Ten Top Tips for cooking with fire in Summer.
Here in the UK we are experiencing what possibly could be the hottest and driest summer on record in some parts. I am definitely feeling the heat down here in Kent!
I was asked recently by Erika North on BBC Radio Kent for some tips on cooking over fire in these warm conditions. So I’ve taken a few moments to put them down.
1. The heat can be your friend, most food needs cooking to a temperature of 60-75c, so if the mercury is over 30c then you don’t have to raise the temperature too much, your fire will be hotter on a warm day!
2. Choose the site of your fire well, or ideally use a fire bowl to contain your fire and protect the ground. Beaches are a real no-no if you are cooking directly on the sand or shingle, both retain the heat for a long time and can cause all sorts of nasty accidents. Dry grassland should also be avoided for obvious reasons. If you are cooking on the ground then bare earth (not peat) in a woodland is ideal or a firepit in your garden may suffice, at a push you could also dig up a large patch of turf with the purpose of cooking on the bare earth before replacing after.
3. If you can, soak the area nearby with a gallon or two of water, this will reduce the risk of any fire spreading.
4. Less is more. Keep your fire small, a fire with no more than 3 medium sized logs after the kindling has burnt should be enough to cook most things, any more fuel and the fire will be unnecessarily hot and harder to maintain.
5. In addition to precautions, always have at least 2 buckets of water handy to smother any spread.
6. Know your wood. Always use hardwood as softer wood such as pine and conifers contain tannin that will taint your food. For a quick hot fire, birch is almost foolproof and is used by most restaurants as wood of choice- it burns consistently and gets hot with very little work. Ash and chestnut are plentiful in Kent and burn longer than birch does, making them ideal for stews, curries and chilli’s cooked in a cast-iron pot over the fire. If you have fairly large logs of hardwood such as Ash, Chestnut or Oak, it may be worthwhile splitting them in to smaller pieces to help them burn easier.
7. What to cook? A lot of food can be cooked directly on hot embers- this would normally be about 45 minutes after the fire is lit, please bare in mind as soon as you place a piece of food on hot embers, they will be smothered and immediately cool. If you are cooking a large piece of meat on embers, such as a tomahawk steak you will need a bigger fire and therefore larger bed of embers and you will need to keep moving the steak around the embers to maximise the heat. Smaller pieces of meat, particularly lamb, venison and beef steaks really benefit from ember cooking where they will be seared on the outside but tender on the inside after 4-5 minutes cooking turning 3-4 times.
8. The power of veg! Most vegetables and fruit for that matter are utterly transformed when cooked over embers. Peppers are absolutely amazing, as is any member of the allium family; spring onions will only take a minute cook over fire, caramelising the insides to provide the sweetest of tastes. Larger onions and leeks are an absolute joy when ember-baked, the charred skin retaining an amazing sweetness inside. If you have a large bed of embers and a slightly bigger fire, pineapple (yes pineapple!) is quite possibly the sweetest thing you will ever taste.
9. Ember cooking will only allow you to cook for a small group of people, if you want to cook for more and longer then a good investment is a cast iron skillet or the lid of a Dutch Oven, this can be place directly on the hot logs as they burn and will be ready to cook on in about 5 minutes. With this you can cook a whole range of foods and flatbreads. A simple vegetable wrap can easily be made by searing onions, courgettes, mushrooms and peppers on the skillet before rolling out a simple flour and water flatbread mix (the thinner the better) that in hot conditions should only take a matter of seconds to cook.
10. Do not leave the fire unattended, they joy of cooking over fire is the the element of observation and control that is brought back to the cook. Leave the fire and at best your food is ruined and worst-case scenarios do not even need to be left to the imagination. Once you have finished with your fire, rake the embers out and if possible let the fire die out naturally, before carefully pouring water over the embers to finally cool them and the ground. Do not pour water on to a hot fire as it may result in scalding.
11. I did say ten) Have fun!