Bushcraft cooking for beginners (part one – building the fire)
Since starting Wild Classroom, I have been lucky enough to introduce many young people (and older!) to the joys of cooking outside with fire. While we are all now used to the convenience of modern domestic ovens as a means to cook our food, if we skip back just a few generations, cooking with fire was a skill essential for every household predating modern history.
For me, cooking with fire has countless benefits that are almost too numerous to list, but that connection with past generations has to be right at the top.
If we are stepping outside to cook for the first time on fire, what would I suggest?
Here over the next few months I will be sharing a few tips from my workshops.
1. Choose a safe location, ideally flat bare earth (not peat) that away from dry grass or any other flammable tinder, if you have a fire bowl to hand all the better! You should always have a fire bucket of water, in case the fire needs extinguishing quickly.
2. Choose your wood carefully, any dry hardwood can be used, avoid softwoods that contain a lot of sap such as pine or spruce, they will not burn very well and will taint any food that is being cooked. Birch is much favoured by Nordic chefs such as Niklas Ekstedt as it sustainable and burns easily and evenly, other woods such as ash and seasoned chestnut, beech and oak will also be great for cooking on.
3. Do not build your fire too big. Imagine you are cooking on a stove at home, you need to be able to get near the pan to cook on it, if you have a blazing inferno in front of you not only is this a safety risk, it will be impossible to cook on. No more than 4-5 small logs should be needed at any time.
4. Wherever possible use natural firelighters that are not doused in chemicals, these will again taint the food. I often use a natural firelighter made of beeswax, sawdust and newspaper(pic. 1), but old mans beard and even cotton wool work well too.
5. Build your fire top down( see pic. 2). By this I mean have the largest 2-3 logs (perhaps oak or ash) at the bottom of the fire, these will provide the long term heat for your fire. On top of these place some smaller, split logs (birch is ideal here), before building 3-4 layers of kindling in a cross-hatch style ready to ignite- think Jenga! Wood burns from the top down, so it is essential for your fire to get lots of oxygen and the kindling will then create embers that will heat up and ignite the larger pieces of wood (pic. 3)
6. Lighting the fire. This can be done with matches and lighters, but on a cold windy day this will prove frustrating, if not nearly impossible. This is where dry cotton wool and a fire steel really come into their own, these are easily available and for me are the most effective way of starting a fire in challenging conditions- I wouldn’t be without mine! (pic.4)
7. Once the fire is lit, always keep your eye on it, at the beginning it may need more oxygen if the wood is damp or it is a cold day, but you have a responsibility to make sure the fire is safe at all times.
8. Do not forget to feed the fire, especially on warm and windy days your logs will burn out quicker. Once the fire has established place a log or two on the edge to warm through before feeding it to the fire when needed.
If you have considered all of these steps you should be ready to cook on the fire until your heart and food is content.
More tips to follow…