A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking Over a Campfire


So, you want to cook over a campfire. You won’t regret picking up this hobby! Not only is it very satisfying to make a delicious meal with less than ideal circumstances, but there are some foods that are only achievable with that rustic taste when cooked over flames! Lastly, nobody can argue how cool you are if you can make an awesome meal over a campfire.

Cooking over a campfire successfully requires choosing a fuel type (wood or charcoal), picking the right fire configuration for your meal, using the right pots and pans for the job, as well as using the right cooking tools. If you have created the right cooking environment, the last step is to carefully regulate your cooking temperature and use the right flame for the right food.

Admittingly, it’s challenging to have a successful meal every try, because cooking over a campfire requires a lot of experimentation–it’s not an exact science because you aren’t dealing with exact temperatures. You’re going to burn some food, and your tinfoil dinner might turn out a little bland. With some practice, you’ll be a master in no time, and everyone will want to tag along with your camping group if you’re the one cooking.

Choosing Your Fire Style

The first step is to choose what type of fuel you are going to use. If you go with wood, or charcoal briquettes, or both (porque no los dos?), you will have very different cooking experiences.

Wood fire

campfire_log_burning
I get a cozy feeling every time I see a campfire

Ahh, the good ol’ campfire. Cooking and practicality aside, gathering around the campfire to spend time with your friends and family are the best. There’s something so mesmerizing about the fire. Memories are made with that campfire smell with the smell of dinner cooking.

Advantages

Cooking with a wood fire has advantages over cooking with methods:

  • You get the benefit of smoke from the wood to flavor your food. Charcoal and gas stoves are great, but some flavors are unleashed with that wood campfire smell. Additionally, you can use specific wood that can enhance the flavor (check with your local park to find out what wood you are allowed to bring to the park. Generally parks don’t like when people bring in wood, but smoke chips are generally not a problem)
  • You don’t have to have a camp stove to cook with fire. If you’re just getting into camping, this can mean you can get away with not buying a camping stove and gas for the first few trips
  • Cool –Ironically, wood campfires are just cool. Campfires have huge social appeal.
  • Really the only way (that’s fun at least) to roast sausages, hot dogs, and marshmallows

Disadvantages

  • Wood fires can be difficult and time-consuming to light. Fire design takes practice, and if conditions are bad due to lack of wood, wet wood, or high winds, your dinner might be waiting a couple of hours while you try and figure out the fire.
  • Wood is not always available. We’ve experienced this many times where we want to light a fire and we’re camping off-season, and so the only place to buy the wood is at the park where we are camping, which closes at 5 PM. When we’re camping for the weekend, we almost always get to our campsite past 5 PM. In any case–finding wood can be a challenge at times.
  • Wood is more expensive in the long run. If you are camping a lot, it quickly gets impractical to use a fire every night to cook your food. It turns out it’s much cheaper to use a gas stove, even if it’s a higher cost up front. There is an exception to this: If you are buying wood by the cord, then the cost of using wood for your campfire is trivial.
  • Wood takes up the most room out of any other fuel. Wood takes up a lot of room–not only that, but wood attracts bugs. Several times we have gone camping and found little stowaways with our wood.
  • Inconsistent heating. Wood has many stages of burning, and thus you have many different heating levels to deal with when you’re trying to cook. Not only that… even the best fires are not uniformly dense, so you will inevitably have “cold spots”.

It sounds like I’m dissing on wood. I’m not! I really love a wood campfire… but those are some of the disadvantages of using wood for your campfire.

Charcoal Briquette Fire

Charcoal fires are not nearly as romantic, but they still hold a rustic edge, and they are very practical if you want to get that outdoor cooked taste without some of the disadvantages that wood brings.

Advantages

  • Arguably less messy than wood to burn. Although charcoal is messy to handle since it leaves little black soot residue, once you’re burning it, your fire isn’t going to spit or crackle, or smoke. It’s just going to radiate heat
  • Consistent and predictable heating throughout. Charcoal burns efficiently and consistently. So the temperature of your fire will be closely proportional to the number of charcoal briquettes you have
  • Cheaper. You can get a gigantic 10 lb bag of charcoal briquettes for a few dollars, which will work for several meals. Conversely, if you’re buying wood by the bundle then you will pay $4-$6, which isn’t quite enough for one meal
  • Doesn’t attract bugs. Bugs don’t generally hang out with your charcoal briquettes
  • More compact. Charcoal is much more compact than wood to carry
  • Depending on who you are, you might not like the campfire smell. If you cook with charcoal, you won’t smell like a campfire

Disadvantages

  • Difficult to ignite without the right tools. If you don’t have charcoal lighter fluid or a coal chimney, it can be difficult to get charcoal briquettes to ignite and get white hot.
  • Can be messy to lug around. Sometimes you don’t want to lug around the entire bag of charcoal, and so shuttling charcoal between bags and carrying it in your car can be messy.
  • Not as romantic. Maybe this isn’t quantifiable, but it really isn’t as fun to use charcoal to cook over a campfire, even if it is arguably more practical.

Which Type of Pot or Pan is Best For Cooking Over a Campfire

Any pot or pan that you use in your kitchen will work over a campfire, but you may run into issues. Some pots and pans are not suited to very high temperatures or will get scorch marks if you use them in a fire.

Cast iron is the most ideal for car camping (camping in sight of your car), but there are other options for campers who are in the wilderness and don’t want to carry heavy cast iron pots.

If you want to learn more about what types of pots and pans are suited for camping as well as comparisons between different materials, check out my post here where I wrote more about his subject in detail.

How to Cook Over a Wood Fire

Enough talk, let’s go through the steps on how to cook over a campfire.

Step 1: Build Your Fire The Right Way

Before you can cook with your fire, you have to build your fire. This may seem obvious, but the type of wood matters, as well as the wood arrangement you are using to start your fire. Different wood arrangements make the wood more or less dense, and thus creating different amounts of airflow. Since wood needs air to burn, this can impact how your fire goes.

What Type of Wood Is Best for Cooking Campfires?

When it comes down to it, you can get any wood to work. The most important aspect of wood relating to starting a fire is whether it is dry or not.

However, softwoods (trees that are generally less dense) burn faster than hardwoods (trees that are generally denser). This makes sense because softwoods have more oxygen and other gasses within the wood than do hardwoods.

If you only build your fire with softwood, your fire will flare up quickly and intensely, and then die out. Therefore, if you only have softwood, then you need to bring more of it (volume) to make sure you do not exhaust your fuel.

If you only build your fire with hardwood, you’ll find that it will take longer for your wood to ignite, which can be a real killjoy for your dinner plans if everyone is waiting for you to start the fire. The upside is, that when your fire is going, hardwoods will burn slower, meaning you will not have to replace the wood as often.

The ideal is to use a combination of softwood and hardwood. Softwood to start the fire, and hardwood to keep the fire going. This isn’t always possible, so just be prepared to have plenty of wood if you have softwood, and lots of good tinder and kindling if you are using hardwood.

Remember, hardwood and softwood has a technical definition, and it doesn’t always mean that the trees are literally softer or harder. Generally, that is the case, though.

Examples of hardwoods: cherry, oak, alder, birch, walnut, maple, mesquite

Example of softwoods: cedar, most fir trees (pine, spruce, etc)

Lastly, some trees when smoked leave a pungent and intense flavor behind in the food. Mesquite or Hickory trees, for example, have a strong scent when burned, which may make your meal taste amazing! Or not, depending on what you’re cooking. Because you aren’t smoking your food, though, it’s not going to be as intense of a taste as it would in a BBQ smoker.

Which Wood Arrangement Works Best

There are undoubtedly hundreds of ways to start a fire. The end goal is to create a flame, and so the means to get there isn’t as crucial. When you’re cooking over a campfire, though, the type of wood arrangement can make a huge difference in convenience.

All of this depends on what you are trying to cook, as well. If you are just trying to boil water then you want to get your pot or pan to the hottest spot in the fire and you don’t have to worry about burning your food.

If you are trying to cook a meal, such as stir fry vegetables, you don’t necessarily want to cook on the hottest part of the fire, but instead, want to cook over the coals of your wood fire.

A couple of fast-starting fires are not great for cooking over but do create coals which you can pull away from the main fire so you can use them to cook.

The teepee fire is essentially made up of sticks propping each other up, with tinder and kindling in the center of the teepee shape, and the larger sticks on the outside. The teepee fire brings up flames very quickly because of the good airflow design. You’re going to have to scoot the coals away from the teepee to cook with since you can’t rest a pan effectively on the teepee.

The lean-to fire is another fire ignition where a large log on one side has sticks under it forming a base and sticks lying on top of the large log. The large log acts as a funnel for the wind making the fire ignite very quickly. This design is not for cooking directly on, but can be easily modified to turn into a log-cabin fire.

The log cabin fire is essentially made up of perpendicularly stacked logs arranged 2 by 2 and is ignited from below. This can easily be made into a surface made for cooking, but coals may not come as quickly from a log cabin fire.

The platform fire (also known as an upside-down fire, or a pyramid fire) is ignited from the top, and the logs are placed closely together. This provides a huge amount of heat over a long period of time. Because of its design, it is a natural platform and can be used as a heating surface directly.

A trench fire. Trench fires are basically made up from a small trench that slopes gradually so that one side of the trench is less shallow than the other. This allows for a long fire, which supports multiple pots and pans, and allows for varying heat. The coals can be shoved to the shallow end and the fire can be in the deep end (or vice versa, depending on your needs) so that different foods can utilize both ends of the trench at the same time. Teepee fires or lean-to fires will work great for being the fuel for this type of cooking fire.

Step 2: Ignite Your Fire

Phew! After all that work putting together your fire, you finally can light it!

Tips For Starting a Fire

So… in all reality, sometimes lighting your fire is no joke.

Remember the size of your wood counts immeasurably, and it helps to know their names:

SizeNameIdeas
Very fine, think as wide as a lollipop stickTinderCharcloth, pine needles, very small twigs, shaved jute twine, cotton balls soaked in vaseline
Think the width of your fingers and lessKindlingLarger twigs and bits of dead bark
About the width of your wristSticksSelf-explanatory
The width of your arm or thighsFuelSelf-explanatory

You need tinder to light your kindling, and your kindling to light your sticks, and your sticks to light your logs.

Besides that, here are a few tips to make sure you have success in igniting your fire.

  • Dry tinder and kindling: By far the most important thing for lighting a fire (besides an ignition source like matches or a lighter) are dry tinder and kindling. Even wood that’s a little wet can be burnt, as long as your tinder and kindling are dry.
  • Airflow: Sometimes it’s really tempting to smother your fire with tinder and kindling to get it to burn faster. If it’s going to block air though, leave it out. Without air, you won’t have a fire. Check out the tools section of this post to see ideas of different fire tools you can use to help out here.
  • Use windscreens if necessary. If it’s really windy outside, it might be very difficult to light that fire. Use rocks, or a friend to block the wind until you can get the fire started.

Things To Remember For Outdoor Cooking

  • Do not use paper tinder. Not because it’s a bad tinder, but paper flakes up easily, and you’ll find little bits of paper floating everywhere. Although this isn’t a huge issue, generally, if you are cooking, you probably don’t want to have little bits of paper floating into your food (Isn’t that an oddly specific warning? It’s as if the author of this post has tried this and learned the hard way or something. 😉)
  • Practice Leave No Trace ideals

When Is the Wood Fire Ready?

If you’re boiling water, whenever you have a good self-sustaining flame is a good time to start heating up your water. If you are cooking food, you want to wait till there are generous coals (red hot embers) at the base of your fire.

Step 3: Prepare your cooking surface

Now that you have a fire going, what are you going to cook on?

This is where this gets a little tricky. The easiest and most accessible thing to use is the fire itself. But this comes with some disadvantages. Reaching to pick up your pan off the hot coals of the fire itself is difficult, not to mention that the heat from the fire will likely be too hot to cook your food. You are not going to be able to use oil on your food since pouring oil on a hot fire is not a good idea.

Therefore, another option is to use a flat cooking surface. You can use rocks as one example, but this again comes with another caveat. Many rocks actually have water inside, which means that when the rock is heated, the rocks can explode.

Only you can prevent rocks from exploding!

So use the right type of rocks. Denser rocks including non-striped rocks are a safer bet to cook on than softer rocks like sandstone or limestone.

Isn’t that amazing! In the same post, we learned about softwoods and hardwoods, and now softstone and hardstones! You’re going to be an expert after this post.

Fortunately, there are other options for cooking surfaces. Check out the tools section of this post for ideas.

Step 4: Cook your meal!

Now finally, you’ve done everything you need to get your fire going, and you can finally get cooking!

Choose Meals That Are More Forgiving

Remember that cooking on a fire is not very much like cooking on your stove at home. The heating is irregular, and sometimes very high. Try to find a spot on the fire that you can cook that is somewhere in between and aim for medium heat. This may not be possible, but that’s where you should aim (Unless you’re boiling water. No reason to hold back, there!)

The secret to ensuring you have a great meal is to do meals that are more forgiving. There are tons of different tinfoil dinners you can make, and since you are trapping much of the moisture within the tinfoil, it can sustain a lot of heat (directly in the coals) for a long time. Remember, for tinfoil dinners, it always takes more spices than you think. Salsa and hot sauce are great additions to the ingredients to ensure you have a delicious tinfoil dinner.

Fajitas, tinfoil dinners, a stir fry, and even just roasting hot dogs are dinners that have a high likelihood of success.

Cook on and off the fire

Eggs now… eggs are tricky. They can burn to the pan and stink up the campsite and be impossible to clean off. Some people will cook the main dish on the fire, and then take the pan off the fire and cook the eggs on the hot pan, bringing it momentarily to the fire only to heat it up as needed. This is a great way to make sure you don’t burn the eggs.

How to Cook Over a Charcoal Briquette Fire

It’s much simpler to cook over a charcoal briquette fire. Charcoal is a slow-burning material that will burn hot and consistently until the charcoal is exhumed.

Step 1: Figure Out Your Charcoal Arrangement

There are actually many more arrangements to charcoal than just a big pile!

The big pile. This is what most people think of when they use a charcoal grill or are cooking outdoors. You just throw all the coal in a pile and cook directly on top of it. This is great for cooking hamburgers or anything that requires a lot of heat for a short period of time.

The two hot-zone, one cold zone method. You can split your hot coals into two groups, with a cold spot in the center. This allows some flexibility in moving your food around from the hot to the cold spots and keeping food warm without removing them from heat. Great for fruit such as pineapple or anything else that needs lower heat.

Ring formation. What’s cool about using cast iron pots is you can put your cast iron directly on the charcoal. You can arrange your charcoal into a ring with tongs after the charcoal is hot, and then place the pan directly on top of the charcoal.

Scatter formation. This can be used underneath a pan, or a dutch oven to evenly heat the underside of the pot or pan. If a dutch oven is in use, you can then put coals on top of the dutch oven as well as underneath.

Step 2: Igniting the Charcoal

This can actually be step 1, since it’s easier to ignite all your charcoal at once than separately, but you again have to ignite your charcoal. If you have lighter fluid, this isn’t too hard. I prefer using a coal chimney so I can forego using lighter fluid. See the tools section to see more information about these tools.

Should I Use Easy-Light Charcoal?

There is some charcoal available that has lighter-fluid… I don’t know.. infused? I’m not sure what process they use. Anyway, this charcoal is easier to light than charcoal by itself.

Some would argue though that this type of charcoal messes up your timings and temperatures since the charcoal is now burning at a non-standard rate. If you are just cooking using the pile method and are cooking up some hamburgers, then easy-light charcoal will work fine. If you are following a more complicated recipe and need to ensure you have more exact temperatures than I’d recommend using standard charcoal briquettes.

When Is the Charcoal Ready?

This can be tricky, but you know you have hot coals when you place your hand 6 inches above the coals and you can’t stand the heat for more than 3-5 seconds. This is definitely hot enough to start cooking. Others will say when the coals are white-hot. I personally think coals are ready to start cooking with when the coals are consistently glowing and the temperature is hot (checked by the hand method).

Step 3: Cook With Your Charcoal

Awesome! You’ve made it this far, you’re now ready to cook your food!

Tools For Cooking Over a Campfire

There are so many tools out there to make cooking easier. Although it’s really impressive to be able to make a fire with your bare hands, it’s also very cool to be able to eat dinner. So you may have to make the judgment call that it’s better to get your fire up and running and easy to cook with than to start your fire the hard way.

Camp Grill

Many campsites have a camp grill as part of their firepit. In my experience, these are not always super convenient to use and are not in the best shape. However, they are better than nothing and can be very useful.

Built-in camp grill at our local state park

Silicone Handles

As you can see from the picture of our cast iron skillet above, many cast iron cookware is easier to use with attached handles. You can use a glove or a towel to handle your cookware, or you can use one of the silicone handles that you see in the picture. You can purchase these separately, as well (see the price on Amazon).

Portable Camp Grill

As I mentioned, the built-in camp grills sometimes leave something to be desired, so many people opt to use their own portable camp grill. It’s just a piece of metal that you can place directly over the flames. This is also really handy when your fire pit doesn’t have a grill at all.

A camp grill goes directly over the fire or coals

They are relatively inexpensive, as well, such as this one sold on Amazon.

Coal Chimney

Make cooking with charcoal easy!

A coal chimney makes igniting your charcoal briquettes at least a dozen times easier. If you are planning on cooking with charcoal, I highly recommend you go check out my article about our coal chimney that I use here as well as show an example of one that’s reasonably priced.

Pocket Bellows

If you’re having trouble getting your fires to ignite within a short period of time, I wrote a little about my pocket bellows, here. It makes starting fires much easier with less smoke in your eyes.

Cast Iron Tripods or Stands

Another option people use for cooking over a campfire is using a cooking tripod or a swing. The basic idea is cast iron poles suspending your pots and pans above a fire.

cast-iron-stand-cookfire
A tripod or a swing suspends your cookware above the fire

An example of a tripod sold on Amazon is here. And a more fully featured swing is also available here on Amazon. The swing allows multiple pots or pans to suspend over the fire.

Billy Bob Campfire Grill

There are many different designs that all accomplish the same task: suspending your cookware over your campfire. A Billy Bob grill is especially notable since it allows multiple arms to support different pots and pans, and only requires a single pole driven into the ground.

Coal Shovel

A coal shovel is indispensable if you’re cooking over a fire frequently. You can definitely get by with a stick, but being able to scoop up those hot coals and put them exactly where you want them is a lot less stressful than carefully balancing fire on a stick.

Check out this reasonably priced coal shovel on Amazon.

Skewer Sticks

If you don’t want to get into cast iron cooking with any intensity, another option is to simply use skewer sticks. In fact, these are the go-to for marshmallows and sausages. You can use the simple bamboo skewer sticks that are extremely cheap, or you can invest in the telescoping skewer sticks that last longer and store better.

We found some like this at our local sporting goods store and we like not having to worry about purchasing new sticks or hunting around suitable sticks at our campsite.

Check out an example of metal skewer sticks on Amazon

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

Recent Content