made between two fairly hefty logs of wood, preferably cut recently and still “green”, so they don’t ignite. Between these, you kindle your small dry sticks, and larger dry wood. The kettle or pan should reach across the fire and balance on the logs, but it is much better if you have metal bars to support it. An old oven shelf is ideal.After you have used your makeshift fireplace a few times, you may think that the logs are not big enough to give clearance for a decent fire – perhaps bricks would lift your oven shelf up higher. For the moment, just stack the bricks either side, they don’t need cement at this stage.

Much later, or perhaps not so much later, you get tired of grubbing about round your campfire at ground level, and you think “Why not cook standing up?” So you get lots more bricks, and some sand and cement, and you build a fireplace. Same principle – two parallel walls supporting the old oven shelf, but the whole thing standing on a plinth of solid bricks, so the pans are at least 50cm off the ground. It makes all the difference!

Then you find an old table to stand beside the fire. Tables with tubular steel legs (discarded from schools) last for ages outdoors. If the table is big enough, you can use it for washing up as well. If not, have another one. All this stuff can be left tucked away in your bushes; no one’s going to pinch it!

The Fire

Unlike your cooker at home, the campfire has none of those handy knobs to turn up the gas, and no switch to turn it off. Depending on what kind of wood you have put on it, you may have anything from a blazing inferno to a dull choking smokescreen. Somewhere between these extremes lies the red glowing fire with cheery flames that you had pictured. You will slowly learn how to make the best use of the dead wood you are finding nearby, supplemented by split logs that have been left at least a year to season under a makeshift roof.

The first tricky bit, especially in cold damp weather, is to get the fire started in the first place. All I can say is – remember there is no law against using fire lighters, obtainable very cheaply from any big supermarket. The only snag is that they smell very strongly of paraffin, giving away your secret. Let the first person who comments on the paraffin smell have a go at lighting the next fire!

Most cooking works best on an established fire. Unless you are simply boiling a kettle, you should plan to keep the fire going until there is a bed of glowing “coals” with more sticks, and a log or two, burning steadily. To achieve this, you need to look at the fire at least every ten minutes.

Campfire cookery is either boiling, frying, or grilling. Forget ovens – you are in the business of preparing food for hungry mouths with a minimum of fuss, and a fairly guaranteed success rate. For this reason, I am not keen to recommend baking potatoes. Wrapped in foil, and left in the glowing !”coals” for 45 minutes, they can taste divine. Or be charred right through. Or still be raw. All right for fun, but not for a meal.

And so to boiling:

Boil your basics. Potatoes, pasta or rice all take less than half an hour, and can form the basis of a meal. Serve them with cold ham or chicken and salad, or with a bean stew or beef casserole brought from home. If you are reheating food, be sure to put it in one of your blackened pans (did I mention that you will need a complete set of old pans? With lids?) and stir repeatedly, at least at one minute intervals, until not only the gravy, but also the solids are heated through. You can make infinite variations on this menu, but always remember to allow longer than you think for the cooking. A campfire can get as hot as you like, but a campfire that is under control, not so hot you can’t get near it, is quite a slow fire.

And frying:

You can accompany your boiled basic with fried food – or just have a fry-up. Remember that sausages, chops, and the like are going to take quite a while to cook through. Again, never turn your back on them. The fire has a way of suddenly blazing up and burning everything, or contrariwise losing interest and dying away. Frying will show up the imperfections of your fireplace construction. Oil in a frying pan has an irritating way of accumulating at one side, usually the side you would have sworn was uphill!

And grilling:

…or barbecuing, or toasting. You will need a metal frame with closer mesh than your old oven shelf; you may even have to buy a new one. This is a really simple way to cook – no pans, no washing up, and plenty of smoky flavour added to the food. Great for a party or a picnic, but doesn’t produce a very balanced diet, and is a pain for vegetarians .. ever tried to barbecue veggie burgers?

Youngsters, by the way, should be steered away from the inevitable toasted marshmallows if at all possible. When done properly, well toasted on all sides, marshmallows are lethally hot inside, and can do lasting damage to their fingers, let alone their mouths.

Making simple toast, or toasting buns or teacakes, is a much more satisfactory option. Things youngsters also enjoy making on the campfire are stewed apples, or stewed apple and blackberries in season. And we find making pancakes is very satisfying (remember the lemons! And lots of sugar).

Posted in: Practical Guides, Woodland Activities ~ On: 8 August, 2006

23 comments so far

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23 April, 2018

[…] get a good campfire established, ideally a bed of hot embers with no […]

Half-term with Woodlands.co.uk | Woodlands.co.uk
20 April, 2018

[…] –         cook sausages/toast marshmallows […]

Tony Hutley
8 June, 2017

I have been using an open house fire grate for years. I bought it at a car boot for about £10.00.
It contains the fire and I place it in a stone surround.
The white stones are found in abundance in the wood I own. I bought another one for £8.00 as a reserve.
The cast iron grate has a wire mesh floor so the ashes fall through into the contained area.
I leave it in the wood suitably disguised under some old roof tiles.

Barry
7 March, 2015

It is a pity to see smelly fire lighters recommended. I keep all the stubs of candles that we burn in the home. Put one at the base of your fire and you won’t need paper, just a few dry twigs arranged over the flame. It will burn long enough to get a fire going in wet conditions.

Matt
27 April, 2014

If your early want a decent cooking fire get one of these rocket stoves, I’ve been using mine all winter…i don’t chuck away the twigs from pruning now, just leave them to dry behind the shed and then use them to cook and have a fire anytime.

http://www.ecozoom-uk.com

J
20 November, 2012

@ Keith,

Hey Keith,

If you’re cooking in the tin cans there’s a significant risk of heavy metal cross-contamination into your food. As the tin metal heats the protective barrier stops working and gets boiled into the grub. Pretty bad for our health really and apparently can lead to a quick buildup of lead, for example, even after a few tins of tukka.

I used to do the same thing all the time until I became enlightened working in the metals industry, and that probably also explains the 3rd nipple and ability to attract insects. ;)

solsticesun
9 February, 2012

The traditional way of cleaning greasy pans is to use a small amount of wood ash from the fire.
As it contains sodium/potassium hydroxide (lye), which when mixed with fat and a little water makes soap.
This soap is nearly as old as the act of camp fire cooking it’s self.
Just be careful though as it is mildly caustic so can irritate sensitive skin.

Rob
14 December, 2010

Whenever i’ve been camping i’ve always used a little gas cooker, works a treat. The thought of actually building my own fire and making something edible is a bit daunting. Great tips though, thanks!

Ginny
6 September, 2010

You could always use one of these:
http://www.campfirecookinggrill.co.uk
Happy cooking!

keith
31 October, 2009

for speed I take the top off a can of ready made casserol or irish stew add half a stock cube put a little foil over the can to stop the ash and cook in the embers stiring occasionaly. very tasty and no washing up.

Patty
11 September, 2008

I love to cook in my cast iron over a camp fire I am so looking forward to elk camp and trying some of the reciepes. I recently bought a cast iron pot from a yard sale it is shaped like a dutch oven and has bricks in the bottom and holes in the lid I plan on using it for a burner to cook on, and a outside heater for camp. do you know what it was made for and what it is called? thank you, Patty

bushcraft man
28 March, 2008

great recipie im only 12 but love cooking outdoors this is one of my favorate recipies i have also seen it on ray mears bushcraft the one where he is canoeing in sweden i belive

Half-term with Woodlands.co.uk | The Woodlands.co.uk Blog
15 February, 2008

[…] –         cook sausages/toast marshmallows […]

River
19 January, 2008

I’ve been cooking at The Wood today.Quite right to cook on red hot embers-
much more predictable results.A big kettle’s a wonderful thing too!
Once the pans are finished with fill them with water and a drop of washing
up liquid,put them on the fire,then when you’ve had your meal they’re far
easier to clean.
But keep a weather eye on the fire!

Best wishes,River.

Craig Grady
12 September, 2007

Hi all, when we bought our wood we splashed out on some heavy duty pans from armytents.co.uk. We got some 20pinters for washing up water etc mainly and a 10 pint for soups pasta etc. We also bought 2 black iron frying pans. These are fantastic once seasoned but we didn’t fully realise the size, one is 18inches and the other 2 feet. Both are quite heavy but work brilliantly for lots of people. We also bought a small cast iron pot for porridge which is fantastic on a cold morning. Our kettle is also massive and can provide tea and washing up water for lunch. Having pans on which the handles don’t melt is essential and all ours just stay hung up with a chain and lock through them.

Craig

P.S as someone wrote in smallwoods we use welders gauntlets for handling the hot cookware.

Deb Millar
8 August, 2007

I ended up buying a huge kettle fron a scout supplies. A trivet is also really useful. (Plant pot stands work quite well.) We made soup & bread for 16 children & 4 adults today. Red lentils, carrots, onions, potatoes, stock & herbs. No worries about keeping cooked food cold & re-heating it properly. The children loved making bread. I cheat & add self raising flour to barley flour & brown flour. It makes it so light.

I am also planning on making an earth oven as a project with children. I helped on one years ago but if anyone can suggest a good ‘how to’ guide I would appreciate it.

Vincent McDonagh
2 August, 2007

I endorse the comments above about cooking on well established embers (not on flames!) and it’s also a good idea to put stones in the fire. These will absorb heat and continue to radiate it when the fire has died down.Do not use flint or stones that have been immersed in water as there is potential for these to explode!

How to Make Wild Bannock Bread | The Woodlands.co.uk Blog
26 June, 2007

[…] get a good campfire established, ideally a bed of hot embers with no […]

nico
4 June, 2007

Thank you that was helful now i have a better chance of making something edible lol
To everyone who is looking for a great cooking pan, the pound shop in the uk are doing single portion sized camping pans just now. looks very well made and can be used to eat from(no stupid plastic plates) im going to buy three! :)

Tracy Pepler
17 April, 2007

Great advice, I will be watching charity shops carefully for pots and pans. Freecycle is also a good place for watching for stuff like that!

Tracy

Margaret Hanton
17 April, 2007

I completely agree with Jon, a long-standing fire is the best (especially for barbecuing), though it needs a bit of thinking ahead to get it that way. My best pans are high quality aluminium from charity shops. Big pans have a wider base next the flames, so get hot quicker – this specially goes for kettles, use the biggest you can lay hands on, and just cover the base with water. Who said anything about getting the black charred smoke off? Were you thinking of taking them home??!

jon snape
17 April, 2007

I learnt years ago off a relative that most pans will do for campfire cooking. But the trick is to cook when the fire has died down, to use the embers. If you smear washing up liquid on the base of the pans, wait for it to dry before cooking, then when you’ve finished all the black charred smoke just washes off much easier.

Dawn and Steve
16 April, 2007

Once again – great advice from Margaret! Can you tell us where you get some good pans that will cope with the heat of an open fire? We have billys and stuff for the gas burner and bits and bobs for the barbecue but the luxury of a proper campfire cookout is something we can only do now we have our own wood. However we do need some suitable pans to cook with – any ideas?

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