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Cooking over an open fire, Part One(repost)

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This was originally posted in the homesteading forum but I felt there might be some interest in it here.

 

COOKING OVER AN OPEN FIRE OR WITHIN A FIREPLACE

 

 

Cooking over an open fire or in a fireplace is neither difficult nor complicated if you start with the right equipment and fire. The most important difference between a conventional stove and oven and fire cooking is the fact that a fire does not come with knobs to turn the temperature up and down. Instead of turning knobs, you move the pan or the coals or both.

 

FIRES:

 

How you manage your fire will determine how well your finished product turns out. Different types of firewood are used in different cooking methods. Hard woods such as oak, maple, etc. hold their heat longer and usually burn steady and hot. These woods would be good for long cooking or baking and for making lots of coals to use in either. Soft woods such as fir and pine make a quick hot fire but do not burn as long. They also tend to snap and throw sparks. They would be good for getting the fire going, to fry things and to bring water to a boil fast. Corncobs usually burn hot and fast also. These fast burning woods and cobs, when used in a cook stove, are called biscuit wood because they make a fire hot enough and keep it burning long enough to bake a pan of baking powder biscuits. They work the same way in a fire. Rotten wood makes the worst fire as it smokes almost continually, but would be great to chase mosquitoes. You can also use charcoal to bake and cook with, either by itself or put on a wood fire to help hold the heat more evenly.

 

Before starting your fire be sure to make the fire pit large enough to accommodate whatever cooking vessels you will be using. Baking is usually done within the coals at the side of the fire pit. If you are using a fireplace, the baking will be done either to the side, possibly in a back corner or at the front of the fire. Roasting can be done either over the fire or directly beside it. Grilling, frying and boiling are done over the fire itself, either using a grate or directly on the hot coals, or by raking coals to the edge of the fire. Some fireplaces come with a crane for hanging a pot and this is normally used for boiling or simmering foods but a Dutch oven, hung the correct distance from the fire, can be used for baking there too.

 

A keyhole shaped outdoor fire pit works well if you will be doing a variety of cooking. That is a large circle pit can be built with a small square or long rectangle pit sticking out from one side. A fire can be built within the whole area and the circular section used for baking, with the square section off to the side used for placing a grate across to use as a grill or stove top. This small square area can also give you more control over the heat by building the main fire just within the circle and pulling hot coals to the square end as needed.

 

MANAGING YOUR FIRE:

 

Whether you are cooking outside on an open fire in a pit, or inside in a fireplace, there are several requirements for a good fire. First, never leave a fire unattended and never build it so big as to let it get out of control. Second, all fires need oxygen to burn well. The amount of oxygen you give a fire will determine how efficiently and hot the fire burns. Ideally, the oxygen should come from the bottom of the fire. In a fireplace or an above ground fire pit, that means keeping the fire off the ground somewhat, either on a grate or by making sure that the coals are loose enough for the air to circulate under them. A bellows is another possibility for getting the air below the fire. In a pit fire, you may have to dig a small trench on the windward side of the fire to direct the flow of oxygen to the base of the fire, or keep the coals stirred occasionally.

 

Start your fire by laying down some crumbled newspaper, dry leaves, or other dry flammable material. Place several small, dry twigs, or dry corncobs on top of that. Place a few medium sized, dry pieces on top of that (you can place them in teepee fashion or stack them sort of like a log cabin, just so the wood is fairly loosely placed on the kindling wood) and then light the kindling paper beneath. Do not add more wood until the kindling, small twigs, and medium sized pieces have all caught flame. Fan the flames gently with a paper if they seem to be slow taking hold. Keep the fan low to the base of the fire. Once the fire is burning well, add wood, a piece or two at a time, until a bed of hot coals starts to build up. Do not break up the coals into smaller pieces as this destroys the heat they contain. If you are boiling, frying or doing other top of the fire cooking you can start cooking as soon as there is sufficient heat coming from the fire. Be aware that this early fire will give you hotter and cooler areas so be careful not to burn the food. If you are baking, roasting or doing other slow cooking, you should take plenty of time to let a deep bed of coals build. Time spent on feeding the fire will save time spent later in the baking. The more coals you place under and/or around your food, the greater the heat. Adding or removing coals is the essence of controlling the temperature. With a little practice it becomes possible to prepare anything on an open fire that might have been prepared with a conventional stove.

 

COOKING UTENSILS:

 

Pots Pans and Utensils:

 

Though tin ware is light and easy to carry it works well only with frying or very liquid meals. Enamel ware, the blue speckled ware you often see in camp stores, is also not a good product to cook over an open fire as it often is too light weight and food can burn easily. However, both of these types of cookware are much better than heavier cast iron for heating water for drinks or clean up. With some searching, you can still find tin ware intended for specific uses around the fire, such as reflector ovens for roasting at the side of the fire and drip pans for catching the juices from roasting meats.

 

Cast iron is by far the best material to bake in. This material holds the heat well and distributes it evenly, thus avoiding the hot spots you get with lighter cooking material. One type of heavy cast iron pot suitable for baking, stews, and a lot of other cooking is called a Dutch oven. If you are going to purchase a Dutch oven try to get one that has a tight fitting lid, preferably with a lip around the edge to hold hot coals on top of the pan, and one that is big enough to hold another pan (like a bread or pie pan) inside to make it a true ‘oven’. Though a smaller one can still be baked in the larger one will be more versatile. There are two basic types of Dutch Ovens, the camp model that has legs on the bottom to lift it above the coals a bit and to help stabilize it and a lip around the edge of the lid for holding coals and the kitchen model that is flat on the bottom and has a rounded lid. If you can only afford one, get one without legs as it can be used on the fire or on the grate and in the kitchen both. If it needs to be raised above the fire or coals or it needs to be stabilized in the fire, rocks work quite well. Sometimes you can find Dutch Ovens that come with lids that can, when turned upside down, double as a griddle or even a frying pan. These are great double duty pans but are hard to find.

 

If you plan on making a lot of pancakes, eggs, etc. You might want to consider getting a cast iron griddle, as they are excellent for that type of cooking. Cast iron frying pans come in all sizes and some come with legs like the Camp oven and lids with lips around them for coals. Often called spiders, they lend a lot of versatility to cooking. I prefer a deep frying pan, sometimes called a chicken fryer, without legs but with a lid with a lip. These can be used for baking also and are extremely versatile. There is a large variety of cast iron ware out there, from bean pots and corn bread makers to teakettles and coffee pots. They all have their uses but unless you will be using the fire as your major source of cooking, only a few are needed.

 

Cast iron cookware needs some special care. Some new pans already come ‘cured’ but most only come with a factory coating to keep it from rusting. That coating should be washed off and the cookware ‘cured’. Curing is the process of putting some sort of fat on the entire pan, inside and out, and heating it to bake the coating on. Some cast iron is very porous and takes many light coatings and baking to make the surface smooth and easy to clean. Enough coatings and a cast iron pan can become almost non-stick. From time to time extra curing will be necessary even with will-cured pans. I use plain unsalted lard to cure my pans with. Some people use cooking oil but I don’t find it works quite as well though others may want to try it. Basically, you coat the cookware, inside and out with a thin layer of some type of fat. Then you put it in a fairly hot oven or even over the coals of a fire and let it heat through until almost smoking hot. This sets the fat into a coating on the pan. Let it cool slowly and repeat as necessary. Even rusted cast iron can be refurbished. First, clean off all the rust. This can be done by scraping, sanding, grinding or even having it sand blasted. I know some people who have put it in their self-cleaning ovens and have had good results with that. Then just use the process above to cure it.

 

Wooden spoons are great for use around the fire, as they don’t conduct heat to the hands. Make sure they are as long as possible to keep you back as far as possible from the heat and smoke when using them. The same goes for turners and cooking forks. The long hot dog forks might seem like a good buy but they are only good for just that, roasting lightweight foods. I prefer the long handled forks and turners that you can buy to use with grills for around the fire. A small shovel such as a coal shovel or a short handled garden shovel is a great help when moving coals from one place to another. Pothooks, various “S” hook and chains, are useful for hanging pots and pans at different heights above the fire if a tripod or spit is used. Lid lifters will be found indispensable. These are simply long or short iron hooks with handles that are used to remove lids or move pans around. They often come with the Dutch oven or cast iron pan. If you cannot find one to buy, you might consider making one if you are handy. They are simply a piece of 1\4 or 1\2 inch rod, bent into a hook at the bottom and a "T" handle fastened to the top. Just make sure that the rod is not too thick to fit through the handles of your pots. Leather welding gloves also work well for potholders and moving hot pots. Just make sure they fit well so that they do not make you clumsy around the fire.

 

Another useful item if you don’t have legged pans is a trivet. It is a pan sized flat metal grill with small (or long) legs under it and usually a handle of some sort to move it around. It is used to raise cookware above the coals to keep the food from burning on the bottom. They come in different heights and if you can only choose one, buy one that has 1 to 3 inch high legs. As I’ve said before though, rocks of different sizes or even bricks can be used in place of a trivet, just make sure the rocks are not those that might hold water as they can explode when heated. Most other utensils needed for cooking over a fire will be found right in your own kitchen

 

I might mention clean up here. Cooking over a fire causes the bottom and sides of cookware to become black with soot. Some people are appalled at using any kind of soap on cast iron pans, even for washing them, but one tip is to coat the bottom and sides of the pan with dish soap before starting to cook and the black will wash off easily afterwards but be very careful not to get the soap in the foods you are cooking. Another suggestion is that you just wipe the inside well with a damp paper towel or cloth, maybe using a bit of sand on the stubborn places and then heat them thoroughly to sanitize them afterwards, leaving the black on the outside. I personally like to use a soft rag or paper towels to wipe off the excess black on my pans before washing them in hot soapy water. I rinse them well, pat them with a paper towel and dry them as fast as possible using a heat source such as an oven, burner or on a grate. If they are well cured, they will not rust or you can give them a very thin coat of cooking oil just to be sure especially if you are going to be storing them for a while without use.

 

 

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One thing I want to be sure gets mentioned (so, hey... here I am mentioning it) is a real saftey precaution. While our pioneer foremothers might have strode the plains in long skirts and dresses, with layers of pettycoats swishing at their feet... this doesn't mean YOU should. That pretty little Laura Ingalls dress was one of the reasons that thru history one of the leading causes of injury AND death was burns caused from leaning over a fire to cook the daily meal.

 

So.

 

Take a few seconds to pull back any long hair into a pony tail or bun, or even tie it up in a nifty bandana. Make sure you aren't wearing anything too loose and flowey that could catch fire (or even just hold smoke that could make it hard to see and breathe. Trust me, as a person who does the whole living history thing... streaming eyes and hacking coughs lead to burns, dropped pans, and gasping breaths. Leave the heavy & heaving breaths for after the meal... you know, when all that wonderful cooking is done, a few well placed gasps could get someone ELSE washing the dishes!)

 

While cooking in a dress is possible - heck, several times a year I'm in a corset or stays, along with several layers of cotton or wool while cooking for a few dozen hearty eaters - take time to make sure things are all gathered and away from the fire. Keep a clean wet towel nearby to wipe your face if you get smoke in your eyes. If you MUST cook in skirts, make sure you have a tightly fitting apron that reaches at least to your knees to keep everything gathered and in place.

 

Just be careful... okay? I don't mean to make cooking over a fire seem like a death riddled proceedure, it is in fact my favorite way to cook. But it IS a skill that takes a little time to master and you don't want to devote all your attention to the food in the pan and neglect to notice the embers smoldering in your lap, on your foot, or settling gracefully in your hair. (Trust me on this. All that happens with the latter is some well meaning and paniced love one dumps several gallons worth of icky stream water over you... ruining your hair, clothes, and the dinner you have been laboring so lovingly over. And... the smell of burning hair has never been an appetite whetter!)

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Some great points Magpie, and ones I always make in my cooking seminars. I should have rememberd to add them to the info. Thanks for doing so.

 

As another one who's cooked in stays and layers of skirts (Civil War reenacting, Rendezvous, SCA and Pioneer/historic recreation) I know first hand the dangers involved in working around a fire. It helps to have stones, bricks or etc surrounding the fire, not only to contain the fire but to act as a shield for your legs. It also helps to have some sort of fire proof work surface close to the fire so you don't have to move hot containers far when working with them. I like a low surface to set on too; a stump will often do. It gets you below the smoke and heat somewhat so you can see what you are doing better and gives you stability when working over the fire.

 

How about the rest of you open fire cooks giving us some of your favorite tips?

 

 

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bump

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Bump again

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This series is some awesome information!

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Quote:
How about the rest of you open fire cooks giving us some of your favorite tips?

OK I didn't see this when I read the post but -
One this we do is ALWAYS have a pail of water nearby (with dipper) for putting out any sparks that get out of hand and also in case your clothes get a burn just put hand in water and pat out the burn mark. And if the fire really gets to hot you have the water to slow things down. We love to cook this way outside.

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