Ultimate Guide to Campfire Cooking

Traditional Dutch Oven cooking or Chuckwagon cooking over an open flame.
If you've got a dutch oven, it's easy to cook food over an open flame. See more barbecue pit pictures.
iStockphoto/Roger Branch

­Finally, it's time for the annual camping trip. There really is nothing like sleeping under the stars and getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Of course, they don't call it "roughing it" for nothing. Certain parts of the camping experience are less than appealing, and the food can be one of them. ­There's no denying cooking becomes quite a bit harder when you leave your cook-top and oven back in the kitchen. But these days there are some options to make your excursion much easier, and technology is on your side. As long as you do some research and plan ahead, you might find that cooking over a fire is not as tough as you expected.

Campfire cooking is easy to learn but dif­ficult to master. You might use similar ingredients, but it's not like cooking at home. You don't have the convenience of a refrigerator or an oven with ready-made heat. Unless you had a Boy Scout or a parent to teach you how to build a contained fire, you will need to know the proper methods of creating that essential flame. Building the ideal cooking fire depends on what you're cooking.


Since you won't have your 20-piece knife set, your colander, waffle iron and all your other kitchen luxuries, you'll need to know what cooking equipment to buy and bring for your camping trip. To go along with your new equipment, you'll need to learn the proper campfire cooking techniques that can help you prepare a variety of foods over a fire.

Click to the next page to discover how to do what the cavemen perfected -- build an ideal fire for your cooking purposes.


Building the Ideal Cooking Fire

The first step in building the perfect cooking fire is finding the perfect wood. The ideal wood for cooking fires is dry hardwood. Cutting branches off of live trees will only make your cooking experience more tiresome. Live, green wood will produce a very smoky fire and may release pollution into the atmosphere. If you can't find any dry firewood near your campsite, you may be able to buy some at the campground office or a local general store.

Once you've got your wood you'll need to select the location of your campfire. The best campfire spots are flat, rocky and clear of any bushes or low-lying tree branches. If there's already an established fire pit at your campsite, it's best to use it for your campfire as well. Once you've got your site picked out, try and round up a dozen or so softball-sized rocks and arrange them in a 'U'-shape for your fire pit. If it's windy out, you'll want to be careful to maintain your fire so that windswept ashes don't start another fire elsewhere. As for your fire pit, if you can locate a large rock, place it toward the wind with the rest of the pit behind. This will help your fire get a good start and will funnel the smoke in one direction while you're cooking [source: Eartheasy].


Now that your pit is established, begin laying crumpled paper along the bottom of the pit. Cover the paper with small, thin kindling twigs -- lay them flat across the paper in alternating directions. Start your fire by lighting the paper below the kindling wood, and as the kindling wood catches fire, begin adding the larger pieces of wood and do your best to distribute them evenly. As the fire burns and turns to coals, use a stick to shift some of the coals toward one end or the other, which will make one side of the fire hotter than the other. Once the fire has died down, place a grill across the rocks and get to cooking [source: Eartheasy].

Read the next page to see what kinds of campfire cooking equipment you'll need to pack with you on your trip.


Campfire Cooking Equipment

The most important things you'll need for campfire cooking are planning and patience. Utensils, pots, pans and modern camper-friendly kitchen supplies will not cook your meals for you. And, as avid campers know, something unexpected can always happen, so it's best to be prepared with a plan. Be sure to plan all of your meals ahead of time and ensure that ingredients can be kept cool if necessary. Measuring and separating ingredients, or cooking them so that they can simply be reheated, before you leave on your trip can be a big help [source: Love the Outdoors].

The most popular campfire cooking tool is the Dutch oven. The large, thick pot and lid are primarily used hanging from a tripod over the fire. However, you can also use a Dutch oven on a grill set up over the campfire or as a large serving bowl if you're camping with a group.


Most of the cooking equipment you'll nee­d can be found in the average kitchen, but make sure your kitchen supplies are durable enough to brave the great outdoors before you decide to bring them along. For instance, the wooden spoon you use at home is not a good idea for cooking over an open fire. Similarly, cast iron pots and pans are much better suited for the rigors of cooking in a fire pit. Although they may be bulkier and heavier to transport, the longer your cooking utensils are, the further your hands will be from the fire [source: Chuckwagon Diner].

Click to the last page to gain knowledge on some of the techniques you'll need to master before you begin your first campfire cooking experience.


Campfire Cooking Techniques

­The fire's crackling away, and all the cooking equipment you could scour up is ready to go. The great thing about campfire cooking techniques is that there are so many to choose from. You don't have to follow one method of cooking and never stray. Different foods cook up better in different ways, so remember to think outside the skillet.

One option you might consider is to use hardwood coals in your fire, which will allow you to cook food right on top of the coals. Bread for toasting, biscuits and meat are all delicious when cooked directly on the hot coals because they have that grilled taste. Like coals, a rock is also a good conductor of heat, so if you find a dry rock that is flat and thin, it can be used similarly in the fire.


Surprisingly, leaves can be used in a campfire cooking. You can wrap your prepared meat in cabbage or lettuce leaves and place the wrap directly on the coals. This will keep your meat moist.

If you have an empty coffee can just hanging around your place, bring it. Coffee cans can hold large portions of food for cooking, almost like a casserole dish. You can layer your meats and vegetables inside the coffee can, then cover the can with foil and place it on the coals. It might also be a good idea to cover the foil with coals, too. This will make the heating process more like oven cooking. [source: My Favorite Camping Store].

You can even cook food inside other food. For example, if you take the insides out of an orange, fill the orange peel with cake mix and wrap foil around the orange before you place it on the fire, you will be able to eat cake in about 10 minutes [source: Ellsay]!

Campfire cooking is full of possibilities. Sure, you can use a skillet to make scrambled eggs or use a Dutch oven to make donuts. But you also have many alternative techniques available to you when cooking over an open fire.

Now you're all set to make a gourmet meal out on the trails! Pack up all the necessary equipment and bring your friends along so you can impress them with your outdoor survival skills.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Chuckwagon Diner. "Tools and Equipment." (Jan. 25, 2009) http://www.chuckwagondiner.com/toolsequipment.html
  • Eartheasy. "Campfire Cooking." (Jan. 25, 2009) http://www.eartheasy.com/play_campfire_cooking.htm
  • Ellsay, Chris. "Camp Cookery with Pizzazz." (Jan. 25, 2009) http://www.netwoods.com/cooking/pizzaz.html
  • Love the Outdoors. "Camping Guide - Camp Cooking Tips." (Jan. 25, 2009) http://www.lovetheoutdoors.com/camping/Camp_Cooking_Tips.htm
  • Martin-Buhler, Laura. "Modern Day Food Foraging." (Jan. 25, 2009) http://www.infowest.com/business/g/gentle/foraging.html
  • My Favorite Camping Store. "Fun Campfire Cooking Techniques." (Jan. 25, 2009)http://www.my-favorite-camping-store.com/campfire-cooking.html