The Art of Cooking Over Fire: Easy Outdoor Cooking Techniques
Three easy ways to cook delicious food over fire using embers, grills and Dutch ovens.
Cooking outside over fire for me is something that provides a connection with our past and a sense of fulfilment throughout the whole process. Perhaps you are a teacher or simply someone interested in history who wants to enjoy a Viking feast, or dine like the Romans before them. The ability to make fire has existed since the Stone-Age, meaning that we could cook and preserve food that would have otherwise been inedible. In this blog am going to cover three easy outdoor cooking techniques that can be employed to cook a range of dishes over fire, along with some suggested recipes I hope you will try and enjoy.
Cooking with Embers
What do I really need? Not much at all!
Cooking with embers is perhaps the simplest no-thrills way of cooking. There is so much archaeological evidence to demonstrate that this is how our ancient ancestors cooked, by using the maximum heat of the fire. My own inspiration with this came on an early Scout camp. It was drummed into to us all that the embers did the cooking rather than the big flames that preceded. This is of course true. When the fire has established and the wood has fully ignited, all of the moisture and toxins have burnt off. This is what produces the majority of the smoke, and certain woods will produce a pleasant aroma that is much desired in cooking. One lesson learned, however is if you are planning to cook on embers then you will probably need a bigger fire than you might think- more about that later.
What to cook with embers and how to cook it.
Stone Age cooking, or indeed any cooking over embers begins with the fire. First of all think how much are you going to cook and for how long? If you are just cooking for yourself and maybe one other then a small fire consisting of 5-6 small logs should be enough. Should you be cooking for a larger group of family and friends then a larger fire with a significant bed of embers is essential. In terms of wood, most will suffice, but lighter woods such as birch will provide embers far more quickly.
In terms of what to cook, ember cooking suits some foodstuffs better than others. Steaks, particularly when quite thin benefit from the intense heat that is often only otherwise provided in professional kitchens. Fish, if wrapped in paper can cook particularly well. But it is vegetables where ember cooking literally comes into its own element. I challenge anyone to place a freshly picked sweetcorn cob (unpeeled) onto hot embers and after a few minutes cooking and not enjoy as we do at Belmont on our summer courses. As well as this other vegetables and fruit can be transformed and enjoyed as the embers cook them. Another favourite is the dirty onion. Simply place a large onion into the embers. Then after 15-20 minutes of cooking and turning pull back the burnt outer layers. The sweet taste is utterly divine!
While vegetables come into their own on embers I feel it is flatbreads that I most commonly use them for. the intense heat means that a thinly rolled flatbread will literally cook in a matter of seconds. There is no need to worry about ash sticking to the bread itself as it will burn and dust off in the cooking process. One particular type of flatbread that is suited to ember cooking is the rye-based Tunnbrod, something well worth a try along.
Ideas for cooking on embers
- steak- particularly lamb and venison!
- Pineapple (will take about 30 mins)
- Anything else you fancy trying!!
Things to remember
Cooking on embers is indeed a simple throwback to our past, but here are a few tips and lessons I have learned over the years.
Small fire = minimal embers. It is better to have a slightly larger fire to make sure you have enough embers to cook on,
Embers are in the final stage of a fire, make sure you keep it going if you don’t want it to burn out.
As soon as food goes on to the embers it will absorb the heat and smother the oxygen flow. Move food about to maximise heat flow.
Use a blowpipe to increase heat, but bear in mind that the remaining wood and embers will burn through more quickly.
Once you have finished, rake the embers to spread them out to cool and extinguish with water you leave.
For many the grill is the most familiar way to cook over fire. Typically these are available in two types. Firstly one that hooks onto a tripod and can be raised up and down depending on the desired temperature. The second, sometimes called a Chapa is one with feet that sits above the fire. I use a fantastic Chapa from Netherton Foundry that is both durable and portable. Both types of grill, however are extremely useful and can be used to cook a whole range of dishes as you would on a barbeque at home.
Preparing the fire
Grilling requires heat, so while you don’t necessarily need the later ember stage discussed above, you certainly won’t want to be grilling on a young fire that is all flames and smoke. Lumpwood charcoal in many senses is wood that has been advanced a couple of stages by removing any liquid so that it burns quicker and hotter. With wood we can however produce a suitable heat with a little more patience and preparation. So here are a few tips.
- Start you fire well in advance, an established fire will give off more heat.
- Split any large logs into smaller pieces, this will help them burn quicker and provide more surface heat.
- Allow at least 10 minutes for you grill or chapa to warm up beforehand as the hot metal will help cook the food as well as the fire.
- If you are grilling for a long period of time, place more fuel around the outskirts of the fire and grill then gradually feed in as you cook.
What to grill over an open fire
Pretty much anything that you can cook on a barbeque will cook well on a grill. For me if the grill is sizzling hot then I would thoroughly recommend searing a piece of fillet steak or Venison, as the intense heat will produce that chargrilled effect to perfection. You can also use ground meats that wouldn’t work so well on just embers, many a time I have enjoyed grilled lamb kebabs over fire. As with ember cooking, grilling brings out the best in vegetables and salad crops. Try halving a cos lettuce and courgettes and let them just char on the grill for a few minutes, before slicing and adding to a fresh salad. Alternatively an easy and enjoyable dish to cook is my charred spring green risotto, especially when using fresh asparagus!
Dutch Oven Cooking
Finally we come to what must be the epitome of outdoor cooking, particularly in the winter months. While my grill was my first purchase when establishing Wild Classroom, the second, and certainly most used was my Dutch oven. I could write about the qualities of these for days and indeed I have, although this blog is about the easy outdoor cooking techniques we need to employ with them.
Quite simply Dutch ovens work best suspended from a tripod above an open fire. As the food is inside, you can start cooking once the fire has began to establish. If you are cooking a dish such as a stew that requires a longer cooking time then all you will need to do is to add the logs as and when to keep the fire going.
If you have access to a blender then soups are easy to cook. These are also a great and economic way to feed a large number of people if you have a sizable Dutch oven. For some recipe ideas try my Pea and Apple soup or my particular late season favourite squash and pepper.
Alternatively if you want a classic dish to feel good about then two of my easiest dishes to cook are my chilli dishes. There is both a vegan and beef chilli recipe that I get asked for time and time again when I head into schools, either to focus Mexican cooking or celebrate the end of year 6.
Put simply, our domestic ovens at home take inspiration from how we used to cook outside. Think of you fire as the hob and the tripod as the temperature control where you may need to raise or lower the pot depending on the state of the fire and the ambient conditions. Yes, you will have to keep adding wood to keep the fire going, but this is so much more fun!