Here’s the picture: You’re camping in the woods. Roughing it. You’re away from your kitchen. And takeout, and even fast food. Does that scenario make you anxious? It shouldn’t: Campfire cooking is easy—and safe—if you follow these expert tips.
• Build the right fire. First things first: Never start a fire until you are sure you are building it in a safe place. If you don’t have a fire pit, look for a spot that’s free of loose dirt, grass, and debris within a 10-foot perimeter of your site. Scout for any tree roots, too, says Sarah Huck, coauthor of Campfire Cookery: Adventuresome Recipes and Other Curiosities for the Great Outdoors ($30, amazon.com): They can easily catch on fire. And steer clear of low-hanging branches. A good ground rule is to have three times the height of the fire in unobstructed overhead space.
Next step, says Huck: Determine the purpose of your campfire. If it will be used only for cooking, she recommends “the hunter’s fire”: Position two ankle-thick pieces of dead, dry wood in a rough V shape, with the sticks six to eight inches apart at the top and three to five inches apart at the bottom. Place tinder (Huck uses dry pine needles, moss, or crumpled newspaper) in the middle of the V. Using small pieces of bark wood or twigs (between the thickness of a match and a piece of chalk), build a teepee around the tinder. Light and slowly feed the fire very dry logs that are about the size of your arm (Huck’s favorite type of wood is maple or oak; she says they are the most stable when burning).
If you’re looking to cook over a fire that will later be used for entertainment purposes (i.e., singing campfire songs, telling ghost stories), Huck recommends the traditional teepee method, which will burn longer and more steadily. Place the tinder in the middle of your designated fire zone and build a teepee of larger sticks around it. As the fire burns, continue to add bigger logs; carefully position them so that they angle toward the flames to avoid smothering the fire. Add one log at a time, allowing it to burn a bit before adding another; this way, you’ll avoid creating a fire that suddenly becomes unmanageable.
• Get the right gear. The obvious probably bears repeating: Plastic can melt, so using metal utensils is crucial, says Julia Perry, an instructor for the REI Outdoor School in Chicago and the Wilderness Medicine Institute. For the same reason, she recommends skipping pots and pans with rubber-coated handles (instead, use an aluminum pot lifter, like Open Country Aluminum Pot Lifters, $4; REI.com). Your best bet is to go with utensils that are specifically made for the outdoors. Her pick: GSI Outdoors Pioneer Enamelware Chef’s Tools ($25 for a spoon, ladle, and spatula; REI.com).
Heavy-duty leather gloves and sturdy close-toed shoes that can take heat from close proximity to a campfire will also provide a layer of protection from hot surfaces, coals, and embers.
• Pick your cooking method. There are a variety of ways to cook over a campfire, depending on your food choice. Stick to good old-fashioned skewer cooking if you are planning to roast marshmallows or hot dogs. Want to barbecue? Swing a campfire-friendly metal grill grate over the flames. (The Texsport Heavy-Duty Swivel Grill can easily be staked into the ground and positioned over a fire pit at a height that’s optimal for safe campfire grilling; $44, amazon.com.) Paul Kautz, creator of CampfireDude.com, likes cooking with a Dutch oven when camping; he feels the pot gives you about as much flexibility as cooking in the kitchen. Cast-iron Dutch ovens ($36, amazon.com) can be pretty heavy, so they are best suited for long-term stationary camping, he says. Choose an aluminum or hard anodized Dutch oven ($68 to $140, amazon.com) for more casual outings.
• Know what not to cook. Foods that can create hot, drippy fat as they cook—duck breast, steak, bacon—may cause flare-ups and should be avoided, says Huck, even if you’re cooking them in a pan. If possible, forgo foods that need to be fried or call for any type of oil. If you must fry around the campfire, Huck suggests using a Dutch oven, which offers more reliable heat than a frying pan with added protection from splatters.
• Know the “danger zone,” too. Pulling raw meat or poultry out of your fridge for your outing? Make sure you keep the food well packed in ice leading up to grill time: Bacteria can grow dangerously on food that warms to between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions that create a breeding ground for food-borne pathogens. Be sure to pack up leftovers promptly, too: Food should never sit out for more than two hours—or one hour, if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, says Shelley Feist, the executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
When grilling, always use a meat thermometer. Food needs to be heated to between 140 degrees Fahrenheit and 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any food-borne pathogens. “You cannot tell if food is cooked by looking at it,” says Feist. To ensure that you are cooking raw food to the appropriate temperature, see the PSFE’s consumer temperature chart.
• Let the kids help. A child may be young or inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean he or she can’t help out with campfire cooking. Let children build confidence by allowing them to observe what the adults do and assigning them small tasks, says Kautz—like collecting sticks or wrapping food in tin foil. With supervision, they can also take on easy cooking: On Huck’s last camping trip, she was able to get her niece and nephew (ages 7 and 5) involved by having them cook hot dogs and marshmallows on skewers. But Kautz suggests setting rules before delegating any task to kids. His favorite: “If it goes in the campfire, it stays in the campfire.”
• Put out, clean up, and secure your site. Always have a bucket of water or sand on hand to extinguish the fire when you’re done with it (or to use should the fire get out of control), says Huck. Once the flames have been extinguished and the embers stop hissing, stir the ashes using a metal skewer. Pour on more water or sand. Repeat this process until the ashes are completely cold and wet or smothered.
To avoid unwanted animal guests, store all food in airtight resealable bags or containers and keep in a latched cooler away from your sleep area. For added protection, Huck recommends placing a heavy rock or clean cast-iron pot on top of the cooler to prevent animal tampering.