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How to Cook Over a Campfire

Open-fire cooking is nowhere near as intimidating as it sounds.

By Rachel Baron
Jul 28, 2023
steak and eggs on griddle system
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Open-fire cooking is, by all accounts, one of the most rugged and yet sophisticated styles of cooking out there, with chefs like Francis Mallman commanding steep prices for meals cooked entirely over a pile of smoking wood.

Yet you don’t have to be a chef to conquer the art of open-fire cooking. Along with a bit of campfire know-how, a decent cooking setup can make the process way easier, safer, and more delicious. Here, you’ll learn why we love open-fire cooking so much, what cookware works best, and how you can master it yourself.

The Essentials: Cookware for Open-Fire Cooking

griddle system over campfire

You’ve got a few options when it comes to your campfire cooking kit—though we’re partial to our Griddle System, complete with a portable Griddle made from durable and heat-responsive carbon steel. The set comes with a griddle and stand that allows you to customize the height of the griddle—thus the distance from your heat source—allowing you to cook both heartier and more delicate foods. You can also opt for a free-standing grill, tripod-style grill, or a simple grill rack that you can lay across the rim of a fire pit.

Before choosing your tools, you’ll want to consider what your open-fire cooking setup will look like—i.e., a campfire vs a stone masonry pit—and how you’re planning on transporting your cookware. Since our Griddle System is so lightweight, and can easily be dismantled for easier transport, it also wins for convenience.

How to Manage an Open Fire

griddle system outdoor live fire

With no gauges or thermometers to give you an instant temperature read like on a gas grill, live fires demand patience, time, and constant monitoring. Here’s what else you’ll need to know and prepare for.

Building and Preparing the Fire

Fire safety experts recommend gathering three types of wood to build your fire: fuel, kindling, and tinder—i.e. large pieces of wood, small sticks, and twigs (and/or dry leaves, pine needles, and grass). If you want to go all out, you can also buy specific kinds of wood like oak, hickory, or mesquite. These can help add subtle flavor to your food, and you can even pair different types of wood with different ingredients: hickory wood goes especially well with beef and pork, for example.

Once you’ve got your wood, start building your fire by layering tinder, kindling and fuel in your firepit, making sure to leave gaps so that your fire has plenty of space to breathe. Many open-fire cooks recommend building a pyramid, stacking large and small logs in alternating layers until they’ve created a pyramid-like structure, finishing with a layer of tinder on top.

Fire Safety and Management

Before you’ve got a fire going, make sure you’ve read up on proper fire safety and management. First, you should always keep a close eye on your fire, and never leave it unattended—this helps you manage the size of the fire and prevent the flames from spreading.

It’s also important to build your fire away from low hanging branches, tall grass, or any flammable structures, and utilizing a fire ring or pit made of inflammable materials like rocks adds an extra layer of protection. Always make sure to extinguish the fire completely once you’re finished cooking, and have a bucket of water nearby in case of emergencies.

You can raise or lower the heat of your fire by adjusting the amount and positioning of the wood, or by introducing more oxygen by fanning the flames. Note that just like with cooking on a gas or charcoal grill, you can create different heat zones for finishing items like thick steaks or fish, or for cooking different foods simultaneously.

Techniques and Tips for Open-Fire Cooking

A person is using a portable metal grill over an open fire outdoors.

Open-fire cooking doesn’t sound like it would be particularly delicate, but it actually requires just as much tenderness, care, and patience as any other cooking method—if not even more. You’ll need to rely on your senses (and maybe a timer) to determine if your food is cooking properly, adjust the firewood, and reposition proteins and vegetables to ensure they’re absorbing all those smoky aromas. Here’s how to have the best possible open-fire cooking experience.

Preparing Ingredients for Open-Fire Cooking

While open fires are excellent for grilling proteins like burgers, chicken wings, and shish kebabs, you don’t have to stick to classic barbecue fodder. With the right cookware, you can also take advantage of the indirect heat produced by the flames to make dishes like chili, eggs, and stir-fries. Using a grill frying pan or regular carbon steel frying pan, you can infuse your favorite dishes with the smoky flavors of the charred firewood while also getting a great sear.

Another trick you can use when cooking over a fire is to wait for some of the firewood to burn into glowing embers and ashes, then use them to slow-roast bell peppers or other vegetables. Once they’ve gone completely black, simply peel off the skin to reveal the moist, perfectly cooked flesh underneath.

Open-Fire Cooking in Different Settings

Once you’ve nailed the basics of open-fire cooking, there are plenty of ways to adapt it to your lifestyle. You can also make your next backyard barbecue a little extra memorable by cooking appetizers, mains, cocktails, and even dessert (like whole grilled pineapple) over an open flame.

And if you’re going tailgating, or don’t want to build a whole campfire, you can pick up a portable fire pit for a low-lift, open-fire cooking experience. If you have a designated fire pit to work with, you could even incorporate live fire into your everyday cooking routine.

Ready to Cook?

Cooking over a direct flame can be therapeutic, fun, and even empowering. And now that you know how versatile it can be, we hope you decide to try it out for yourself.

Like with any cooking method, of course, having a solid set of tools can dramatically improve your campfire cooking experience. That’s why we love using our Griddle System: durable, responsive, and heat-safe up to 1200F, our Carbon Steel Griddle gives you plenty of control over the finished product—even when cooking over a roaring fire.

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