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How to Cook Perfect Meals Over an Open Fire

Cooking over a fire demands preparation, but with patience for a bed of coals to form, it transforms into a rewarding and delicious experience every time.

How to Cook Perfect Meals Over an Open Fire

If you go about it the right way, you can cook a variety of food over an open fire — and you can look like an expert while doing it, too! (Author photos)

A campfire provides a warm place to gather outdoors, but you can do more with that welcome heat than just relax in its radiance while sipping your favorite drink. People have been cooking over fires ever since they learned how to keep the flames going, but with the convenience of compact gas-fueled stoves, making a meal via fire is sadly becoming a lost art.

Cooking over a fire takes longer than cooking over a portable camp stove, but it isn’t difficult if you follow the correct procedure. We’re talking about more than just roasting hotdogs and marshmallows here. With a bit of effort, you can cook a wide variety of food over a fire—and look like an expert while doing it.

Essential Tools for Open-Fire Cooking

Before you start to cook, be sure you have the right tools. Cast-iron cookware gets the nod for open-fire cooking because it’s rugged, holds heat better than cookware made from other materials, and has a nonstick surface when properly seasoned. A 10- or 12-inch cast-iron pan is usually large enough to cook most meals for two or three people.

adam-cooking-over-open-fire
For open-fire cooking, you'll definitely want cast-iron cookware.

Besides cookware, you’ll need tongs, a turner, or a spoon, depending on the meal you’re planning to make. Any utensils for open-fire cooking should be made of metal and have an extended handle. Add a pair of thick leather gloves or oven mitts, too. These are often overlooked, but they make working around heat much more comfortable—and safer.

Cook Over Coals, Not Flames

The most important thing to remember about cooking over a fire is you shouldn’t cook over the fire. You should cook over the coals formed by the fire. The quickest way to ruin most meals is to cook over the flames instead of the coals. A bed of coals provides heat that is much more even and consistent than flickering flames.

That being the case, the first step is burning a fire long enough to allow a good bed of coals to form. The more you plan to cook, the more coals you’ll need. To be safe, start the fire 30 minutes to an hour before you plan to cook. Hardwoods like oak and hickory form the best and longest-lasting coals for cooking. Keep in mind that large pieces of wood take longer to burn and form coals. It’s often better to burn numerous arm-size pieces of wood than a few big logs to get a nice bed of coals in a shorter amount of time.

Building a Trough for Your Coals

To make cooking over the coals easy, build a trough of rocks off to the side of the firepit. The trough should be narrow enough that any cookware you plan to use will be supported by the rocks. For best results, make the sides of the trough as even in height as possible so pans and pots sit level. Adding a metal grate over the trough provides a larger, and oftentimes more stable, cooking surface.

Trough of rocks for coals beside firepit
Building a trough of rocks to the side of the firepit makes cooking over the coals easy.

When the fire has produced a good pile of coals, drag them into the trough with a sturdy stick (or small shovel if you have one). Make an even layer of coals a little larger in diameter than the cookware. If you’re using a grate, it’s easier to pull the coals into the trough before placing the grate over them.




The trough of coals keeps the food away from direct flame but lets you keep the fire going—and allows you to make more coals if you need them. This method works for cooking many dishes because you can control the amount of heat by adding or subtracting coals. However, simple recipes—like venison backstrap with onions or pan-fried trout—are made for cooking outdoors because they do not require many ingredients or steps to prepare.

Complement Your Meal with a Simple Bourbon Cocktail

Yellowstone Select bourbon
Yellowstone Select

When the meal is done, throw more wood on the fire and enjoy a drink, but don’t make things complicated here, either. Think two ingredients: bourbon and cola, bourbon and water, or even just bourbon and ice. Just be sure to pick a quality bourbon like Yellowstone Select—the perfect pairing with any campfire dish.

Using a fire to cook a meal isn’t a difficult process, but it does take proper preparation. Be sure to allow plenty of time for a bed of coals to build, and then put those coals to use. Keep it simple, and cooking dinner over a fire will always be a rewarding and delicious experience.

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