Here’s the picture: You’re camping in the woods. Roughing it. You’re away from your kitchen, takeout, and even fast food. Does that scenario make you anxious? It shouldn’t because 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, they can easily catch on fire, says Sarah Huck, coauthor of “Campfire Cookery: Adventuresome Recipes and Other Curiosities for the Great Outdoors” ($30, amazon.com). 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 twig (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, the 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 to ensure that you are cooking raw food to the appropriate temperature.