When enjoying the outdoors, whether it’s out on a trail in the backcountry or out your door to your backyard, there’s nothing quite like a meal cooked over a wood fire. To the unpracticed, it can be a little daunting at first, but once you have the hang of it, it’s grounding, it’s beautiful, it’s delicious. So we thought we might offer a few tips to help you keep the cooking fires burning successfully.
There are a few things to keep in mind when using a wood fire for cooking. First, let’s talk fuel. For best and tastiest results, choose hardwoods or fruitwoods (oak, maple, poplar, apple, cherry, peach, etc.) and stay away from highly acidic or resin/sap-filled options (pine, walnut, etc), and stinky burners like red elm. Even if wrapping in or placing your food on foil, the woodsmoke will still flavor it. Most camp wood that can be purchased at Midwest parks is some combination of hardwood and/or pine. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. If you aren’t confident in your ability to identify wood, you can play it pretty safe with the smell test. If it smells like pine (or something “stinky”), that might not be the best to cook over! Remember, as wood burns, it’s really the gasses in it that are burning and continue to be released until it burns completely out. Another fairly obvious one is to choose wood that is as seasoned and dry as possible. Wet wood will result in a fire that is smoky, hard to keep going, and will not burn as hot as it should.
If you’re planning on dinner over the fire, you should also be sure to split your wood into small-ish pieces (about 2 inch square is ideal) and starting your fire in plenty of time to have a good coal bed ready by cooking time. This often means starting your fire around the time food prep begins. While it’s true that some things cook well over a rapidly-burning fire, you should be prepared for a lot of “tending” to avoid hot and cold spots and to keep the meal from burning or cooking too quickly on the outside for the inside to catch up. We prefer the fire to be a piping hot bed of coals offering nice, even heat for cooking with few to no flare ups.
Our favorite way to get this started is with a log cabin style fire lay. It burns fairly evenly and “falls” into a nice bed of coals with minimal effort as it does so. Stack your similarly-size wood sticks as though you are building a little square log cabin (like the pic above). Then, fill the middle with tinder and kindling and light it. Pretty easy, right?!? You can also do the classic tipi fire lay, but again, this will require a little more fussing as it burns down to keep plenty of oxygen moving and make an even bed of coals…and remember, you will likely be prepping food while this is happening. That’s why we prefer the log cabin…lower maintenance. Basically, you are creating your own natural charcoal in this process.
Regarding lighter fluid and other accelerants: We don’t like them and we don’t use them for cooking fires. While some will say that it is safe to use and burns completely away before introducing food, we aren’t so convinced and swear we can taste the difference between a natural fire and one ignited with petroleum. As an alternative, fatwood (used sparingly) is a great, natural accelerant to help start your fire and is readily available at most home improvement, and variety stores with fire/grilling sections.
Our ancestors have cooked with fire for centuries if not millennia. It’s practically in our DNA. So channel your inner nomad or cave dweller and fix dinner over a wood fire. Oh, and remember that adding olive oil and balsamic from The Wild Olive is a great way to add bold flavor and bring this time-honored tradition into the 21st Century.
Some of our favorites for grilling/woodfire cooking are the following: