Campfire Cooking: A Primal Guide

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For hundreds of thousands of years, humans had an unbroken tradition of evening firesides. It’s where we told stories, recounted the happenings of the day, sang, danced, and just sat in comfortable silence staring into the flames. It’s also where we graduated from desperate scavengers scooping half-eaten marrow and gnawing bone scraps for gristly morsels into legitimate cooks.

Now that line is broken. Now we sit around the television. We sit under the perma-glow of the LED, gazing into our phones. If we even cook, we do it under perfectly controlled settings. Which is fine, but it’s missing something: the wildness of fire.

Cooking over a campfire is more art than science. It’s feel. It’s intuition. It’s love. Every flame is unique, every piece of wood or charcoal providing a different amount of heat. No two steaks or slices of bacon are identical cooked over flame or charcoal, yet each is perfect in its own way. It always works out.

First of all, you don’t need to actually go camping to do campfire cooking. It certainly helps, and I highly recommend camping as often as you can, but you can cook over fire almost anywhere, anytime.

Here’s what to do….

How To Get Set Up

Watch the Francis Mallmann Episode Of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table”

If you have Netflix, watch it. It’s from the first season. This trailer gives you a taste of what to expect.

Mallmann is an Argentine chef who cooks exclusively using wood fire. He’s a bit of a romantic, always wearing colorful cloaks and elaborate hats and quoting poetry and things like that, but somehow it works with him. He’ll have you wanting to start flirting with the “edge of uncertainty” that is campfire cooking.

Get a Fire Pit

Buy one if you like. I haven’t come across any great cooking commercial fire pits, but I’m sure they’re out there.

You can get some old steel drums and either cut the tops off, or lay them on their side and cut from top to bottom to create a “trough” style pit. Make sure to clean the inside and (this is important) only use unlined drums—you don’t want any toxic material coating the interior. Give it a good hot fire or two to burn off any unwanted residues.

You can find a metal fabricator nearby who’ll build whatever you want. Bring a sketch (or detailed description) of your desired fire pit and he or she will build exactly what you envision.

Horizontal smokers work, too, if the trough section is big enough for a fire.

A basic Weber-style charcoal grill can also work well, handling either wood fires or charcoal.

Or, for the most Primal experience, you could build one on the ground. Make a ring of stones, shape it into whatever arrangement you’d feel best cooking on, and get cooking. Have a source of water nearby (hose, huge bucket) so you can douse the thing if it gets out of hand.

Get Some Cast Iron

There’s something extremely romantic about cooking in black iron over fire. It feels Primal, elemental, and ancient. Plus, cast iron can handle the worst fire you can throw at it and turn it into something beautiful and delicious.

Get a grill, like this one: Raichlen’s Tuscan grill—a 14 inch by 14 inch square cast iron grill with screw on legs, so you can place it directly in the fire and either cook right on the grill or use it as a stand for your pan or griddle. I’ve used this thing to cook meat right in the sand as the sun drops. Nothing like it.

Get some pans: I like a 12 inch cast iron pan and a 15 inch cast iron pan—good sizes but still maneuverable (albeit heavy). If you’re feeding more people or need to cook 4-5 steaks at once, think about getting a really huge piece like this 20-incher or maybe the 17 incher from Lodge. You can often find better deals (and unique pieces) at garage sales, antique sales, or off of Craigslist.

Get a griddle: A big flat rectangular slab of iron is also pretty great, if you prefer that shape to the round pan. Your mileage may vary. Or get both!

Build a Fire

For cooking, I like the log cabin setup. You need a big fire pit to do this, and it consumes a lot of wood, but it really creates a hot flame and, if you plan on cooking over it (see the next section), great embers in a short amount of time. Start with two large pieces across from each other. Stack two more across the top on the other sides, forming a square. Continue until you’ve got a 1-2 foot structure. Then, place a small tipi inside the “cabin” and light it. Place small kindling-size pieces across the top of the “cabin” to increase the fuel.

Here’s a nice video of one.

Choose Hardwoods

Oak is probably the best to cook over. Almond and madrone are also great. Neutral taste, powerful heat.

Don’t cook over wood like redwood or bay or eucalyptus. Anything with strong resin or sap will flavor your food, and not in a good way. Although some Caribbean jerk recipes use bay for flavor, a little bit goes a long way.

Straight up charcoal is another option. It’s not as romantic or thrilling as building a fire and seeing it cook down into embers, but it does the trick.

You’re ready to go. Your fire is blazing. Embers are developing. What’s next?

What To Cook

Steak

The quintessential campfire meal is grilled steak. Or seared—read on. Some salt, some pepper, some fat, some fire, and some iron. It’s easy. It’s delicious. And it’s highly satisfying.

What kind of steaks?

They all work. I’d reserve the pricy stuff like NY strips, ribeyes, and porterhouses for a later date, for when you’re more skilled around the campfire, and stick with cheaper (but no less delicious) cuts in the beginning.

  • Skirt
  • Chuck Eye
  • Flat Iron
  • Picanha, or Petite Sirloin (a section of the sirloin with a big fat cap on it)

Cook this with salt and pepper on your cast iron pan, which should be screaming hot before you add the steaks. Flip once, press the center, and when it feels right, it’s done. Don’t use a thermometer. Go by feel. Trust your instincts. If they’re wrong, they will hone themselves and the next one will be better. You don’t want to be the person who’s fussing and fretting with fancy thermometers over the campfire, do you?

You can grill over the grates, but I really think a pan works better here. Any marinated steak, however, seems to work better over a grill.

And these all apply, of course, to other types of animal flesh: lamb leg steaks or chops, pork chops or loin, venison (preferably backstrap from an animal just killed).

Stews

I hereby declare that the category of “stews” includes chili, curry, pot roasts, and anything else you cook in a big old pot with liquid that’s hearty, rich, and thick and isn’t soup.

This is the best chili to make over a campfire.

This is a great lamb curry.

I love this German pot roast over the fire. Since the liquid will evaporate quicker than in the oven, you’ll need to keep some bone broth on hand to keep adding to the pot as it disappears. It actually ends up better and richer than the oven version due to the added gelatin.

I once came up with a stew using camp leftovers that I’ll probably never be able to recreate, but this was the gist:

  • Chop some bacon and render the fat in a dutch oven.
  • A whole chicken, salted and browned on all sides in said dutch oven.
  • Throw in a mess of chopped veggies—garlic, peppers, onions, leeks, carrots, lemon slices—and brown them in the fat.
  • Pour half a bottle of white wine in and half a hard cider or beer.
  • Pour in some vinegar and fish sauce.
  • Pour in some canned/jarred tomatoes or tomato puree. Paste would also work.
  • Then let it cook down. Put the wooden spoon in it and cover it, so that the steam can escape and the stew can thicken. It’s ready when the meat is falling off the bone, the broth is thick, and the bones are softening.

The beauty of this one was that we kept adding ingredients throughout the cook as we discovered them and went “hey, this might be good!” Yours might not turn out the same, but it will be great. Probably works well with any hunk of meat, as long as it has bone and connective tissue—think oxtails, shanks, legs, feet.

The problem with making dishes like this in the kitchen is that it’s terribly boring standing there for hours monitoring its progress. The beauty of making dishes like this over the campfire is that it’s not. You’ve got friends pitching in, taking turns with the spoon. You have a beverage. You’re laughing, chatting, talking. You can always just gaze at the trees. It’s a communal event. If you can, extend the cook time of all these dishes. Really let the fire and smoke soak into the stew.

Veggies

Veggies are to be cooked as the meat is resting, preferably using the same pan in the same fat. A few ideas:

Vegetable “Risotto”: Chop peppers (both hot and sweet and mild), slice onions, some green tomatoes, some leeks and shallots (basically all the alliums you can find), carrots, cherry tomatoes. Throw in a few whole garlic cloves (or a few dozen). Cook in the meat drippings and as it cooks down, add little scoops of hot bone broth. That’s the “risotto” part—continually adding hot broth to reduce down into syrup. Consider a splash or two of lemon juice at the end, if it needs acidity.

Crispy Asparagus: Chop asparagus up into four pieces, each about two inches long. In either avocado oil or the meat drippings, sauté the asparagus pieces until browned and crispy. Finish with sea salt and lemon juice.

Grilled Zucchini: Slice big vertical slices about a finger width thick. Brush with avocado oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Grill over a grate until you get char marks. Flip, repeat, eat. Zucchini is surprisingly low carb and very high in potassium.

Dessert

I tend to let loose with the sweet stuff a bit more when camping, reason being I’ve been incredibly active, my circadian rhythm is on point from lack of artificial lighting, and sweet stuff just tastes better when it’s a rarity. And even this “sweet stuff” isn’t all that sweet compared to what most people are eating daily.

Whipped cream: Keep metal bowl on ice, pour in cream, maybe add a splash of bourbon or rum, add a little sweetener (real sugar, monkfruit powder, honey, etc.—less is more), and whisk. Pass the bowl around the group for everyone to whisk, since your forearms are probably tired from hauling around cast iron.

Grilled Fruit:

  • Pears studded with cloves. Cut pears in half. Shove a clove or two into each half. Sear in butter on cast iron and sprinkle of salt. Serve with whipped cream.
  • Mandarin oranges seared with rosemary. Sprig of rosemary on top the orange, sear in butter. Serve with whipped cream.
  • Apples in pork fat. If you’ve been cooking pork or bacon, save the fat to cook apple slices in. Sprinkle cinnamon and maybe some cayenne. Serve with whipped cream.

Primal Chocolate Cake: This never fails to please. Cook a Japanese sweet potato by wrapping in foil and burying it in the coals and ashes, making sure to poke a hole down the middle with a chopstick first to provide an avenue for heat down the middle. When it’s ready, cut in half, stick some 85% dark chocolate pieces into the flesh, sprinkle with salt, and mash. Eat.

Dates Stuffed With Salted Macadamia Nuts: No explanation needed. One or two nuts per date half. Incorporate bacon if you like.

“Pumpkin Pie”: Take the winter squash of your choice (I like honey nut, a better, smaller, sweeter butternut) and bury it in the coals and ashes an hour before you need it. Once it’s done, halve it, deseed it, add a raw egg yolk to each half, sprinkle some ginger/cinnamon/nutmeg, add salt, and mash it up. Top with whipped cream.

The trick with campfire cooking is to make it sort of elaborate but not surgical. Rustic but not “empty can of beans into pot.” It’s a fine balance. It’s riding that edge of uncertainty. You can’t quite define it; you just know it when you taste it.

Take care, everyone, and get out of the city and go camping. Or crowd around the fire in your backyard. Or, heck, go to a park with BBQ grills and make a day of it. It’s not too late. Fall camping is my favorite. It’s the perfect time.

What about you? What do you like to cook over the fire?

Thanks for reading. Be well. And let me know how your campfire goes.

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