Campfire Cooking, Great Fun and Great Food in the Great Outdoors

Memories of campfire cooking while camping in the great outdoors are memories that last a lifetime. It's the kind of experience that touches the soul like some ancient ritual buried deep within our human lineage.

It's the crackle of the fire, the comforting warmth of the flames, the scent of fresh food sizzling over the coals, and the mouthwatering taste that can never be duplicated in any kitchen.

Anyone who's been a kid can remember how fun it was to roast hot dogs over a campfire or roast marshmallows and makes s'mores. In fact, many probably never graduated beyond this basic stick roasting technique.

Today that's going to change. We're going to go beyond hot dogs and marshmallows to create many more fond campfire cooking memories...and learn how to cook up just about anything on our camping cookouts.

Campfire cooking
Campfire cooking on the barbecue grill

We'll explore the simplest, dirty grilling directly on the coals technique, to Dutch oven wizardry that can cook up even the most gourmet of dishes. Depending on what you brought for campfire cooking equipment, you'll be able to cook over the fire like a caveman, a hobo, or a pioneer. Either way, it's going to be delicious. So open your mind and prepare your taste buds for more family memories that will last a lifetime.

Save the trees: Buy firewood where you burn it to prevent the spread of pests and diseases that have the potential to kill millions of trees. The Nature Conservancy recommends sourcing firewood less than 50 miles from where it will be burned.

Campfire Cooking From Simple to Sublime

Congratulations, you got the fire started! So now what? Well, you could toss that food on the coals, on hot rocks, on a stick, on a grill, in a Dutch oven, in a reflector oven, in a pie iron, in an orange peel, or wrap it in foil or leaves. Let's explore the possibilities...

Dirty Grilling

Cooking food directly on hot coals is called "dirty grilling" and it's by far the simplest method of all. If you ever find yourself without a campfire grill, give this method a try. It's not as bad as it sounds - Julia Child was known to grill steak this way. You can cook meat, potatoes, even bread directly on the campfire coals.

Here's how easy it is. Once your fire has burned down to coals, lay your food directly on the hot coals. Turn occasionally, and once cooked through brush the ash off and enjoy!

When cooking meat, leave the skin on and cook until the outside turns black. You can also grill steak directly on the coals. Dirty grilling is great for wild game too like squirrel, rabbit, snake, and turtle. No skinning required, just toss the beast right on the coals to cook.

Bread baked directly on the coals is fittingly called an "ash cake". To bake one you'll need a bed of white hot ash. Make a stiff dough with your choice of flour and as little water or milk as possible. The drier the dough, the faster it will cook and the better it will hold together. You can also add an egg, nuts, berries or dried fruit to the mix.

Press the dough flat then place it directly on the bed of ash. Carefully flip the ash cake over to bake the other side. Once done, brush off the ash and serve with butter, jam, or honey.

Hot Rocks

Afraid to toss your food directly on hot coals? Try cooking on hot rocks instead. This campfire cooking method keeps the ash out of your food, if that's your preference.

Before starting your fire lay out a bed of large flat rocks over the fire pit. One caution though - rocks that contain moisture can explode, sometimes violently! Avoid blowing your dinner sky high by making sure the rocks are completely dry. Do not use layered rocks like sandstone as moisture may be trapped between the layers, and do not take rocks from a river bed, for obvious reasons.

Once you have a bed of rocks, start a fire on top of the rocks. Burn the fire down to fine coals. Next, use a green stick to brush the embers and ash off the tops of the rocks. Now it's grilling time. Put your steak, fish, potatoes, or veggies on the rocks to cook. Food that takes longer to cook like potatoes and thick cuts of meat should be placed toward the edge of the bed of rocks where temps are cooler.

Stick Roasting

Talk about easy. Using a stick for campfire cooking lets you leave the pots, the pans, and the dishwashing at home.

Shish Kebabs
Shish kebabs can be a healthy alternative to hot dogs when camping out

Sticks aren't just for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows either. You can bake bread on a stick too. All you need is flour and water. Make a pliable dough and roll it into a snake like shape. Wind the dough around the stick in a spiral then hold the stick over hot coals until the bread is browned and baked through.

Shish kebabs are another fun and tasty way to cook on a stick. Stack meat, seafood, vegetables, and fruits on a skewer and you've got yourself a complete meal on a stick...did I mention easy. The trick is to cut each food to a thickness that allows everything to be done at the same time. Since potatoes and meat take longer to cook you'll want to cut them into thinner pieces.

Hobo Packs

A meal wrapped in foil and placed on the campfire is known as a "hobo pack". This campfire cooking technique has been around for decades and remains popular today. It's great for cooking up entire meals. All you need are 3 clean F words: food, fire, and foil.

Foil cooking recipes
Foil cooking recipes

To prepare a hobo pack tear off a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil and coat the top side with cooking spray. Place your entire meal in the center of the foil - meat, fish, potatoes, veggies, oil, spices, etc. Keep foods that take longest to cook near the bottom. 

Lift the sides of the foil up over the food and seal the packet by folding the edges together. Once the fire has burned down to coals, place your hobo pack on top of the coals and turn occasionally. Check for doneness by opening the foil packet every so often.

You can also bake break, cake, brownies, and cookies in foil - either from scratch or with a pre-maid mix. Just add water to the dry ingredients - or if you like add milk, eggs, and oil too. Mix the batter in a plastic bag or bowl. Batter that is very moist will take longer to bake, so try to keep the liquids to a minimum.

Tear off a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil large enough to contain the batter. Coast the foil with cooking spray. Scoop the batter onto the foil and wrap it up, sealing the ends. Place the foil packet on the coals, then arrange a single layer of coals on top of the foil. Essentially you are creating an oven, with heat coming from the coals on the bottom as well as the top. Replace the coals on top with fresh hot coals once they become cool. Check your baked goods every so often, and once browned on the outside your bread or brownies should be done.

Campfire Grill

Campfire grill
Campfire grill with height adjustable support

That old familiar charcoal grill can be used for campfire cooking too. I use a run of the mill circular grill over campfire coals for the best barbecue taste I've known. Before lighting the fire I arrange the rocks to support my grill so it ends up a few inches above the hot coals.

Once the firewood has burned down, I level out the coals, set my grill on the rocks, and start grilling. Grease falling onto the coals can cause flames to shoot up, charring your food. To avoid this, use a spray bottle or squirt gun to shoot the flames down.

You can purchase grills made specifically for cooking over a campfire. These usually feature a height adjustable support. Many also have a raised edge to keep your food from falling off the ends of the grill.

Dutch Oven

Dutch oven
Dutch oven designed for campfire cooking

Campers have been creating scrumptious meals with Dutch ovens for hundreds of years.

If there is one piece of campfire cooking equipment that can do it all, it is the Dutch oven. These versatile ovens can boil, bake, fry, and roast.

Almost anything can be prepared in these large cast-iron pots that feature three legs, a wire bail, and a tight fitting lid. The lid is rimmed so that hot coals can be placed on top when baking.

Hanging the Dutch oven over the fire with a tripod is a popular campfire cooking method. Another option is to set the oven on a metal grill placed over the fire. You can also set the oven right down on top of the coals to get the most heat from the campfire. The Dutch oven has legs just for this purpose.

Reflector Oven

A reflector oven is a unique piece of campfire cooking equipment that bakes your favorite goodies using radiant energy from the campfire. The oven is made of shiny aluminum or tin which acts as a reflector intensifying the heat of the fire and directing it at the food to be cooked. Solar ovens work the same way, only they cook using the sun's energy.

Reflector ovens are very lightweight and most can be disassembled for easy transport. The oven temperature can be controlled by adjusting the size of the fire or by moving the oven closer to or farther from the flames. You'll find reflector ovens for purchase, but because of their simplicity homemade versions are easy to construct for all you DIY campers.

Pie Iron

Pie iron
Pie iron made of cast iron

Standing around the campfire without a pie iron in your hand is missing out on something quick, hot, and tasty. This campfire cooking method is as easy as roasting on a stick.

In fact a pie iron is just a stick with a cast iron or aluminum pocket at one end. This pocket holds two pieces of buttered bread with any kind of filling sandwiched in between - cheese, pie filling, meat, veggies, etc.

A pie iron isn't just for pies and sandwiches though. You can grill hamburgers, chicken, pork chop, potatoes, and veggies too.

Pie irons can be placed directly in the flames to cook, or set on top of the coals. It's cooking the whole family can enjoy and cleanup is as easy as (you know it!) pie.

Food Itself

Use plants, not pots, and save yourself some dish soap.

Cooking with Leaves

Campfire cooking with leaves is an ancient practice and a way to connect with our distant ancestors...gastronomically speaking. Wrapping food in leaves and placing it on the campfire coals or beside the fire gives food a smoky grilled flavor that takes on the aroma of whatever plant leaf you choose to use.

Like cooking in aluminum foil, leaves help to retain moisture, but they also provide moisture themselves and have a steaming effect on your campfire dishes. Cooking fish wrapped in leaves is popular, though anything can be cooked in leaves including meat, vegetables, fruits, and potatoes.

There are so many different leaves to choose from and each plant species imparts a unique flavor to campfire cuisine. Here are a few great choices to get you started. You can get your leaves in the wild or at the supermarket.

  • Cattail Leaves
  • Banana Leaves
  • Corn Husks
  • Ramps
  • Grape Leaves
  • Nettle
  • Walnut Leaves
  • Lettuce
  • Cabbage

Citrus Peel

Did you forget the pan? Use the peel instead. As long as you brought along some oranges, lemon, or grapefruit. Other fruits with a tough skin can work too. Cut the citrus fruit in half then carefully scoop out the flesh, keeping the two halves of peel intact. Fill each "cup" with a batter of your choice. Cover the tops with aluminum foil and place the cups directly on your campfire coals. Wait 10 minutes or so, then enjoy your baked delights.

Another tasty option is to fill the citrus peel with eggs, cooked sausage, and some chopped veggies for a nice breakfast. Or toss in some ground beef and make yourself a hamburger. For desert, chop up an apple, add a little cinnamon and sugar and enjoy baked apples from an orange peel. Cooking in citrus fruit adds a fresh twist to many foods so feel free to experiment.

Stay Safe and Keep it Beautiful

There's no doubt that we have a greater impact on the environment today than in the past. Scarring the land with more fire rings creates an eyesore, and being careless with fire puts the whole forest at risk. Here are a few ways we can minimize our impact and leave the land just as beautiful as it is today for our grandchildren.

Whenever possible use existing fire pits for campfire cooking. If no fire pit is available the fire must be over bare mineral soil. As an extra precaution and to keep your environmental impact to a minimum have your fire on top of a piece of metal or in a portable fire pit like the Char-Broil Portable Fire bowl. Keep the fire away from tree roots. Scrape away any forest duff to expose a wide circle of bare dirt.

High winds will greatly reduce cooking efficiency and increase the risk of starting a forest fire. If you can't find a sheltered area for the fire you'll have to wait until the wind dies down.

Use dry seasoned wood for campfire cooking as it will provide the best heat. Green wood and vegetation will burn poorly and produce clouds of thick smoke.

Extinguish the fire before retiring for the evening. Make sure all wood is completely burned, along with any paper trash. Tend the fire until all of the embers have been consumed.

Once you're left with only ashes, take a sturdy stick and stir in water, dirt, or both. Continue stirring until the ground has cooled. Now it's time for the fire stomping dance! Stomp on the ashes and twist your foot to grind the ashes into a powder. Mix in some dirt and give the ashes a few more stomps and twists.

Put your hand down and feel the ground for any heat. If the ground is still warm, add more water or dirt until the site is cool. If this was not an established fire pit, restore the site to remove any trace of the fire's presence, but be doubly sure the ground is cool before recovering it with anything flammable like forest duff.

Camp Cookware

Before you head out into the wilderness (or your backyard) visit my RV Boondocking Store for top rated campfire grills, Dutch ovens, cast iron cookware, campfire cookbooks, and more campfire cooking supplies.

Now start a fire and cook up something amazing. And if you happen to have any leftovers, save some for me. I'll be in the next campsite over.

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