Campfire Cooking Hacks from a Chef
O&B district executive chef and avid outdoor enthusiast John Horne shares tips for cooking with an open flame
KNOW YOUR WOOD.
I like to pack light when camping, so knowing what you can use in the woods to light a fire helps. I try and source white birch bark, as it acts like newspaper and is easy to carry. Using dead branches from an evergreen tree will light wet or dry, and the sap helps get the fire going. Driftwood, dry moss and grass work well too.
CREATE A STABLE PLACE TO COOK.
Before you light your fire, find a patch of even ground with rocks around it, or where you can dig a pit easily. Containing the fire, so heat is concentrated upward, will give you a better heat source. Surrounding the fire with rocks or digging a pit can help give you a stable base to place a rack or other cooking surface.
HOT COALS ARE YOUR FRIENDS.
A big flame is not always a good thing – you can burn your dinner before it’s even half cooked. A bed of hot coals is your friend. Light your fire early with lots of wood and let it burn down to coals (hardwood is the best for this) before you start cooking. Sometimes I build two fires: one to constantly be burning and creating hot coals and the other to cook on, which I will constantly feed hot coals to keep the temperature up and the flames down.
WRAP IT UP.
Layering or wrapping your food helps control the heat getting to it and allows for more even cooking and less burning. Tin foil is a great tool, but using what is around you can work just as well (and then you don’t have to carry it back home). Seaweed or freshwater weeds are amazing. You can throw a layer on the coals and place your food on top. You can also use cattail reeds, ferns, moss or wet wood such as cedar.
DO YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING?
There are many different ways rocks can be used, other than just for surrounding the fire. Finding a thin, flat rock can give you a base for your pot or pan. When using the wrap cooking style, you can place hot rocks from the fire on top of your food to speed up the cooking process. I have even used rocks hot from the fire and thrown them into my pot of water to help bring it up to a boil quickly.
COOKED TO IMPERFECTION.
Cooking on a fire is never easy, as your heat source is much harder to control compared to cooking on your stove at home. Be prepared for some burnt bits, undercooked bits (which you can just throw back onto the fire) and even a little bit of charcoal on your food. Charcoal dust or burnt things are a current culinary trend among top restaurants in the world, so just tell your friends that you learned your techniques from Noma.